I’m drinking tea in the common room one
lunchtime when the careers counsellor pops his head round the corner. He scans
the room but can’t find the student he’s after. We get talking, and he tells me
it’s a hard sell to pitch VCAL, the vocational stream for Year 11s and 12s, to
migrant parents. “For kids who are the first to get an education, their parents
expect doctor or dentist – even though plumbers and dental nurses make good
salaries.” He clucks his tongue. “There’s a gap between expectations and reality,
though. You got to get an ATAR of 99 for dentistry – and that’s hard.” To
tackle expectations, he tells students his own story. He never finished Year
12, worked several jobs, tried different things, and then went back and got a
degree and his Masters.
It reminds me of a conversation I overheard
between two teachers, Anglo and Vietnamese. They were swapping tips on how to
manage expectations. It was tricky, they agreed. Not everyone could be a
doctor-lawyer-accountant-dentist. What were the words to say this? Talk about
pathways? About well-paid jobs with less status? About how you could still make
a good life without having to get world-beating grades? The duo came to no real conclusion.
Dalmar barges through the door, bringing a bag
of goodies for his mates, Kevin and an Italian boy, Marco. Oreos, mee goreng,
and orange juice. They’re studying for history, boning up on the Russian
revolution. I ask if I can talk to him. “Maybe next week. This week I’m eating
more ahead of Ramadan. Gotta load up.” I think he’s joking but he’s not. He plans
to gorge on carbs ahead of a month of hungry days.
It’s not just Dalmar. It’s mid-May, and
Ramadan is days away. All the Muslim kids are eating like horses. Does it help?
Zahra shakes her head glumly. So you fill up now and lose weight over Ramadan?
“Actually, you gain it,” Fatima says, grinning. “You come home starving and
there’s a feast – rice, beans, meat – and you stuff your face and lie down
because you’re so full and then it takes hours before you can get up to do the
dishes.” Fatima boils the kettle to make industrial quantities of mee goreng
ahead of a study session.
All the students are on best behaviour when I’m next at Middlevale. Shirts tucked in, walking rather than running, an absence of banter. It’s inexplicable. Where’s the fun? And then I see the parents arriving. A Chinese father locks his silver sportscar and heads inside, trailed by a Sudanese mum in colourful headwear and an Indian dad in jeans and tshirt. I spot Aadan and his younger brother and their mother, a round-faced smiley woman. It’s parent-teacher interview day. I hover for a moment, watching these kids in context, framed between the hopes and expectations of their parents and the desire to free themselves, define themselves. They’re orbiting larger planets today, rather than being their own world. There’s a break for lunch, but Ramadan has started and many just sit quietly. The screen kids sit on the couches – silence broken by abrupt chatter and banter when something significant happens in the internet otherworld.
I catch a glimpse of Kadeer eating a sandwich
in an out of the way alcove. But she’s not hidden well enough. “Kadeer! You’re
not fasting? Omigod,” says a friend in
her finest valleygirl. Kadeer rears up, grabs her in a headlock. I grin. Kadeer
is not really a practising Muslim. “I don’t really pray,” she told me once.
“Except in Ramadan, and I have to force it. Well, not force it, it’s a
blessing, one month you can be a proper Muslim. It makes me pray, do this, do
that.” It’s a decidedly ambivalent response. What she much prefers is to chill,
watch TV shows, sleep in, throw shade, stir the pot.
At the microwaves outside the library, there’s
a scrum of younger kids vying to be next in line. I feel an odd sense of
blurring. What made me feel acutely white and old when I first arrived has
steadied. No hard edges, but graduations of colour and culture, and a sense of
flow. I find it hard to tell apart Indian kids from Islanders, Arabs from
Southern Euros. On the main street outside, the elms have turned gold and
green, Aussie Olympic colours, as if to really strain the metaphor.
Ramadan is in full swing, which means Aadan
looks hungry all the time. Fasting is a special trial if you’ve got a teen
growth spurt under way. He rubs his stomach. “God, it’s so hard to watch
everyone else eating.” He claps his hand over his mouth. It’s also hard to
avoid casual blasphemy. All the Muslim girls are sporting headscarves, even the
untraditional ones. Fatima and Kadeer are wrapped up snugly in scarves, and I
even spy Zahra in modest-wear. They’re pulling on piety, using more Arabic
words than usual. It feels like Lent when I was growing up Catholic – the month
when you try.
