Read Good Muslim Boy Online

Authors: Osamah Sami

Tags: #ebook

Good Muslim Boy

For my father—
my confidant, friend and absolute hero

FOREWORD

By Andrew Knight

I first met Osamah at filmmaker Tony Ayres’s home in Elwood. Tony had approached
me to co-write a film with a first time writer, the son of the head cleric of Melbourne’s
shiite community. On the short walk to Tony’s house I was rehearsing the many ways
I could politely say, ‘Get me out of this’. Tony and I often talked about working
on something, but a political tract on the complexities of Islamic life in Melbourne
seemed a bridge too far.

Also, the fact that it meant working with a first time writer for whom English wasn’t
his first language didn’t exactly thrill me. But this was a time when this country’s
abuse of refugees and the growing fear campaign was reaching its now-permanent crescendo—so
I saw some merit in at least having the chat. On the phone I had pushed Tony on the
theme. He duck-fudged a bit before admitting it really wasn’t that kind of story.
‘It’s more—it’s a…well, it’s a kind of fucked-up romantic comedy about a… it’s…can
you just meet this guy? You’ll really like him, he’s super talented and he’s very
good looking.’

So I found myself sitting in Tony and Michael’s living room with its alarming crack
in the wall (then more window than crack) talking to this…yes, annoyingly good-looking
man. Six hours later I left not only agreeing to do the movie, but believing I had
just collided with one of the most gifted young people I have ever met.

What do you need to know about Osamah—he of the unfortunate first name? He is a
lousy Muslim. He tries hard. He is committed to his faith and loves its central teachings
and rituals, but man does he wrestle with it. His private life is always in chaos
and deeply amusing to observe. You find yourself laughing at him as much as with
him. He speaks with a first generation Australian twang that disguises the fact he
speaks six other languages. In the time we worked together, he taught himself near-perfect
French on the internet and has probably added another tongue since last we spoke
a few weeks ago. He is a genuine polymath with a formidable intellect. He reads far
and wide. He is a great sportsman—though I only have his word for this. He thankfully
barracks, loudly, for Essendon and holds a 1st Dan black belt in karate. He plays
cricket and football and builds and plays ouds and several other instruments. He
does fine calligraphy, can fix my computer, never pays a parking fine and as a result
is always in some pointless dispute with authority. He has a great and compassionate
heart, an unquenchable enthusiasm for life, great humour, two children and, oh, he
can act—very well as it happens—and for someone for whom English is only his third
(or is it fourth?) language, he writes beautifully.

This book chronicles some of the least sane periods in Osamah’s already insane life;
the fact that these events are true beggars belief. This book will delight the reader.

We need someone in the world to be our yardstick, a benchmark by which we may assess
our own gaffs and shortcomings. Osamah is our man.

His writing affords a reader a genuinely warm and hysterical insight into an Islamic
community struggling to make sense of and fit into a purportedly liberal, secular
Australia. That tussle provides endless material for this writer.

As Osamah’s mother says in our script: ‘The Koran was written before this country
was discovered—the Prophet never saw Australian beaches.’ Being with Osamah, reading
his words, you can not help but gain some appreciation of this singular, largely
Arabic world secreted in our inner suburbs. You grow to love these people—as wonderful,
flawed and crazy as the rest of us. In that sense, perhaps Osamah’s writing is more
seductively political and life affirming than any trenchant criticism.

Andrew Knight 19.04.15

PROLOGUE

Melbourne, Australia, 2013

When you’ve grown up the way I did, an
Iraqi
boy born in
Iran
while the two countries
were at war, you think there’s not much left that can scare you.

And yet, here we were, gathered in the house behind the mosque in Melbourne, where
my father, the cleric, had summoned me, an adult man, away from my own wife and
daughter, almost like I was seven years old again. Almost like back in Iran.

He wore a familiar facial expression: absolute benevolence tossed with a natural
flair for absolute ass-kicking justice.

‘So a caravan of elders came to the mosque today,’ he breezily said. ‘They demanded
I disown you. Even better, they demanded I send you to Iran so that you could face
the death penalty.’ He smiled.

