Actor and writer Osamah Sami (above) released his memoir Good Muslim Boy in May. A sort of They’re a Weird Mob for a new generation, he tells his survival of the Iran–Iraq war, immigration to Australia, dodging arranged marriages and attempts to stage ‘Saddam: The Musical’ in the US among his many adventures, told with a decidedly comic bent.
Parts of the book have been adapted for the screen by Sami and Andrew Knight. To be known as Ali’s Wedding, the film is now in pre-production and is to be directed Jeffrey Walker. Knight and Sami are appearing together at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne tomorrow at 12.45pm to discuss adapating a book to the screen.
The following edited chapter, ‘Culture Shock’, details his arrival in Melbourne at age 12 as he reacts to the delights and strangeness of Australia.
Melbourne, Australia, 10 August 1995
One minute I was on my very first plane ride, thrilled and tired, jetting across the continent in a cool tube of aluminium. The next minute we landed, and everything was wrong. People swarmed around us, speaking gibberish. The announcements were in gibberish, only from an official source. Stuck to the walls and ceilings, the signs were gibberish too — except the luggage sign, which was a picture of a bag.
I grabbed on to the image and clung for dear life. It was the only thing I knew here. That, and my family. ‘Dad, look at that woman. She looks like a man.’ I meant that she was wearing jeans. ‘Here isn’t Qom, son,’ Dad said. ‘So why is Mum still covered up?’ Dad shrugged. ‘Ask her.’ There was no chance my mother would be removing her long abaya just now. She gritted her teeth and stared ahead and moved through the surging crowd. She was openly terrified.
The customs officers were terrifying, even sans Kalashnikovs. They spoke to us confidently, in neither Persian nor Arabic. The only member of my family who met them coolly was my dad, who was still in his turban and clerical garb. I’d watched on the flight as he filled out the arrival card in English. He’d attacked the form with gusto — not simply checking the boxes, but embellishing the questions with additional info.
He handed the card to an officer, who studied it closely. As he did, his face changed: the universal expression for ‘you’re in deep shit, sir’. It was a relief that I could read this. He ushered us into a quiet zone.
‘Who’s this Allah?’ he asked my father. ‘Is he your legal sponsor?’
‘Yes, He sponsors everything.’
‘And is that his Christian name?’
‘No, not just Christian. Allah is for all humans.’
‘…Uh. Yep, what’s his surname?’
‘Allah is One. He created everything.’
The officer blinked at my father. ‘One sec,’ he said. He left the room and came back with another tall, gunless dude.
‘Did you fill this out yourself, sir?’ the second officer asked. ‘You’ve written here your next residence is in Allah’s hands.’
‘Yes,’ nodded my father. ‘Everything in life is in His hands.’
‘What’s going on, Abu-Osamah?’ Mum interjected, in Arabic.
‘Nothing, just official matters,’ said Dad. ‘Wherever we go, they follow.’
‘Sir, I need you to speak in English, please.’
From then on, Dad did so. But it wasn’t a language problem; it went far deeper than that. He had written ‘inshallah’ beside ‘Are you planning to stay in Australia for the next twelve months?’ because, as he explained now, ‘It’s in God’s hands if we stay or not.’
This was very difficult for the customs officers to handle. They explained to my father that we could not enter the country if they were not able to tick a simple ‘yes’.
Dad was very firm on this. ‘No,’ he insisted.
Now, they blinked in unison. ‘Okay, hang tight,’ they said.
They sent back a man in a suit.
‘Morning, sir,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Mr Mohammad, is it?’
‘Almost,’ Dad responded.
‘Dad, what is he saying?’ I asked. ‘They’re asking my name, just stay put,’ he said.
‘Your name on the passport is Mohammad,’ asserted the suit.
‘Abu-Osamah, don’t we have visas?’ Mum asked.
‘Okay, folks, just one at a time,’ the man in the suit said. He had a lot more natural composure than the others; I did not know if this was better or worse for us.
‘Sir, you have a permanent visa, but my colleagues believe you’re saying you won’t be staying in the country, is that correct?’
‘No,’ said Dad, ‘I just tell him how can anyone be sure of tomorrow? Except maybe your breakfast, are you sure of your tomorrow?’
The suit peered at Dad. ‘If I were to say yes, what would you tell me?’
‘I say impossible. No one sure. Only Allah.’ ‘
Right. Yeah, of course.’ ‘So inshallah we live here. Inshallah a big yes.’
‘Let’s just amend that to a yes, then, so you can be on your way…’
‘No,’ said my father. ‘Let me tell you a quick story.’
