Dedicated individuals work with local focus, but global influence

Randa SayedAround the region, inspired individuals commit themselves to improving their skills, deepening their understanding of their art and sharing their observations and experiences. It’s a major challenge where distance isolates people from face to face contact with each other. One of those who has been on this trajectory for more than a decade is Aanisa Vylet, left. Finding herself in the last intake of students for Theatre Nepean (University of Western Sydney) in 2006, her initial disappointment became the tool that turned frustration into determination that she was going to pursue an acting career, no matter what.

Aanisa has become an independent actor, writer, director and filmmaker. She is passionate about creating new Australian work and draws extensively on her own experience and observations. After an initial foray in 2011, she undertook the professional course at the Jacques Lecoq School Of Movement and Theatre in Paris in 2014. Most recently, she has created Experience and The Girl and has performed it with Brigitta Brown. It has received rave reviews at Adelaide Fringe Festival, where it continues until February 28. Simultaneous to developing her solo careeer, Aanisa maintains a special commitment to Western Sydney where she has worked on several projects.

At Penrith, it is a similar story for Ian Zammit, below – of pursuing international training and a professional career, while maintaining a commitment to his home town. Ian established Theatre Links in the West, two years ago, with the aim of bringing together professionally-minded theatre arts practitioners and supporters of all levels of experience in western Sydney. After co-founding and operating Emu Heights Theatre Company for five years, directing a Ian Zammitseries of well reviewed productions and working with local schools, he was forced to acknowledge that to continue independently needed greater structural support. Theatre Links is the first step in that process and recent meetings have led to constructive discussions about issues that affect small productions, and the need for readings and critical support for new play writing. Ian is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Music and has a BA Hons in Drama and Theatre Studies from Middlesex University in the UK. Once he returned from the UK, he spent more than five years working at Carriageworks, Redfern, while he and his wife Michelle worked with others to establish Emu Heights Theatre Company.

Natalie Wadwell - with-roy-jacksons-blocking-out-west 1975At Campbelltown, in the south west, another person with a deep commitment to her neighbourhood and a passion for meaningful creative activity is Natalie Wadwell, right, (in front of Roy Jackson’s Blocking Out West, 1975). In growing up in the Campbelltown area, she experienced the difficulties common to many young people with limited access to entertainment and opportunities in the region’s sprawling suburbs. Once she reached the age of 18, there were not the local venues and events attractive to her age group and access to others further afield was restrictive. Natalie took a pro-active approach and began volunteering and seeking mentorship opportunities with creative venues like Campbelltown Arts Centre, 107 Projects in Redfern and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to analyse and develop some alternative approaches. This led her to undertake a BA Hons in art theory and history at UNSW, which earned her first class honours last year.

Wadwell Initiatives logoThrough all this, she has become a cultural researcher and critic, a project director and a passionate advocate for creative initiatives that emerge from within communities. Natalie has developed the Wadwell Initiatives website to promote her ideas and community partnerships, and a blog which discusses many of these. Recently she posted: “For all the times I have written about or spoken on panels about the need to make participation more accessible, it is both exciting and overwhelming to see it finally coming to fruition. If anything meaningful is going to happen, it needs to come from small businesses and entrepreneurs operating independent of cultural policy and in tune to local relevance.”

Among other things, Natalie was referring to Live‘n’Lounging, a not–for-profit house/garden gig series supporting Australian singer-songwriters and bands. The shows have been running in a private home in the Macarthur region (an area which includes Campbelltown, Camden and Wollondilly Councils) for four and a half years, with opportunities to expand the popular program emerging. She also said, “Campbelltown is gearing up for its first independent Wadwell - Creative Arts Festivalcreative arts festival. Organised by Brian Laul of the Wizard of Oz Playland (Leumeah) this festival seeks to create an opportunity for Campbelltown’s creative community to have a presence. Laul has experience working in journalism, music and theatre. He is currently taking expressions of interest from creative practitioners – be that dance, theatre, visual arts or film to name but a few – to participate in this independently funded and run event. It is anticipated that the festival will take place in September/October 2016. The only guidelines for EOI are quality and 100% independent. The festival, as I imagine it, will open up opportunities for local creatives to participate in and be more visible in the Campbelltown area. Locals can send their EOI to Brian on”

Natalie feels optimistic about the burgeoning independent sector in Macarthur and ends her post by saying, “As always, take the local and make it global.”