“Oh! You pagan!” It’s Fatima, exasperated at
Zahra’s gossipy younger brother, who is refusing to pray. I often hear him
railing against the school, and against one teacher he reckons is riding him
too hard. “If you hate it so much, leave,” Fatima says, frustrated. And now –
here comes Zala’s sweet-faced but rebellious little sister, bragging about how
she swore at a teacher. Michelle’s eyes darken. “In Ramadan!” Zala shakes her
head. Her sister is untameable.
The Horn boys all seem unusually serious.
They’ve turned a classroom into a prayer room by moving tables aside and
rolling out rugs. Aadan comes past at speed, water droplets spraying from his
freshly trimmed ‘fro as Fatima chortles. “Would you look at that,” she says.
Why is he wet? Fatima runs me briskly through the obligations of Muslim prayer.
Wash to the elbows, nose, mouth, face, and feet to ankles.
After midday prayer, Aadan saunters in only to
catch Fatima rifling through his bag looking for incriminating material. “I
can’t look at girls in Ramadan,” he says, pretending to ignore them. To me:
“Man, I’m so thirsty. And I can’t stop looking at food.” Even Paul, who is
hardly a practicing Muslim, is fasting, and dangerous Hani, too, is temporarily
made demure. Marjani snaps a selfie in her full headwear, holding a piece of
cloth temporarily wrapped across her face to test out her Saudi look.
The Horn girls are talking drugs outside, and
I settle on a bench nearby. They’re joking about it, but it’s clear it’s an
issue. They talk about the traplords who employ runners from their houses to
hit the streets selling ice. Afro-American term, traplord, Australian term,
ice. Siblings orbit, interjecting, questioning, listening. I feel the gulf between
worlds they mentioned, opening up between us. These kids move through different
space in the same city.
When she was young, Fatima lived in a
commission flat. It was the tail end of the heroin epidemic, and the lights in
the communal laundries had been replaced with the blue UV lights that
supposedly made it harder to shoot up. But heroin is expensive, and ice is
cheap. “Ice is the new heroin – easier to make, and a lot of it is made in the
countryside around Victoria,” Fatima says. She’s exactly right – precursor
chemicals are often shipped here from China by Anglo bikie gangs who rent
houses and set up meth labs. The profits are obscene. The drug gives you
euphoric energy for days, boosting dopamine release by up to ten times. No
wonder it’s hugely addictive. Australia’s ice epidemic is the worst in the
English-speaking world. In country towns like Horsham and Shepparton where
there’s not much to do, ice has hit the hardest. But the cities are huge
Michelle asks her friend about living in the
hood, meaning the low-income commission flats. How did she get through, she’s
wondering. For her part, Michelle grew up in leafy Angloville. Fatima grins.
“We had people to guide us, look after us. But these young kids – if you don’t
have an older influence, you get into the business.”
It is, Michelle says, far worse for boys. The
lure of easy money, danger, the thrill, and the pressure of older teen’s
expectation can lure them into work as a gofer and then later, into selling.
Zahra’s brash younger brother jumps in. “Yes, traphouses are quieter these
days, but they’re still around,” he informs us. “That’s Peter Mitchell
reporting for Seven News,” says Michelle, laughing.
“I’ll raise my kids to be street smart,”
Fatima says. “They need to live in the hood.” Really? “Well, not quite. Maybe
I’ll just take them on weekends.”
The police are onto it. They know the nature
of the bait on the hook. And some know how to get the community on side. They
know that older Horn women have a surprising amount of power to bend families
to their way of thinking. So the police wheel out former dealers who have done
their time. At one event, Michelle was there, watching as he warned the
grandmothers and aunties and mothers and dads – beware, your son may have a
double life. “My parents were thinking I was at homework club, but I was out
selling,” he told the crowd.
It’s something that worries Fatima. She still
has friends who live in the flats. The lure of easy money. “They imitate rap,”
she says. “It goes from entertainment to actual reality.” Michelle nods. “It’s
coming off the African community in America.” You mean African-Americans, I
say, puzzled. “No – the new arrivals. Somalis, Eritreans.”
And so – the lure mirrored here too. Michelle
and Fatima list the boys who dropped out of this school to sell drugs. They
swap names, compare their list. Four, five, six of them. “I walk past them if I
see them now,” Michelle says. Fatima grimaces. “I don’t even say hi. Even
though I knew them once.” And what that means is that the boys who are still in
school are those have not taken the bait.
