Lebs let loose in Punchbowl ‘prison’

Lebs let loose in Punchbowl ‘prison’

Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Australian, 12:00AM March 11, 2017

Earlier this week, the historically troubled Punchbowl Boys High School in western Sydney once again made headlines when its principal and deputy were sacked after the school fobbed off an anti-extremism program. Here, a former student recalls a school culture that was as troubling as it was unusual.

“Jail, bro. Jail.” This is what the students at Punchbowl Boys High said to the Ten News reporters the day they turned up to our school, filming us from the outside as we rattled the chain-link fence from the inside. We couldn’t climb over the fence because it was topped with barbed wire, and if we managed to, we would be caught on the surveillance cameras that surrounded the school building, three storeys of red brick, and the police would be sent out to collect us.

On the few occasions the barbed wire was broken and my friends and I had attempted to jig, we would sprint away across the oval. It felt like a prison break. This is the reason we came to call the school Punchbowl Prison.

Throughout my six years at Punchbowl Boys I saw my school regularly in the news, and most often it was in relation to crime — from “Lebanese-Muslim” drug dealers, gun violence and gang rapists to terrorist suspects.

Earlier this week, after the school had celebrated a period of calm and prosperity (due in no small part to the achievements of its principal, a local of Lebanese-Muslim background named Jihad Dib), Punchbowl Boys was once again making negative headlines.

However, this time it wasn’t stories about Lebanese-Muslim ghetto-gangstas that caught the media attention, but the sacking of Dib’s successor, Chris Griffiths, and his deputy Joumana Denanoiu after, among other things, ­female staff were excluded from events at the school. The implication is that this was to accommodate the values of conservative, even radical, Muslim students and their families.

This week’s headlines conjured up for me memories about my days as a Punchbowl Boy, which were filled with a mix of joy, confusion and anger. In this essay, I will tell you about the “was once” generation: my generation of young men at Punchbowl Boys High School who the teachers, politicians, community leaders, parents and local law enforcement decided needed to be locked up for the safety of our community and for our own safety.

I will also tell you about the journalists and filmmakers who believed we needed to be put on the front pages of the newspapers and on prime-time television.

Who were we? The scholars and academics will tell you we were working class and underclass Australian Muslim males from Arabic-speaking backgrounds. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will tell you we were second and third-generation Lebanese Muslims, the result of Malcolm Fraser’s mistake in bringing our parents and grandparents into this country in the 1970s. On the streets of western Sydney we went by a simpler name: “Lebs”.

There were 1200 students at Punchbowl Boys High School in 1985. That year a brick was hurled at Mr Stratton’s head and a process of expulsions began so that by the time I arrived at the school in 1998, there were only 299 students left. This was a number that the principal, Mr Whitechurch, who wore a grey suit and black shirt every day, reminded us of at each school assembly, taking pride in the fact that he kept the population under 300.

“I only accept the cream of your crop,” he would say.

Of the 299 students, 20 called themselves Fobs, which stood for Fresh Off the Boat, and referred to Pacifika people, and 20 were a salad mix of Asian, South Asian and Anglo-Celt.

The remaining 259 students identified as Lebs, which included young men from Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian, Nigerian and Egyptian backgrounds, as well as some Lebs who came from Turkish and even Indonesian backgrounds.

Most of these Lebs were Muslim, from Sunni, Shia and Alawite denominations, but among us were Christians, too, primarily Lebanese-Australian Maronite Christians. So how is it that such a culturally diverse group of young men all became “Lebs”?

One theory I had as a boy was that many young men of Lebanese appearance were using the term “Leb” strategically to disassociate bad behaviour from their cultural backgrounds. For example, my fellow inmate at Punchbowl Prison, Osama al-Jaffar, who had the word TERRORIST glued on to his Year 12 jersey, was of Indonesian background. Osama told every girl that gave him a head job that he was Leb. Then he would delete her phone number.

A more complex explanation to this “Lebanese” phenomenon in Australia comes from anthropologist Ghassan Hage, who in his chapter “Multiculturalism and the Ungovernable”, in Essays on Muslims & Multiculturalism (edited by Raimond Gaita, Text Publishing, 2011), recognised that “Lebanese” in Australia became the marker of a new hybrid identity.