Arguing the toss about literature, provocation and radicalisation

Michael Mohammed.AhmadIn a period of heightened anxiety about radicalisation of young people and fears of Muslim extremism comes a discussion of radical literature at Western Sydney University. On Friday, November 6, the Writing and Society Research Centre on the Bankstown campus will host sessions that aim to challenge the boundaries and reclaim the contemporary migrant-Australian narrative. The first session will feature award winning author of The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, above, in conversation with internationally acclaimed Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at Melbourne University, Professor Ghassan Hage, below, as they explore the images and realities of the Arab-Australian narrative.

Through the last 20 years, this narrative has been profoundly coloured by media reports of sexual assault, drug-dealing, drive-by shootings and terrorist conspiracy. It has often overwhelmed any effort to understand a growing community that has a significant place in contemporary Australian society. Michael Mohammed is a founding member and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a passionate advocate of improved literacy and critical thinking among marginalised young people.  At last count, Sweatshop had conducted workshops for more than 10,000 Australian high school students. Professor Greg Noble from the university’s Institute of Society and Culture will chair the session, which will unpack the various representations Prof Ghassan Hagein media, politics, film and literature that have shaped our understanding of the Arab-Australian identity.

An item in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald described the NSW Premier’s $47 million plan to fight extremism in schools. “Specialist teams and trained counsellors will identify students at risk of radicalisation and help counter violent extremism.” It is a move that has been welcomed by members of the Muslim Women’s Association, who have been seeking similar training for counsellors and mentors for many years. Some leading teacher representatives fear the initiative could be counter-productive in schools. Andrew Zammit, a counter-terrorism expert from Melbourne University recently recommended programs that encourage critical thinking among students rather than suspicion by teachers.

The second session of Friday’s event will be a conversation between radical Melbourne poet TT.O and critic and editor Professor Ivan Indyk. Greek-Australian by background and anarchist by conviction, TT.O’s poems have dramatised the voices and gestures of the working class of inner city Melbourne, and marked the migrant presence in Australian poetry throughout 40 years. In addition to the conversations, the panellists will take questions from the audience and perform readings from their upcoming books. Radical Literature is a free event hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre and will include a complimentary lunch. Western Sydney University, Bankstown Campus, Building 3, Room G 55, from 11am – 3pm.
Bookings are essential. RSVP:

Studio Stories - ProvocationThere is a further opportunity to hear Michael Mohammed Ahmad, left, when he is joined by Faith Chaza, centre, and Aanisa Vylet at Parramatta Artists Studios on Thursday, November 19, from 6.30 to 8pm. Studio Stories presents a monthly event of readings, discussion and open mic showcasing western Sydney writers. This time, they will be Stories of Provocation – “stories that will enrage and provoke you and maybe even change the way that you see the world.” You are invited to come for a drink, a chat, a listen and BYO your own material for the open mic.

Free. No RSVPs required. Parramatta Artists Studios, 68 Macquarie St, Parramatta.

A painful juxtaposition in stories of radicalisation – or not

BYDS The Way - 5.EmniAlMasri-KarimZreika-TheWayOn the same evening that a 15 year old Muslim boy shot and killed a worker as he left  NSW Police Headquarters, Parramatta, in an apparent random terrorist attack, a drama of a very different kind was playing out in Bankstown. The juxtaposition proved to have a very painful and important relevance. The Bankstown performance was the opening night of The Way, on October 2, the third in a trilogy directed by Stefo Nantsou and produced by Bankstown Youth Development Service, BYDS. Like the first two plays of the trilogy, the story was developed from the life experiences of the people participating. Stories were then workshopped and interwoven with other stories, so that the origin wasn’t necessarily recognisable, but the basic facts remained true.

