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Published February 2023Become a subscriber
The idea of a conference was a bit of a lark initially. A response to the saturation of kickstarters and gofundmes which, when they saw them shared on Instagram by well-meaning but pretentious mates, and student politicians, Mitch and Robertson dubbed ‘dickstarters’ and ‘gofuckmes’ through snorts.
‘You’d reckon half of these are fakes,’ Robertson muttered. He found it hard to believe that there were so many people with unmet needs in the Greater Sydney area. ‘Like is anyone verifying these things?’ He had a page titled WHEELS FOR DOBBY open on his laptop and was staring intently at a photograph of a dog with no front legs, who had seemingly raised over two thousand dollars in the past forty-eight hours. ‘For half of that amount of money I’d shoot the thing in the head for her.’
Mitch laughed and asked Robertson what he’d buy with his half of the grand they would make if they split the bounty on euthanising the bipedal dog, hypothetically, and Robertson answered that he’d like to buy a legit guitar pick, like a custom wood one, and Mitch thought out loud how nice it would be if he could buy two big tubs of protein powder. Rooting Islamophobia Out Talks (RIOT) was the result of a minimal amount of research, time spent scrolling 4aGoodCause and surveying which plights were enjoying trending status. They’d formulated it hours after the news dropped about South Hurstville, the attempt to light the mosque up with bacon grease.
Mitch had written the copy in the same hypothetical manner in which he had posed the question about the five hundred dollars, able to emulate the affect of the other miserable postings only because he was strung out on dexies, which he used to study but which sometimes left him with excess creative energy and no outlet for it. He spoke to himself as he typed: ‘A series of public seminars – no, discussions? No, what about chats? No how about yarns? Or debates? Or dialogues? Or learnings?’ He wished he could unclench his jaw.
‘Just write talks,’ Robertson said. ‘You know people donate to this shit but never check to see if you spend the money on what you say you will.’
Then the fundraiser page got three hundred shares, one crucially on Mamamia, another on Pedestrian, sealing their fate. After that people kept asking for updates. Had they secured a venue? Would child care be made available? Tiered ticket prices?
Robertson whined his guts out for days, lamenting having used his real Facebook account. ‘I’ll never get admitted now,’ he muttered again. From his position on the sofa bed, sneaker-clad feet resting on the coffee table, he forced out the opening bars of ‘Seven Nation Army’, then switched quickly to an Arctic Monkeys riff. This he did every day, making progress on neither song. ‘I should have just molested someone.’
Mitch didn’t probe the correlation. He had exhausted himself rolling around on the Persian rug that came with the place – their Chippendale terrace was owned by some Bahá’í’s, so the living room bookshelf was full up with religious tomes and almost every surface covered in thick rugs. This he had done for a good five, all the while repeating the same question to the black-mould ceiling: ‘What does it mean to be unwaged?’
‘No, because,’ said Robertson. ‘Because fraudulent behaviour is frowned upon but – I read that some guy indecently assaulted a woman and he got admitted. Because that’s not related to, like, the practice of law.’
‘Not committing crime isn’t related to the practice of law?’ said Mitch. ‘Shit.’ Then, ‘I’m going to look like the biggest piece of shit to walk this earth. People are already praising me for taking an interest in social justice. Which I don’t even get. What’s anti-social justice, you know?’
‘I guess we’re doing this,’ said Robertson. He was queen of abrupt decision-making. Once he made up his mind, he forgot there was a way of un-up-making the thing. ‘Can food be both halal and vegan?’
‘What a question,’ said Mitch, affronted. Pausing for a moment, he bounced up to his feet as if mounting a surfboard, then strode into the bathroom, returning with his laptop a beat later. ‘I’ll Google it.’