I remained silent and flicked through the index of crimes that might have upset the
community. Was it my marriage? My work? My education? Something I’d done long ago,
in the past?

My father put me out of my misery. ‘Son, it’s about YouTube,’ he said.

I face-palmed. I knew what he meant.

The son of the cleric had appeared in a gay movie on the internet.

My relationship with the community was already under strain—as it had been my whole
life to this point, for a variety of colourful reasons. Lately, all these reasons
had had to do with my acting career. I’d appeared opposite Claudia Karvan as a refugee
who slept with a married woman (Community Outrage O’Meter: eight). I’d most recently
displeased them by playing a Lebanese man engaged to a lesbian (that was a nine).

Playing a gay man—well, we needed the Richter scale for that one. It was one giant
earthquake that would leave aftershock after tremor after aftershock for a long
time yet. But this hadn’t been a high-profile role, the kind the community would
notice. It had been a small role in a short film project, filmed years ago.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve predicted that a community member would somehow
manage to stumble upon a gay flick on YouTube. It was remarkable how often our nosy
neighbours would ‘accidentally’ dig up evidence of my sins in exactly this fashion.
Of course, once they’d seen it, what could they do but send a mass email blast to
hundreds of local Iraqis? Every Iraqi with bluetooth enabled had a chance to freeze-frame
the exact moment I embraced a—gasp—white man—double gasp—bare-chested.

I’d had a long time to make my peace with the judgement of our community. But the
problem with a small immigrant community was you were never quite a lone ranger.
For every casually abusive comment I’d get, thanks to my Western behaviour, Dad always
received ten times the letters, ten times the questions.
His role as the visionary
local imam was coveted by a handful of hopeful aspirants. Every wrong step I took
was exactly the ammo they needed against Dad.

‘I think we should get out of this place and have you blow off some meaningful steam,’
Dad suggested.

My wife was interstate at the time; Dad pronounced, ‘So let her be. Bring your daughter,
your mother will look after her. We’ll go away for a few weeks, get you freshened
up, and come back with a new perspective.’

He grinned at me while sipping his pineapple juice. This suggested he’d planned
a holiday somewhere tropical: maybe Hawaii or Bermuda. None of this was plausible
when we were talking about my dad.

Still, he went on. ‘It’s important to connect with yourself before you can recharge,’
he said.

He was speaking slowly, naturally having a conversation with himself out loud, convincing
himself this would be a good idea, exactly what he and I needed.

‘I’m not saying the change of scenery alone will change your state of mind. For if
inside you are trapped, you will always remain trapped. No matter where you are.
Even on the moon!

‘But these experiences will change you. I’m sure you’ll do amazing things and come
back, I dare say, a different man.’

I nodded in tentative agreement.

‘I just want you to know, Osamah, that, as always, there is no judgement on my end
on any aspect of your life, even the parts of it which I am sure you personally regret.’

He set down his pineapple juice and dusted his hands, clearly wrapping up the conversation.

‘So, we will go together and God willing have a great time.’

He finished with an enormous, fatherly smile.

Well, so far, so good,
I thought.
Free holiday with Dad.

‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I need a new wave of energy to wash my mind and body clean.
And what better way than a trip with a man I admire and love?’

We smiled at each other. This would be good.

‘And Iran is beautiful this time of year,’ he said.

My stomach dropped a hundred kilometres. ‘Iran?’ I swallowed a hot ball of saliva.

If I’d known what the trip would really be like, I would’ve thrown up all over the
carpet.

MORTAR MELODIES

Abadan City, Iran, 1988

The six-year-old man of the house

I was a child in unfortunate circumstances.

It was a freezing winter in late ’80s Iran, right on the Iraqi border. Anywhere there
was oil, there was turmoil—so Dad liked to say—and in Abadan, oil was produced faster
than on a teenager’s face. My city of Abadan had been swapping flags with Iraq since
the war began. One day it was theirs; the next it was ours. I didn’t even know who
we
or
they

us
or
them
—were, and I don’t know now, either. I’m an Iraqi by heritage
who was born in Iran, so I’ve always been at war with myself.

