Sukhjit Kaur Kalsa arrives at Middlevale High, jetlag oozing from her eyeballs after seven weeks touring the US. Sukjit, a Sikh-Australian poet, here to do a spoken word workshop. Fatima, Michelle, Zala and Zahra come from the Year 12s. The rest of the crowd is African-Australian too. Sukjit tries on her young person cred with pinky swears and pronouncements that this is a Safe Space. “Do people still say BFFL?” she asks. Fatima wrinkles her nose. “Nah miss, that was 2012.” Sukhjit deflates, but only for an instant. Sukhjit dials up her patter. It’s great – Aussie-as stream of consciousness, an instabond technique. She’s in a flowing dress, long hair, black turtleneck.
Once she’s warmed up the crowd, Sukjit
launches. “Okay. What are your fears? Write them down and perform them,” she
announces. Everyone scribbles for a minute. “I fear Allah,” says a tall Somali
girl. The boy next to her makes a
dismissive noise. “You’re joking,” he says. She flashes her eyes at him. “I’m
not.” You have a great pout face, Sukjit tells her with a grin. The group
offers up their fears – of failure, of disappointing their parents, of not
trying. Now it’s time to render up their dreams.
Zala reads hers out: “I dream to visit my home
country, a peaceful Somalia.” Hani is here too. Sukjit looks at her. “I
remember your poem from last year. It was about the war in Sudan, right?” Hani
shrugs, a tad uncomfortable.
Then Michelle clears her throat and launches.
“I dream of reaching as high as I can without fear of falling, without a fear
of being left behind. I love who I am and where I came from, I love being loud.
I live where it’s dark puffy jackets, dark skin and big smiles.” At this,
screams of laughter at the mention of the de facto African uniform during
Melbourne’s winter. And Michelle sits
back, smiling quietly.
Hani steps up. She’s deliberately chosen something far away from the war this
time. “I’m funny, loud, petty. I want to have a unicorn, to have 100K views on
Snapchat. I love the colour yellow on dark skin. I love my skin.”
Fatima: “I’m grounded and disciplined, loud
and creative. I want to see the whole world, and to be rich.”
Now a younger boy, Amir speaks up. He’s spent
much of the workshop chortling and interjecting and generally being a pain in
the arse. “I’m a gang leader, I dream of being rich, I love Allah, and I live
where the OBs live.” He’s using the nickname of one of the larger Somali clans.
Sukhjit nods. Then his friend starts earnestly, but Amir laughs over the top of
Sukhjit’s eyes flash. “If you’re gonna be all
macho, just remember – people don’t like that, girls don’t like that. You said
in your piece you’re the leader of a gang – what does a leader look like? Does
he lift people up? Or pull them down?” The boy crumples visibly.
Challenger conquered, Sukhjit turns to the class and points at her face and
skin. “My parents were Indian migrants,” she says. “What do you think they said
when I wanted to be an artist?” The group ums and ahs before Fatima jumps in.
“Don’t waste your time?” she guesses. Sukhjit snaps her fingers. “Bingo. So
what did I do? Did I get angry?” No, they chorus. “No. It’s love. It’s me
wanting to be here, wanting to see you guys kicking goals. Michelle said even
if someone pushes her down, she’s gonna get up. You guys gonna get up?” Yeah,
they chorus, YEAH. “If I’m gonna talk
straight to my parents, or to tackle racists and sexists on the street, I’m
gonna do it,” Sukhjit says. She’s doing it, she’s brought them out of
themselves, along for the journey. End in sight, here we go.
But at the last, a roadblock. The tall Somali
girl bucks at the word sexist. “Miss, are you a feminist?” she says, with deep distaste. “Yes!” Sukhjit says. The
girl throws shade and subsides. A feminist. One of Those.
Time’s up. Everyone files out while Sukhjit stacks chairs, sweating. “That,”
she tells me, “was hard.” She’s previously done a residency here. “Hardest
thing I’ve ever done – and the best,” she says.
Everyone had chosen to be there, but it was
still barely controllable. Was it that Somali thing, that famous
rebelliousness, of bucking authority? Or just that group-movement, the hive
buzzing – cutting over top of each other, laughing, talking, butting in. That’s
what Sukhjit found hard. But that very challenge – that is what she is after.
