Michelle Hamadache reviews The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by MICHELLE HAMADACHE
The Other Half of You isn’t written just for all the readers out there who get what it’s like to be the child of migrant parents. It’s not just written for those who know already what it’s like to deal with growing up in a home where the culture on your doorstep is interpreted as threatening by the adults in the house. It’s not just written for those who know what it’s like to grow up where the only home you have known, Australia, consistently rejects you by asking you to be something other than yourself in order to belong. Arab people in particular, Muslim people more broadly speaking—for they are not interchangeable terms—are overwhelmingly regarded with suspicion and hostility here, and that changes what it is possible to say now.
If a book is going to avoid being trapped in a fallen language, where everything it says or does judges and is then in turn judged by others, then it is remembering that stories are uncertain, sometimes difficult, gifts that matters most. Stories are the threads that draw together disparate communities and bind new ways of knowing to a collective consciousness, to forge the newly imagined community.
The Other Half of You is as much about what is, as what might be, and in its gritty, graphic and unforgettable detail, it contains the storyteller’s ability to exchange lived experiences in such a way that those experiences are not just shared with the reader, but integrated, via memory, via the body, as stories with lessons for living. It is the rubber-gloved hand on the delicate skin of a penis that conveys, unforgettably, the lesson: raise daughters solely to be wives to the detriment of all (especially their husbands); marry against your will and risk self-destruction, and, like all the lessons to be imparted by The Other Half of You, these two lessons are underscored by the prevailing moral: if anything is going to get us through the shit we’re in, it’s love.
The Other Half of You marks the end of Bani Adam’s bildungsroman spanning The Tribe and The Lebs. Regardless of whether Michael Mohammad Ahmad intends to continue with Bani, the journey to adulthood ends here. This is because in the birth of Bani’s son Kahlil, and the father’s story of his conception given to his son, a fiercely poetic and mature voice emerges. It is a voice that also channels the energies of rich literary genealogies, that draw together Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, most resoundingly Lebanese diasporic writer and poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, for whom Bani’s son is named and from where the novel’s epigraph is drawn. Ahmad also nods to The Book of Khalid, an experimental novel by Ameen Rihani written in 1911, and sometimes referred to as the first Arab novel (with all the contentions that come along with ‘firsts’ and the novel as form and genre).
Ahmad formally organises his novel into three parts, each referring to time and destiny, ‘All That Was’; ‘All That Is’; and ‘All That Will Be’. It is loosely structured as an address, or as a gift, to Bani’s newborn son, Kahlil. In order to explain just how an Alawite Muslim forbidden to marry outside the tribe ends up with his Anglo-Australian wife Oli and their baby, ‘my half-caste, half-insider, half-outsider’, Bani begins with the story of his unconsummated first love, Sahara. Sahara is a Christian Lebanese girl he met online living in a housing commission flat in Glebe with her single mother. It is Bani’s father’s discovery via gossip of this relatively innocent, but consuming, first love that precipitates Bani’s disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima. Fatima is a nineteen-year-old girl looking to escape her father’s household, and it is the inevitable implosion of that marriage that sees Bani ultimately, through despair rather than defiance, reject his marriage and fall into the arms of Oli.
Bani meets Oli at the PCYC boxing gym. It is Ahmad’s strength that he harnesses the metaphoric potential of places like the PCYC. Here, in the egalitarian, if brutal, world of boxing, racial and homophobic epithets abound, yet the atmosphere is inclusive. The boxing ring, despite its violence, its duelling opponents, ironically flattening binaries of us and them, while upholding identities, is a place that binds rather than divides, through the shared understanding of a set of rules that are agreed upon and entered into freely, without eradicating differences. The gym upholds identities, forming something like a Foucauldian heterotopia—a space that exists within the dominant hegemony of white settler Australia.
Bani’s father’s disposal store, like the PCYC where he trains, is another example of the powerful representation of places that resist. The store is aptly named Cave of Wonders and is stocked with wares that draw a variety of customers seeking sleeping bags and the possibility of bartering. Here, Ahmad strategically deploys the history of many Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Australia who were granted provisional, limited, unequal resident status based on their role as ‘hawkers’. Many chose to anglicise their names and erase their origins in order to be accepted into an Australia hell-bent on whiteness.
Jumana Bayeh discusses Patrick White’s problematic characterisation of a Syrian hawker in her Southerly essay, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’. Bayeh poses a perspicacious question: ‘But what story could be uncovered if we were able to hear the Syrian narrate his own life and his experiences in Australia?’ (131). This challenge underscores the silences and erasures that have characterised Australia’s literary spaces to date. The presence of the store in the novel returns this lost history, as does Bani’s acknowledgment of his own family’s history of naming (Bani/Benny 295). In his representation of Cave of Wonders, Ahmad creates a space of reversals, while also memorialising the history of a group of people who came to Australia with a conditional and ambivalent welcome. With its intertextual reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the Cave is a place that gives Bani the opportunity to read Persian poetry, to escape family and wife. It is also where misogyny and racism are given open mic, but where, as the owner’s son, Bani gets to call the shots and thus level the playing field. As always, the representations of sexist and racist outbursts are framed by the novel’s ideological focalisation that captures what is with a deliberate and crafted goal: to bring into the literary space the flawed, the ugly, the inappropriate, the shocking—the human. When Bani grapples with the limits of his own conflicted mixture of feminism and tribalism, it is a dramatized battle that Ahmad is orchestrating.