Writes Hage: “The cultural forms exhibited by some Lebanese-Australian youths … that became generalised as ‘Lebanese behaviour’ and irked so many people were clearly a hybrid formation: the forms of working or underclass masculinity that were put on show were a touch Lebanese, but nothing that you can find exhibited in this way in Lebanon, except perhaps among Lebanese Australians living in Lebanon!

“They also contained a touch of the black and Latino American cultural subaltern hype that has been globalised by the mass media through the propagation of particular types of music, clothing, walking, etc.”

This is why, between the Sydney gang rapes in 2000, the attacks on New York City in 2001 and the Cronulla riots in 2005, as well as any mention of drug dealings and drive-by shootings in Sydney that involved any Australian-born citizens of Arab and/or Muslim background and/or appearance, the terms “Muslim”, “Arab”, “Middle Eastern” and “Middle Eastern appearance” were used interchangeably, with the term “Lebanese” as a way of identifying the threat.

Take, for example, Miranda Devine in The Daily Telegraph in 2011. She wrote: “The gang rapists, Australian-born Lebanese Muslims, roamed Sydney hunting for non-Muslim teenage girls they regarded as ‘Aussie sluts’.”

The 14 gang rapists Devine is referring to, three of whom attended Punchbowl Boys, actually had cultural ties to a number of the 22 nations within the Arab world, not just Lebanon. Not to mention the fact that the gang rapists were, as Devine puts it, “Australian-born” as well as Australian-raised.

This is the reason I believe the term “Leb” best represents the dominant cultural group of young men at Punchbowl Boys High School. I do not mean it as simply a shorthand way of saying “Lebanese” or even “Lebanese-Australian” in relation to a Lebanese or Arab homeland. What I mean by Leb is a unique Australian identity.

We can learn about this group of Australians called Lebs by taking a small tour through Punchbowl Prison between the years 1998 and 2004. Let’s start with Lebs and general stupidity. ­Although I am writing about general stupidity that took place within the school, the greatest act of stupidity I ever saw at Punchbowl Prison was outside the school, while we were on our way to the annual athletics carnival.

On Friday, April 13, 1999, a Year 11 student named Mamdo Abu Bakr, whose greatest talent was that he could bench press 130kg, told the 120 Lebs on the school bus that if we all ran as fast as possible to one side while it was turning a sharp corner, we could tip it over. We were on the corner of King ­Georges and Punchbowl roads, turning towards Parry Park in Lakemba when Mamdo screamed out, “Hallat, hallat, boys!” which in Arabic means, “Now, now, boys!” We all pounced to the driver’s side of the bus, piling on top of each other and squashing the first row of Lebs up against the glass, while we shouted things like, “Get your hand off my arse, faggot”, and “I can feel your dick on me, bro”.

I can’t say for sure if the bus ­actually tipped, but I’d swear on Saddam Hussein that I felt the wheels on the other side rise off the ground for a moment before making a loud thud as the bus went back down, skidding. Then the bus driver stopped the vehicle right in the middle of the intersection, holding up the traffic, and squealed, “Off my bus, even the teachers, get the f. k out.”

Now the act of general stupidity here is not that the Lebs thought they could tip over the bus, it was the fact that we hadn’t considered the consequences of being inside a bus that tips over: you see, the teachers had to permanently ban us from sports carnivals and lock us up inside the school, not just for the safety of the public, but also for our own safety.

After the bus incident, the teachers created one way in and one way out of the school, through the front office. There was a bulletproof shield covering the reception desk because one time an administrator had had a gun put to her head by one of the students’ older brothers. Once you stepped past the shield a heavy metal door would lock shut so that the only way you could get back out was if the receptionists or the principal unlocked it from the inside, which would happen only if a student needed to be taken out to an ambulance because he had been stabbed, or if it was 3pm and the principal had to let us out by law.