A week later, they were sitting next to one another on white plastic chairs whose legs sank slowly into the grass of some Marrickville rental’s backyard. The cat that came with the house was sitting on top of the outhouse toilet. Its roof was clear corrugated plastic, showing to any occupants the cat’s little paws and tubby torso in silhouette as he shifted around. This made everyone conscious of how long they were spending in there, and so the shits got messy. Robertson, his shoes off and his knees tucked up, kept interlacing his fingers with his toes. Mitch gulped his sour in the hopes Robertson’s poor hygiene would stop bothering him if he was munted.
It wasn’t his beer, really. He’d asked Robertson if he should take the can from the pile-up in the fridge or not and Robertson had said, ‘Yeah, I reckon you should just take it, ’cos that’s like the vibe of the house, you know? You deserve to crack open a couple cold ones with the week we’ve had.’
They had spent the past few days looking up the basics of Islam on Quora as well as listening to a couple of leftie podcasts – one called Jizz Junction, whose title but not whose content had made them laugh – in order to get a taste for their audience; this, in between studying for their finals for the year.
Mooks emerged from the kitchen with a bucket of hummus and plonked it into the centre of the circle. They called him Mooks but his name was Mukhtar. On Facebook it was only in Arabic these days. It was part of his journey, he said. They hadn’t noticed he had embarked upon it at first – in fact they had nearly missed the party, thinking the invitation from لمختار was some guy off Facebook Marketplace who’d sold Robertson a part for his car.
Mooks squatted down at their end of the circle, pulled out a hand-roller and got to work. Mitch had given him shit for the thing for the longest time till he got his vape and had descended rapidly to the bottom of the smoking ladder.
‘The Uber Eats is on its way,’ said Mooks. ‘Till then there’s hummus. If you wanna go in for the cost you can chuck some coins into the kitty when you’re leaving.’
Robertson eyeballed Mitch as if to say, see, take a beer, leave a penny. Mitch vaped on, suckling like an anxious fish in an aquarium.
‘Thanks,’ said Mitch. He didn’t mention that he had already hit his macros today. ‘Hey, Robertson. Mooks.’
‘Mooks. Mooks! Alright.’ Robertson reached out his hand to shake, but Mooks shrugged it off.
‘Sorry, mate, I can’t put this down or the cat’ll eat it.’ He gestured at his ziploc of filters, and his other hand which was gripping the hand-roller like an abacus, calculating nothing. ‘Thanks for coming, though.’
‘Right, well,’ said Mitch. ‘It’s not as big a thing to shake hands in Muslim culture, apparently. Is that true? You put your hand over your heart.’
‘Man, I don’t know,’ said Mooks. ‘How’s that going, by the way? Have the SJWs descended upon you yet?’
‘The whats?’ said Robertson.
The cat surged down with no preamble, startling Mooks, whose set-up tumbled to the ground. Robertson leant down and snatched up the thing before it could go for the filters, and Mitch watched as a single ginger cat hair descended with cosmic slowness into the open tub of hummus. Mooks collected up his belongings and surveyed them.
‘One sec,’ he said. ‘I forgot my lighter in the toilet.’
They knew enough about parties and Mooks’s often-greenout-afflicted memory to know he would not return.
‘You are so cute,’ said Robertson, holding the cat up and pressing their noses into each other. He cooed, ‘Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?’
Mitch had shared enough classes with Zeynep to pause after he’d already swiped right on autopilot, hit with a retrospective glimmer of recognition. He was trying to summon a memory of her tits through her shirt by the time IT’S A MATCH flashed on his screen. He remembered she wore this – this make-up, like she could go off and star in a porno straight after class, that waterproof shit, that made her skin look so smooth and reminded him he hated that men couldn’t wear make-up and it wasn’t fair because he had acne scars.
‘Hey, the pothead from Gastroenterology!’ she quickly messaged. She had written him first. ‘Me pothead? Lol,’ he fired off, then went to fossick through the washing machine. His favourite pair of briefs, bought for him by his mother from the outlet store, were still damp, but he slid into them anyway, confident the warmth emitted from his crotch would dry them out. ‘You give head?’ he wrote.
