By Rawah ArjaYoung Adult Giramondo Publishing
The F Team
Meet Tariq Nader, leader of ‘The Wolf Pack’ at Punchbowl High, who has been commanded by the new principal to join a football competition with his mates in order to rehabilitate the public image of their school. When the team is formed, Tariq learns there’s a major catch – half of the team is made up of white boys from Cronulla, aka enemy territory – and he must compete with their strongest player for captaincy of the team.
At school Tariq thinks he has life all figured out until he falls for a new girl called Jamila, who challenges everything he thought he knew. At home, his outspoken ways have brought him into conflict with his family. Now, with complications on all fronts, he has to dig deep to control his anger, and find what it takes to be a leader.
In confronting and often hilarious situations, Tariq’s relationships with his extended Lebanese family and his friends are tested like never before, and he comes to learn that his choices can have serious consequences.
A glorious, uproariously funny debut brimming with the idioms, rhythms and realities of Australian teenagers today. The F Team is a magnificent, multi-character, underdog sports story that is ostensibly about a misfit bunch of high school boys (Muslim, Pasifika, Asian, Jewish and Whitebread ‘the Shire’) who must prevail over the rich-kid, all-white favourites in an inter-school rugby competition, but it’s so much more. It’s a love letter to Punchbowl and Western Sydney (places that are still too rare in our published books for young adults) and exuberant Arab-Australian culture. A joyous ode to the ways big rowdy families support you and keep you grounded, it also highlights the lived experience of racism, and sensitively depicts male-female and Arab-Jewish relations within Arab-Australian culture. With compassion and delicacy, Rawah Arja crafts a nuanced interrogation of masculinity which could act as a starting point to help young men speak truthfully to their emotions. Arja has created a book which is overflowing with heart and humour, which makes it a stand-out in this genre.
A quick rundown of my family.
My dad Mustafa and my mum Ronda broke all the rules when they decided to marry each other. They weren’t cousins and even worse, they were from different villages in Lebanon! It’s practically unheard of for Lebanese people not to marry their relatives. They came to Australia in the eighties and, like good Lebanese parents, popped out five children. None of us have been to jail – yet. Another break with Lebanese tradition, I guess.
My mum was slightly taller than my chubby dad, and even in her hijab, she catches the attention of the coffee-drinking old men in Punchbowl cafes. They’d hound her to help her carry the groceries to the car until she finally gave up and let them.
My dad worked with the railway and rarely had any days off, but when he did, the beach was always the place. He wanted to live the Aussie dream and do what he thought most Australians did in their time off. It was his idea of blending into a country ‘that gave me chance to work and give good life for my children’.
My mum’s brother, Uncle Charlie, stayed with us, and lived in the shed out back with his pet bees. He sold honey to anyone who walked by, and without fail, almost every day, got stung by one. He had a thick moustache and a full head of black hair at the age of sixty-five. He claimed that he had never had a grey hair, but we’ve all caught him using my sister’s mascara to cover them up.
Uncle Charlie wore the same pinstriped brown pants and white Bonds singlet with a black bum bag around his waist, no matter the weather. Oh, and I know what you’re thinking. Charlie? Well, when he first came to Australia, he wanted to blend in, and apparently changing his name was the best way to do that. Not, you know, wearing normal clothes and hanging out with humans rather than bees.
My brother Saff is twenty-three with his own mobile mechanic business and is a super-skinny, tall guy. My brother Abdul, on the other hand, is a year younger, short and sturdy and known for his evil tricks. Though they are both epic shit-stirrers and love to start fights around the house, they aren’t very good at it and most of the time only end up burning themselves. Like once, Abdul told my dad that Saff had gotten a speeding fine, only to cop it for opening up Saff’s mail. Or Saff would drop hints to my mum about Abdul talking to some girl on the phone, only to have his phone suddenly ring with the name ‘Cassandra’ flashing bright on the screen. It was of course Abdul changing his contact name to a girl’s one on Saff’s phone and knowing when exactly to call.
Without fail, almost every day, Abdul and Saff had the same two arguments. It was either about Abdul stretching out Saff’s Gucci shirts, which he always denied, or about Saff hiding Abdul’s keys to get back at him. In reality, Dad was usually the one to hide the keys to teach Abdul a lesson about something, but he always forgot he had them. He would even start to help look for them until he’d realise they were under his mattress.