General stupidity was now contained in the corridors of the three levels of Punchbowl Prison. All along the walls and on the cracked vinyl floors of the hallways that lead into 100 classrooms, the Lebs had written in black permanent markers and liquid paper and spray paint, “Lebz Rule” and “F. k Aussies” and “Jesus was Muslim” and “Jesus is coming back to rock the Christians” and “2Pac lives” and “Your mum”.

While inside the classrooms the Anglo-Australian history teacher Mr Griffin, tried to teach us about JFK and a conspiracy theory that suggested there was a shooter on the grassy knoll, throughout the corridors the Lebs had their own conspiracy theories, most of which were associated with the Jews. Down the passageway that leads to the school hall where we conducted our afternoon Muslim prayers, the Palestinian Isa Musa, who had black skin, silver eyes and a voice like a mule, said to me, “Did you know that Hitler was an undercover Jew and that the Holocaust was just a bullshit conspiracy so the Jews had an excuse to steal Palestine?”

At least this theory was trying to connect actual historical incidents together. Wahhabis like Omar Morris didn’t even need an explanation for their anti-Semitism. He had a purple welt under his eye from a street brawl he’d gotten into over the weekend the day we were lined up in the maths corridor waiting for our teacher, Mrs Flower, to arrive. “Ay bro,” he said with a sharp frown, his left eye throbbing, “Why does an Aussie get six years in jail when he rapes a girl, but a Leb gets 50 years when he does the same thing?”

“Why?” I asked while I stared at the wall behind him where a one-metre circumcised penis had been drawn in red texta. Omar put his index finger to his temple and said, “The Jews, cuz. Think about it …”

So I did think about it and ­although it seemed suspicious that Bilal Skaf received a penalty for the 2000 Sydney gang rapes that was higher than anyone else had ever received for these kinds of crimes, and higher than what most murderers receive, I just couldn’t work out how locking up a rapist who happened to be of Muslim and Lebanese background for 50 years could ever serve any kind of Zionist interest.

I will now inform you about the Lebs and racial tensions at Punchbowl Prison, which we can learn about by understanding the relationship between the corridors and the classrooms. My 2 unit maths room was between 3 unit on the left and intermediate on the right. I was sitting in maths writing a short story about a very young boy with enormous wings instead of learning equations when there was a loud screech outside that went, “F. ken black c. t!”

All 20 boys in my class shot up and tumbled into the corridor like bodies through a windshield.

A Tongan student named Biro was standing there with his arms dangling by his sides, a kitchen knife in his right hand and a serrated pocketknife in his left hand. His jaw was hanging open and his eyes were filled with the fizz of Coca-Cola. He looked like an ogre, towering over all the Lebs. Imran stood in front of him; a 162cm Lebo with a wound shaped like the centre of a strawberry across his shaved head. Blood ran down his temple and cheek, dripping from his jaw on to his shoulder, his white school shirt blotching with red like a slashed lamb.

The Lebs began to gather around Biro like a pack of wolves, ready to take revenge, but nobody bothered to chase him when he bolted down the other end of the corridor towards the school hall. We just stared at Imran, who looked confused, his left cheek wincing, even though he knew, like the rest of us, that all this happened because he stole Biro’s Nokia 3210.

Two students walked Imran to the sick bay, which meant Mr Whitechurch had to unlock the front office, and everyone else was sent back into Maths.

Mrs Flower’s dehydrated skin wrinkled as she scowled, “Concentrate.” She turned her back to us and continued writing on the white board. She wrote numbers that meant nothing to anyone, the silence building inside the classroom until finally a fair-skinned Leb named Shaky spat out, “F. ken Biro f. ken pussy c. t!” Mrs Flower twisted, her sharp nose and beady eyes snapping towards him. In her tight nasal voice, she said, “Leave him alone. Biro’s just scared.”

The teachers always took the side of the Pacifikas. Maybe they felt sorry for them because they were so heavily outnumbered by the Lebs, or because they were even poorer than us and stood out the front in the morning sharing a two-litre bottle of Coke, or maybe it was because we called them Fobs, which made no sense to white teachers because to them the Lebs were boatpeople, too.