‘Srsly? Pig ’ she had written, by the time he was back on his tummy on the rug.
‘JK JK. Want to come over and smoke?’ he wrote. Mitch did not keep any pot in the house – the stuff made him hungry, and before he knew it he was capitulating on his meal plan at the Nando’s on Parramatta Road. But he was sure Robertson would loan him some of his, the rich cunt. He wondered what made Zeynep think he was a pothead. Did he have a dopy demeanour?
‘Yeah orrite,’ she wrote. ‘Address?’ And then, ‘Can I bring my sister?’
‘Defs,’ he wrote, and bellowed down the corridor, ‘Rob Rob. Rob Ro-ob.’ Rob poked his head out of his bedroom, clutching his Ibanez Roadstar, a prized possession he had bought off Marketplace from an elderly gentleman who used to give lessons in the area before YouTube sunk his business. Robertson had chucked the man an extra fifty.
‘For God’s sake put that away,’ said Mitch. ‘Bring me your pot, a semi-hot girl from class and her sister are coming by to smoke.’
Rob’s face fell and he darted his eyes between the lounge room and back into his bedroom. ‘But if I don’t practice every day I can’t mark it off on the app.’
‘Stop being such an incel,’ said Mitch, and the die was cast.
Zeynep’s sister looked to be late-twenty-something, but equally smooth and perfectly eyebrowed, and parked her car right up the back of Robertson’s in the driveway. Robertson was gracious enough not to complain, only mumble, ‘Well, now I can’t get us any snacks. Happy?’
‘I am,’ said Mitch, stepping away from the gap between the blinds so they wouldn’t catch him spying. ‘Why aren’t you?’
He opened the door and, forgetting his training, hugged them hello.
‘Hey, gorgeous,’ was Zeynep’s opening salvo as she stepped in for her hug. While Mitch stared over her shoulder, it dawned that he would not be more confident than her today, especially if he was acting weird and socially anxious and high. He cycled through all the pick-up artist shit he learnt off Reddit, recommended to him by Mooks, planning ways to short-circuit her self-worth before they smoked up.
He couldn’t think of anything, so just said, ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, look, good, good,’ said Zeynep, stepped in to let her sister in behind her. ‘This is Zara. Should we take off our shoes?’
‘No, no need. We have a cleaner in once a month.’
‘Oh, nice, very fancy,’ said Zara. She walked smoothly into the living room and dropped onto the lounge, slipping her car keys, which hung on a Western Sydney Wanderers keychain, into her handbag, and extracting a phone. Then she commenced typing out some missive, her acrylic nails producing soothing clacks.
‘I’m gonna get us all waters,’ announced Zeynep, streaming into the kitchen without sitting down. She proceeded to open and shut cupboard doors, emitting slams that made Mitch jump with each one. ‘For the cottonmouth. Do you want something else, Zara? Çay?’
‘I don’t really care, sweetie.’
Zara kept her head down, but did shift left a little to enable Robertson some room to sit. He veered at the last moment and opted for the floor by her feet. She had a tattoo on her ankle which he noticed from this vantage point; an almond-shaped eye.
‘We only have water anyway,’ said Robertson. Mitch shot him a huge-eyed nostril-flaring ixnay look and Robertson mouthed back, What? It’s true.
As it turned out, the pot made Mitch loose, especially because Robertson was kind enough to do the rolling for them, which left Mitch with no cause to embarrass himself. Zeynep offered to start them off and Mitch leaned in and made himself the one to light the joint for her after she fumbled the lighter.
‘My nails,’ explained Zeynep, ‘make it hard to flick it. Thanks.’
‘No worries,’ said Mitch. ‘They’re nice nails. Fake, right? Your whole look, you know. It’s like – very Kardashian.’
He meant it as a neg and, anticipating the concomitant instantaneous drop in her self-esteem, took the opportunity to move closer to Zeynep on the couch. She exhaled a small cloud of smoke into his face.
