A former lawyer and award-winning author, Randa Abdel-Fattah recently completed her PhD researching multiculturalism, racism and Islamophobia in Australia. A strong advocate for human rights, Abdel-Fattah has volunteered for multiple human rights and migrant organisations.
"I realised through my own PhD research into Islamophobia that there’s a very strong misconception that racism is something only perpetrated or expressed by people who are evil or bad.
A lot of people take comfort in distinguishing themselves from racists ... and don’t realise that racism comes in all forms ... A lot of what we hear in Australia, the real problematic narratives against asylum seekers (for example), is very much touted in a language of Australian values that sound like assimilation policies."
When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah explores issues of racial politics, ignorance, immigration, culture and the Australian identity through the story of Michael and Mina, two kids on opposites sides of the protest.
WHEN MICHAEL MET MINA [excerpt]
Last period. Society and Culture.
‘What’s culture?’ Mr Morello asks.
Silence. It’s last period on the first day of school.
I admire the man’s optimism.
I see some of the class looking at Paula, gesturing for her to save the hour and answer. Paula proceeds to give a definition of culture that would put Hermione Granger to shame. Mr Morello is full of praise and Paula sits there and beams, ignoring some of the boys who mutter ‘nerd’ and other such intelligent comments at her.
‘Okay, how about this?’ Mr Morello paces the front of the room. ‘Is culture static? Does it always stay the same?’
He looks around. Still nobody speaks up. I’m not about to volunteer. It’s my first Society and Culture class and I don’t want to make a fool of myself.
Mr Morello snaps his fingers in front of Terrence, who’s sitting next to staring guy, who I catch stealing another glance at me – and not the kind of look that might flatter a girl. It’s almost as though he’s puzzled by my presence.
What’s his problem?
Terrence is slumped in his seat, legs out, looking down at his lap. Dead giveaway.
‘Terrence? Care to answer?’
Terrence looks up quickly. ‘What’s the question?’
Mr Morello puts his hand out. ‘Pass it here,’ he says calmly.
‘Pass what?’ He grins, like somebody who knows he’s been caught out but is still cocky enough to feign innocence.
Mr Morello keeps his arm extended and waits one, two, three . . . Terrence rolls his eyes and hands over the phone.
‘Now, Terrence, enlighten us please. Do cultures evolve over time?’
‘Depends,’ Terrence shrugs.
‘Come on, Terrence. Try harder.’
‘Some cultures are, like, stuck in the Middle Ages.’
A couple of other students speak up, and pretty soon the class is in a heated debate that veers off into stonings and beheadings. Lovely.
‘What do you think, Michael?’
So that’s staring guy’s name.
‘I think it’s religion that’s the problem,’ he says casually.
‘Like Islam claims to be about peace but all we hear about is violence.
I want so badly to raise my hand, But every instinct in my first-day-at-school body is warning me not to. I sit in silent agony, fighting with myself.
Mr Morello is looking like he’s having a this-is-why-I-became-a-teacher moment as the rest of the class goes back and forth with their arguments. Then Paula surprises me and, bristling with indignation, says to Michael, ‘I really, really hate it when people in the West take the moral high ground. Really.’
Terrence groans. ‘Paula, is there anything you don’t have an opinion about?’
‘I’m sixteen, Terrence,’ she says coolly. ‘It’s a bit early to tell.’
Michael considers her for a moment and then, his tone careful, says: ‘But, Paula, it’s on the news all the time. It’s just differences in values. My dad says it’s not a personal clash between people. It’s more a clash of civilisations.’
Paula huffs with indignation. ‘So Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, bombs on Afghan weddings and parties, CIA torture, drones, white phosphorous – all wonderful examples of civilised behaviour, right?’
‘You can’t compare,’ Michael says. ‘It’s the war on terror.’
I roll my eyes and doodle in the margins of my textbook.
‘Are you saying stonings and cutting off hands are okay?’ Terrence asks Paula.
‘Obviously not,’ she snaps.
Mr Morello reads out a section from the textbook and throws questions back to the class for discussion. At one
point Terrence, who I suspect has been marinating in testosterone for some years now, snorts loudly. ‘In Saudi Arabia, does downloading movies count as stealing? I mean, could you get your hands cut off for downloading the next season of Game of Thrones?’
In terms of the Muslims-are-barbaric joke theme, I’d give Terrence points for originality. It’s the general contempt that goes with the joke that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
A guy called Fred, sitting beside Terrence, high-fives him.
‘Oi, how do they high-five in Muslim countries?’ Terrence continues, grinning.
‘It’d be wrist to wrist!’ That sends Fred and Terrence into another fit of giggles.
‘One more inappropriate comment and I’ll see you in detention at lunchtime, Terrence,’ Mr Morello says coolly.
‘I’m just saying,’ Michael says, ‘that people have value in the West.’
The words escape my mouth before I even know what’s happening: ‘Try telling that to the people locked up and abused in detention because they were naive enough to think Australia would care about their lives.’
All eyes are on me. What a way to announce myself. I think trapdoors and invisibility cloaks. A couple of the boys, led by Terrence, do the ‘Oooh fight’ stirring thing.
‘Look, it’s not ideal, what they’re going through. But Australia has the right to protect its borders,’ Michael says.
‘Oh, because women, children and men fleeing persecution are such a threat, hey?’
Michael frowns. ‘I didn’t say that. I meant, if you come by boat, you’ve jumped the queue.’
The bell rings and the din of noise rises as everybody starts packing their things and Mr Morello tells us our weekend homework.
‘There’s no queue,’ I tell Michael as I slam my books into my bag.'
‘I would know. I came here by boat.’
‘Well you have nothing to complain about then, do you?’ Michael replies calmly.
Oh no. He didn’t just go there.
- Excerpt from When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah, 2016.
Photo credits: Pan Macmillan Australia
Abdel-Fattah, R 2016, When Michael met Mina, Pan MacMillan Australia, Australia.