The mix of autobiography and fiction is part of its fascination: that age-old dilemma concerning itself with ontological distinctions between fiction and lie; truth in fiction. The ideological focalisation of the novel is not sexist or misogynistic, though it certainly represents both standpoints through its characters.
As with The Tribe and The Lebs, this third novel in the series draws on Ahmad’s lived experience. The fictional mode of The Other Half of You means its characters and storylines are both metaphoric and literal. The strength of Ahmad’s prose often rests in his ability to strikingly and relentlessly bring to life scenes: characters, action and setting, from weddings to fights, capturing them in a mix of vivid language and heightened observation. But most importantly, Ahmad’s prose frames these situations in Bani’s unique mix of insouciance and wisdom.
At stake in the story of the love affair between Bani and Oli and the birth of Kahlil, is the knitting together of what, up until The Other Half of You, has been divided, or at least incongruent: the world of children descended from Anglo-Saxon heritage and the world of children descended from everywhere else, and in a context where racism divides and culture prohibits, the romance plot between Oli and Bani is a powerful and productive trope.
If Oli’s characterisation never matches the unforgettable Sahara and Fatima, it is in part because her character is understated. It was always going to be a tough gig for a pale girl with thin arms to compete with Bani’s first love, the hirsute and stocky Sahara, whose thirst to understand apostrophes was quenched during a pizza night in Glebe. Likewise, it is hard for Oli to be as memorable as Fatima, whose desire to leave her father’s house is realised in her marriage to Bani, living in a converted garage, wearing only a G-string and watching never-ending episodes of Friends. Coming at the end of the novel and with so much at stake, a lot of pressure was placed on the realisation of Oli’s character and the introduction of an Anglo-Australian parallel backstory. It is perhaps deliberate that the White girl and her family didn’t hold-up to the depth and the vibrancy of the realisation of the Adam family, Sahara or Fatima.
Even the disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima is propelled by love. It is a marriage Bani enters into from love for the father, the family, the tribe. If willpower and looks alone make a marriage, then on paper the marriage between Fatima and Bani should have been rock solid. Ahmad deploys the perspective of the older narrator which imbues the entire section with a sense of impending disaster, but also allows the younger Bani to blindly suffer through the honeymoon and marriage as they unfold with tragi-comedy and bathos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the book is the father’s outcry, ‘I should have let him go’. This cry echoes throughout the rooms of this book, because ultimately, Ahmad is telling the story of the break and the fold between father and son, the present and posterity, and of histories based not on continuity but on ruptures.
In many respects, the love Bani feels for his world with all its bathos and brutality, courage and fierceness establishes The Other Half of You as the work of a storyteller, rather than novelist or memoirist. The novel is strongest when it shares experiences, whether lived, observed or imagined, in their raw materiality, boldly capturing what is. This is not lack of craft, rather it’s a concerted effort to create a territory free of the relentless drive towards conformity, or permissible difference that characterises much of contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Within the pages of The Other Half of You, anger, frustration, ignorance and despair hold centre stage with forgiveness, acceptance and the transformative power of love. The novel doesn’t try to silence what is unpalatable about lived human experience. While there might be more information than Kahlil (or any child) wants to know from his father about their conception, and the various sexual experiences that led to that conception, the body is centred as a way of knowing. The ‘over-sharing’ draws attention to the conceit, The Other Half of You is fiction after all, while also consciously drawing on the relentlessness of a confessional mode that breaks down social mores and prioritises the need for a story to be told over and above other considerations.
Randa Abdel-Fattah describes writing as a Muslim writer in Australia as the necessity of writing from a double position: a need to write for a Muslim audience, while writing to a white audience. She describes the frustration of her experiences of being refused the right to write a literature of universal concern, needing to particularise her story, and have it ‘kept’ particular, so that it is heard in a mainstream culture where whiteness is normative. Received literary wisdom that the universal is reached by way of the particular doesn’t apply for everyone. Negotiating this challenge is a task that the writer writing into a minor literature, such as Australia’s, faces, in addition to all the other authorial challenges.
I am not sure that the language exists yet for a relationship of love between marginalised Arabic and Muslim communities and a white settler Australia, but I am sure that it will take novels like The Other Half of You, and writers like Mohammad Ahmad, to bring that language into being.
Consider The Other Half of You as a difficult, uncertain gift. In the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: receivers of the gift, remember, gratitude should have no weight ‘lest you lay a yoke’ upon giver and receiver alike (29). We should have the ability to receive literature as a living thing that needs to grow and change and fail and succeed, all within a single book, so the greater thing of literature, beyond major and minor concerns, might continue to thrive.
Works drawn upon or cited:
Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘The Double Bind of Writing as an Australian Muslim Woman’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 97-117.
Jumana Bayeh, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’, Southerly, Vol. 79 No.1, 2019, pp. 129-149.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico: London, 1999, (83-107).
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann: London, 1926, repr. 1973.
Anne Monsour, ‘Tell Me My Story: The Contribution of Historical Research to an Understanding of the Australian Lebanese Experience’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 9-39.
Ameeni Rihani, The Book of Khalid, Melville House Publishing: New York, 2012.
MICHELLE HAMADACHE has had publications in Australian and international journals. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. ‘Zohira’, a short story appeared in the British Journal of International Writing 2021.