You know things are less than ideal at a school when the new principal expels over half of the students when he is appointed. Not only this, he builds a nine foot fence topped with barbed wire and cameras around the perimeter, creating only one way in, and out. PunchBowl Boys High is situated in the western suburbs of Sydney. Is it a school or a prison? Are the walls meant to keep the students in or out? In school Bani, the protagonist, is a typical schoolboy on the surface, one of the better ones, however outside of school he is, as he refers to himself, a “Sand Nigger”. Constantly hassled by the police, hated and feared by the neighbourhood, looking just like the infamous gang rapist Bilal Skaf, who adorns the front page of the local newspaper every day. Bani is Lebanese or as the title of the novel suggests a “Leb”, and just like 41 of the 45 students in his class, a Muslim.
On the surface, this novel is about Bani. His life, his desires, his questions. He does not feel as if he fits in with his friends, a minority within a minority. He seems to hate his heritage and feels superior to his classmates. As you get deeper into the novel you realise that it is really about minority cultures, xenophobia and racism. Cultures that exist together and yet are radically different in religion and belief. This book was very confronting for me. Looking at Australia, through Bani’s eyes was jarring. The way that Bani and his friends saw “aussies”. Here in Australia we like to think that we live in a friendly, harmonious, multi-cultural society, and for most of us, we do. However, when you see the world through the eyes of one of the minorities, you start to see the problems that exist below the surface of the ideal. The pockets of racism, the cultural and religious clashes that almost seem inevitable. With this novel it is the Lebanese community that live in the western suburbs of Sydney, but it could be one of many. Often it is our xenophobia, our fear of these different cultures, these different religions, that are at the heart of the problem. I firmly believe in multi-culturalism and tolerance, and firmly believe that we can achieve a harmonious society. It is, however, as again this book has shown me, a problem that will not be solved quickly or easily. Tolerance, from all sides would be a good start. A book with a powerful message. 4 Stars.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founder and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. He is the award-winning author of The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014).
There is an interesting interview with Michael talking about his inspiration for The Lebs here - http://arts.theaureview.com/books/interview-michael-mohammed-ahmad-on-his-new-novel-the-lebs-and-the-inspiration-behind-it/