The Iraq–Iran War had started eight years before for the same reason as most other
wars: no reason, or at least none I could fathom. All I knew was the Ayatollah of
Iran and Saddam Hussein of Iraq didn’t exactly want to sit down and settle this with
some homemade lemonade and a game of Monopoly—which was probably for the best, given
how people sometimes feel about each other after they play Monopoly.

These days Abadan belonged to Iran, so the green, red and white flag was proudly
anchored on every building in town except ours. Dad was an Iraqi, therefore I was
an Arab, therefore the neighbourhood hated us. I couldn’t even say hello to the
five-year-old Persian girl across the road. Our apartment block, mainly peopled with
Iraqis like ourselves, flew our flaccid ‘peace flag’ from a drainpipe on the rooftop.
We couldn’t raise the Iraqi flag—that would constitute treason. Nor did we have the
heart to put up the Iranian flag, so we made a peace flag from our overused white
dishdashas
(long Arab dresses) and solemnly displayed our wish to end the brutal
years.

Our place was a tiny, one-bedroom, women-filled space—some boys, but we were severely
outnumbered. There was Mum, two aunts, two wives of uncles, Grandma and ten little
girls. By the time I was six, I was the man of the house. My brother Mohammed, aka
Moe Greene, was four, my other brother was in nappies and, apart from my two young
cousins, all the other men were on the front line.

We lived here because we were a tight family unit—or that’s what we were told to
tell the neighbours. Truth is, we couldn’t afford anything bigger.

Only the bedrooms had mattresses, and although they were thin, they were still better
than sleeping in the hallway, where we rolled our blankets on top of us to sleep
in a cocoon. Five metres, a dozen people, all side by side, waiting to rotate into
the bedroom. We split up time on those three mattresses as fairly as we could. Every
six days it was my turn; the rest of the time, my back really ached for it.

In such a situation, aside from an exit strategy to get to the bunkers during an
air raid, the issue of utmost importance was maintaining your oral hygiene. In the
hallway, you could always smell five breaths at the same time: a cocktail of toothpaste,
the
acids you get in empty guts and general dental wear and tear. Some days, my cousins
and I played games of breath-volleyball: we tried to lob rancid breath into each
other’s nostrils, a deep, rounded gust of rotten air directly up the nose of your
opponent. If your opponent acknowledged the rotten breath and screamed—‘Pwaaahhh!’—you
scored a point.

There was a strict one-minute limit on the showers. Shampoo: ten seconds; wash face:
ten seconds; wash body: twenty seconds. If you got this right, you had a cool twenty
seconds of luxury left to do as you pleased. Sing folklore songs, dream of escaping
the war…anything. But if you didn’t wake up at 5 am, forget it—even the cold water
ran out, under daily restrictions.

Also, everyone yelled that their shit didn’t stink; it had to be the person before
them. I was amazed at how much of a stink the girls could make. I’d always thought
girls took more feminine shits, but they could really outdo the boys in that department.

Therapy from a fortune teller

So my dad, the Iraqi, was fighting for the Iranians—but his brothers, my uncles,
fought for Iraq.

Like any six-year-old, I had a galaxy of questions.

‘Mum.’

‘Yes,
sowmeh
love.’ (She called me
sowmeh
when I was in her good books. Otherwise,
it was ‘you little son of a shit’, or ‘you two-legged goat’, which was her classic.)

‘Iran is the good side.’

‘Yes, you know this,
sowmeh
.’

‘And the people who fight them are evil. How evil?’

‘Enough that they’ll all go to hell.’

‘All of them?’

‘Yes, dear. Regardless. Stop asking these questions.’

‘But the good people, they go to heaven. Right?’

‘Yes. We call them martyrs.’

‘So. If Dad died in the war, he’d be a martyr.’


Sowmeh!
That’s your father you’re talking about.’

‘Don’t you always say heaven is a good place? Why wouldn’t you want Dad to go there?’

‘We don’t want your dad killed. You should be praying for him.’

‘I always pray.’

‘Good boy.’

‘I have one last question.’