The Way opens with many of the same characters who appeared in the earlier productions waiting at Sydney airport for the arrival of friends and family members who are coming home. Among them is the Samoan Tamati family expecting the return of son and brother, Oscar, whose impulsive act of violence has left the family still shattered. Hajj and his two grandchildren wait anxiously as Mohammed emerges much later than his friends. The young men have all been on a fishing trip to Thailand. A Vietnamese son waits for his elderly father, who is coming to live with him. The Del Sol family are looking for Emelia, who has been asked to come home to help with her pregnant sister. Her single mother can’t cope with the family on her own. Slowly, couples, in1-The Way_A4-page-001dividuals and families of all cultural backgrounds make their way through the airport. As with previous productions, some of the acting is highly developed and professional, others are newcomers from within the same community, but the atmosphere is warm, authentic and inclusive.

There are moments of drama, angst, excitement and comedy. Most pertinent to this story is the glimpse behind the scenes of the four friends returning from their fishing trip to Thailand. Border protection officers are openly suspicious of the boys. “Why were you in Thailand?” they keep asking. “To catch fish,” the boys reply with growing frustration. “Yes, but what else were you trying to catch?” “Fish!” they shout. Ali and his friends counsel calm, but Mohammed is exasperated. One officer, played by BYDS director Tim Carroll, instructs his fellow officer to take the other three and release them and then proceeds to interrogate and threaten Mohammed. He talks about extremism and adds gratuitous comments like “one in three terrorists is called Mohammed.” Eventually, Mohammed emerges into the arrivals lounge, but he is almost incoherent and unable to explain his experience.

Grandfather Hajj (Stefo Nantsou) and his grandchildren Kayla (Emni El Masri) and Walid (Abdullah Sankari) are worried about the state he is in. He is usually an open and gentle person. The other stories weave in and out of this one interspersed with a repeating, possibly recruitment, video of an angry young man in front of a hooded character, ranting about his anger and a sense of injustice. Mohammed has retreated to his room and is not responding to any requests to come out. He has his laptop open on his floor, watching the video. He is saying despairingly, “I am extremely gentle, I am extremely kind, I am extremely respectful . . .”

Eventually, the doorBYDS - The Way - Randa Sayed and Abdullah Sankari opens, Mohammed manages to tell his story and is received with great compassion and sympathy by his grandfather and family. It was clear that many people in the cast and in the audience were Muslim and recognised the daily experience of abuse and their strong sense of exclusion from the former Prime Minister’s “Team Australia.” In one airport scene, someone remarks that when they left, there was one prime minister and when they returned, there was another. The laughter and relief were unmistakable. The Way continues at Bankstown Arts Centre to Saturday, October 10. Bookings and information phone 02 9793 8324, click here.

After the performance, Tim thanked the audience for their support and explained that this was likely to be the last of these productions, owing to the cuts to Australia Council funding in the last Federal budget. For more than 20 years, BYDS has worked on projects with local high school students and the Bankstown community, which essentially give participants the experience of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. The growth in creativity and performance skills has been amazing to watch, while the deeper experience of interpersonal understanding has been of immeasurable importance in a culturally diverse and sometimes fractious community. It’s a social contribution Australia can’t afford to lose.

Photos, top and bottom, are from rehearsals for The Way.

Ceaseless exploration on display at Penrith, Bankstown and throughout the region

Penrith R Gallery - David HainesBlue Mountains artists, David Haines and Joyce Hinterding are engaged in a ceaseless exploration which has no regard for boundaries between arts and sciences. In 2011, they won the Anne Landa award for video and new media arts at the Art Gallery of NSW. The outlands invited visitors to “take control and conduct their own voyage through an immersive digital world of forests, islands, and futuristic interior architecture.” Recently, under the title Energies: Haines & Hinterding, they exhibited at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Arts. There, a similar work invited viewers to explore a different mode of control of the spectacular giant images of Geology projected onto a wall. Other works connected with energies beyond the museum, like television signals or radio waves, while some explored the unseen energy of the occult.

Each artist has pursued their own independent research and experimentation, while collaborating on other projects. For almost a decade, David has been exploring aroma – “composing fragrances inspired by plants, the earth and the cosmos” – creating complex chemical formulas. Now he is one of four Sydney based artists including Tully Arnot, Salote Tawale and Genevieve Lown, who are participating in an exhibition Hot House at Penrith Regional Gallery. Inspired in part by the violets in the gallery’s heritage garden, David’s Violet Gas (Phantom Leaves), see photo above, permeates the atmosphere of the exhibition. It’s a playful exhibition with an audioguide giving insights into the artists’ work.

