My dad’s sister Yasmine is the reason we’re moving to Lakemba. About five years ago Yasmine’s husband, Haroun, told Dad there was a house for sale in his street and we went for it. The kids at Alexandria Public School have told me there are lots of Lebanese people in Lakemba. ‘You’ll be going back to where ya came from,’ says Matthew Forbes. He calls it ‘Leb-kemba’.
‘But I’m not a Leb,’ I say.
‘You’re a sand nigger,’ Matthew says.
‘But I’m not black,’ I say.
I sit in my room with my brother and do up my shoelaces. I’m wearing black leather shoes that came with the suit. I get up off the bed and walk into the living room. The glitter of diamantes shimmering in the light is everywhere. Tayta is in a big purple dress with diamantes around the collar. Aunty Nada is in a light blue dress with diamantes down the sleeves and around the waist. Mum is in a golden dress with broad shoulder pads and diamantes from top to bottom. She has the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and carries it along from person to person. My Uncle Ibrahim and Uncle Osama are both in black pants and white shirts. Uncle Ibrahim’s shirt is short-sleeved. He has his long straight hair slicked back with gel. He’s clean-shaven but still has the black residue of a beard marked along his face and down around his throat. His cheeks and jawline are thin, like he’s sucking them in, and his entire face shines from his aftershave which smells like a combination of cigarettes and whisky. He usually looks old but today, because of the aftershave and because of the gel, the wrinkles along his face shine like knife wounds, especially the ones that crawl down from each side of his temple. Uncle Ibrahim has been trying to keep his energy under control. His gaze is low and he keeps his veiny arms close by his side. It’s as though he’s a nine-year-old boy who’s set fire to the school and is trying not to draw too much attention to himself for fear that he might get caught. He says to Uncle Osama, in a way that tries to come out slow, but comes out fast, ‘Za-bit shah-raq,’ which means, ‘Fix your hair’. Uncle Osama’s hair is thick and bushy, like Beavis from Beavis and Butt-Head. He twirls it through his fingers and says to Uncle Ibrahim, ‘If I fix it, then I can’t touch it.’ The way Osama twirls it reminds me of those birds that groom elephants. His two fingers are like a beak; pulling up at the hair and then letting it coil back down. Since the house was sold Uncle Osama has been twirling his hair in his fingers more and more. Uncle Osama’s kids Zeinab, Zena and Zahra are down here too, in little white dresses like my sisters.
At four o’clock the cameraman arrives at our house. He’s here to film the pre-wedding scenes. He’s just come from Zubaida’s house, where he’d filmed the same activities taking place there. I imagine Zubaida’s house looking like our house right now, with diamantes and shoulder pads and musky perfumes all over the place. The women will all have hairstyles like Medusa, with a hundred bobby pins in each of their heads to make their hair stand upright in a hundred different directions. The men will all have one hairstyle, straight back, and then they let the gel do its thing: if the hair is naturally straight, it will smooth over like Uncle Ibrahim’s, if it’s naturally curly, it will curl just like my dad’s.
The cameraman asks my mum and dad to stand next to Tayta just under the entrance to the kitchen. He says he likes the arch. He has a heavy Arabic accent and uses clichés. ‘Oh yes, veery niiice,’ he says as he films. I imagine a cameraman to be fussy and energetic in order to get the best shots possible, but this guy is just like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. He’s a brown blob with only two camera poses: up to film, down to rest. Instead of going around collecting shots of the family, all I’ve seen him do so far today is make the family come to him. My parents step in under the arch beside Tayta with their backs as straight as possible and their lips stretched out wide. The cameraman goes into pose one, up to film, and holds the camera there for a moment. Then he goes into pose two, down to rest, and says, ‘Ookaay, who next?’ Uncle Ibrahim and Aunty Nada and Uncle Osama slip into the frame beside Tayta. ‘Ooohh, veery sexy family,’ the cameraman says, and goes back into pose one. My aunt and uncles put on these big grins and it’s especially disgusting on Nada. She’s the tallest in the shot, wearing big clunky high heels. Her hair is up like Marge Simpson. She has thick red lipstick that looks like it’s been painted on in blood. It draws immediate attention to her lumpy lower lip and crooked yellow teeth. Her upper lip is thin and dips in the centre like a butt crack. Nada tries to make her top lip look thicker by adding extra lipstick above her mouth but all it does is make her look like a hooker. That’s what Uncle Ibrahim said once – ‘Especially when she smiles.’ It’s the kind of smile that makes her nose bend. Uncle Osama looks like a fool standing next to Nada. He’s a whole head shorter than her. He stands there looking into the lens of the camera like it is an endless well and he twirls his hair in his fingers while he waits for the filming to be over. He is somewhere else right now. I start to think about all the times I’ve seen him – the second youngest of my dad’s brothers – and it dawns upon me that he’s always somewhere else. I wonder where he goes when he’s outside in the yard doing circles and saying things to himself. My dad sometimes watches him from the kitchen, and then he looks down at me, and with a sigh and a wince, he points his finger up toward the second level of the house where we know Nada is lurking, and he whispers, ‘Haidy janintou,’ which means, ‘That woman is the one who drove him mad.’
