My name is Michael Mohammed Ahmad and I am the author of The Tribe. I also adapted The Tribe for the stage with theatre director Janice Muller for this year’s Sydney Festival production of Bankstown: Live. While I have no desire to defend my own work, I do feel the need to defend the hundreds of arts practitioners and thousands of audience members who participated in Bankstown: Live last week.
Two days ago I read a review of Bankstown: Live on Sajjeling by Mostafa Rachwani. The article begins in this manner: ‘The road is closed off, and beach chairs line the pavement. Middle-aged White couples are abound, and men with acoustic guitars wander amongst them.’
My first concern was that Rachwani’s article seemed to claim that Bankstown: Live was void of diversity and community, when in fact Bankstown: Live lead the way in these areas for this year’s Sydney Festival. Bankstown: Live was produced by Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), a company that has been based in the Bankstown CBD for almost two decades now. The artists employed by UTP for Bankstown: Live were from diverse backgrounds and most of them have roots in Bankstown and South-Western Sydney and Western Sydney. Instead of listing all their names and their works, here’s the program so you can fact-check for yourself.
Please take the time to read what each of the projects in Bankstown: Live was about and take the time to read the artist biographies by clicking on the hyperlinks.
Rachwani questioned the authenticity of Bankstown: Live, comparing it to a processed Arabic dip. ‘Y’know, the kind of hummus that comes in nice little tubs that you can pick up from the fridge at Woollies or Coles. It looks legit, smells legit and acts legit on your chip, but as soon as you take a bite you know it isn’t the real deal and disappointment ensues.’
This so-called ‘illegitimate hummus’ seems to be a symbol for the Bankstown: Live artists’ illegitimate portrayal of Bankstown. But, simply, that it was not the Bankstown Rachwani claims to know and expected to see at Bankstown: Live does not mean it’s not the ‘real deal’.
One of the projects in Bankstown: Live was, for example, called ‘The Last Word’, and featured a series of podcasts from Bankstown-based writers who told stories of loved ones that had passed on. Samantha Hogg is an Aboriginal writer who has lived in Bankstown her entire life and she gives the ‘last words’ to her late mother. Regardless of whether you are disappointed with this story, and regardless of whether it’s the Bankstown story you expect to hear, there is no debate about whether or not this is the ‘real deal’.
Rachwani goes on to say, ‘And, whether it be the hummus or Bankstown: Live itself, you can just tell that it isn’t quite representing its roots.’ While hummus serves Rachwani as a metaphor, it seems as though he was unimpressed with the food quite literally as well – on the same basis that it was illegitimate. All the food that was brought to Bankstown: Live was purchased by UTP from the local Lebanese and Vietnamese restaurants and businesses. It might not be as ‘legit’ as the food our Arab ancestors cooked, but it brought thousands of dollars into the local economy and was certainly more legitimate than corporate catering.
As for the legitimacy of the audience:
Almost half the audiences who came and saw Bankstown: Live identify as people of colour – people from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds. This included many children and teenagers (not just ‘middle-aged couples’) who, for the first time in their lives, were given access to the spectacle of live art.
Rachwani wrote, ‘They (UTP) even blocked off the street, such that actual residents of the surrounding area could only walk or drive past whilst staring at all these outsiders attempting to get a glimpse of their everyday life.’
While Rachwani was certainly correct that the street had been closed off to the public, which is no different from any other professional theatre event, free tickets went out to people from the local area and a seventy per cent discount was given to all Bankstown residents who purchased a ticket – that means locals were charged fifteen dollars for a fifty dollar ticket to see Bankstown: Live.
Rachwani’s theory that the majority of the audience were ‘outsiders’ seemed to be based on the fact that there was a large population of ‘middle-aged white people’ at the event. Even if it is true that the majority of the guests were middle–aged white people, it is nothing but ignorance to assume that all the ‘white people’ Rachwani saw at Bankstown: Live were ‘outsiders’.
He also calls them ‘visitors’ and ‘curated residents’ and in comparing Bankstown: Live to a zoo, he writes, ‘Sydneysiders were invited to have a ‘taste’ of life in Bankstown before scooting off back to paradise elsewhere.’
More than one thousand people came to Bankstown: Live over the four-day season and the majority of these people have roots in South-Western Sydney and Western Sydney. I know this because I have been personally and professionally acquainted with the majority of the people who attended Bankstown:Live.
Many of the guests were people of colour and indeed many of them were ‘white people’, but being a person of colour does not inherently mean you are from Western Sydney and being white does not inherently mean you are not from Western Sydney. Despite the stereotype of an ethnic spot-the-Aussie ghetto, there are just as many ‘white people’ living in Bankstown and Western Sydney as there are people of colour. Those ‘white people’ grew up here just like Mostafa and I. They went to the same Western Sydney high schools and Western Sydney TAFEs and universities, they hung out and worked at the same shopping centres, they suffered from the same socio-economic disadvantages, and they too have grown frustrated with the negative imagery and representations of Bankstown and Western Sydney in Australian media and popular culture.
One of those ‘middle-aged white people’ who attended Bankstown: Live as my special guest was my doctoral supervisor, Professor Greg Noble. Greg grew up in Chester Hill and works at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. As well as being a great force in my life, Greg Noble has even been a teacher and mentor to some of the up-and-coming intellectuals who established Sajjeling and his decades of research and writing and advocacy against the misrepresentation and ill-treatment of Arab-Australians in Western Sydney have paved the way for young men like Mostafa Rachwani and myself to have our own voices.
We always need to be careful when we use the word ‘white’. For those who might actually be interested in a complex definition of ‘white’ in an Australian context, I recommend you read White Nation by Ghassan Hage. I fear that one of the reasons Rachwani did not see diversity in the audience is because he was looking at the audience through the lense of Andrew Bolt.
I wonder if Rachwani was glaring at the fair-skinned and blue-eyed Arab and Greek and Italian and Macedonian and Armenian guests when he concluded that everyone at Bankstown: Live was ‘white’. I wonder if he had concluded that the fair-skinned and blue-eyed guests who identify as Aboriginal were ‘white’. This Andrew Bolt-perspective on race assumes that ‘whiteness’ is simply an appearance; as opposed to what Ghassan Hage more accurately defines as, ‘The fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of European expansion’.
In an attempt to legitimatise his own claim to the region, Rachwani tells us what he thinks of Bankstown. He writes, ‘I do actually love it – crappy restaurants, violent crime, loud cars and all.’ The hundreds of Bankstown-based artists who created Bankstown: Live actually love Bankstown too. However, we do not experience and see violent crimes, we do not think the restaurants are crappy, and we do not consider the cars in Bankstown to be any louder than the cars in Newtown or Leichardt or The Rocks.
We are working hard to move away from this tired and denigrating image of our community, and, while there was a focus on attracting local audiences, we also welcomed people from outside of Bankstown and Western Sydney to Bankstown: Live in the hope that we might show them something new and real. I am sorry that this was not the Bankstown that everybody knows or expects to see, but that’s the thing about Bankstown … its stories and its people are diverse.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is currently a doctoral candidate with the UWS Writing & Society Research Centre and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. His first novel is The Tribe (Giramondo 2014).