Zara looked up from her phone at his statement and bared her teeth, and said, ‘The Kardashians are Armenian.’
Mitch peeked over at her – maybe social anxiety was kicking in already, he felt uncomfortable showing anyone the entirety of his face, not that it had anywhere to hide, perhaps he would grow his hair out long, like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall – but could not produce a response. Zara shook her head as if he were stupid. Which he wasn’t, because he was in medical school and Zara’s dumb sister Zeynep was still stuck in Medical Science, so there. Now who was dopy?
‘You know,’ she said. ‘Kim’s always making this big fucking whine on ANZAC day trying to “raise awareness” about the Armenian genocide. ’
Mitch nodded, eyes wide.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Oh, right, right.’
He turned to Zeynep to retrieve the joint she passed him, which he inhaled smoothly, passed on to Robertson. Then he leaned in and, trying not to think about the terrible smell of spit, gave making out with Zeynep a shot. She kissed back after a moment. They were both afflicted with cottonmouth but made do. If only they made mouth lube, he thought, then laughed internally. Duh! That’s what spit was. Mouth lube. Ugh, spit. He soldiered on.
Robertson cast about for something to do rather than watch the two of them, so took over the conversation, switching on some of the active listening skills he had cultivated to impress women. Mitch and Robertson were equal and opposite in this regard – they had both studied the best way to manipulate females into sex, but had chosen divergent paths, Mitch a practitioner of old school pick-up artistry, and Robertson having opted for the soft boy, soy boy tack.
In his bedroom, in fact, he kept a faded black satchel he only took with him to his Gender Studies lectures – he audited them occasionally, despite the fact he had already completed his Arts major two years prior, and in American Studies at that – onto which he had pinned several badges that he got for free from the Women’s Collective stall at Orientation Week, and which read things like INTERSECTIONAL BITCH; WHO RUN THE WORLD?; A WOMAN’S BODY IS NOT YOUR PROPERTY; and IF YOU WANT DINNER YOU CAN EAT MY PUSSY. Mitch preferred to make chicks feel terrible about themselves, Robertson to modulate his facial expression to show he cared while they spoke. It was a classic, philosophical school-of-thought generational parting-of-ways: Plato vs Aristotle kind of shit.
He counted down from three thrice, hoping that every time he hit zero he’d have the confidence to speak. On the fourth go he finally said to Zara, ‘So you’re – into politics, huh?’
‘I mean, yeah, a bit.’
‘Same,’ he said. He reached down to play with a tassel on the rug.
She jerked her head down at him. ‘Who’d you vote for in the last election then?’
‘Uh,’ said Robertson. ‘Uhhhh.’ He laughed. ‘Shit, I’m high. I reckon – like, I reckon I donkey voted, I think. Or I copped the fine.’
‘Brooo,’ she said, stretching out the syllable. ‘That’s really bad. Did you vote in the same-sex marriage survey at least?’
‘Uh, yeah,’ he lied. ‘That one I did, yeah. Online, right?’
Zara just tsked, stood up from the couch and squatted to ash the joint in the ashtray next to him on the floor, and then took her seat by his side, long legs out in front of her. She leant forward to touch her toes, bouncing into the stretch.
‘How can you do law and not know any shit about politics?’ she asked her feet. ‘That’s like – cooked. When my dad was your age he was out protesting on the street and shit. He got put in jail, even. But escaped. Like, to another country. And he was only studying teaching.’
Robertson put up his hands as if to say, Okay okay don’t be so aggro. ‘I’m politically activated! I am, yeah. Me and Mitch are convening, like, a conference on Islamophobia in Australia, soon. In two weeks. It’s gonna be all about, like, how people are shit to Muslims. That’s heaps political.’
She looked at him, raising her eyebrows almost entirely into her hairline. He wondered how they didn’t get make-up all in their hair.
‘Are you Muslim then?’