We can also learn about racial tensions at Punchbowl Prison between Lebs and Fobs by peering into Mr Smith’s music room, on the third level of the school.

Sonny was the oldest and the toughest of all the Pacifikas. One day he went from class to class rounding up the 19 other Pacifikas in the school and marched them into the music room.

They smothered Bilal Osman and began to pound down on him like a band of gorillas. Sonny kicked his fat nose sideways and broke it in two places. He tore open the flesh on his left eyebrow, too.

They smashed three of Bilal’s ribs and somehow they fractured his left shoulder. They kicked him in the penis over and over so that he looked like he had pissed blood in his pants when the teachers ­finally carried him through the school to the front office.

Usually we would stand up for our Muslim brother but no one was upset for Bilal. He used to stare at you in the playground until you noticed him, and then he would say, “What you looking at, pooftah?” He liked to bash Year 7s. He bashed Sonny’s little cousin that morning. The Fobs had had enough.

Although there were a few incidents where the Pacifikas at Punchbowl Prison came out on top, most of the time they were overwhelmed by the racial tensions. To witness this in its full capacity, we need to step outside of the corridors and classrooms, and into the quadrant at the centre of the school, which was overlooked by a bus-sized Australian flag. “Come on, let’s go one on one, let’s go one on one,” said a green-eyed Lebo named Mustafa Fatala to the Samoan boy named Watti Watti as they faced off in the corner of the quadrant. This all started because Watti Watti had ankle-tapped Fatala during a game of touch football on the oval.

However, while Fatala was pressing towards Watti Watti and saying, “one on one”, there were 100 Lebs standing behind him, all saying at the same time, “Come on, Watti, one on one, bro, come on, go him one on one.” Remember all those stereotypes you’ve heard about how we Lebs have hundreds of cousins who we will call if you mess with us? Well, some stereotypes are true …

Unlike racial tension that came about at Punchbowl Prison because two ethnic minority groups were forced into the same space, Leb attitudes towards women at Punchbowl Prison came from the fact that there were no young women in our space at all, aside from the 21-year-old commerce teacher Ms Claire Julia, whose G-string line could always be made out underneath her white skirts. All the other female teachers were above 60 years old.

Around the corner from the music room, overlooking the school quadrant and right in front of the Australian flag, where the Union Jack stared at us from the windowsill, was Mr Griffin’s history classroom. Three of the Lebs had their heads out the window that faced the outside of the school. They were howling at the girls walking past. “Give us your number!” they screamed. “Head job for the boys!”

Mr Griffin would straightaway snap, “Knock it off!” He told me many times that he didn’t believe single-sex schools should exist. “You see,” he said, looking my way, “you get this crap.” Then he turned around to write the definition of “misogyny” up on the white board and Shaky screamed out the window, “Show us your flaps!”

The sexist attitudes of economically challenged ethnic boys, which Donald Trump recently demonstrated are not much different from the attitudes of rich white men, became more complex in Punchbowl Prison’s common room, which was an empty gallery at the end of the second level of the school. This is where Ms Lion, who was approaching her 70th birthday, brought all the English classes together to teach us Blackrock, an Australian play about a group of teenage boys who raped and killed a 14-year-old girl named Leigh Leigh. Ms Lion claimed it was compulsory reading on the curriculum but we all knew the real reason she was making us read it was because the Sydney gang rapes had been dominating Australian news coverage at the time.

She broke us up into groups of three to memorise lines from the first scene. I stood in a circle with Shaky, who had a Syrian father and an Anglo-Australian mother, and the Palestinian Isa Musa, and we put on the tightest nasal accents we could muster to read out loud in unison, “Girls can’t surf”. Then we laughed like hyenas at the way Aussie boys insulted Aussie girls. “Surfing’s for faggots,” said Isa Musa. “Why are we studying this gay shit?”

Shaky scoffed out loud and then he looked around to make sure Ms Lion wasn’t listening in on us. In every other section of the common room there was a group of Lebs rehearsing a scene from Blackrock.

