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Chapter 6: Tradition and Modernity
By Doug Posted in Term 1 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 29 min read
Chapter 5: Flight of the Whites Previous Chapter 7:  The Ballad of Aadan and Kadeer Next

The Anglo kids are hanging out in the common room for a change, casting the occasional look over at the Horn group, which is even noisier than usual. Did something happen, I ask. “Them?” Bree laughs. “They’re always that loud.” A kohl-eyed girl, Chelsea, mimics the Horn crew: “HELLO HOW ARE YOU?” It’s no secret, this. The popular Horn girls, in particular, wear their loudness as a badge of pride. Quieter African girls like Jalene and Amelia steer clear of the noise, too. “When people see us, they’re like ‘these loud-ass girls,’” Zahra told me.

Bree and Tim invite me to come to the music room – their turf. It’s a golden afternoon, and time slows to a crawl. Bree plays the grand piano, the dust cover still on it. They leave the lights off, as if to wall out reality. It feels like a stolen moment, like something out of an old film. Tim plucks a guitar with ease.

Bree and Tim play me their original songs, after I beg a sufficient number of times. Then Bree beckons me over. “Do you know how to play ukulele?” I shake my head dumbly. She shows me the basic chords. “It’s much easier than guitar,” she says. I accomplish a few chords and feel proud. Bree is often trying to get me to do different things, break away from the habits of self that make me say I can’t do that, to make me stop being a gawking tourist passing through. Come to choir, come to girls group, try this, try that. She never says so, but I feel like she finds me frustrating. Too easy to sit on the sidelines with a clipboard and watch. Harder to risk being shit at something, harder to acknowledge that you don’t know something.

That night, I pull out our dusty old ukulele at home and try to force my fingers into chord patterns. It feels impossible. My fingers are like useless bits of salami, unable to bend or flex. After I mangle a few songs, I give up. My wife emerges after putting one of our kids to bed and finds me red-faced and frustrated. “Keep going,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “You know, you never used those lessons your parents gave you for Christmas. Might be time?” I shake my head. All I want now is to pretend I never tried. Starting from scratch – that’s the hardest thing. I make myself a peppermint tea as consolation. “When did we get so narrow?” I ask her. “Is this what adulthood is – narrowing yourself into this specific set of skills, and dropping everything else? What happened to hobbies? To trying new things?” My wife considers this. “Hmm. It’s like everything else gets squeezed out.” She glances at our little-used piano – her own effort to break the sclerosis, recapture that sense of being plastic, of being 17 and willing to try.

I sip my tea and slip into the comfort of melancholy. I used to play indoor soccer, used to ski and scuba dive, go to gigs and festivals, used to go on annual hikes with friends, used to volunteer at a soup van and a telephone help line for men, back when I wanted to try to Earnestly Help People, back before I realised that people are stubbornly themselves, that they wear themselves a rut that is both comfort and discomfort and refuse to budge from it. When I talked to the regulars at the soup van – there it was, the rut of the self. When I listened to the men calling in with their problems, I realised no-one was remotely interested in advice, that no-one actually wants to change. They were who they were. And now my youth was over and the same thing had happened to me. When you’re young, you spread yourself as wide as possible, trying to swallow the world. And then you start the great narrowing – aiming at a set of skills, a career, a pattern that will support you, a rut. I’d thought that going back to school would get me out of my pattern. But I was wrong.

I stare out at the garden, my tea cooling on the table. Could I blame it on these full-on early years of child-rearing, on sleepless nights and the sheer unrelenting responsibility for small, irrational, gorgeous humans? No. Not entirely.

Michelle, the World’s Least Likely Bruiser

On the last day of term, I walk the corridors, thinking how the little things have barely changed. Forgotten gladwrapped sandwiches with crusts drying out. Lined paper scraps, scrunched pages of equations, the stink of too much Lynx masking teen anxieties. The students in free dress, energy sloshing around and spilling out in raucous shouts.

Upstairs in an open hall, there’s an obstacle course running for the buddy program meant to get newcomers immersed in the school flow. Ari is sitting there, fuming. “My buddy from the Year 7 program is an idiot,” he says. “I’m serious. I want to give him a surprise elbow next year.”