I didn’t understand the English, but I knew ‘inshallah’ well enough to know the story would probably not be quick. Inshallah is one of those weird words that wasn’t really built for a brief, efficient definition at a customs desk. For starters, it’s not even a word: it’s just used like one, but it literally means ‘if God wills it’. It’s also spoken like a heartbeat for many Muslims, who might use it for ‘yes’ — after all, nothing is certain: Meaning, yes, of course, barring an earthquake.
But it’s also capable of taking on a more complex shade of meaning, because you might use it to convey exactly the opposite thing. ‘Inshallah, I will be at your place tonight’ might mean that most certainly you won’t be there — because if it’s in God’s hands, you’ve conveniently left open every possible reason not to go. You are clearly not going, and you are ready to blame God. It’s very handy, in every situation other than right now.
‘A man walked down the cobbled streets, his lips chapped by the sun,’ began my dad, who had never met a parable he didn’t like, and on he went for several minutes. ‘…Nothing is sure in this life…Always say inshallah, but not after the fact! Before! Okay?’ Dad concluded, looking hopefully at the suit.
The suit, of course, just blinked. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘I told him the inshallah story,’ Dad informed us cheerfully. ‘Wow, go Dad! Converting them to Islam!’ ‘I was in Iraq, thinking I live in Iraq forever. Then what happened? Saddam happened. I escape to Iran. Thinking I will live there forever. Then what happened? Persecution happened. Then I come here…Nothing certain,’ Dad concluded.
‘So back to this card,’ the suit said. ‘Basically, there are some answers here which have serious implications for your visa status. What we can do is strip you of your visas and have you deported.’
Cue stunned expression from my dad. They were specifically concerned about his ‘many convictions’. They’re the kinds of things that stack up when you’re growing up in a country like Iraq, under the rule of a dictator; it didn’t help that Dad nodded furiously, and said, ‘Yes, jailed many times,’ and added that he’d once escaped from prison too.
‘What crimes have you been convicted of?’
‘Spreading papers against Saddam.’
‘I once write on a paper Down to Dictator and they jail me, sentence me to die.’
The suit took a relaxed breath. ‘Okay, moving on,’ he said. ‘You’ve declared you’ve brought in animals?’
‘Yes, in the bags.’
The suit was mystified: they’d already been through all our bags.
Dad was exasperated. ‘There!’ he said. He gesticulated wildly towards the several cans of sardines, tuna and salmon. Then he looked more cautious. ‘Fish in English is also animal, yes?’
Death to nobody!
Imagine there was a war in Australia and you had to flee to Iran. Any Bob or Jane from Perth or Wodonga could just run for their lives and start all over again, no worries, right? All they’d have to do is learn Farsi, the politics, the history and culture. Bob would be, as the saying goes, their uncle.
We had moved to a neighbourhood in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, just metres from the mosque, in exchange for Dad’s services as the new imam. Mum returned to her housewife life, but with a fair dinkum difference: she got hooked on the Australian Open and Aussie Rules, and sat glued to the TV for countless happy hours, watching the Bombers take on Carlton and Collingwood. Football, or ‘footy’, was played with a ball shaped like a watermelon, only it was wearing shoelaces.
These factors meant it had a weird bounce; it was not logical like soccer. Mum was fascinated by this, leaving my sisters to do the chores — and leaving me with a lot of time to roam the neighbourhood.
I won’t pretend I didn’t have my own steep learning curve. I was excited to buy bread, after the reports Dad had sent home to Iran. He was right; I didn’t have to line up at 5am in the bread queue. But the fact I could buy bread from the petrol station — this I couldn’t handle. It was absurd.
One day, Mum asked me to go to the halal butcher to buy some sheep tongue. No problems; I looked up ‘tongue’ in the dictionary. The Arabic translation for ‘tongue’ was ‘language’; I cross-checked with the Persian dictionary, which confirmed this.
I entered the butcher confidently. ‘Good afternoon, sir, can you please give me three languages?’
The butcher looked at me. ‘I can only speak two. English and Turkish.’
‘No, not your languages,’ I said. ‘I want sheep’s languages.’ I started desperately pointing at my tongue. ‘I want a language like this,’ I said. ‘The one I am talking with. This language, not your language. Sheep’s language.’
This alarmed the butcher, who picked up a large knife and waved me out of the shop.
When I ran out to the street, nobody was chanting ‘Death to America’. Or ‘Death to Israel’. Or Nepal. Or Senegal. Or Honduras. Death to nobody! Furious chanting, in that moment, might have been comforting.
