With any book, the blurb is required reading before deciding to commit for the long haul.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s blurb in The Tribe is immediately arresting. This book, we are told, will offer insights and shatter perceptions about a community long dogged by “media reports of sexual assault, drug dealing, drive-by shootings and terrorist conspiracy”. Complete with the peppering of endlessly hyphenated words- “Lebanese-Arab-Australian-Muslim”- this is no mean feat, much less one a ghareeb or an ‘outsider’ might appreciate.
The book is divided into three parts: The House of Adam, The Children of Yocheved and The Mother of Ehud, each representing a period of time for the protagonist, Bani Adam’s life. That is, ages seven, nine and 11 respectively. As is a common Arab tradition, Bani is named after his grandfather and his sister, Yocheved, shares her name with their grandmother, immediately offering the narrative a realistic context.
Typically, Arabs will refer to families by placing bayt ahead of their family names. In this instance Bayt Adam, literally translates as “the House of Adam”, otherwise referred to by Bani as “The Tribe”. Interestingly, Bani Adam is an Arabic term that translates to “the House of Adam” or “the Children of Adam”. Yocheved, of course, is the monotheistic matriarch – mother of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. What Ahmad has attempted, and quite successfully too, is to create a microcosm of Lebanese-Arab-Australian-Muslim life, embodied in The Tribe or The House of Adam.
Ahmad likens the family home to an anthill, complete with the physical and moral hierarchy. Grandmother Yocheved, Bani’s mother, father and three siblings and Uncle Ali sleep on the first floor, Uncle Osama, his wife and two children on the second floor, Uncle Ibrahim in the garage and Uncle Ehud, Aunties Mariam, Amina and Yasmine all live in their own houses with their families. Though clichéd, the family dynamic is epitomised in the second half of the book, through an incredibly insightful and humorous account of a family wedding.
Grandma Yocheved proved to be one of the more interesting characters. Her eventual death provides a sombre ending to the book, but as Ahmad stresses, not to The Tribe itself. Grandma Yocheved is presented as the archetypal giver of life, going beyond the sometimes-crude representation of women as solely childbearing entities. The character of Grandma Yocheved offers a metaphysical depth to the role of women in The Tribe.
Throughout the text, Ahmad cleverly sets out the special connection between his sister Yocheved and her namesake, Grandma Yocheved. The build up of the relationship is signified as Yocheved Junior begins to spend more time with Grandma Yocheved. As the reader realises Grandma Yocheved has fallen very ill, Bani describes his experience of looking at a photo of Grandma Yocheved and his sister Yocheved. The glass on the photo frame has been broken, as if foretelling the reality of a serious calamity.
The photo depicts Grandma Yocheved handing Yocheved Junior a bouquet of flowers and staring at her, while Yocheved Junior stares right at the camera, as if to signify a cosmic transition. A passing over of tradition, culture and the weight of The Tribe, from Grandma Yocheved, to Junior and beyond. To add to the mystery, when Grandma Yocheved passes, Bani notices that his sister has also gone missing, leaving the reader to imagine where she might be.
Despite his age, Bani often makes astute social observations about The Tribe and the people around him. A tactic used by Ahmad, who always presents the commentary as coming via an elder cousin or Uncle. Usually, these observations relate to sexual relations or things only an adult might notice, as in the instance of Bani offering a description of Aunty Nada’s make-up; “…all it does it make her look like a hooker. That’s what Uncle Ibrahim said once…”. At times this is transparent and can be quite frustrating for the reader, but mostly it is tactful and well executed.
Ahmad writes powerfully about how the “sands of time have dictated [his] future”. He describes a powerful scene whereby the sand dunes, representative of his Arabness, collide with the sea, a representation of his Australianness. From this collision, he sees himself embracing a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, freckled woman, who is “not just a housewife”. Bani is foreshadowing a culture clash and perhaps a disruption in the continuation of The Tribe, a common experience of moving to a foreign land.
The imagery further represents the breaking of culture and tradition, against the tide of a powerful and all-encompassing sea. Like sand dunes which are thick and can withstand the force of the waves, there will come a time when the dunes will be broken apart, remoulded and sometimes even flattened. Whilst some characteristics of Arabness remain, the essence is arguably lost. Such is the effect of “monoculture” as described by scholar and theologian, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad.
In his Contentions, Murad describes the “monoculture” as a phenomenon that “annihilates difference” and promotes a brutal uniformity. This raises interesting points about migrant groups in foreign countries, particularly in Western countries. A by-product of which is the marking of “firsts” such as “the first person in The Tribe to die in Australia”, an event to which only a migrant could relate.
What Ahmad has attempted is nothing short of remarkable, offering insights and weaving a tale that shatters perceptions about a number of people and places. However, that is not what is most striking about this book. The greatest thing about this book was that, as a Lebanese-Arab-Australian-Muslim, I was able to read and see words that were familiar to me. From the more important religious terminology such as insha’Allah that permeates our daily conversations, to the seemingly mundane mention of foods like kibbe nayeh, or even the Grand Bazaar flea market.
At times, however, the book missed the mark, particularly when Bani describes himself looking at his family “from the outside”, which presumably means from the “monocultural gaze”. This leads him to refer to his family as a “circus” and “monkeys”, although this Othering could just as likely be a result of Bani’s introspective narrating style. Having said that, this book proved satisfying as a book about “us”, for “us” and by one of “us”.
I, for one, hope that there are many more books of this kind to come. In the words of Tayta Yocheved: insha’Allah.
By Asem Taleb
Asem is a solicitor-to-be and a budding writer. His interests include all the cliched interests that one might find in a bio, and long walks on the beach. He enjoys reading about culture – popular or otherwise – more than he enjoys consuming it.
 Commentary on AHM’s Contentions: Secular Ideologies and Isms | MUSLIMOLOGY. 2014. [ONLINE] Available at: http://muslimology.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/commentary-on-ahms-contentions-secular-ideologies-and-isms/. [Accessed 14 October 2014].