When Sukhjit stepped up on stage to perform a
spoken word poem on Australia’s Got Talent
in 2016, she had one goal – to make people squirm a little. She succeeded. A
young Sikh woman asking what makes an Australian: “Is it a Southern Cross
tattoo? Or a wombat stew?” she says, taking the piss. And the camera cuts to an
older Anglo woman in the audience, head-cocked, arms-crossed distance – as she
tries to figure out whether she, personally, is Under Attack.
Was she? Were we? I ask Sukhjit at a café near
the school. She quirks a brow. “Well. Australia isn’t comfortable with anything
more than someone’s food, someone’s dress, someone’s dancing,” she says. “But
it’s really important to have those uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise
we’re just tiptoeing around.”
For Sukhjit, contact is the goal. She delights
in being booked as an ethnic comedian – and then rather than mock herself and
her culture as per expectation, she turns the lens on the audience. Anglos
don’t particularly like the lens being turned on them. Who does? In early 2017,
a man pulled her aside after a performance at Federation Square. “Why are you
calling me a racist?” he demanded. “You don’t know my story!” Her hackles went
up. The guy seemed sketchy. It was dark. Not many people nearby. Walk away,
play it safe? No. “Tell me your story,” she said. He did. Raised by a single
mother after a messy divorce. Low wages, the sense of being irrevocably stuck.
And then – new arrivals, more competition. Craigieburn, outer Melbourne, where
blue-collar Anglos jostle with aspirational arrivals – Indian, African, Middle
Eastern. He didn’t like it – the change, the new faces, the challenge. But he knew
he wasn’t racist. And so the conversation went – full contact. “It was scary,
it was weird, it was confronting,” Sukhjit says. “But I would never have talked
to him otherwise.”
In the wider world, too, she finds worth in
discomfort. Early one summer morning in 2016, she took a tram down Sydney Road.
And a ratty Anglo guy called out – oi look at those hairy legs! So – a choice.
She could lower her head, put in her headphones. But that had never, ever
worked with the white girls tormenting her at her Perth high school, where she
was the only brown girl. What had worked was direct confrontation – to look
your bully in the eye and say it plain: stop being so shit.
“Were you talking to me?” she asked the
sketchy man. A level voice, a direct gaze. “Nah, nah, thought you were a man,”
he muttered. She pressed him. “Why did you say that? Why is it up to you to
decide? You’ve got sleeve tattoos – I find them disgusting. But should I tell
you that?” And then – contact. Sukhjit asked him plainly – why do you say such
things to strangers? And the man opened up on that crowded tram, told her about
life in jail, about an ex girlfriend with hairy legs who left him, and Sukhjit
told him about the Sikh practice of Kesh, prohibiting the cutting of body hair.
As he rose to leave, he called back – see ya later, rock on.
As he left, other passengers let out quiet
exhalations. But no-one said a word. “This pisses me off about Australia,”
Sukhjit says. “Everyone just watches or pretends it’s not happening.” I leave
her wondering why Anglos so often find actual contact so difficult. Why do we
so often resort to silent distance? Why is ‘tolerance’, that wonderfully
passive-aggressive term, so highly praised as an Anglo virtue? Lie back,
tolerate newcomers, and think wistfully of England.
“No Year 12s may use this room until further
notice,” reads a sign on the common room door when I come next. Curious, I snag
a passing teacher, who raises her eyebrows heavenwards. “They made a shambles
of it,” she says. “The principal noticed the mess and cleaned it up himself.
Now he’s kicked them out.” With their sacred space gone, the Year 12s roam
gloomily. It’s almost impossible to find anyone to talk to. Some are camped out
in the library, others in the sports field, but no one is in a chatty mood. I
catch Tim and Bree in passing. Tim calls me a stickybeak – he says it
neutrally, but I get the point. Bree says the same, I admit. But her tactic is
turning questions back on the questioner. Bree demurs. “It’s called being a
good listener,” she says, po-faced.
