Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s confronting new novel The Lebs (Hachette Australia) is out this month. As far as Bani Adam is concerned, Punchbowl Boys is the arse end of the earth. Though he’s a Leb and they control the school, he is a romantic in a sea of hypermasculinity and soon this conflict will reach an unavoidable tipping point. Bani must come to terms with his place in this hostile, hopeless world, while dreaming of so much more.
There are no bullies at Punchbowl Boys. The school captain, Jamal, stands up and screams out at assembly like it’s thug life. ‘Bullying is for faggots and pussies. What kind of a sad fuck is bothered to pick on some other sad fuck?’ Specks of tabouli blaze in his eyes. The teachers react by barricading the school, erecting nine-foot fences with barbed wire and cameras, and creating one way in, one way out, through the front office. They lose all their privacy but tell us it’s a small price to pay for freedom. Students pour through the front door all morning, and the principal, Mr Whitechurch, who’s White, and the deputy, Ms Aboud, who’s Libyan, stand at the entry. ‘Good morning, Bani,’ they say to me at the same time, like two coppers. I step between them, along the blue carpet and past the reception desk, which has a bulletproof glass shield, and then through the door that leads into the school. It opens out from the front office, swings closed and locks.
There used to be seven hundred students at Punchbowl Boys, but when Mr Whitechurch was appointed he expelled three hundred and ninety-nine of them in one go. I was fifteen at the time but it starts over again like I’m staring at the western suburbs through my rear-view. Every day the remaining boys sprint along the corridor that joins to the front office, pretending they are driving a Subaru WRX. Their heads and spines are tipped back as though they are sitting in a bucket seat, their left hand is on their cock as though they’re shifting a gearstick, and their right hand is out in front of them as though they’re holding onto a steering wheel. While they move through the corridor they make engine and gear shifting sounds, ‘Baaaaaa-baaa babaaaaaaaaaaa.’
Then before they turn a corner they kick in the sound of the turbo, ‘Bre-bre-bre-bre-bre-breew!’ Mustafa Fatala moves so fast down the corridor that he crashes through a window. He tears open his hand and damages vital nerves, which means he can’t write properly anymore, but that doesn’t matter because he never receives a grade higher than thirty per cent anyway. He rambles on about how he’s going to sue the school until one day Ms Aboud says to him, ‘Yeah, tell the lawyer you were acting like a car.’ Every Punchbowl Boy except me pisses himself laughing. I keep my pleasure to myself, grateful to see Fatala in pain because of the time I’d stepped past him in the corridor and he screamed ‘Yaaaaaaaaa!’ into my ear. I thought someone had put a bullet in my head; then I turned and saw him standing there staring at me with his jaw clenched and his eyes possessed by the jinn, a creature made of smokeless fire.
I thought someone had put a bullet in my head; then I turned and saw him standing there staring at me with his jaw clenched and his eyes possessed by the jinn, a creature made of smokeless fire.
Fatala seethed at me as air pushed in and out through the gaps in his teeth. Why he acts this way is a mystery between him and his maker. It brings me down – knowing that such a being exists and that we are only different to others within the walls of this school. In here Fatala is Black and I am White. I am at the centre of every teacher’s affection because I can discuss Faulkner and Joyce and Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. The teachers look to me whenever they need to be reminded that it’s the Boys of Punchbowl who are wrong, who are lesser beings. But then, when we’re on the outside, Fatala and I are the same – we are sand niggers, rejected and hated and feared. Cops and transit officers target us and chicks and Skips avoid us. There’s nothing I can do about it. Fatala and I look like the gang rapist Bilal Skaf, who is on the front page of every newspaper today. The main corridor leads into the quadrangle at one end and the school hall at the other. All the way down the cracked vinyl tiles are the Maths rooms, six in total. My 2 Unit Maths room is between 3 Unit on the left and Intermediate on the right. I hate Maths like I hate being a Lebo – I am above it. I will be neither Isaac Newton nor Bilal Skaf, I will be a great novelist, like Tolstoy and Chekhov, and I will shape reality through my own words.