Mum let out a bowl’s worth of air. ‘You’re getting on my nerves,’ she said, palms
widening, ready for a smack.

‘Why do my uncles fight for the evil side?’

‘That’s a question for grown-ups,
sowmeh
.’

When I thought this through at bedtime, it was increasingly confusing. I wanted to
pray for Dad to stay alive; I also wanted to pray for his brothers. And because I
knew they were evil, and that they didn’t deserve my prayers, I wondered if this
made me a bad person.

I looked up at my mum. She was a very young woman, about twenty-two. She was staring
into nowhere. I got upset. I didn’t want her to cry. Most of my questions led to
this scenario.

Eventually, in lieu of having the appropriate answers, she took me to see a specialist.
Or, her version of a specialist: a fortune teller.

The fortune teller was old. Like, really, really old. My point of reference for an
old person was Noah, who’d lived to a thousand; I was pretty sure this woman was
older.

Her hands freaked me out while she examined my palm. It was like death and history
and ghosts and shedding skin were all touching my flesh at once.

She looked at me with her one green eye—the other looked like one of those tunnels
that they blow through the mountains
using dynamite. She paused for an entire minute
and then revealed her prophecy: ‘Osamah, when you grow up, you’re going to become
a therapist.’

Mum’s response was whip-quick. ‘You mean he’ll
need
a therapist when he grows up.
For a long, long time.’ She took my hand and stormed out of the small, smelly tent.
I remember her hands—so soft after the fortune teller’s, like winter turned to spring.
I had never in my life felt more comforted.

Not dying on my seventh birthday

There had actually been a lot of uncertainty over whether or not I’d even make it
to seven alive. The air raids had been fierce of late.

And a few weeks before my seventh birthday, I’d had a dream I was going to die a
little boy—but it ended in excitement. The angel that had come to take my life away
also happened to be super-duper sexy—which was the reason I’d never recounted the
dream to my mum, knowing she’d ban me from dreaming naughty.

I did eventually draw the dream—and when the women of the house saw my drawing, instead
of applauding, as they usually did, they asked me who the woman was. Why did she
have a hook for a hand? Why was she standing in a graveyard? And why was she blonde?

When I told them it was the angel of death, they gasped and asked me to redraw her,
only this time in black drapes, and faceless.

This in turn got me banned from staying up to watch the illegal satellite channels—which
were my window on the world, my sanctuary. The channels showed uncensored Hollywood
films, in black and white; the TV was installed by my mum’s brother Salman but he
never watched it.

Instead Adnan, Mum’s other brother, was glued to the tube
whenever he got a break
from service. We stayed up late, mesmerised by the white folks and their mysterious,
alien activities.

‘Marlon Marnrow. She is fantastic! Even in black and white she looks colourful,’
he drooled.

I asked what would happen if we got caught watching foreign TV.

‘Jail. Torture. Death. Who knows? One thing’s for sure: a sordid end.’

‘What’s sordid, Uncle Adnan?’

‘Bad, terrible, horrible,’ he said. ‘But don’t think negative. Don’t think about
getting caught. Poker face, poker face, poker face. When I fight on the front line,
I don’t think to myself,
Oh, what happens if they catch me?
No. I think about survival.
And, of course, about what sauce I’ll put on my club sandwich if I ever make it back
to base alive.’

He was a joker, but the sauce line made me hungry.

It turned out the vision of my death was just a mirage. Nanni made the birthday cake;
I saved three months’ pocket money to buy the candles, when really what I wanted
to spend it on was blue jeans.

When I went to light the candles, Mum suggested, cheerfully, that I should wait till
they dropped a bomb on us so they’d get lit up for free.

Blue jeans blues

The reason I wanted a pair of jeans so much was that I was sick of being mocked by
the Iranian kids.

I wore a
dishdasha
and it made me the laughing stock of the town. My Farsi wasn’t
bad, and if only I had a pair of blue denims I was sure they’d stop calling me funny
names. ‘A is for Arab, B is for baboon,’ they’d say. ‘Shroud-wearing camel.’ The
names weren’t actually that funny.