My sister Feda is the unmarried twenty-seven-year-old, and pretty much argues about anything and everything. We tease her that she was adopted because she was the only fair, blonde person in the family. If you ever reminded her that she was single, she’d erupt like a volcano, flaming everything in her way. She was in her final year of her medical residency, and my dad couldn’t be more proud of her.
Then there is me, always chasing after my eight-year-old sister Amira and making sure she doesn’t accidentally demolish the house. She is wicked smart and has a fascination with tools and building things in my dad’s garage. We call her Bob the Builder. She even dresses like a tradie with her denim overalls and checked shirts. With the massive age gap between them, Feda was basically a cross between an older sister and a mum to Amira. She’d take Amira shopping for Eid clothes and book her in for her six-monthly check-ups with the dentist, who was one of Feda’s friends from med school. She supervised her reading every night and made sure she slept in her pyjamas and not her school uniform.
Amira was born premature and spent her first three months in hospital. Her oesophagus wasn’t fully developed and they had to do emergency surgery to make sure she could breathe. I spent every day with her and watched her tiny body, wrapped by so many wires and tubes, slowly grow. I remember one night, when my mum was asleep, I saw her move her hands in the air. She turned her head towards me, softly smiled and then held my finger until she shut her eyes. She’s had me wrapped around her finger ever since.
I know lots of people say they have a crazy family, but I think we’d win any competition if there ever was one. You could just see it on Sunday, aka Market Day aka Buying Crap Because It’s Cheap Day aka Hell. My mum would rush into my room at the crack of dawn like an army commander and rip off my blankets. She never bothered to wake anyone else up because she knew I could never say no to her.
The drive to Sydney Markets was always the same. My mum would shout directions like my dad hadn’t been there every other Sunday. She’d wave her hands left and right in a panic, blocking his vision, worried we wouldn’t get parking. We’d get there, and it was only then that she’d realise I was wearing thongs.
‘Hajj, go and get the plastic bags,’ she’d say to my dad.
See, before I was born, my mum had two miscarriages and her pregnancy with me was tough, so she’s overprotective. As a kid, I also almost sliced off my toe with a shopping trolley, and so ever since, she made me wear plastic bags around my feet whenever we were at the shops.
People thought I was contaminated.
I mean, it’s not like the plastic bags actually helped, but I had to be kept perfect, especially for marriage. If there’s one thing you need to know about Arabs, it’s this: our parents spend their whole lives preparing us for marriage. It’s expected that we’re in tiptop condition, with no faults, so that when the exchange is made, we can’t be returned.
At the markets, I’d try to keep up with my parents as they rushed through every aisle to get the best bargains while I dodged the phlegmy spitballs from the market men. Fitting everything in the car was a challenge because my parents always forgot to leave my seat free. My dad, sweating and out of breath, resorted to impractical solutions, especially if we were in a rush. ‘Just go in boot. No one will see. Yallah.’
Somehow, they’d squeeze me in between the junk, with my head down just in case the police pulled us over. Trust me, every Arab kid knows what that feels like.
After the markets, my family, including all my cousins in the area, headed down to Sans Souci Beach – one of the only places in Sydney where I reckon white people feel like outsiders. Dad smoked his shisha and lectured us about how grateful we should be to live in this country. We’d light up our barbecues, smoke up the beach and set up our fishing rods.
Sans Souci was the perfect place for some footy, even though half the time our ball ended up in the water. Uncle Charlie umpired our games and made up the rules as he went.
‘Uncle? You can’t catch the ball and score!’ we’d all say.
He’d get so pissed off that he’d pick up any big stick he could find and chase us around the beach. We’d usually run up the grassy hill over on the other side of the beach while my uncle would wait below. We used bits of cardboard to sled down the hill that always stuck a million bindis in our butts. One time, my brother Abdul couldn’t stop and took out my uncle at the bottom of the hill. They both flew into the water near the crossing bridge. That was the only time I saw Uncle Charlie truly scared.
Maybe it was because we all screamed that a shark was going to eat him?
So now that you know a little about my family, you’ll understand why I didn’t want them to be around when the news story broke. They made everything into a big deal and any sign of sibling weakness was taken advantage of until you pretty much wished you hadn’t been born.
Only the strong survive in my family.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist