Anthology holds up a magnifying glass to reveal the struggles of Arab-Australians

'Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity' features 25 contributions that testify to the diversity of experiences and lives within the Arab community in Australia

(AUSTRALIA OUT) Randa Abdel-Fattah, author of 'Does My Head Look Big in This?' 28 February 2006. SMH Picture by JACKY GHOSSEIN (Photo by Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
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Arab and Muslim immigrants in many western countries are subjected to anti-Muslim hostility that dates back at least as far as September 11, 2001. Moreover, Arabs and Muslims tend to be seen as one and the same by many who share that viewpoint.

The views coming out of Australia are no exception, but because of its distance relative to Europe and the US, it's easy to lapse into thinking about the enormous island as simply a place with beautiful beaches and landscapes. Few people in Europe had heard of Manus Island, Australia's detention centre for asylum seekers, for example, until journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been held on the island for about six years, won one of Australia's most remunerative literary awards in January, claiming the Victorian Prize for Literature for No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.

This is one of the reasons it's so important to read the anthology, Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity, edited by Arab-Australians Randa Abdel-­Fattah, an author and academic, and Sara Saleh, a poet and activist. The 25 contributions (including Abdel-Fattah's and Saleh's) are a well-rounded mix of writing and feature poetry, personal essays and journalism that testify to the diversity of experiences and lives within the Arab community in Australia – all 22 countries in the Arab League are represented. The subjects covered are at the same time universal and specific, coming together to seemingly hold up a magnifying glass to one segment of Australia's society.

"Sara and I wanted to bring together a collection of voices that we knew would push dominant narratives around race and identity in Australia," says Abdel-Fattah. "Imagine hosting a dinner and putting together your list of guests – you want people who will stimulate conversation, bring something fresh and original, provoke and challenge. We wanted this book to assemble the best and the brightest. We wanted to offer a platform for emerging writers and also focus attention on some of our established voices."

Amani Haydar's essay, The Pleasure and Privilege of Painting Flowers, is deceptive in its clean and spare style – it goes on to pack a real punch. She writes of the constraints of her childhood, the choices her parents made for her and her loneliness later as a lawyer, a profession she felt obliged to choose, rather than becoming the artist she wanted to be. "It is very impolite in Arab culture to speak poorly of your parents," she writes. With the utmost courteousness and respect, she outlines the battles she fought to make her father proud, as well as her own inner rebellion. "We know that our parents made sacrifices. But in their desperation to recover from homeland wars and see us rebuild what they had lost they conscripted us to battles that had already stopped making sense."

AC04 AUG BOOKS Arabs in Australia
AC04 AUG BOOKS Arabs in Australia

Arranged marriages and Muslim dating apps are other subjects examined in the book, often with hilarity and self-deprecation, sometimes with poignancy. Ryan Al-Natour writes about moving to regional Australia for a job, and the blatant racism he encountered there. But because there was nowhere to buy Middle Eastern ingredients or food, he learnt to cook from scratch, reminding him that his family's recipes are part of his history.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad's sober essay, The Origin of Leb, retraces the story behind a 1998 feature in Australia's Daily Telegraph entitled "Dial-a-gun: gang says it's easier than buying pizza". The teenagers in the accompanying image were Lebanese-Australian boys from his school and were not gang members, but had been asked to pose by the journalist. (The blanket term "Leb" applies to anyone coming from the Middle East, and sometimes to ­Africans or Indonesians.)

Ahmad shows, step by step, how the Australian news media has racialised and vilified Arab-Australian identities since the 1990s. Last February, Ahmad published The Lebs, a novel about the boys in his school, at once marginalised and ignorant, desperately casting about for an identity.  

In essays that have a more metaphysical bent, several writers express a strong connection to the land on which Australia was built, land that belonged to Aboriginal people. Paula Abood's essay on feminism begins: "I write this on the lands of the traditional custodians, the Wallumettagal," and she goes on to pay tribute to the ancestors and elders and to the women "whose backs have been broken by our presence here".

Abood also writes about the women in her family, including her mother, who wielded "subversive power under the cover of domesticity". Abdel-Fattah writes about her Palestinian heritage, occupation and dispossession, also mentioning that she is writing her essay "on the land of the Darug people". There is a parallel to be drawn between her father, who became stateless because of the course the British government set "for the colonisation and the theft" of his homeland, she writes, and the same government that "colonised and stole Australia". In the book, she says that she is aware she lives on "bloodstained land". 

We hope this book validates and comforts Arab-Australians who can take pride and pleasure in reading a book about growing up Arab without holding their breath waiting for the stereotype, the dehumanising trope, the hollow caricature

Abdel-Fattah says compared to anti-Muslim and Arab racism in the US or the UK, "race and Islamophobia in Australia is characterised by a particular settler-colonial history, fear and discourse.

"But it still draws on a world-historical context and contemporary attitudes are very much shaped by global events, whether in the 1980s and 1990s with paranoid racism against Arabs," she adds. "Australia hasn't reached the same level of mobilisation and organisation of alt-right white supremacists that we see in the US and the UK but we are heading down that path – the Christchurch massacre was, after all, carried out by an Australian". 

"We hope this book validates and comforts Arab-Australians who can take pride and pleasure in reading a book about growing up Arab without holding their breath waiting for the stereotype, the dehumanising trope, the hollow caricature," says Abdel-Fattah. "We hope it provokes non-Arab readers to think about race and identity in new and radical ways and engage with the themes and stories contained in the book critically. We hope younger readers find it offers them 'mirrors and windows' and, most importantly, the confidence to embrace their identities however they choose, knowing there is a generation of writers and thinkers who have their backs."

Arab, Australian, Other will be of interest to Australians, Arab and non-Arab alike, but beyond the Australian context there is also a universality to the accounts, which are at times heart-rending, comical and even joyful. They will resonate with anyone who has experienced racism or the in-between-ness of being multicultural.