What did he do, I ask, taken aback at his openness. Ari scoffs. “I was sitting there with Paul, the Malay guy, and he said – you guys look the same. So I asked if he was being racist. And this kid said no, it’s because you both have lots of pimples.” Ari shakes his head, a mixture of anger and slight admiration at his chutzpah. 

Chairs are strewn everywhere, tables upended, streamers and rope from the ceiling. A traditional Somali girl leads a white boy through the obstacle course, his eyes covered. Maria adopts a leader’s wide-legged stance and observes the proceedings. She’s wearing popped oversize black sneakers, a Gucci jacket seemingly made of soft snakeskin, an emblem like a Chinese dragon. She looks up, first in alarm and then in frustration as Alex comes charging in through a scrum of dozens of squealing Year 7s, causing chaos. He struts up, pulling at his t-shirt to air out the sweat from a soccer match downstairs, and mocks Maria’s Chinese-y jacket – where’s your wog honour – and she fires right back. “I told you fifty times not to come in that door,” she says, cuttingly. He deflates and slinks away. His macho vibes aren’t translating well today.

Downstairs, the Somali girls lounge in colourful long dresses and shawls or in black jeans. Helena offers me a handslap without looking at me, which is actually quite a feat. Class clown Kevin wrestles Dalmar while another kid piffs scrunched paper at him. Traditional Somali Hodan presses a Tupperware container into my hands, instructing me to try her excellent goat curry with sour injera dotted with bubbles, with a spinach and garlic mixture on the side.

Fatima and the other Horn girls are in full swing. They use their hands as the Queen does in her famously energy-saving waves – fingers pressed together as if making a shadow puppet, or, more African style, weaving in pirouettes, spirals for emphasis, ending in a heavy clap. Michelle is wrestling with the hair and headscarf combo, which seems tricky. She notices me and laughs. A couple years back, the headscarf caused a real issue, she says. She forgot about combing her hair after wearing the scarf several days in a row. Then she couldn’t untangle the forming proto-dreads. “I had to cut them off,” she says. The next day, an eagle-eyed Somali girl saw what had happened and yanked off Michelle’s headscarf to better mock her boonie haircut. Michelle mimes the action, eyes flaring. Fatima cuts in quick, delighted. “And then! And then! Michelle chased her – but this girl, she a runner, she made it to the toilets and locked herself in and cried.” Stocky Michelle had no chance against speed. But surprise worked. “Next day I came early to catch her,” she laughs. Michelle cornered her tormentor. And then? “I threatened her,” she says. Michelle! You’re the school predator, I say, and the three girls convulse with laughter. “She is! She is!” splutters Fatima. Michelle grins awkwardly.

And the rest of you – are you all fighters, I ask. Fatima grins. “I’m not. I went to a white Christian primary school. I’m the talker.” Zahra chimes in. “I’m the muscle, when there’s a fight.” Michelle: “We’re the OGs [Original Gangsters] of the school.” Quiet Zala crows: “Oh, in Year 8 we were baddddd.” I look at her – quiet, polite, studious, a very unlikely gangster.

But why, I ask, confused. Michelle sighs. The answer lies in the past. So she tells me her story. When she moved across town, she left behind an all-white school, just like Fatima. And she came to the primary school near here, a place with a rough reputation. “The first day, my grandma did my hair with little plaits and beads at the bottom and ribbons,” she says. “I skipped to school. Hi, my name’s Michelle. And then boom! The girls pulled my ribbons out, told me I wasn’t a real Somali and beat my ass.”

Michelle was hurt and baffled. She’d been immersed in white Melbourne suburbia. She’d tried to make white friends. Wasn’t that what you were meant to do? And now, here were Somali kids mocking her for losing her language, for abandoning her culture. “They said I wasn’t one of them,” she says. Michelle cried all the way home, day after day. Her no-nonsense grandmother pulled her aside, told her that the secret was to hit first and hit hard. So Michelle got ready, and the next day, she threw a punch at her main bully.

