When Osamah Sami is told by his father, a notable Muslim cleric in Melbourne, that he’s been advised to disown his son and send him back to Iran to face the death penalty, Sami is the least bit surprised.
The reason? A YouTube video of his son, a successful actor and writer, playing a gay man – not long after he’d been cast opposite Claudia Karvan as a refugee who helped a woman commit adultery – has gone viral within the tightknit local Iranian community.
The opening pages of Good Muslim Boy (Hardie Grant) sets the pace for the rest of the book; like most of the events covered in the memoir, Sami provides ample light and humour to shade challenging terrain, easing readers into his cultural backyard.
“Humour lets readers relax; instead of being told how to feel, they just feel it,” 32-year-old Sami explains.
I can’t control how society views me. I can’t control how the wider Australian community views Muslims.
Born in Iraq and raised in Iran while the two countries were at war, Sami’s identity crisis started long before he arrived in Australia, aged 13, with the name of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. Back in Iran, he’s not allowed to look at the young Persian girl across the road and is taunted by the local boys for wearing the dishdasha, a traditional Arabic robe. Sami interrogates his mother daily for answers to his endless questions about faith and culture, battling on in his plight for a pair of jeans so that he could blend in with the locals, before accepting his fate of being an “unfashionable outsider” had been sealed by God. It’s one of many instances where he faces bigotry, and only amplifies as he grows older.
“I can’t control how society views me. I can’t control how the wider Australian community views Muslims,” Sami says. “But I can tell my story and I can show the world that we’re not the terrorists or mongrels that we’re portrayed to be.”
“If I write this story and people pick it up and can be immersed in my world, perhaps they’ll realise that their world is not so different to mine.”
Despite multiple floggings by the Iranian Piety Police for trying to hold hands with girls in dark cinemas, Sami couldn’t help being a ‘bad’ Muslim boy on many occasions. And the tussle continues well into adulthood, where he fakes studying a medical degree for a year to please his parents, and escapes the clutches of an arranged marriage. But it’s not his parents, who are for the most part supportive of him, who Sami is aiming to please.
“It’s a constant struggle. Your faith has certain expectations of you and how you can function in society. But it’s a struggle I love; that’s what makes me feel alive,” he says.
Fast-forward to 2016 in his home city of Melbourne, and Sami is still experiencing the same sentiments of being an outsider.
“I don’t walk around the streets as a Muslim, you know, but it’s just when I’m on the tram and I’m talking on the phone in Arabic and I hear someone say, ‘go back where you came from’ in a loud Ocker accent. That’s when I think, I’m still actually from a different place.”
Sami’s storytelling model is in ways built on Shakespeare’s school of Tragicomedy. Grim events, such as public execution, suicide and getting deported from America after their ill reception of his starring role in Saddam The Musical – written by his father – bubble on top of stories about boyhood coming-of-age and cross-cultural misadventures. They could be dished up coldly, but Sami prefers to deliver them sunny-side-up.
“I don’t like writing really heavy subjects, because life is already heavy and we want to feel good about ourselves and about the world. That’s why when it rains, I always tell my friends, rain is good – there are crops growing right now and we’d never be able to witness a rainbow if it didn’t rain. So after a downpour of grief, there is always going to be sunshine.”
Undoubtedly, the death of Sami’s father, aged 50, during a trip the pair made back to Iran so that he could “smell the air again” is one of the central junctures in the book. Sami referred to raw diary entries and scribbles he started a day after burying his dad to paint the depths and disillusions that grief takes us to, and the near implausible cultural absurdities he faced in the mammoth task of transporting the body back to Australia.
“I’ll admit that it was painful at times to write about it. But you know, I worked through that pain and occasionally, funny memories would come back and I would include them and I’d start laughing alone in my room like a lunatic. In a way, I thought my dad was with me as well when I was writing it.”
Good Muslim Boy bagged the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Award in the Multicultural category, which Sami accepted in the same dishdasha he resented being made to wear as a child. The author confesses to making a conscious fashion statement at the time.
I’m tired of the judgement that society has and the view that if you are dressed like that, then you’re associated with perhaps a terrorist group or an extremist group.
“I wanted to challenge what people think,” Sami tells. “I normally wear my day-to-day clothes and people don’t look twice. Suddenly, you put on a long dress and it starts conversations – I’ve had so many people start asking questions about what its significance is. We should be free to dress the way we like and be who we are and so sometimes, I put it on and go to theatre or to the movies as a challenge – not of myself, but of the public.
“I’m tired of the judgement that society has and the view that if you are dressed like that, then you’re associated with perhaps a terrorist group or an extremist group. And it’s comfortable; it’s very aerodynamic – the ventilation is perfect.”
Feeling “privileged” to take out the award, Sami would still give it all back for one thing.
“I’d swap any accolade, any award, the whole book and my whole acting career just to have another day with my dad. But I would like to hope that maybe in a way, he had read it, because I did feel his presence with me throughout a lot of it.”
In today’s migrant literary landscape (Sami recounts being told by one publisher that they were “all refugeed out”), Good Muslim Boy offers a front-row seat to the identity crisis faced by one migrant, while sharing hysterical insights into the inner workings of his culture; if you think you know what constitutes a “good Muslim boy”, think again.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @mariamdigges