So instead, I sit outside, where young African
boys are giggling about white permissiveness and Very Public Displays of
Affection. They’re watching a freshly minted couple, all creeping hands as they
sneak round a corner to make out. In the canteen, a supertall Sudanese boy has
tucked a long-tined girl’s comb into his frizz, making it stick out like a
spade. His friends titter – their joke – but he’s owning it. It’s his thing
A week later, the principal has relented. The
Year 12s have their space back, and it’s spotless. Steve and Aadan are trading
useful quotes for a major English exam as if they’re collectible cards. “I’ve
got this one – you got one?” The year feels like it’s speeding up, racing the
VCE kids towards exams at speed. There’s a big English assessment today and the
stress is showing. Aadan asks the room about a book of migrant essays: “What’s assimilation mean, really?” Kevin
snorts. “It’s when you have to fit in,” he calls out. “Like you don’t.” Aadan
rears up in mock-outrage.
Amelia hasn’t read the books. She admits she’s
still unmotivated, that she’s coasting back towards home, that the pull is
intensifying. But she reads her friends practice essay, gives advice on
wording. Aadan borrows one of the Vietnamese girls’ scissors to make a
palm-sized cheat sheet with his select quotes. “I’m struggling bro,” he says to
me. “Why are you making it so small,” Steve asks. Aadan with a broad grin: “Big
paper, big problems.” This sets the whole room off, the direct 1:1 conversion
of nervous tension to laughter. Steve looks past Aadan to the door. “Sorry sir,
didn’t know you were there,” he says, and Aadan whips around to see no one at
all, to uproarious laughter at Aadan’s plight.
And now, as if choreographed, someone’s
insolent Year 8 sibling saunters through the morass, through the Year 12 room
he is explicitly banned from. “Come on, all you gotta do is get a good mark,”
he calls out, as he disappears through the far door. The chutzpah! Roars and
raised eyebrows and tut-tutting, as someone very much their junior gets the
better of them. And Kevin – of all people – bellows everyone shut the hell up,
we’re reading. He retreats outside to peace and quiet. A rare moment where he
publicly cares. And then, the exam doors open, and in they file, solemn-faced,
as if to their execution.
Later that week, with
the English test done and done, the Year 12s are relaxing. Assessment over for
now – and, even better, the plague of siblings and cousins and noisy younger
kids have been banished, all of them, to the city for an urban experience. It
feels like a rare moment of stillness. Fatima is recruiting passengers for the
limo to take them to formal, and Paul is waxing lyrical about okra and bitter
melon, talking about how his mum still cooks him a Malay-style breakfast every
morning. Zahi runs his hand absently over his freshly shorn noggin, getting
acclimatised. “It’s because my girlfriend told me to,” he admits, sheepish. The
relationship is very new, but she’s already remodelling the male clay she has
to work with. Aadan, the stealthy ladies man, teed it up. “Girls,” Zahi says
with total confidence. “You gotta keep them happy.” And conversation moves on.
The crew talk about the MENA region, Middle East/North Africa, about the best
way to make a tax free living in Dubai, what Somalia needs in imports as it
rebuilds, what it’s like to be an African Muslim in Arab nations, about how their
shared religion doesn’t stretch that far, about the horrific stories of black
slave markets in Libya. It feels like overlapping worlds. They still treat me
as if I’m important, as if I’m from some rarefied Real World. But I’m
marvelling at the space they move through, the double-nations, what they carry
with them. And the fact that the overlap exists, that there are points of
intersection – that we can talk.
and Kadeer are bickering. She seems genuinely scared when he raises his ire,
even though it’s play. He pretends to toss a stone at her and she runs to stand
next to the staffroom, a scaredy cat. “If you’re going to throw something,
throw your phone at me,” she calls out. Dalmar snorts. “Give me your phone and
I’ll throw it at you!”
Kadeer keeps a watchful eye on Dalmar, as she
worms her way back to her seat. It’s not long before she’s throwing shade at
Zala, who is unimpressed. “Stop it! I don’t like the way you’re looking at me,”
she says. That slyness – no wonder, says Aadan, the could-have-been boyfriend,
shaking his head as he watches, no wonder that she gets herself in trouble with
those eyes – and then runs from it.
In the common room, I take a seat next to
Kadeer and Zahra. Kadeer is toying with her phone. Then her eyes widen in
shock. “No way!” What is it, I ask. “A girl I went to school with just got
arrested for joining ISIS. She was super religious, but I’m still shocked.” She
was arrested before she left for Turkey, from where, police allege, she planned
to sneak into Islamic State’s dwindling territory. Kadeer watches the police
press conference, aghast. “They say she pledged allegiance. Up to ten years
prison” she says. The comment section updates live. Out there, around
Australia, people are tapping out bile. Deport her, deport her family, ban
Muslims, kill her, kill Muslims. The usual.