‘No,’ said Robertson. ‘I mean, like, no. I’m blond, for God’s sake.’
She shrugged. ‘I knew a guy named Byron, and you’d’ve assumed he was a huge bogan but his mum was Syrian. It’s good not to make assumptions, you know?’
Zeynep pulled back then, with a sort of sucking sound like a bathtub emptying, which Zara and Robertson heard from below, and said to Mitch, ‘Could you maybe try just like…a little less?’
It occurred to Mitch and Robertson then that they’d never psychologically terrorise these women more effectively than the other way around.
‘Sorry,’ said Robertson. ‘Yeah, sorry. Sorry. Nah, I’m not. But we’re just the invisible hands behind the whole thing, you know? It’s gonna be community-led. We’re gonna use the Bryan Brown Theatre in Bankstown.’
Robertson spoke the last word as if it were meant to capture levels of unforetold erudition, a tone usually only reserved for when he pronounced the word phởcorrectly, a skill gleaned from the family trips his father took them on every year before Robertson aged out of the whole endeavour, to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia. These days he’d sooner shoot himself than make the trip to Bellevue Hill and spend a single day with Roy, let alone several weeks Apocalypse Now!-ing with the man, seeing his nipples, et cetera.
Zara inspected her fingernails. ‘I reckon Muslims already know how shit they’re treated, though, right?’
‘True,’ he said slowly. ‘But it’s more like – a place for people to come together, you know. And learn about the beauty of Muslim culture. Like the headgear stuff. I’ve always thought that’s so great, like, this way of showing you’re not just gonna have your ass hanging out all the time. Modest fashions. We’re just looking for someone to teach how to do it, all the different styles and shit. Like those videos on YouTube, “I wear a hijab for a day”, you know? And then maybe to get a fabric company to sponsor us for it. Like Lincraft or something. My mum shops there. So.’
Zara snorted and commenced tying a knot into the bottom side of her t-shirt with a hair band from her wrist, so that it no longer fell loosely. He could tell she had elevens; the sexy ghost of abs for women, which everyone on the fitness forums Mitch occasionally perused went on about.
‘I mean, hijabis get their arses out all the time. It’s like a meme,’ she said. ‘They post online all these women who have these sick made-up faces, perfect nose jobs, fucking hijab, but then they’re in like a miniskirt. Do what you want, obviously, like more power to them. But who cares who has their arse out? You’re being a dickhead.’
She looked up over her shoulder at Zeynep, checking on her progress, then made the movement into a neck stretch, burying her fingers into her cheek to keep her head turned.
His dad would have called a woman like her a ball-breaker, but Robertson had learned from Gender Studies that this was inappropriate language and was trying to unlearn it. His father may not necessarily qualify as a drunk, but he certainly was drunk, much of the time, only in such a way that no one could call out: chic drunk, like he’d be drinking because he’d been out on a boat all day and you can’t drink ocean water or your own piss or Mount Franklin but San Pel goes flat so white wine it was. He called Robertson’s mother a fucking bitch every second day, if her distraught emails to Robertson were anything to go off, or the ones where she cc’d Robertson in with the family lawyer, subject line reading ominous things about divorce and trusts. Robertson hadn’t studied trust law and it was easier to file the emails into spam.
‘Gee, you’re hard to please,’ he pointed out to Zara. He would have to consult with his dealer on the strain of pot he had bought. He found himself feeling sad, and annoyed about it, that he had wasted an arvo seshing instead of chalking up productivity points or ironing the collars on his shirts.
‘Not even, actually,’ said Zara. She released her head and brought it round to look at him, shrugging. ‘I just don’t like slut-shaming.’
She stood, lifted her bag off the couch, tugging to pull the strap lodged under Zeynep’s ass out and away, then walked down the hall into his bedroom with it pulled over her shoulder. He followed, if only to make sure she didn’t discover his collection of children’s books – he had left most of them at his mum and dad’s, but couldn’t resist bringing all his Deltora Quests and Selbys with him. He could just imagine her nosing her way through his shit, but when he walked in she was just on the bed with her legs crossed and she patted her side.