The small crowd around us is growing. A
newcomer, a younger girl, hisses at Michelle. “What are you saying? Why are you
lying?” Michelle doesn’t bite, and the girl marches off. “What was that about?”
asks Fatima. “Her brother is into trapping,” Michelle says, quietly.
The life they describe is a sad one for these
boys they knew, boys they grew up seeing around. Coaxed into small runner jobs
at 14, buying and selling at 16. Their double life – good boy at home, bad boy
outside – cannot last. Eventually, the hardcore move into traphouses – flats
where the top boys live. Police make raids, catch a few, the others find a new
place. “It sprouts again. It’s not right,” Fatima says. Eventually, most get
caught as adults, get themselves the criminal record that will follow them
around and make living a normal life much harder.
Are you worried about any of the boys still
here, I ask. I’m thinking of one particular boy, a boy who talks constantly of
trapping, who loves rap, who makes jokes about shanking his (made-up) enemies.
Aadan. For him, the tension is live. He fantasises about being a rich traplord,
star in his very own show.
His friends know his bind very well. But they know, also, that Aadan’s mother is firm and on the level, that his father is too well known in the community to permit the disgrace. “Without his parents, I think Aadan would have got involved,” Fatima says. “He doesn’t know how to say no to things. He’s a smart kid, but he gets influenced really easily.” She sucks in her cheeks. Michelle nods, lowers her voice. “His closest friends aren’t doing it – but if they were, he would too.”
So that’s the challenge for young African men.
What about for girls? Fatima and Michelle exchange glances. “Our challenge is
about respect. If a girl disrespects herself, then she gets disrespected,”
Michelle says. I look puzzled. Fatima explains. “If a girl is presenting
herself sluttily, no one is going to respect you.” Michelle looks slightly
taken aback. “But I wear jeans.” Fatima chuckles. “I’m not talking jeans,
wallahi, I wear jeans every day. But if you went to sleep at a traphouse…”
Michelle whistles low. “Oweee. Oh man. No one
would marry you.” She glances at me. “I know it sounds bad.” Fatima shrugs. “It
happens in Africa, it happens here too.” Because it’s a small community? Fatima
nods. “Everyone knows each other’s business.”
Michelle nods. “When I go out, I have to be
careful. No face no case, know what I’m saying?”
Er. No. Might be because I’m old? Michelle
makes a pshaw sound. “If you’re robbing a bank, you got to cover your face – no
face, no case, get it.”
Ah. Got it. But you’re joking, right? Michelle
shakes her head. “I’m serious. I make my appearance completely different when
Her fear is getting sprung by a woman who
knows their mothers – or a tattletale younger kid known for dobbing. Nowhere in
Melbourne is safe. “You see the family cars going past, you know you’re being
watched,” Michelle says. Fatima bursts with laughter. “Oh man – them Taragos,
they’re gonna get you. Those big eight seaters – I’d rather get caught by
police than them, no lie.”
Michelle claps her hands with glee. “Sometimes
these women will be like oh, you’re Michelle, and I don’t even know them.”
Fatima nods. “My grandma is like, I heard you were at this place. You should
tell me. I don’t want to hear it first from other ladies.”
I marvel at this. It’s as if a small town has
been transplanted into Melbourne, a village of older women who monitor
behaviour, make sure no-one is acting out, who patrol the suburb in their fearsome
people movers. It seems, though, that the monitoring works better on young
women than the young men drawn towards riskier things.
So what are these forbidden places, I ask –
where can’t you go? Michelle cocks her head. “Shisha bars. They’re not bad, but
you don’t want to get caught there, especially for girls. Boys are allowed.”
Fatima scoffs. “Everything is allowed for
boys.” She nods at Zahra’s younger brother, who’s listening in. “What time did
you come home last New Years Eve? 6am, wasn’t it? And how old are you? 15?
But for girls? “Girls are protected, you want
to preserve your daughter,” Fatima says. “Everything literally is for
marriage.” Michelle nods. “The worst thing would be you go to get married and
then people are like oh, you’re marrying
You know where I’ve seen her? You
know what I’ve seen her doing?”
Fatima adds. “You think oh man, you’re not gonna hear that about me. That’s one
thing my grandma always said – don’t get pregnant.”
Michelle laughs hard. “So true. Don’t come
Fatima sobers up a little. “But then again,
look where we are. We’re in Australia, not in Africa. You’re not gonna lock me
in the house. I’m gonna go if I want to go.” Stealth is key. Slide under the
radar, wear a headscarf tight for anonymity, wear sunglasses and take the back streets.
Then the city can be yours.