Cue Hollywood revenge soundtrack, head held high on the playground, justice, a triumphal return home. But no – Michelle got bloodily pounded. The bully, Ayaan, was a bruiser – lean, muscular, mean. That night, her formidable aunty inspected her niece’s war wounds and found them wanting. She fixed Michelle with a flat stare and told her to go back and win. “If you don’t, I’ll give you a better thrashing myself,” she told Michelle.

So back Michelle goes to school, reluctantly, dragging her feet. But this time, when she sees Ayaan, a great rage takes and holds her, every indignity propelling her forward. “I don’t know what came over me, that rage, but I remember screaming – I ain’t gonna get beat up at home and boof boof boof I beat up that girl,” she says. Her face is animated, backlit by memory. Then she snaps back to reality. It’s Year 12. The years of fighting to prove yourself are over.  

Or are they? It reminds me of a crisp morning recently when I came into the common room to hear Zahra singing Michelle’s praises. Chameleon Kadeer had looked cattily at a younger Sudanese girl – and fireworks. Kadeer went to water, apologised, tried to slink off. But the girl wasn’t mollified until Michelle stepped in for her on-again, off-again-friend and refused to back down. 

“It was just a look,” she told the girl, quietly angry. “No need for violence.” Zahra looked at her friend with new respect. Even Aadan had stilled his tongue. “I’ve never seen her like that. Her whole body was vibrating with rage,” he said. Michelle blushed, uncomfortable with the attention. Aadan clucked his tongue. “Kadeer though – that girl is always giving glances, getting herself in trouble, and then running away,” he said quietly. Kadeer was licking her wounds off to one side, subdued. But the way she looked at Michelle had no trace of side-eye, only gratitude. What a thing it is, to plant your feet and stand your ground.

Tradition and Modernity

Zahra could have told Michelle’s story as if it happened to her. She nodded and grinned all the way through – she’d heard it that many times. And it was a variant on all their stories, namely – what is it to be black in a city that’s still white majority? What is it to make your way here, when you so visibly stand out?  

Zahra went to a whitebread primary school in Melbourne’s south-east, where no one looked even remotely like her. Her mother trimmed her frizzy hair very short to boost her whiteness, but it didn’t fool anyone. In grade 4, there was one girl who’d bring Maxibon icecreams every Wednesday, handing them out to the whole class – except, very obviously, to the single black girl. One day, Zahra rocked up to school with two dozen icecreams and a set to her jaw. As Maxibon girl approached with a hopeful hand out, Zahra threw maximum shade. “No, not you. I don’t like you at all.”  Tears, tantrums, point made. Zahra’s mum – who came to see it play out – insisted that Maxibon girl get an ice-cream once the lesson had been administered. But what Zahra has learned in the years since is that this is not a one-off. You have to keep making the same point: I am as you are. 

“I was lighter than my sister back then, in skin. So some white girls would let me play with them – they’d say you’re light enough, but your sister can’t. Not lying – this is little kids! And then, as I got darker, they said you’re not allowed to play.” Zahra makes a sour face. When her grandma told her to go play in the backyard, Zahra refused. “I can’t get darker,” she told her grandma. “The white girls won’t play with me!”

So when Zahra came to this school, it was a vast relief. All of a sudden she could just stop pretending to be white. Here, there was every shade, every graduation of colour. The heavy contrast of all white one black was no more, and with it, her sense of being outside. Here, the blue-black of South-Sudanese descent, there the freckled-pink of redhead Irish, over there the light tan of Hong Kong or Southern Europe. It was a relief not to be so visible all the time. This, surely, must be what it was like to belong. This was what peace felt like.

But soon enough, new wrinkles emerged. “Remember the brawl?” Fatima asks and her brood nod. “That was a big one. Year 8. It was a battle between traditional and modern Somalis. Those born here and those who came later. Myself, I’m Muslim. But I don’t pray five times a day. So they teased us. They said – you’re not really Muslim. It started as a joke and it escalated. A fight every day for a week! One day, the basketball court was full of people fighting.” Zahra’s eyes flash. “The court was 10 people deep. Teachers and the principal got involved, hauling people out.” It’s the same massive fight that Ari told me about, the one that escalated fast – and then died away to nothing.