1-The Way_A4-page-001At Bankstown, another kind of exploration is having its third phase of presentation. First, it was Look the Other Way, then it was The Other Way and now it is The Way – the first two co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS). For more than 20 years BYDS’s mission statement and practice have been “To inspire local young artists and to deliver sustainable cultural programs that invigorate the local Bankstown community”. Through many of their projects, they work with local high school students and staff. BYDS director Tim Carroll says, “Produced by BYDS The Way explores the lives of families living in Bankstown. Over one day, follow people whose choices and decisions may have a far greater effect than they could ever have imagined…”

The Way is directed by Stefo Nantsou with the assistance of gifted professional performer and director Aanisa Vylet. Their previous work with local young people has produced rich insights, energetic and polished performances. The Way will be presented at Bankstown Arts Centre from October 1 to 10. For bookings and information click here.

Now in its second week of showings Urban Theatre Project’s new film One Day for Peace continues to be seen at sites around the region. Described as a film about faith and the everyday, One Day for Peace contains interviews with 27 different people who provide a microcosm of the immense diversity of cultures and religious faiths across western Sydney. Included are people of Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Christian, Baha’i, Buddhist faiths, Aboriginal spirituality and more. Each gives a description of their individual practice, sometimes with touches of humour, sometimes with poignancy and always with honesty.

UTP - One Day for Peace - ParraOutside Parramatta Town Hall last night, a panel led by ABC broadcaster Geraldine Doogue discussed their individual responses to the film and some of the issues raised. Maha Abdo, Dr. John Rees, Professor James Arvanitakis participated with the film’s director Rosie Dennis. Each agreed they felt a sense of quiet optimism and often a wish to know more about the individuals’ lives. Rosie’s primary intention has been to start a widespread conversation about faith, culture and diversity. She wants to encourage people to recognise the nuances of faith and culture within the community and avoid the constant simplistic “them and us” delivered by the media. She mentioned an audience member at Blacktown, who had assumed every man with a beard and headdress was Muslim and had little idea of other religions.

James described students who struggle to find the words needed to articulate thoughts, beliefs, ideas and questions. His academic area is management and he doesn’t consider himself a religious man, but he recognises the need across many fields. For Maha of the Muslim Women’s Association, she agrees and finds encouragement in the demonstration of diverse individual experience. Since 9/11, young Muslims in Australia have been subject to all sorts of abuses and exclusions and little effort to understand their experiences. They can be left with a sense of isolation and disconnection. Nonetheless, in response to a question from Geraldine, she sees glimpses of an Australian Muslim identity emerging, which will be distinct in the way that Indonesian Muslims distinguish themselves from Arabic Muslims.

All acknowledged the role of culture in the interpretation and experience of faith and John emphasised the importance of this understanding in Australia’s growing relationship with its south east Asian neighbours. Even though people can be very critical of the faith and culture in which they may have been brought up, Geraldine considers their impact in giving a sense of identity and being grounded is deeply significant. While the future of the film is not yet clear, there was general agreement that it should be shown widely and especially in schools. Despite the freezing wind, passers by were happy to sit down and watch. Two young men came and sat on either side of me, introducing themselves to me and each other as Faroz and Nabil. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, assisted by the provision of free hot drinks and snacks.

There’s still time to catch a full screening at:
Auburn Central, Wednesday 23 Sept, 6:30pm
Blacktown Train Station, Thursday 24 Sept, 6:30pm
Blacktown Train Station, Saturday 26 Sept, 6pm (additional screening)
Canley Vale Heights, Saturday 26 Sept, 6:30pm
Cabramatta Moon Festival, Sunday 27 Sept, 7pm
More info on locations can be found here.

