Notes from the 2016 Festival: Osamah Sami

Osamah Sami is a multilingual Melbourne-based writer and actor born in Iran to Iraqi parents. Sami’s forte is comedy, with his memoir Good Muslim Boy winning the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2016. He is also a screenwriter and poet. He spoke to Katinka Smit at Byron Writers Festival 2016.

Surrounding culture can have a strong effect on family life. Can you discuss this in regards to your life in Iran and in Australia?

Culture is closely tied to identity, so growing up I wanted to hold on to some of my Iraqi culture but I also wanted to assimilate in Iran with the Persians – but I didn’t want to disintegrate. I wanted to be like the Iranian kids but my family was Iraqi. So there was already that when we came to Australia, which exacerbated the whole thing because then I had a third culture to deal with. But then I think at the end of the day, what’s culture anyway? I keep some of the stuff that we have in Iraqi culture that I love, and some parts of the Iranian culture and the Australian culture. For example we’re here sitting and I’m ordering the fine cuisine of Australian culture, fish and chips. You just take the best from whatever that world gives you.

How much of a role has your father played in your life and your writing?

He’s had a galaxy of effect on me, from an early age. He bought me this book called (in translation) The Lion’s Pride. I’ve still kept that book. It survived everything, all the molestations of the war, and it goes with me wherever I go. That was my introduction to story. From then on he encouraged me to read stories. We’ve got a storybook in Arabic called Kalila wa-Dimna, it’s as big as 1001 Nights, but instead of the Scheherazade story it’s talking animals, and they’re all politically motivated. When he came back from the war, every night he was home he would tell us a story from that book. And like the Scheherazade thing, he wouldn’t finish the story and the next night he would start by recapping, finishing it, starting a new one and leaving it unfinished. He introduced us to a world of stories and storytelling from around the world. That was the early influence, which of course just carried right through to my adult life. I just switched languages.

Your father held the rather traditional role of a cleric, but he but was far from conventional.

Yes, he was an unorthodox orthodox cleric. Deep down he was a storyteller. He wrote musicals that we performed at the mosque. He also wrote and spoke about other social justice issues, like homosexuality and equality. The holy Qur’an was written 1,400 years ago so it’s open to interpretation, but under Islamic jurisprudence it’s only allowed to be interpreted by those who are highly esteemed in Islamic law and theology, which he was. He had a different take on it, like the whole eye for an eye thing, for example, which leads into capital punishment. He was against that. He became an influence on so many kids in the community, so up until his passing there was a change, a shift within the community to better understand how we can live in a country without having the inner conflict, without living in contradiction. He used religion in a positive way. And he used a bit of humour. Some would see that as blasphemy, but he had the authority to do it.

There are a lot of young Muslims now pushing for reinterpretation of the Qur’an and practices that result from this. Do you think this is likely to happen and would it make a difference?

It would definitely make a difference. But how much of it will actually pass, how many laws will actually pass the cleric senate, is up in the air, because fundamentally challenging religion at its roots is a big no-no. So there are these radical clerics, in a liberal radical sense, who come out and preach something different, for example they say, yes you can be Muslim and gay. That stirs the pot. But people who are traditionalists don’t want to hear that because it challenges their authority. It’s like the Vatican. I mean, let’s see when the Vatican is going to pass that. It’s not just a Muslim issue. It’s an ongoing issue with religions of the world. But I think it will happen, like the abolition of slavery, like the apology for the Stolen Generation. It took years but they did happen eventually. For us who seek that change it’s important not to be dissuaded by how long that process takes. We have a saying in Persian, if you are patient, from sour I can make a flower. Patience is the key.

You’ve mentioned before that you feel a disparity between public representation in Australia and the actual people that you meet, but at the same time, this has been a voted-in trend in Australia for the last fifteen or so years. How do you account for that and how do you keep your sense of Australia as a positive place headed in a positive direction?

I think the fact that I’m here at the Festival, that we’re talking together, that tells me about the want for progress, the want for change. There is a thirst for that. There’s a bit of a gridlock happening in the top end of town, but once we’re free – it’s like the freeway – then it opens up. Society is that open highway, and the gridlock is the pollies, the bureaucrats and the demagogues. If I was to judge Australia by the Daily Telegraph, it’s a horrible place to live in, but I know that’s not the Australia that I live in. We’re being fed how to think about this issue. I don’t wake up thinking, I’m going to catch a tram as a Muslim, but I get reminded of it each time I open the paper. But people themselves? I’m yet to have a meal with anyone who’s told me to fuck off or told me that I’m not welcome here. Even if they feel it, we’d start talking and they’d realise, oh, you’re not taking anything away from me personally. It’s not so complicated.

Does this form a little bit of your attraction to humour?

Yes, I use it to invite people in. As I’ve said before, I want people to come into my backyard rather than peek over the fence. It’s not just for white Australians to do, it’s for Muslims to do as well, for the marginalised communities to do. But it’s very difficult for the oppressed to welcome the oppressor when the oppressor is holding them by the throat and expecting them to say ‘yes please, choke me more’. Our differences should be celebrated rather than criminalised. It’s got to work both ways. Sharing stories and having a good old yarn, finding out that we’ve actually got heaps more in common than we thought – what’s wrong with that?

Do you think if you stayed in Iran you would have pursued this career of being an actor and writer? Or is it something that has happened because you moved to Australia?

In Iran I was given small opportunities to work. In my first role I played the wind on stage. It was a proper production. I would come on stage for three minutes and blow. Then I got a little story published. I was asked to finish a story about a shepherd who loses his sheep on the mountain and then gets lost on his way back. I wrote an ending to it and it won a prize in my city, then I got to go to the capital city. So I was already drawn to that. I also had great mentors, including my dad. Coming to Australia was actually a bit of a bummer because I didn’t know anything about here. But my dad kept writing those plays at the mosque. The plays were done in Arabic because it was the language we all felt comfortable in. When I decided it was what I wanted to pursue, my English got better and I went to acting school and started writing in English. One thing led to another.

Good Muslim Boy is published by Hardie Grant.

Byron Writers Festival