An Ethiopian girl is listening as Zahra tells me her stories. “What are you saying,” she snaps. “What are you talking about?” Her meaning is clear. Not what, but why – why are you talking about that? Why tell this outsider stories? Does Zahra not read the papers, scroll through anti-African threads on Facebook? Does she not know the danger? Stories are power. They linger. They shape reality. Be careful who you give them to. But Zahra is heedless of this. She and her crew have decided I can be trusted. But the Ethiopian girl is unconvinced. She steers well clear of me.

Earlier in the year, Fatima sketched out the rift in the East African community between the traditionalist newcomers and the Westernised second generation. “I’m Muslim and I don’t wear the scarf, and the traditionalists would look at me like how can you not wear it,” she told me. It is not that she’s Westernised – it’s just that she believes it’s her choice, that you should only wear the headscarf if you really want to. “The mentality is very different,” she told me. “But that was in year 7 and 8. Now, the newcomers are less conservative – even open-minded.” And she grinned.

Zahra agreed when I asked her about it. “It was hard for them to work with other people who didn’t grow up there. They didn’t see us as actual Somalis but as Westernised.” Over time, though, the differences eroded and commonalities grew. “It took a couple of years,” she says.

Zahra, Fatima, Michelle, Omar and Aadan and Zahi – all Australian-born, Aussie-accented, Horn-origin, heavy on the banter. You can still see the faint outline of this divide. The popular noisy Horn table is mostly second-generation. There are exceptions – Cumar, for one, who’s given up his old culture in favour of a shot at making it as a soccer superstar. The others are first-generation young migrants, who either keep tradition alive – or, I’m noticing, plunge headfirst into the Western dream. Work hard, do everything well, aim for the stars, like Jalene’s do-everything mantra.

When I talk to Hodan and Marjani, who were both born in Somalia, I get the traditionalist side. What a sense of disconnection to come to a new country and seek out familiarity – people like you – only to see them warped and moulded, modified, turning their backs on piety and language and culture.

“I remember I saw two Italian tourists back in Somalia, when I was seven. We were chasing them, wondering how they could wear no shoes on the burning sand. But the old people told us – no, their sandals are just the same colour as their skin. And that was the first time I ever saw a light-skin person. Coming here, it’s like I’m in the middle of it now.” That’s Marjani – tall, braces, a full headscarf at all times, who talks quietly. She’s not one of the firebrands who started the fight but she knows full well the gulf.

“It’s like – you are Somali, and you don’t know the language?” she says. “Some are even related to you. I don’t blame them, I blame their parents. They might see it as a good thing to forget their language, but it’s embarrassing. There’s nothing wrong with learning English and still keeping your language.”

At weekend gatherings where Melbourne’s Somalis congregate, Westernised or not, Marjani finds herself feeling sorry for the second gen kids. As she and her family talk in Somali, the second gen sit off to one side, wondering what’s been said. Her friend, Hodan agrees. “They feel lonely, you know? They only know English. Back in Africa, people bring tea, make things to eat and sit together, drink traditional coffee, laugh and talk Somali.” But here, things pull apart. Old culture frays unless it’s actively tended, unless the new culture can fit around – rather than supplant – the old.

And yet you can change without even realising you’ve changed. Hodan and Marjani both clean the dishes left by the boys, the model of traditional Somali women. But they complain. It is not fair. They tell the boys this directly – we are not your mothers. Do better. I’d seen this only the other day. Why, I’d asked, are you always doing the washing up? “Because the boys won’t do it,” Hodan said, flashing her eyes under her headscarf. “They say it’s a girls job.” What are the boy jobs? “This should be! This should be everyone’s job.”

And then Aadan came over, a guilty expression on his face. He covered it with banter – dishes aren’t done yet, why so slow? Hodan was deeply unimpressed. “Wash your own dishes,” she told him, without a smile. Later, I came back to find Aadan with his arms in the sink. He gave me his patented half-smile, half-frown – that hangdog Harrison Ford grin. “Fatima made me wash these damn dishes. That girl! She waited till I washed my glass, and then put all these other dishes in.”

