Sara Mansour,
Bankstown Poetry Slam

Where Poetry Thrives

Bankstown Poetry Slam was a project forged from the fires of frustration. I clearly remember having to make the arduous, red light camera filled journey from Punchbowl to Newtown and beyond just to perform or listen to my latest passion, spoken word poetry. A phone conversation between cofounder Ahmad Al Rady and I sparked the idea that the gap should indeed be filled—by us.

After speaking to local cafés and Bankstown Council, our little project found a home at the Bankstown Arts Centre in February 2013. We purposely set our expectations low; we would have been happy with a solid crowd of 30, even if 20 were related to us. However, at the first slam we had just shy of 90 patrons clicking away at the performances. This number began to grow organically each month, as our only means of communication and promotion was our personal Facebook accounts and the page we set up. There was, and is, something about Bankstown Poetry Slam that sets it apart from every other poetry event, evidenced by its month-on-month growth to be the largest regular slam in the country, attracting crowds of 250–400 people on every last Tuesday of the month. This burning difference can be attributed to a number of factors; the demographic, the oratory traditions of its community that transcends culture, the frustrations of the youth and the ability of the spoken word to transform a stage and an audience into a family that is supportive, inclusive and empathetic. Performing spoken word poetry is a cathartic and validating experience and in turn, listening to it moves you to a place of understanding, of a sense of the depths of humanity. As cliché as it sounds, one has to see it to believe it.

This piece was inspired by some reflections on the lead up to Australia Day. It is for me an extension of the nuances and the palatable fusion of two cultures that make up my experience as an Australian Muslim woman.

Home means a lot of things to different people but is ultimately underpinned by the notion of being in a place that is familiar and safe. My friend Yasmine Lewis recently wrote and performed a piece about Bankstown and one of her last lines 'it was home when the rest of the world said no' deeply resonated with me. The city of Bankstown is a wonderful pocket of Sydney that epitomises what it means to be living in the Age of Diaspora; of reinvented identities and forged homes. Although the majority of its inhabitants struggle with issues of culture, religion, language and othering (to varying degrees), I don’t think there is a more authentic Australia than in Bankstown. Growing up in Punchbowl, I didn’t learn about the policy of multiculturalism on Harmony Day or in history class, I lived and experienced it every day. I wasn't taught tolerance or acceptance, I was born into it. Whilst I recognise that Australia is by no means perfect, I will always strive to own my identity, even if that means claiming it from others who try to push their stereotypes and their biases onto me. This poem is about that.

My Australia is
Walking through the streets of Punchbowl
With the smell of freshly roasted Lebanese coffee kissing
the Asian bakeries good morning
The eucalyptus towers overhead and the frangipanis scent my breath
As we sing the unofficial national anthem
"I come from a land down unda..."
Living from beat to beat
Bumping down the streets
With Tupac on our tongues and
We’re headed for the beach
Water so unapologetically salty to the eyes
But we take it in our stride
Remembering all the lessons at Greenacre pools and at school
When Cronulla hit high tide

So when people ask me where I'm from
I tell 'em Punchbowl
More often than not, they smile, and reply "No, where are you FROM?"
I sigh, roll my eyes and in an explanatory tone respond PUNCHBOWL
You know.. It's near Bankstown
The city where mouths do not ebb the flows of
"Welcome" in over 60 different tongues
Where over 100 nationalities are housed under one postcode
This is my ode to the only place I know
Where no one is told to go back
Because everyone understands
This is my ode to home

When my parents came to Australia
They came with nothing
They slept on a mattress in a unit in Dudley Street
Baba worked back to back shifts to make ends meet
And his limbs can attest to this
His hands, hard
Unlike his heart…
We love this place
This place
It is

Where women wear their sari's and their colourful hijabs proudly
Men don sweat stained blue collars like war badges
You can get the best pho in Sydney
12 dollar woodfired pizzas, the realest Lebanese and Chinese
And you feel at ease because no one judges your garlic breath or the
Tabouli stuck in your teeth
It is finding the most authentic spices

In shops where Arabic and Chinese signs
Sit like jewelled crowns atop their doors
It is neighbours passing barbequed meat over the fence
And always saying hello
It is all the stoic traditions
It is stoic—a community that has been hardened by media headlines
It is targeted
It is judged
It is 3am sirens and perceived thugs

But it’s also where the calls to prayer
Gently interlude with the ringing of church bells It is co-existence
And artistic resistance
Like the 4elements youth hiphop festival
And the largest poetry slam in the country

It is my Dad’s voice 25 years on
Accent thick with resilience
Warm like an Autumn breeze
Smelling of petrol and truck smoke and all the forgotten things
All the zaatar and the tahini and the crushed petals that were once dreams
We are lucky
It’s not perfect. But it’s
Home when Lebanon’s cedars started to rot with political corruption
When Libya traded dictator for dysfunction
When Syria became a cemetery for your childhood dreams
When Iraq unwittingly traded oil for constant bloodstream
When Falasteen hasn’t beckoned you for 68 years
When Egypt’s air became thick with constant fear
When Saudi continues to force the hijab on your head and
In Bahrain if you're a Shiite you’re wanted for dead
When Afghanistan is still nursing open wounds
And Yemen’s babies are oppressed before they exit the womb

Then if you listen closely, you can hear my Dad's voice saying
We are lucky
It’s not perfect. But it's home.
It will never be perfect, but it will always be home
Home. When the rest of the world says no.

Sara Mansour performing her poem 'Home' at a Committee for Sydney event in September 2016