I’m sitting in Maths writing a short story about a very young boy with enormous wings instead of learning equations when there is a loud screech outside that goes, ‘Fucken black cunt!’ All twenty boys in my class shoot up and tumble into the corridor like bodies through a windshield. A Pacific Islander named Banjo is standing with his arms dangling by his sides, a kitchen knife in his right hand and a serrated pocketknife in his left hand. His jaw hangs open and his eyes are filled with the fizz of Coca-Cola. He looks like an ogre, towering over all the Lebs. His head is small and round and he’s hunching, his size-seventeen Converses rake across the vinyl. Rajab stands in front of him; a short-arse Lebo with a wound shaped like the centre of a strawberry across his shaved head. Blood runs down his temple and cheek, dripping from his jaw onto his shoulder, his white school shirt blotching with red like a slashed lamb.
I will be neither Isaac Newton nor Bilal Skaf, I will be a great novelist, like Tolstoy and Chekhov, and I will shape reality through my own words.
Banjo isn’t strong enough to penetrate Rajab’s skull. That’s the thing about Punchbowl Boys: we swing like men but we’re still just boys – we’re not as strong as the bones that hold us together, so the knives just ricochet against our flesh. Perhaps if we were smart enough to sharpen those knives, and smart enough to learn the most sensitive points in the head to swing those knives at, we’d kill each other. Perhaps stupidity is Allah’s way of protecting us from ourselves. The Lebs gather around Banjo like a pack of wolves, but nobody bothers to chase him when he bolts down the other end of the corridor, towards the school hall. We just stare at Rajab, who looks confused, his left cheek wincing, even though he knows, like the rest of us, that all this happened because he stole Banjo’s Nokia 3210.
Two students walk Rajab to the sick bay, which means the principal has had to unlock the front office, and everyone else is sent back into Maths. Mrs Stratton’s dehydrated skin wrinkles as she scowls, ‘Concentrate.’ She turns her back to us and continues writing on the whiteboard, her arm reaching right up over her head because she’s short and stumpy. She wears a thick woollen jumper that’s so long it might as well be a dress, and her grey hair sways from side to side in a way that shows me it was blonde once – the envy of every dark-haired Wog she’s ever taught. She writes numbers that mean nothing to anyone, the silence building inside the classroom until finally a student named Shaky spits out, ‘Fucken Banjo, fucken pussy cunt!’ Mrs Stratton twists, her sharp nose and beady eyes snapping towards him. In her tight, nasal voice she says, ‘Leave him alone. Banjo’s just scared.’ The teachers always take the side of the Fobs. Maybe they feel sorry for them because they’re so heavily outnumbered by the Lebs, or because they’re even poorer than us and stand out the front of the school in the morning sharing a two-litre bottle of Coke, or maybe it’s because we call them Fobs, which stands for Fresh Off the Boat and makes no sense to White teachers because to them the Lebs are boat people too.
That’s the thing about Punchbowl Boys: we swing like men but we’re still just boys – we’re not as strong as the bones that hold us together, so the knives just ricochet against our flesh.
On the second level of the school building are the English classrooms, and the corridor is exactly the same as on the first level, with cracked vinyl tiles all the way down and light spilling in from windows that overlook the quadrangle. Every English room is the same, with unpainted brick walls and chalkboards that have been rubbed so many times they are covered in a permanent haze of white chalk. Mr Whitechurch pulls down the poster of Mecca hanging in our English room and says, ‘If you can’t respect other people’s cultures, then the school doesn’t have to respect yours.’ This is because next door, in Ms Keller’s room, the boys have burned two Aboriginal paintings that belonged to her grandfather. Mohammad Usuf says, ‘Sir, that’s racist, man – how do you know it wasn’t one of the Fobs?’ It seems like a fair point, and so all the boys except me start banging on the tables and chanting, ‘Hoa, hoa, hoa,’ and shouting, ‘Rock job! Sir, you got rocked!’ Mr Whitechurch waits for them to settle. Then his leathery skin sags at the corners of his mouth and he says, ‘Referring to Pacific Islanders as Fobs is racist.’ He walks out of our classroom with Mecca rolled up in his hand. He knows, as well as we know, that it wasn’t the Fobs. What he doesn’t know is that Mohammad Usuf never comes to school without his Zippo lighter. He bought it last year in Lebanon. It has the word kafir written across the lid in Arabic, which means ‘infidel’.