Despite their residual differences, newcomers and local born Somalis have one thing in common: the need to be very, very stealthy with any romantic entanglements. “The Turks can date, the Aussies can date. But none of us Africans, because someone will see, they’ll tell another person, and it gets back to the parents,” Zahra says. “Even if you’re Australian born it matters. Your parents still have that strong cultural background.”

Fatima tells me a story from last year, when “a very annoying boy” fell headlong for a girl. “Fluttering heart, the shakes, everything,” she says. “And then she hoed up. She cheated.” She looks up to see Aadan arriving in a basketball jersey. Fatima nods at him. “Look like anyone?” she asks me. “That’s the annoying boy.” And Aadan plasters a weak grin on his face as the girls roast and re-roast him about his ill-chosen romance. He decides to bluff through it. “I was a young boy fresh from an all boys school,” he says, a shit-eating grin on his face. Jeers, howls. He’s already lost, but he keeps trying. “Look – I never made a call. I just answered the calls [from his ex].” Michelle wrinkles her nose. “You know those stray cats on the street you give milk to?” She nods at Aadan, and the girls whoop in joy. Beaten, he slinks away.

Why do you roast the boys so much, I ask. “Them? They’re like our brothers,” Fatima says. “We’ve known them a long time.” Aadan seems to get taunted the most, I say. She grins. “It’s because he doesn’t get angry – not really. He talks big, but never gets angry,” she says. I grin. It’s exactly right. Banter and needling your friends – an Australian art that these kids have perfected.

He Couldn’t Have it Like That

As I’m about to head for home, someone catches my eye. Outside the school reception, a Somali mother in gold aviator glasses is killing time. She’s here for a meeting but arrived way too early, she tells me, grinning. She wears a headscarf and a striking dress of many colours – that true mingling of African and Muslim. I linger to talk, and before I know it, an hour has passed.

Samia is first generation Somali but has spent twenty years here. That means she’s often thrust into the role of explainer of Australia. Some of the first generation parents are illiterate, having never had the chance to go to school. So Samia explains forms and documents to her peers, makes phone calls, explains expectations. And over the years she’s watched the school as students change before her eyes into young adults, watch them localise, go to uni, get good jobs, marry in or marry out. “The world is more open now for our children,” she tells me.

She’s making it sound seamless, as if you can come from one culture and move frictionless to another. Is it that easy? She pauses. “In Somali culture, we believe boys need to grow until 30 years old. Their minds don’t click that quickly. Girls, they click – they’re working towards what they want to achieve, what they want to be, who they want to marry, how many children. They plan their lives early. And this is a traditional belief. So boys rely more on the girls. It’s been that way for years. We’ve been looking after our men and our boys. Boys are passed from the mother to the wife.” Like Italy, then? Samia grins.

“It is reducing slowly – and that’s a good thing, setting them up to be more independent,” she says. “We live in an independent world, not back home where the tradition was. I’m teaching my son how it is here.”

For now, though, Samia is shouldering a large burden. Tradition has deep roots, especially when it comes to women’s work. Samia started doing housework at seven years old. “That was top priority, with only three girls in the house and six boys,” she says. Some were orphans her big-hearted mother had taken in. But then life got harder. Her father died young, taking away the main income. Life in their Mogadishu house became about survival. And that was before the war. “We had to support each other,” Samia says. That meant her mother had to work, that her brothers had to help around the house and go out and earn money young. There was no room for male luxuries. “When we came here, we didn’t waste a minute partying or going to clubs,” she says. “Every time we tried, my mother said – this is how I raised you, and this is how I want you to raise your children. That stopped us doing a lot of things. So we went to school, went to work, got married, had kids.” There’s a note of regret in her voice. Samia isn’t forcing a Spartan life on her own children. Her kids play soccer, ride their bikes, run free. They speak some Somali, but they aren’t fluent. There is no home country other than this one.

Samia stops here. She’s wondering if she should continue. But her natural inclination is to share, to open. And she moves swiftly to her own fears. Big gestures, hands to throat, chest, butterfly hands, whole body talk.

