Idle Thoughts

While trying to share an ostensibly straightforward story with a friend, Khalid Warsame realises that his world – as a young Somali-Australian male – differs from theirs in ways they cannot grasp. 

Image composite from photographs by Udey Ismail (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, the other day I was telling a white friend of mine an anecdote about this funny thing that happened when I used to work at Big W as a teenager and in the telling of this story I made passing mention of this other time that I got jumped on my way home from work, which was, to me, slightly incidental to the main story, but it shocked her – like, actually shocked her – and she’s like, ‘I can’t believe that happened! Were you okay?’ and I replied that, yeah, I was winded a bit and I got a split lip and a couple of bruises and I vomited on my way home but other than that I was fine, and then she’s like, ‘Did you at least go to the police?’ and I was momentarily thrown by this question to be honest, because I didn’t think going to the police was ever an option, back then or now – I mean: yeah, I guess I could have gone to the cops, and yeah, I knew who those guys were, but I’ve only ever had three interactions with police all my life and the first was when I was just a kid and in my uncle's car in Flemington and police pulled us over and my uncle got into an argument with this big red-faced guy whose name was probably something real broad like Constable Steve or something, and the second was with this old guy they had at my primary school who taught us African kids life-skills that never really stuck – stuff like obeying traffic signals and riding a bicycle and respecting authority – but who also pronounced Hyundai wrong (like ‘high-yun-dai’ instead of ‘hee-yun-day’) and I guess I never really got over that which I suspect is what set me up for a lifetime of minor traffic violations, and the third time was when I was fourteen and these two cops wordlessly chucked me into the back of a divvy van because some security guard at Werribee Plaza suspected us of, you know, whatever, and me and my mates got hauled in, and, yeah, I kind of mouthed off to them because they wanted me to empty my pockets and I had fifty bucks in there that I was really fond of, and yeah, we were kind of skipping school.

Ask any coloured kid in any city – there’s a system. A system that is invested in the success of some and not of others; and you’ve got to be blind not to notice it.

So I spent the entire day in an interview room while this guy, who I hated then and still hate now, mouthed off to me about how I was worthless and a shit-bag, which was way out of line because, damn, I was fourteen – and I’m just sitting there taking it because he wanted me to call my parents and there’s no way in hell I’m exposing myself to enfilade fire from both of ends of this trench I’ve found myself in, so my plan was to just sit around until it got reasonably late and I could be reasonably certain that my old man was at the social club on Boundary Road chatting with his mates about politics and good-old-days type stuff and then call my mum – my mum, by the way, dispenses with forgiveness like an eleventh century Catholic bishop in a buyer's market, so she’s definitely the one I want to break me out of this joint.

By the time I get let out it’s nine and my mum is in tears because, shit, now she’s got two boys who are veering off the path and I was supposed to be the good one and now I’m just wallowing there doing what I can to seem small and insignificant and no boy on this hot earth wants to make his mother cry, and here’s the thing: I guess I just avoided cops from then on because I heard the stories (Ahmed from back in North Melbourne got all his front teeth knocked out for no reason, and the Shaykh’s son got called a ‘bloody Osama’ for wearing his Friday best and everyone gets followed by an unmarked Holden with thick antennas driven by square-faced men), and now that I had the first hand experience, cops were the last thing on my mind—

and there it is: I guess I didn’t realise how completely my experiences differ from those of my friend from the beginning of this story, because what we’re talking about here are two fundamentally different worldviews, and as I get older I’m noticing that a much higher percentage of white kids grow up and basically do okay compared to the too many Somali boys who I grew up with who just kind of fell off the ‘Do Well’ truck – some are in jail, others are caught in black holes of troubles, but most are just lost: no job, no prospects, and no real idea. And whose fault is it? A lot of folk buy into this sense of self-determination – that they’re actually responsible for their own successes in life. It’s a complete load of shit, you know? Ask any coloured kid in any city, ask any indigenous person, any woman in academia, ask anyone who isn’t straight and white and middle-class – there’s a system. A system that is invested in the success of some and not of others; and you’ve got to be blind not to notice it.

A lot of folk buy into this sense of self-determination – that they’re actually responsible for their own successes in life. It’s a complete load of shit, you know?

There was this kid we called Qantas who lived over in the Sutton Street flats with his Aunt (North Melbourne, late nineties, you get the idea) who showed up at dugsi [Sunday school] one day, where we were learning to memorise the Qur’an not because we wanted to but because our mothers would slap us across our butts and our macalins would sting us across the palm with a switch if we didn’t, which was a really inefficient method of instruction, by the way, because I barely remember any surahs but I still find myself evaluating the odd branch for its potential as an implement of pedagogy – so Qantas was this new kid, right, who was fresh as the morning sun when he showed up at dugsi for the first time and he had that wild uncombed look about him that we settled school-going kids really envied at the time but I now know to be related to the fact that about a third of Somali kids I grew up with lost their fathers to the war, meaning Qantas probably didn’t have a real flash childhood as a result – but kids don’t notice that sort of thing at all, and we were just really impressed with his all-hours roaming attitude and the fact that he spoke Somali with an untouchable fluency that sprung from his tongue fully-formed and that he had this grave old voice that made him seem older than his visa age, which probably wasn’t his real age anyway, so Skinny gave him the name Qantas because that was one of the few English words he knew when we interrogated him about his origins, and he waxed a little too lyrically about his plane journey for us not to wield it against him and, besides, the way he was dressed made it really easy to poke fun at his FOB-ness: polyester shirt and sarong (called a macawis) and leather sandals and, yeah, a fan of thickly curled hair that sprang out of his head like a crown – he had talents, though: talking to him even for a moment, you could tell this guy was whip-smart, you could tell that something up there was switched on – and he was driven too: damn near raised himself and had no family to look out for him.

Qantas must be in his late twenties now, and last I heard of the dude, he wasn’t doing too well for those symptomatic reasons: he could never really get the hang of school, he could never really get the hang of Australia, and he could never really summit the important peaks of adjustment. If he had the right environment, if he had a little help getting up on, well ... idle thoughts, aren’t they? 

Portrait of Khalid Warsame

Khalid Warsame is a writer, editor, and arts-worker who lives in Melbourne. He is a Creative Producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre, Fiction Editor for the Lifted Brow, and Co-Director of the National Young Writers Festival. His short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of publications, and he was recently awarded a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship.

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