He went over there, half because you don’t have to understand anyone to have sex with them, half worried that if pot was going to make him sad from now on then what if sex did too?
‘Tell me what your five-year plan is,’ she said. He sat down, giving her a professional berth, in respect of the recruitment-managerial style she had adopted.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Uh, well. So I work as a clerk – you know what that is, right?’
Zara nodded and made a signal with her hand he took to mean, Yes, yes, go on.
‘At a top-tier law firm. Like almost one of the big four. And I’m gonna start as a grad there next year. So I’ll make like…’ He checked to see if he was telling her the right things. She nodded. ‘So I’ll make like ninety-five grand, starting salary.’
‘Cool,’ said Zara. ‘Okay, well, I have one point two million Instagram followers. This isn’t licking my own ass or anything but I get paid ten grand per sponsorship. Like to advertise products like appetite-suppressant lollipops, bikinis your tits pop out of, stuff like that. My goal is to buy a house in the next three years. How do you feel about property?’
‘Yeah,’ said Robertson. ‘Uh, positive? My parents are gonna give me a contribution for a deposit when I’m ready. Also, I play guitar.’ This he added to sweeten the pot, heretofore unaware that he was a pot, and that he wasn’t yet sweet enough, but he was a quick learner.
‘Cool,’ she said. She fished out her phone from her bag, opened Instagram, and scrolled him through her profile. She was posed, as promised, with her tits in or out of various bikinis which looked poorly and unethically made, or holding out a revolting laxative concoction, or from beneath a wide-brimmed hat with her head turned away in the sun, or with an arm outstretched pointing at a street market. ‘Do you have a problem with this?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘No. Definitely not.’
He wanted dearly to sleep with her, in fact, to suck on her tits or even only to take these king-making photographs for her while she thrashed about on the deck of a boat.
For a joke, he said, ‘You’ve changed my mind. Arses? Out!’
Zara laughed and slapped him lightly on the thigh, but then wound her arm over his shoulders.
‘You’re funny. My mum will do it, by the way. Your hijab-tying class thing. She gets really bored at home. Sometimes we arrive, me and Zara, and Mum has thrown all the dinner she’s made, at the wall, or off the front balcony. It’s funny because shit like kuru fasulye – do you know what that is? – it stains like hell. Or pancar. Beetroot. White walls. And she’s the one who cleans it up. But like, what I’m saying is she needs to get out of the house.’
The Yilmazes – Yilmaces? – lived right down the end of The Horsley Drive on some kind of farm. They pulled up outside a large shed and Zeynep said, ‘Just park in that spot right there,’ but it was all dirt.
‘No,’ said Zeynep. ‘No, like, can’t you see the bit marked out with two logs? It’s to fit a car.’ Mitch put his foot on the pedal and drove forward, and then backwards, and then forwards again, pretending to triangulate, in the hope she would give up and let him park however the fuck given there was dirt on all sides.
‘Ugh, just get out, maybe,’ said Zeynep. He acquiesced, and they switched sides, and she lodged them neatly into the spot. Zara climbed out the back, disappearing into the shed while pulling off her shoes. She reappeared moments later in tattered joggers and then strode away again. There was the sound of an engine and she re-emerged behind the wheel of an ATV.
‘The fuck?’ said Robertson, expelling a delighted laugh. ‘Cool.’
Zara crawled to a stop in front of him, then patted the seat beside her. ‘C’mon, dumbass. Why the fuck are you so slow?’
‘I dunno,’ said Robertson, hiking up his chinos over his thighs and taking a seat. He looked at her, holding a hand up to his forehead to shade himself from the setting sun. ‘Brain damage?’
They rode away and Mitch looked at Zeynep in accusation. ‘Are Rob and your sister a thing now?’