Her own pain is that she has made herself new. She has changed to fit the city. But Somali men of her generation cannot accept what she has done. For them, a Somali woman is a support crew. “What I’m doing by working is not being a housewife. A housewife is present at home, cooks for her husband, cleans, and gives birth every year. I hate birth.” She giggles, a girlish sound. “I don’t know how I could ever go back.” She’s talking around the subject of her children’s father, but I don’t want to push it. Does he help? Is he still there?

“Making babies – that’s easy,” she says mischievously. “That’s the leisure part, the fun bit. We all want that. But when the baby comes, everything changes.  The way you live changes. That’s what men don’t understand, that’s what I’m trying to break.” Samia often meets women with large families who are thinking of adding another. “I ask them why? Each child kills more of the marriage. I say – don’t have seven kids. Have two, three or max four. You can handle four.  More than that you can’t.”

Samia is juggling five. Three kids of her own, and two others, her brother in laws. It’s wearing her down to the bone. Every morning, Samia wakes at 4.30 am. She eats breakfast, showers, gets changed, racing the clock. Because she knows that once a single child awakes, her time will no longer be hers. Soon, there will be a moving riot, kids looking for school uniforms, slurping down cereal, finding soccer balls, while Samia tries to punt them out the door so she can get to work by 8.30. When she goes home, it’s the same in reverse. She eats only after they’ve had dinner, done their homework, gone to sport. Though she puts a brave face on it, the effort is taking its toll. “I never get a break. I haven’t seen my friends at all since I had children. That was 13 years ago,” she says. She will encourage her kids to leave the nest as soon as they can. What Samia wants is her own time, a small sense of freedom, a chance to explore who she has become. Or who she might.

Right now though, work is all there is, her paid job as a community worker and unpaid. Even on maternity leave, she did voluntary work. Staying at home, a silent presence, was not for her. But the men, the men, the men. They could not accept this. He could not accept this. Her husband. “At the moment, we are not together,” she admits. “But I don’t see myself as a single mother. I guess I’d always seen it that way. Even when he was present, I did the work.” Her estranged husband wanted her to be a full time housewife, his personal support, producer and rearer of his children. Clothes ironed by morning, food on the table, be present in the bedroom on demand, speak only with your head bowed. “But he couldn’t have it like that,” Samia says. She outright refused to be who he wanted. Her mother was a strong woman, and she had been raised strong, surrounded by brothers who were equals, not superior. Her husband saw this as insubordination. “He saw it as a total break from the culture. He’d compare me to some of the ladies his friends married who were very traditional. And I said I will never ever be like them. My husband was a dictator, I’ll be honest. He wanted me to obey him. It was his way or the highway. I chose the highway.” She hints that violence was a part of his efforts to tame her.

Samia’s husband couldn’t deal with the fact he’d married a woman working like a man, thinking like a man. “That’s how he interpreted it,” she says. “And I am, a man and a woman together, because I work and I care about my kids, and I don’t care what you say.”

A relationship rifting is hard enough. But the real test is what the community thinks. Divorce is permitted in Islam, but it is still a sin, something best avoided. So the two respective families must sit down, pore over the dirty laundry, try to get a reconciliation. That’s where she is right now.

Some Somali women have stopped talking to Samia, even though her divorce hasn’t gone through. “It’s seen as the biggest sin,” she says. “A lot in the community think I’m hard headed, but it shouldn’t be like that. You have to get what you want, not what someone else wants.” She told her extended family that she had kept up her marriage for respectability for a very long time, more than a decade. But now she had reached the point where she had to decide. Were cultural traditions more important than her life, her happiness? Or vice versa. Samia thought about it at length. Was tradition more important than happiness? She returned to the same conclusion: absolutely not. “My kids only live while I live, I am their only mother,” she says. “In my culture, they say a man’s wife never dies – because the next woman is available for him. But a mother cannot be replaced.” And even though she is estranged from her husband, she’s still acting as mother to his brother’s children.

Will she date again, marry again, if the divorce goes through? She clucks her tongue. “If I get a divorce, I will go on a hunt, and find my own man, the one that I want.” She checks her watch. “I must go,” she says, and vanishes in a flurry of colour.

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