‘Bani,’ my mum says to me, ‘yulla get in the video with your brother and sisters.’
The cameraman turns to my mum and shakes his head. ‘No, Zubaida does not want any kids in da video.’
Yocheved reacts instantly. Just as the cameraman holds his gaze at Mum she runs over to Tayta and stands next to her. ‘Bilal,’ she shouts, ‘come, come.’ My brother and I run over and we stand in front of Tayta. I feel Tayta place her hand gently down on my shoulder and she says to the cameraman, ‘So-wer, so-wer,’ – ‘Film, film.’ The cameraman bites his lip and sticks his eye into the lens of the camera for a few seconds. He won’t cross my grandmother today, not even for the bride.
Aunty Yasmine and Aunty Amina walk in. They are my dad’s older sisters. Both are in red nylon dresses with little black and white beads that dangle from the collars and sleeves. The dresses stretch down to where my aunts’ high heels touch the ground and the sleeves fall to their elbows. They are tight around the top, where my aunts’ large breasts are held in place, and they begin to loosen at the bum, where the fabric can cling to their hips because my aunts’ waists are like clothes hangers. I whisper to Yocheved that they are wearing the same dress. ‘No,’ she says, ‘Mum told me one is wearing burgundy and one is wearing maroon. Can’t you tell?’ I stare back at the dresses, and no, I can’t tell. ‘They’re wearing the same dress,’ I whisper to Yocheved again. My aunts are soaked in make-up. They wear thick red lipstick, cream that makes their skin white, and black mascara. The make-up looks like it has been punched on their faces. Aunty Yasmine is the one who lives in Lakemba, where we’re moving to, and Aunty Amina lives in Liverpool in a housing commission. They are followed into the house by Amina’s son Hamzeh and Yasmine’s daughter Mouna. I feel a surge of energy rush through me as soon as they appear, like all of a sudden I want to run across the road to Alexandria Park and start swinging off the trees. Our cousins have this kind of effect on us. They meet you somewhere between sibling and friend, which makes it okay to get close without ending up a loser, or a traitor. Most of the kids at school, at Alexandria Public School, have three or four cousins, and this is where I am at my most powerful – in comparison I have hundreds of cousins, like an army created by nature. Hamzeh and Mouna are an embodiment of just how complex this army is. They are the same age and could easily stand for what it means to be a boy and a girl in The Tribe, but instead their roles are reversed. Mouna is a total tomboy, which is probably because she has older twin brothers named Zack and Zane and no sisters. She’s plump but everyone says she’s beautiful because she has bright blue eyes. Her voice is so deep that sometimes when she calls the house on the telephone I think it’s one of her older brothers. I’ll say, ‘Hey Zack…or is it Zane?’ thinking it must be one or the other because they’re twins, and then she’ll say, ‘It’s Mouna, dumbshit. Is Tayta there, my mum wants to talk to her.’ What I find most striking about Mouna are her thighs. They’re like tree trunks that have been stripped back of all their bark. She comes over on school holidays in short shorts and I try to sneak a peek at them whenever she’s not looking. I’m particularly obsessed with her kneecaps, which could very well be made of granite. One time she caught me looking and indicated with her index finger for me to come over. I walked up, utterly curious as to what she wanted, and stood in front of her the way I imagine David stood in front of Goliath. Then she kneed me in the balls. It felt like air had been sucked from my loins and I went down. It was the first and only time a girl had made me cry.
Hamzeh, on the other hand, is a total girl. He’s older than my brother and me by almost three years but we’re both tougher than him. He’s skinny and tall and has an arch in his back, which especially sticks out when he’s sitting down. His lips are bright pink and there’s a freckle just above them to the right, which our cousins Eve and Lulu say they wish they had because it’s a beauty spot. The freckle stands out particularly well in the sun when Hamzeh’s cheeks are flushed like the pink on a mango. Hamzeh goes to Villawood Public School, which has a really bad reputation, so we expect him to be tough but he’s not. His fingernails are too long for him to make a fist without stabbing into his own palm. The sad thing is he’s not smart either. He’s told me many times that when he turns fifteen he’s dropping out and going for a job at Kentucky. He says, ‘If you become like store manager you can make like thirty thousand a year.’ Eve tells him that a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken would be a big mistake. ‘You should be a model,’ she says.
Hamzeh scoops into the living room huffing and puffing. He’s dressed in a grey suit and baby-blue shirt with one button undone, which exposes his sharp neck bones. ‘Your dad’s having a fight,’ he says.
‘What? Where?’ Bilal shouts.
The Tribe is available in all bookstores worth their salt or from Giramondo.