‘Mm,’ said Zeynep, pointing at a two-storey house which she started a march towards. ‘They just spent the past seven days together, and he’s meeting our mum now. Zara even taught him a few phrases to say to her, oh my God it’s so cute. Do you live under a rock or what?’
Mitch’s prevailing thought was that women always did this, date fucking tall white guys, blond cunts, who they thought were good-looking but they actually just couldn’t tell what the guy looked like because their sun-damaged faces were so high up. He was starting to really get what some of the guys on the subreddits were on about, regarding the vanity of females.
‘I thought they were just doing prep for this conference.I can’t believe he tricked me into being his buffer.’Zeynep only kept walking. After a moment he called, ‘His dick’s not so big, you know.’
Zeynep looked back at him, her hand prone on the flyscreen door handle.
‘Alright, dude. Let’s go in the house. Remember to take your shoes off. And no dick chat inside.’
They arrived on the day, after a final week of two a.m. Officeworks runs, an eleventh hour wi-fi outage, and the implosion of their online ticketing system which only Zara could fix through recourse to one of her thirsty Insta followers who had a degree in IT. The car was loaded up with everything they had determined they would need: lanyards, schedules, print-outs on Islamophobia (bystander intervention, Unveiling 10 Myths About Muslims, Best Late-Night Food Joints Run By Muslims – Charcoal Chicken, Kebabs, Falafel and Hummus Restaurants for the Vegans, One Uyghur Restaurant in Chinatown (with a small insert attached outlining China’s record on human rights)), Uber Eats coupons, and patterned fabrics suitable to wrap or splay around the head, acquired off of eBay.
They started to walk it all up to the theatre, headed for the green room, clutching the stuff in their arms and climbing up the grand steps that led into the library. Zara was playing entrance music – Renaissance blasting at max volume, trying to wake them up, or at least prevent any further talking. Zara and Rob had spent the duration of the drive out to Bankstown settling an argument that erupted when Rob discovered Mooks and her had once dated.
‘Oh, sorry, did we have to ask his permission or something? I’m sure he doesn’t care,’ Zara had laughed, and laughed even more, covering her mouth, after she consulted her phone. ‘Oh my God, he unfollowed me on Instagram.’
Rob had felt a sense of foreboding for the remainder of the journey, which he tried to quell by telling himself he just wasn’t used to being this far south-west of Strathfield.
‘Oh my God, babe,’ she had said. ‘It’s fine! He hates me, not you. What’s he gonna do, come to your house?’
Rob had allowed himself to nod and settle, mollified. ‘Right, right, that’s true. I reckon, yeah, he’s not mad. Why would he be mad? You’re not property. I think he likes me. I think he’s always liked me. He even suggested a name for that last speaker.’
Upon cresting the final flight of stairs they were confronted by two distinct crowds, unanticipated because the conference was not due to start for hours. The two clusters flanked them from the left and the right. Though they appeared to be on the verge of attacking each other, both wore black, and dressed in combinations of cargo or three-quarter pants, boots, and singlets, each sporting hairstyles somewhere between a buzz cut or a sort of funky mullet. They all looked sort of unsmooth, but not old, and Mitch could not tell if they were drug-fucked or hippies or what, but certainly he didn’t think either group consisted of their prospective conference participants: they were too angry, and they had made it very clear in their marketing materials that this was to be a conference about love.
They had to take a couple steps back to make out what the largest of the banners read: NO SHARIA LAW.
Mitch had a pamphlet for that guy.
‘Racists,’ said Mitch, just as Robertson said, ‘Fuck, we’re cancelled. They’re triggered!’ He was eyeballing the small-ish rectangle made out of cardboard that read OWN VOICES OWN CHOICES, which the lad holding it flipped just then. The placard’s opposing face read, YOU’RE NOT WOKE, BLOKE.
Zara made a beeline for the entrance, passing in between the two groups who were conducting several shouted arguments.
