As a Bankstown boy of Lebanese Muslim background, Michael Mohammed Ahmad was profoundly affected by the media frenzy that broke out in 2000 following the Skaf gang rapes in south western Sydney. The savagery of sterotyping about young Muslim men, Lebanese and Arab Australians and western Sydney had a widespread negative impact on other young men like himself. While not denying the awfulness of the crimes, Mohammed concluded that the only way to counter such unfair labelling, was to develop strong and confident local voices who could tell their own stories to a wide audience.
Bankstown Youth Development Service, under the leadership of Tim Carroll, gave him the opportunity to develop his passion for writing and the promotion of literacy and critical thinking among local young people. Under BYDS’ auspice, Mohammed initiated and ran Westside Publications as chief editor and coordinator from June 2005 to February 2013. In 2012, he won the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his leadership in community arts and cultural development. From this emerged Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, now based at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown campus, where Mohammed is a doctoral candidate.
The university website says, “Facilitated by local literacy artists, PhD candidates and UWS graduates, Sweatshop visits local schools to run workshops and activities, and also produces publications, literary events and performances to showcase the work of local writers and artists. Mr Ahmad has been working with Western Sydney communities through literacy for the past 10 years and over this time has worked with more than 10,000 young people to develop reading, writing and communication skills in local schools.”
It’s a pretty impressive achievement. At times, Mohammed’s style is abrasive and confronting. His studies have led him to the work of bell hooks, the African-American feminist scholar. In her book, Talking Back, hooks uses the term “coming to voice” – an act of moving from silence to speech as revolutionary gesture. “We are coming to voice”, he says.
“This agenda has inspired much of my own work. I have been fascinated by the experience of being from both western Sydney and being of a Lebanese-Australian Muslim-Alawite background. My fascination has not been in the stereotypical, limited and often demonising way that we’ve seen it done so far, but rather in the honest and complex way that it unfolds in my life.”
One result is his first book of fiction published earlier this year by Giramondo. Its style is gentler. The Tribe, opens with a vivid description of the recollections of his protagonist as a seven year old, sitting close to his grandmother. His Tayta points to the scars on her expansive belly and tells him how they mark the birth of each of her children. Thus we meet the members of Bani’s family and begin to discover the individuals who make up three generations and the complexities of relationships throughout the extended family. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but the connections are multiple and complex. The loyalties and antagonisms existing in a tight knit community bound by tradition are vividly illustrated. Reviews in The Daily Telegraph and the blog The Lifted Brow offer contrasting and illuminating commentary.
Last week, in collaboration with Seizure Literary Journal, Sweatshop published a new anthology Stories of Sydney. Stories from 15 writers focus on place. All have been developed and intensively workshopped since 2013. Five come from inner Sydney and 10 from western Sydney. It is both a printed book and an e-book. During term four a series of writing workshops and residencies in schools will be held, with the aim of exploring difference across Sydney through storytelling.