All that many of us need is simple: someone acceptable to hate, a
spittoon for all our internal fears and loathing.
Zahra is on hold with Optus, waiting for a
human so she can contest a fee. She tunes in. “My dad warned me two years ago
about ISIS – don’t be lured by them, he said.” She guffaws. “As if I would! I
love my life. Who wants to go and die in Syria?”
Spring is here, and that means Anglo girls
with their dresses hitched high passing Somali girls in heavy full-length
dresses. Marjani, in full get up, is doing the dishes again, pressing a Chux
carefully into glasses. “Only one of these dishes was mine,” she says
mournfully. She finishes up and comes to talk to Zala. They gossip about Zala’s
punchy little sister, who just got in a stoush with a Year 7. “Your sister is
crazy,” Marjani says. Zala rolls her eyes. “She’s got too much energy. She
pushes people’s buttons for entertainment. We are very, very different people.
Two worlds.” Marjani nods knowingly. “You know, I don’t even know how many
younger siblings I have back in my country. My dad has kids every year.”
And the conversation rolls on, deepening
quickly, and soon the two are talking, tears in their eyes, of the home country
– Somalia for traditionalist Marjani, Eritrea and Kenya for modern-leaning Zala
– and loss, and grief, mixing pain and laughter freely. Zala plays with her
headphones as she talks about the loss of her beloved cousin, who left four
kids at the age of 25. Marjani folds the pages of a notepad, talks about the
death of her youngest sibling, about how her own mother died at three, how she
wants to see her father, who she last saw when her mother died. War, the great
tearing, rifting down the generations.
“Here isn’t home,” Marjani admits. “When I
think of my future home, I don’t see it here. I’ll go back. But I’m going to
miss a lot of things.” Zala sees it differently. “I can’t go back to Kenya. For
me, it’s a place I haven’t been for most of my life. Go back? Nah, I can’t. Six
months, a holiday maybe, but I can’t go back for good.”
“You have to have a home you can return to,”
says Marjani. “I do. I have two,” Zala says.
The modern Horn condition is exile,
entrepreneurs and go-getters in new places, hearts in the old. Aunties in
London, grandmothers in, fathers in Somalia. But it leaves you feeling
disconnected, wondering where home can be found. Home is a time as much as it
is a place. “I never spent time with my dad, even back in my country,” Marjani
says. “I never experienced that father-daughter thing.” And her father is not
young. People don’t place as much weight on counting years in Somalia, but he
must be pushing 70.
Marjani was raised by her aunty in Kismayo,
near Mogadishu, in a country fractured by war, the rise of the Islamic Courts
Union, by Al Shabaab and other insurgencies, by clan territories breaking away
to the north. She has always felt something missing in her, some connection.
“The whole country is everywhere else,” she says. “But now is the best time in
Somalia, out of all those years.” Now, she feels, it is almost safe to return.
But this is only weeks before the sense of safety is shattered, before a
terrorist detonates a huge truck bomb next to a fuel tanker, causing a
conflagration that will kill more than 500 people in Mogadishu. Safety is
The girls have more stories to tell. Stories
about desperate aunties who give birth on planes holding their game faces as
the labour pains mount during the long hours from Kenya to Dubai to Australia
or Sweden or wherever was safe. “My aunty almost made it in silence,” Marjani
says. “But she was screaming by the end.” Her plane to Melbourne landed and was
met by an ambulance, which whisked her to the Royal Women’s Hospital. Her son
was born soon thereafter on Australian soil.
about the looming birth of my third, the intensity and tedium of the early
years, and my wonder at how on earth two parents could raise five or even ten,
as was common not long ago here. The duo cluck their tongues knowingly. “Well –
how we do it is that the older siblings raise the younger,” Marjani says. “I
would hate to be an only child,” Zala says, making a face. “Imagine if you
lived in China and had no siblings!”
Will you be different when you return, I ask
Marjani. “No,” she says. “I won’t be one of those away for a few years who
forget their language.” First, though, the final hurdle – attain an education,
and then, freedom, adulthood, and maybe, if Somalia settles into a new
normality, a second chance at home.