Police did not take bribes here, which deeply troubled me. I would see them on the street and think, What if I get into some kind of serious trouble? How do I get out of it?
But this fear was balanced by the fact they seemed not to stomp on people’s faces. In fact, nobody stomped on anyone, not teachers, not parents. And yet society stayed disciplined regardless.
When you went to people’s houses, you did not have to remove your shoes before passing through the door. And yet the houses stayed clean. This was spooky.
I tried to make friends, but this was a complex process. There was no concept of taarof, that Persian custom of declining any offer up to three times before accepting it.
At the home of a potential friend, his mother offered me a soft drink. I was parched, but of course said no, thinking she’d ask again twice more. She replied nonchalantly, ‘Oh, okay then.’
I stayed thirsty throughout the whole three-hour visit. Another time, I offered a potential friend something to eat. He said no, so I thought, Okay, he needs the second push. I asked him again. He said no. I thought, One final push then. The third time I offered, he got very angry with me.
I felt like I was losing my mind. I remembered the simplicity of the imam’s lectures, about masturbation and other sins. These had bored me back home, but now, nothing had ever seemed as comforting.
In desperation (and also embarrassed to ask Dad), I wrote to a scholar back in Iran.
‘Esteemed, Revered, Reverend Scholar, Sayyed, may God prolong your life’, I wrote.
‘May He prosper and shower you with infinite health and keep you as His servant on Earth and away from all Evil and may the Almighty Creator allow us to bask under your wisdom for decades to come.
‘Your Highness and Holiness, I often by accident find myself at the beach. Please note these beaches are Western, so women and men are mixed.
Moreover, the women are naked. How can I walk along the beach, with the intention of smelling the sea breeze — and only smelling the sea breeze — without accidentally falling into sin?’
I was desperate for a loophole to allow me to go to the beach.
‘There is no legal way to enjoy the beach outside Iran. You must wash your eyes in case of contact with women, as well as perform the semen ablution on your body: head first, then the right part of your body underwater, including genitals, then the left part of your body, also including genitals; after this, you may enter your whole body under the shower.
‘Do not walk on these sinful strips and stay far away from water and sand and may God protect you under his wide, generous shadow.
P.S. You may also return to the country of Islam and enjoy Iranian beaches, which do not have sinful heathens roaming on them. And to God we belong.’
‘Shopping is a major concern for me, here in Australia. It is riddled with sin and I wanted guidance from Your Excellency on how to do my groceries without entrapping myself.
‘Firstly, in our supermarkets, there is often background music. I know that music is a sin. Are there types of music that are not sinful by any chance?
‘These supermarkets also sell alcohol (albeit next door, but owned by the same company). In the presence of alcohol, is buying groceries a sin?
‘The third part of this question is that most of the cashiers are females (no hijab) and I am forced to look at them. Australians are all about eye contact and it’s rude to ignore them.
‘Am I allowed to look at these women, given all this?
‘The fourth part of the question is that when I hand the female cashier the money, my hand will often (accidentally) touch her hand, skin to skin. How best do I avoid this sin, in your esteemed eyes?’
‘You must take extra care shopping in non–God fearing countries. Music is a sin if ‘listened’ to. Ask yourself this: are you a listener, or listenee? If you ALLOW music to enter your ear willingly, you are a LISTENER and this is a sin. If music enters your ear unwillingly, you are a LISTENEE and it is not a sin.
‘There is no legal music, although some songs about mothers and war veterans are okay provided they do not tempt you to wiggle your body in sinful ways. Also, you must shop elsewhere, where alcohol is not sold.
‘If it is the ONLY place where you can shop, you must say God’s name and stay as far away from the shop selling sin as possible. We sympathise with your plight.
‘Also, eye contact with any female is a sin. It leads to fornication, which is a GRAND SIN. Avert your eyes and ignore their customs.
‘Do you want to please them or God? As with music, apply the rule of ‘viewer or viewee’. If her face ‘falls’ in your eye, as in, she happens to be in your field of view, then you are a viewee and it is not a sin. If you allow her to fall in your eyes, and become a viewer, then it is a sin and may God protect us from sin and evil.
‘Finally, skin contact is deadlier than eye contact and a step closer to fornication. Simply lay the money on the coun-ter. Perform semen ablution in case of accidental contact. However, I will say this again: it is best you leave the country of impurity and return to Iran, where God’s wide shadow protects us from all evil. You will also enjoy all the beaches you desire. God be with you.’