“You brought me here. Now let me take you back ..."
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is reading his new book, The Other Half of You, to his young son, who nestles into his father’s side.
At six years old, Kahlil is yet to fully understand the weight of the story contained in the novel’s pages.
It’s a cross-cultural love story, following the path of a young Lebanese Muslim man growing up in Sydney, who must choose between love and his family’s expectations.
For Dr Ahmad - or Mohammed, to his friends - the story follows some of his own experiences and was written as a letter to Kahlil, articulating where he came from and how he came to be.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad and his young son, Kahlil. Source: Supplied
“Parents of colour, parents from minorities, feel compelled to tell their children the stories of how they came to be, and tell them the stories about how they are going to inherit and navigate the world around them,” Mohammed says.
“I hope he feels empowered by his story, by his existence.
“I hope he is reminded that he has a place in this country - and his place has value and significance - and he plays an active role in shaping the future of this nation.”
Mohammed's family migrated to Australia from Lebanon in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"I grew up in Australia very consciously aware that I was from a Lebanese background at a time when Lebanese communities were experiencing incredible amounts of hostility and negative representation in media and politics," he says.
I grew up in Australia very consciously aware that I was from a Lebanese background. - Michael Mohammed Ahmad
"I was at Punchbowl Boys High School, which was 98 per cent Arab and Muslim at the time ... and the school was surrounded by barbed wire and cameras.
"I regularly saw horrific incidents and violent, criminal activity. I remember coming home from school and regularly seeing the young men in my neighbourhood on the news.
"This was the time when the took place ... the time of the . I was a teenager at the time of the ."
It was in this setting that a young Mohammed decided he would become a writer.
Transforming the narrative
"I remember growing up in a country that I felt hated me, and I spent a lot of time, both in an educational sense and in a personal sense, trying to understand what this was about," he says.
"How my life was determined and informed and shaped by white supremacist and racist ideology and trying to transform that narrative.
"The body of my work over the last 20 years ... has been about creating empowering, positive and complex representations of culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia, and specifically in Western Sydney."
Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad is an award winning Lebanese-Australian author. Source: SBS
The Other Half of You is autobiographical fiction, exploring how Mohammed came to meet Kahlil’s mother.
Through the eyes of protagonist, he says the book depicts a version of himself, woven with pivotal moments in his life.
“The character Bani Adam is a portrait, or a version, of me. The name is a concept we use in Arabic which means 'child of Adam' - and it’s more broadly the term we use to refer to humankind in Arabic.”
“The reason I gave myself the name Bani Adam … is because there has been a very long history of dehumanising the Arab and Muslim experience.
“We are often seen in a very one-dimensional way … often portrayed as terrorists … drug dealers and gangsters, sexual predators.”
The award-winning author has also published two other novels; The Tribe and The Lebs.
Set at Punchbowl Boys High School in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, The Lebs challenges the reader to observe an environment in which a teenage Bani Adam must navigate cultural and social friction while he searches to understand and create his identity.
Mohammed says his works aim to enrich the Australian literary sphere, challenging readers to understand a world that may be unlike their own.
“I wanted to create a humanising portrayal, a three-dimensional portrait, of what it means to be a Muslim and an Arab-Australian.”
I wanted to create a humanising portrayal of what it means to be a Muslim and an Arab Australian.
“In a country where we are still trying to have very serious conversations about Islamophobia, Black Lives Matter, about anti-Asian violence in the wake of COVID-19, we can't afford to pull our punches.
“We have to be as transparent and as direct about the reality of what we are currently navigating and what it takes to tell a different story about who we are as a nation.”
Inspiring the next generation
That notion prompted Mohammed to start the Sweatshop literacy movement in 2012 to encourage culturally and linguistically diverse writers to tell their stories.
Based in Western Sydney, the movement gives aspiring writers access to opportunities such as mentoring and workshops at schools and universities - with some going on to get published.
Tongan Australian writer Winnie Dunn was mentored through the program before going on to become the general manager at Sweatshop.
She says meeting him was a refreshing change.
Michael Mohammed Ahmed and Winnie Dunn, who is the general manager at Sweatshop. Source: SBS
“For me when I first met Mohammed - he's a quirky guy with flared jeans and he has a very 'Leb' accent from Bankstown,” she says.
“Meeting him in a university setting was quite refreshing because for a long time I thought university was something that people from my community and culture didn't have access to.”
Winnie says through Sweatshop she learnt that “literature is an original contribution to knowledge”.
“Australian literature is lacking in terms of the diversity of voices that it could have - and it should have - considering the diversity of our population.”
“It is about creating change and creating the reality that we see in everyday life.
“So often on the Australian television, what we see is a very white-washed version of Australia, full of beaches and middle-class people, but Australia is much richer than that.”
For Mohammed, equipping authors from minority backgrounds with the tools to reveal their truths through writing is a way of breaking stereotypes.
“The ancient meaning of the word 'stereotype' translates to 'concrete impression,'” he says.
“The Arab and Muslim community across Australia - and very much across the entire world - has been plagued and infected with stereotypes about who we are as people.
“The idea of creating a narrative like the one I created in The Other Half of You, which shows the tremendous love that Arab and Muslim fathers feel for their children, is about reclaiming our humanity and reclaiming our dignity, and ultimately changing a perception that has broken our hearts.”
Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad reading his new book The Other Half of You, with his son Kahlil. Source: SBS
It’s a love that his character Bani Adam experiences and one that is visible as he watches his son Kahlil scribe his name with chalk on concrete at their home.
Mohammed gently encourages his son to speak his truth and spell out the letters: "K-A-H-L-I-L".
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia. . The Change Agents podcast series also hears from people in Australian communities who have become role models for change. . Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email