‘Fuck you, white bitch.’
Zara dropped the items in her hands immediately then, strode up to the girl, a ginger by the looks of it, with one of those fringes, and she got so close their foreheads nearly touched, so she was pressing her tits into the woman’s banner, which read, LET MUSLIMS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES, and she yelled, cleanly, ‘I will bash you, cunt.’
And then she walked away, casting one furious glance back at Robertson who hurried to follow. Mitch and Zeynep kept their heads down and tried to do the same, but they were separated immediately. Later, Zeynep would appear in The Guardian, her photograph on page six, with her face screwed up and eyes red and bawling from pepper spray issued by the local riot squad. The paper’s readership would assume the disarray her hijab was in was due to a scuffle, the result of an assault by one of the riot cops or racists, who teamed up in the end, against the smaller crowd, and not the result of hasty pinning into place, using her mother’s tips, in an opportunely quiet corner before she joined the protesting crowd.
‘A shambles,’ she would be quoted as saying. ‘I’m ashamed that my own sister was involved in the organising of this joke of a conference. That’s why I came here to protest today. She doesn’t respect my religion. She worships capitalism.’
Inside, in the small office they had commandeered, in reality the AV space for the main theatre which held only a mixer and an empty can of V, they met in a huddle.
Zara held her phone out and scrolled in bursts – her finger clacked in one contained swoop down the screen, brought its progress to a halt, and her eyes ping-ponged as she speed-read, and then she repeated the process.
‘Okay,’ she said, finally looking up. ‘Okay. Tell me. Mitch. Did you invite a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir to this fucking conference?’
‘Well, now I don’t want to answer ’cos you’re gonna get mad at me.’
If Zara wore a wig it would have flown off she was in such a sudden and pure rage. ‘You stupid motherfucker,’ she said, before repeating, ‘Mitch the bitch, Mitch the bitch.’
Robertson reached out a hand to console but she only took it, faced it palm up and slapped her phone into it. She said, ‘Okay, Rob, what I need you to do is draft me some legal shit, about how I didn’t know about this, and how when I made that post supporting the conference on Insta, I did it because I lacked – fucking full disclosure or whatever. Like my Hillary Clinton moment. I was standing behind you but I didn’t know. Okay? Open the Notes app right the fuck now.’
He only looked down at the phone, stunned for a moment, before he activated and started fumbling the thing around. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay, got it.’
Mitch looked up at the ceiling.
‘What?’ he said. He had figured Hizb ut-Tahrir was not unlike evangelism, when Rob had passed on the name – a fringe denomination of an otherwise large and mainstream community. He had grown up in the Hills, attended meetings of the RICE Movement in high school, and gone to Hillsong services each week before he got way into pot. The look on Zara’s face was unholy.
‘Honestly, this is worse than when I sponsored that book by Jordan Peterson ’cos I had that Audible deal.’
Zara pushed a piece of her hair back behind her ear, rested her head on Robertson’s shoulder to supervise his slow progress, silent for a moment before commenting, ‘No, no, my password is Robisaknob now.’
Despite the chanting outside, and the sudden sound of whistles which presumably signified the arrival of the cops – God, what if one of Dad’s friends rocked up? – Rob found himself leaning back into her embrace from behind.
Mitch watched them purposefully, trying to catch Rob’s attention so he would shrink up and let off, abashed like the time Mitch had discovered his kids books. But he didn’t, not even when Mitch muttered ‘gay ass’, just as the chanting turned to shouts and he heard distinctive thwacks like batons hitting bone.
‘Why don’t you go render some medical aid?’ commented Rob mildly, scrunching his brows so he could concentrate on typing while Zara watched, dictating.
Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian essayist whose writing explores class, race, diaspora and Western Sydney. She has been a finalist for a Queensland Literary Award and the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. Her debut essay collection Root & Branch was shortlisted for the 2022 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.Read more