Actor and writer Osamah Sami’s memoir, Good Muslim Boy, tells his survival of the Iran–Iraq war, immigration to Australia, dodging arranged marriages and attempts to stage ‘Saddam: The Musical’ in the US.
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. 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?”