Lebanese Delicacies

V     I     E     W

February 11-17, 2006

Fresh Australian Drama: Jammin’ in the Middle E 8.20pm, SBS

Promoted as an Arab-Australian comedy about families, fast cars, finding romance, gangsta rap and, well, rosewater, Jammin’ in the Middle E is a frantic comedy of errors that opens a window on the fascinating Muslim community of western Sydney’s Little Lebanon.

And revealing and delightful it is too.

Leb boys of unmistakable Middle Eastern appearance, their hot-rod cars, thunderingly tuned and tooled, their sometimes constricting extended families, and especially the girls who have to endure so much around them, provide the subject matter. Monsoon Wedding meets Happy Days is the style.  Watching it made me realise I know no one of Arab background, the way 40 years ago I knew no one of Aboriginal, Italian or Greek descent.  This beguiling show makes  an ageing Anglo feel like he’s missing out on something.  I live in a kind of parallel universe where illegal street car races, rap band battles and traditional Lebanese weddings are never encountered.  Nor the grace, courtesy and compassion of Arab culture.

Naima (graceful Julie Kanaan) and her brother Ishak (wired and very funny real-life rapper NOMISe) are from a conservative, middle-class Muslim family wedged between two cultures.  Ishak, 27, a car-crazy dreamer, hangs about his parents’ home, fantasising about winning drag street races and becoming the world’s greatest rapper (“shake yer booty, shake yer bum”) with the broadest ocker accent.

Long-suffering 19-year-old Naima, a university student, already wryly living a life of apparent submission and complete equality, wants to jettison the traditional role of pampering and feeding males.  And to gently loosen the parental clutches of her loving, protective father, Said (absolutely delightful comedian Fadl Abdul Hay), a poet who runs a wedding catering business.  “Dream on, boys, you can have them,” Naima says without rancour, looking through the door of the family villa at Ishak gangsta-rapping around his jalopy with his mates. “Outside, it’s girls, fast cars, fame.  Inside, it’s food, family, full-stop.”

I feel I’ve been missing out on where Australia is going. And great rollicking fun it appears to be.

“revealing, delightful, beguiling, brilliant”

Involved in an illegal street race he is certain to lose, Ishak ineptly tries to steal his car for the insurance; Naima falls for the cool-dude local car mechanic Rafi (chisel-jawed Matuse, another real-life rap merchant); Said discovers the insane poetry of rap and hilariously shakes his skinny arse; and a battle of the bands Ishak organises to raise cash to pay off a rival gang comes hilariously unstuck at Said’s traditional Lebanese reception hall.

After this little movie, I feel I’ve been missing out on where Australia is going. And great rollicking fun it appears to be; despite the apparent misogyny, chauvinism and paternalism of Muslim life in this country so unflinchingly satirised by this young cast of largely non-professional actors. This brilliant little film radiates with catharsis.

The project emerged from drama workshops involving 23 young people from the Arabic community in Bankstown where, tutored by the movie’s experienced producer Enda Murray, they drew on their own experiences to create characters and short stories. Writer Howard Jackson created the ensemble script that, as director Kim Mordaunt says, took “the music and pulse in their lives and compacted it into a rollercoaster short film.”

The way the cast used irony and comedy to reflect on their lives, he says, makes for very endearing characters in a time when there is so much negativity towards the Arab community.

Although it can be construed as an anthropological project of sorts, Jammin’ works somewhere in the margins between documentary and fiction, the scripted and the genuine, scrutinising and celebrating a diverse, sophisticated culture.

Mordaunt directs with a kind of cinema-verite intimacy and an aesthetic power that matches the social impact of this small-scale project. Caitlin Yeo’s music, too, is stunning. Maybe there is a future for the local film industry. And maybe it’s out at Bankstown.

Graeme Blundell