Australia was once a kinder nation – Cat Thao Nguyen launches her book

Cat Thao Nguyen - Bankstown launchCat Thao Nguyen is an Australian citizen who fears for the future of the country. When her family arrived as refugees in 1980, after a long and harrowing journey from Vietnam, through Cambodia and Thailand, they were welcomed with kindness and compassion. There were many difficulties to confront, but they gradually found their feet with the help of government and community agencies, fellow refugee families, kindly neighbours and their own resourcefulness.

Then in 1996, Pauline Hanson was elected to federal parliament. As a teenager, Cat “watched in awe as she (Pauline Hanson) spoke of the ‘reverse racism’ suffered by white Australians as a result of Aboriginal assistance, of how the nation’s immigration policy had led to the imminent danger of Australia being swamped by Asians”. In the decades following, Cat has watched as the country has become increasingly “xenophobic, fearful and risk averse”. Leaders of both major political parties have done little to dispel this and Cat is thankful that her family, like so many other Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s are not trying to seek asylum in Australia now.

Cat Thao Nguyen was speaking Cat Thao Nguyen family - News Corpat the Sydney launch of her personal memoir We Are Here, on Wednesday, February 25, and reading extracts from her book, often through tears. I first met Cat in 2002, when she was a Sydney University law student and co-curator of VietPOP: Emergence at Liverpool Regional Museum, an exhibition of work by young Vietnamese-Australians. I wrote about this experience and her subsequent presentation at a 2009 conference Echoes of a War at Casula Powerhouse, in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney. By this time, she was an international lawyer working in Vietnam. Her insights about the experiences of refugee families and her clarity in explaining them were impressive and deeply moving.

We Are Here took her seven years to write. Both her parents had suffered almost unbearable privations in Vietnam and on the journey to Australia. Cat knew she had to be very sensitive to their pain as she gathered more of their stories. She traces her own growing up with humour and honesty as her parents worked patiently in an atmosphere of constant struggle and humiliation to provide for their three children and assist family back in Vietnam. After a particularly difficult time for them, she wrote “That day I vowed I would do whatever I could to be worthy of being my parents’ daughter, a daughter of this family – Cat Thao Nguyen - Sydney Airporta family that was surviving.” And indeed she has. Inspired by their integrity and commitment to family, she attained a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Law, became a youth representative to the UN General Assembly and an advocate for children’s rights. She is now a director of Ernst & Young, Vietnam, where she lives with her Chinese Canadian husband.

A second event was held in Bankstown, where so much of Cat’s story takes place. April Pham wrote, “A Sunday well spent at my friend Thao’s book launch for friends and family in Bankstown. A moving launch. Am so proud of her and her book about her family’s journey and the importance of living ethically. It speaks to so many of us, not only as refugees, but as individuals trying to live a life with purpose. Highly recommend We Are Here by Thao Nguyen.” Cat Thao took the photo above at Sydney Airport, on her way to Adelaide Writers Festival, March 2. She wrote, “En route to Adelaide for Adelaide Writers Week and saw my book next to Obama’s in Sydney airport! Surreal and emotional.” Click here to order a copy.

Taking a step toward each other through writing and theatre at Bankstown

1-IMG_3203When Urban Theatre Projects’ artistic director Rosie Dennis set out to create Bankstown Live, her goal was to get to know the neighbourhood better where the company works. By offering the opportunity for locals to work with a range of different artists, it was a chance for neighbours to get to know each other a little better and to tell their stories to a wider world. It was a four day event and part of Sydney Festival 2015.

For long established resident David Cranston, Urban Theatre Projects’ Bankstown Live offered the possibility of gently pushing a door open to catch a glimpse of what the future might be. When Rosie met David at his house in Northam Ave, 18 months ago, she found his yard perfect as the stage for the premiere season of The Tribe. Michael Mohammed Ahmad grew up in the area, is director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a doctoral candidate at UWS’ Writing and Society Research Centre. The Tribe is his semi-autobiographical first novel in which he reflects on family and his Arab-Australian Muslim community as seen through the eyes of a child. David welcomed the proposal.

