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Chapter 15: Full Contact Sport
By Doug Posted in Term 3 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 19 min read
Chapter 14: Tight Braids and a Grudge that's Frayed Previous Chapter 16: The Red God Rage Next

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 him.

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.

Circles Overlap

“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 now.

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.

 Dalmar 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?”

A Second Chance at Home

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 temporary.

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.

 I talk 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.

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