I bet they were all talking about how the sexist Aussies in Blackrock, Jared and Ricko, were homosexuals, how Bilal Skaf got a 55-year jail sentence because of a Jewish conspiracy against the Lebs, and how those girls, in both stories, were asking for it.

“Ay boys, you think Bilal Skaf is guilty?” Shaky whispered. “Nut, Bilal was just a horny c. t,” Isa Musa said. Then he lowered his voice, too. “Those girls were the biggest sluts, cuz. Derbas got a head job from one of them.”

Shaky stared at Isa with a smirk. “No bitch will ever be able to pin shit on me, bro,” he said. From his pocket he pulled out one of the new mobile phones that had a built-in recorder. We stared while he flicked through his applications and then pressed a button.

There was a muffle that broke from the phone speaker followed by the voice of a girl who said, “Is it recording? OK. I agree to give Shaky, Ahmad, Ali and Ziggy head jobs.” “Lowie”, hissed Shaky at the end of the message. That’s what the Lebs at Punchbowl Prison called a woman who was so low she’d have sex with one of us.

In much later years I came to understand the intersectional politics of gender, race and class at Punchbowl Prison. As explained by Paul Tabar, Greg Noble and Scott Poynting in On Being Lebanese in Australia (Beirut Lebanese American University Press, 2010), the “youthful masculine” language and behaviour of these young men did not only come from a desire to control the sexuality of women, but also out of frustration and a sense of “injury” and “defensiveness” due to experiences of racism and marginalisation.

What we see in Shaky’s recording was not only the misogynous activities of some Lebs, but also a response to a media and political machine that had transformed all young Arab-Australian Muslim men into sexual predators.

At 3pm the door to the front ­office was unlocked, and the Lebs at Punchbowl Prison could pour out of the classrooms and corridors to reign over western Sydney. One Sahara-hot December afternoon, two men who looked like hippies from Woodstock were standing by the front gates of the school handing out a leaflet to each boy that stepped past them in order to get to the train station. The leaflet contained a picture of an anthropomorphised peace symbol, which had crossed eyes and a frowning mouth and skinny arms and legs. This cranky little Peace Man was swinging an axe at a wooden cross and in a speech bubble he was saying, “Muhammad, you’re next!”

As soon as the hippies who had handed out the leaflet arrived at Punchbowl train station, which was around the corner from the school, the Lebs were locked on them like a pack of pit bulls, calculating a strike. I watched as a wave of Year 11s and 12s, led by a drug-dealer named Solomon bin Masri, who threw the first punch, swarmed the two men, tumbling into them and hurling king hits and fly kicks, knocking them over and stomping on their heads until they were unconscious.

I was horrified by the incident, having never seen an extreme act of religious violence before, but I was also proud of the Lebs because I hated that leaflet, which desecrated the most sacred aspects of my life in ways no different from the later depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish cartoons in 2005 and later by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

This is why Hage says Muslims present a particular challenge for multicultural societies that are ­facilitated by white power structures, because within the faith are individuals who are so “seriously religious” that they become “ungovernable”.

Last year SBS aired a program called The Principal that was set in a fictional western Sydney school called Boxdale Boys High School. The series was about a new principal who came from the same Arab-Muslim demographic as the majority of the schoolkids and would go on to transform an under­class ethnic hellhole into a place of learning and integrity.

It doesn’t take Edward W. Said to recognise that Boxdale was clearly an attempt to replicate the sound of Punchbowl and that the whole principal narrative was borrowed from “the autobiography of Jihad Dib”.

The main Leb boy in the program, a student named Tarek Ahmad, is introduced in the first episode by being shown making his way into the school and staring up at the new principal who is standing at the front gate. With the glare of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Tarek says, “Who the f. k are you?” This is followed by 100 more ugly and angry Boxdale boys from Arab, Asian and Pacifika backgrounds who trudge through the school gate.

While there is certainly something familiar to me about this ­representation of Lebs and Punchbowl Boys, what seemed to be missing from the image was the stark sense of joy and humour that kept us going from day to day.