My cousins, who did wear jeans, fitted in so easily, fitted in with the ease of Vaseline.
But Mum wanted me to be a proud Arab, and wear the
dishdasha
full-time. She also
knew it would be impossible for me to save up for some jeans, so she made a deal
with me: if I paid for them myself, I’d have her blessing to wear them. Clever lady.

I’d saved nearly enough twice, but each time I’d got close, I’d had to break the
piggy bank because we needed food. The time I’d bought my birthday candles I’d splurged
on a soccer ball too—another way to show the Persian boys that I was cool. That I
could bring a ball, and we could
all
play.

I arrived with the soccer ball, the
dishdasha
tucked inside my pants, creating this
unattractive, unruly bulge. ‘How many months pregnant are you?’ they asked. ‘Did
you eat Saddam Hussein?’ Mansour, a ten-year-old whose father had been killed—martyred—last
year, scoffed before he took my ball, withdrew a knife, and sliced my ball in two.
He yelled at me to go back to my dirt hole.

Schools had been shutting down more and more regularly thanks to the heavy bombardments.
By default, I didn’t like school—no kid does, let alone a bullied one—but I was bored
enough to crave it like an addict.

I spent the dusty days wandering the streets looking for the leather boots of fallen
soldiers. When I found some, I’d take them back to the basement of our apartment,
cut them carefully into the shapes of flags, paint them in flag colours, then jerry-rig
them onto large sheets of newspaper and glue them on. When they had dried, I’d ‘frame’
them, not using glass, but plastic bags, and use the bootlaces to decorate the edges.

Then I’d use numberplates nicked from abandoned army jeeps to give each collage an
‘ID’. I took the plates to the local blacksmith, who cut them up for free into individual
letters
and numbers—which I’d use to come up with a plausible name and death-date
for the departed, and glue them to the canvas, something like A L I 9–9–1988.

After spending countless hours, I’d finished my twelfth piece. The number twelve
is significant for a Muslim Shiite, since we believe there are twelve imams, descendants
of the Prophet Muhammad, who continue his lineage. In the hope that this figure would
bode well for my works, I finally took them to the local mosque, telling my mum I
was going there to learn to read the Koran.

The mosque was small and beautiful, with aqua doors and entrance arch. It had a small
fountain for ablution, a small hall for prayer. Its two minarets had been destroyed
by bombs, which enhanced the appeal: people actually came here and prayed a bomb
would drop right then, in which case they would die as martyrs. I didn’t yet have
those aspirations.

For the most part, though, it was a gathering place for men unfit for war and old
people, which lent it a retirement village air. That makes it sound depressing—there
was a real sense of community. People felt alive there, and they rarely discussed
the war. They loved to reminisce about old times, just like old people everywhere—things
like how good the football team was, pre-revolution.

I laid out my potato sack on the floor outside the doors, and set the Koran down
next to me in case one of our neighbours, always nosy, happened to pass by.

The sun was not friendly. It was making me earn every cent. I’d sweated a solid river
by the time my first potential mark arrived—a young man, who must’ve either been
home on leave or had done a runner.

‘Hey, kid,’ he said. I hated being called a kid. What kid doesn’t? While we were
at it, hadn’t this guy been a kid once? Didn’t he
remember how infuriating that word
must’ve been? So why was he insulting me? The heat made me irritable. I decided to
smile and respond in a way that might net me a sale.

‘Good afternoon, sir! How are you today? How’s things? Are you on leave? Perhaps
you’re an escapee?’ I was rambling—a rush to be respectful.

‘Where did you learn your manners?’ he asked.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to
accuse
you of being an escapee, I just wanted to know if
you
were
one. Obviously it’s none of my business. Sorry.’

‘You’re selling this shit outside a mosque? Is this a place of business or a place
of worship?’

Other books

Homewrecker Incorporated by Chavous, S. Simone
Other Worlds by KATHY
The Scorpion's Tale by Wayne Block
Grievous Sin by Faye Kellerman
The Spy on the Tennessee Walker by Linda Lee Peterson
Finding Carrie by C. E. Snyder