The Tribe - coverGiven the support of theatre director, Janice Muller, actor Hazem Shamas and composer and performer Oonagh Sherrard, Michael Mohammed adapted his novel for the stage. With minimal props and sympathetic background sound by Oonagh (top photo), Hazem evoked Bani the young boy and traced his relationship with his Tayta, the grandmother central to his young life, through his Tayta’s death and some of his extended family’s experience. It was a vivid, insightful and humorous evocation, just like the book, and greeted by the audience with warmth and recognition.

Director of Emu Heights Theatre Company, Ian Zammit, from the Penrith area, describes Michael Mohammed’s book as beautiful. In light of the Martin Place siege in December and the Charlie Ebdo attack in Paris, Ian is especially drawn to Michael Mohammed’s nuanced response about freedom – “Freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, but there are equally important freedoms – the freedom to love. We may be granted the right to offend, but out of respect we can always choose not to exercise that right.

“I call this freedom, “Taking a step toward each other”,” Michael Mohammed says.

Family Portraits - Joanne SaadThere were many instances of this approach in the different presentations comprising Bankstown Live. Artists worked respectfully with each group. There was no sense of voyeurism or judgement as visitors were invited to share the experiences, hopes and dreams of local residents. Left, multi-media artist Joanne Saad captures Wafa Ziam in conversation with residents in Family Portraits. Joanne created an outdoor studio, using a life-size photo of the interior of four different family homes. She ensured the permission of each participant to publish their portraits and each of the four families hosted the event against the backdrop of their own home on successive evenings.

1 - Dancing Project - Albert OhThrough headphones, local writers shared intimate stories, read by another performer, of their responses to the death of a loved one. The Last Word was created with Rosie Dennis. The Bankstown Dancing Project was another with a generous spirit presented in two parts and developed by Emma Saunders. Emma was delighted to work with local couple Albert and Nancy Oh, whose suggestion of the Rumba 1 set the tone for an exuberant street celebration. Albert, above, puts his heart into the feeling of spring.

1-IMG_3200Left, the second dance was described by Emma as a kind of hokey pokey for the 21st century. The audience was left in no doubt about the dancers’ enjoyment. This dance was performed in front of the Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, which had been lifted, see below, by a willing group of supporters and transported to the other end of the performance area in Northam Ave. This followed Uncle Steve Williams - Acknowledgement to Countrythe launch of Bankstown Live by Aboriginal elder, Uncle Steve Williams’ traditional smoking ceremony and acknowledgement to country, lower left.

The Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House was the work of Filipino visual artist Alwin Reamillo and part of an ongoing collaboration with Urban Theatre Projects. The spirit house was reminiscent of the light structured house1-IMG_3189s of his homeland and the impact of Typhoon Haiyan last year. Bayanihan is the spirit of community action, which can be triggered by devastating events and lead to powerful links in volunteer assistance. Among the many meanings of moving the spirit house described by Alwin were the transience of housing in such climatic conditions, continuing change in the streets of Bankstown, the spirit of cooperation engendered by the need of mutual support and the movement of the house in a “creative spirit of community, diversity and togetherness”.

The spirit house became the backdrop to another new initiative by Urban Theatre Projects – their film debut. Bre & Back follows four Aboriginal women, Grace and Jenny Shillingworth, and Noeleen and Lily Shearer as they head to Brewarrina to visit family and reminisce about their lives. It’s a gentle, meandering film, full of glimpses into the lives of families profoundly affected by the removal of children decades ago, but coming together to reflect and share stories and culture in an atmosphere of humour, acceptance and quiet optimism.

A lullaby project, original songs and a short animated film were further enrichments of Bankstown Live and really required a second visit to fully appreciate the event.

1-Diet FC FinalTaking a step toward each other by different means is The Diet Starts on Monday published late last year in Bankstown. Author Tamar Chnorhokian is another founding member of Sweatshop and an arts and communications graduate from UWS. Drawing on her lifetime in western Sydney and her Armenian background, Tamar says The Diet Starts On
Monday tackles themes of obesity, cultural expectations and body image. “My novel is about the pressure teens today feel to emulate the perfect body image created by the mass
media.” It’s a story told with a light, but poignant touch and plenty of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.

Passion for justice and “coming to voice” drives Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s work

Michael Mohammed AhmadAs 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.

Sweatshop team - UWSThe 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.”

OneThe Tribe - cover 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.