Punchbowl Prison was a place of unimaginable pleasure — we were jubilant when the brick knocked out Mr Stratton, when tipping over the bus, when wolf-whistling at the girls walking past, when one of us got stabbed, when we stood aside and watched our own Muslim brother get mauled by 20 Fobs, when 100 Lebs said “one on one” to one Fob, and when we concussed the privileged white hippies who thought they could waltz into our space and make a mockery of our Prophet.

When a new teacher or principal appeared at the front gates of the school one morning in a creaseless grey suit, we didn’t grimace and say, “Who the f. k are you?” Instead, we put on the most charming and sincere smiles we could muster and said, “You’re a f. ken sexy c. t, bro.”

I often ask myself how the educated and well-paid professional writers of The Principal could have missed this obvious aspect of under­class ethnic masculinity while creating their show, especially since they claimed to have conducted their research for the program by visiting some local western Sydney high schools that contained a large percentage of young Arab-Australian Muslim men, including Punchbowl Boys High School and Granville Boys High School.

My theory is that the writers and producers, who were all white, probably did witness the joyful and smart-arse nature of these young men they were observing, but just couldn’t come to terms with the reality that poor brown kids are totally fine being poor brown kids.

In order for the creators of The Principal to maintain their sense of cultural superiority, they had to portray us as miserable until we learned middle-class white values, as though at the centre of every Mohammed is a Michael yearning to break free.

In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (New York University Press, 2004), social activist, feminist and writer Bell Hooks says that in the US “many black males explain their decision to become the ‘beast’ as a surrender to realities they cannot change … Young black males, particularly underclass males, often derive a sense of satisfaction from being able to create fear in others, particularly white folks.”

I believe we saw a parallel manifestation of this at Punchbowl Prison. Take, for example, the front page feature in The Daily Telegraph on November 3, 1998, ­titled, “DIAL-A-GUN: Gang says it’s easier than buying a pizza”. The article pictured six young men of Arab backgrounds from Punchbowl Boys High, who claimed they were a “Lebanese gang” with easy access to guns.

But let’s ask ourselves: would a serious gang guilty of murder and drive-by shootings and gang rapes really expose themselves in this way to the media, the police, the politicians and the general public?

You can clearly see from the photo that the Lebs were having a good time performing their gangsta fantasies, and taking both the journalists who wrote the article and the audience who would read it for a ride.

Last month, while I was standing in line at Greenacre Coles waiting to pay for a kilo of halal corned beef, I ran into the former principal of Punchbowl Boys High School, Mr Whitechurch. He was standing in front of me with a can of beetroot in one hand and a loaf of Wonder White bread in the other.

His flaky white skin was now drooping at the cheeks and wrinkled at the forehead, and he was dressed in the same grey suit and black shirt he was wearing on my last day of school 13 years ago.

“Ay Whitechurch,” I said with a grin, and he turned to look at me like he had just run into a suicide bomber, his eyes wide and his lower lip wobbling. “I’m writing an essay about Punchbowl Boys,” I told him.

Suddenly his eyes sharpened and turned to violet, zooming in on me, and he said, “Your behaviour at Punchbowl Boys was disgusting.’’ It was as though he had been saving that comment for me since 9/11, a day he spent watching the Lebs parading on his schoolyard. Then, before I could respond, Whitechurch went on to say, “Why don’t you write stories about Arabs and Muslims to help change the stereotypes instead?’’

Whitechurch had a point: In the age of Trump, Brexit and One Nation, could I really afford to reveal what the Lebs thought of white Australians, Americans, Jews, Pacifikas, women, homosexuals, hippies and bus drivers?

Perhaps I choose to expose the negative side of the Lebs within Punchbowl Prison because I feel a moral responsibility as a writer to speak my version of the truth regardless of the consequences, or perhaps I’ve just been exaggerating this whole time because I get off on scaring white folks who read The Weekend Australian.

The original version of this essay, by award-winning author and director of the Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, was published by the Sydney Review of Books (sydneyreviewofbooks.com) in November. Names have been changed to protect the identities of students and teachers at Punchbowl Boys High. ‘Lebs and Punchbowl Boys High School’ is the subject of Ahmad’s forthcoming novel, The Lebs, which will be published by Hachette next year.