“You’re an Arab from Punchbowl. No one will believe you.”
(The F Team)
The F Team is a compelling new YA novel set mainly in Western Sydney by Rawah Arja (published by Giramondo).
It is impossible to put down because of its portrayal of a visceral masculinity and physicality inhabited by authentic, lively characters. It also lures with humour, romance and even slam poetry. These highly likeable attributes make the racism, disrespect and bullying against, and sometimes between, the “Angry Arab” a conduit for reading and thought.
The F Team is a heartfelt book about understanding and respect.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Rawah.
Where are you based and what in your background has led to writing The F Team?
Hello! Thank you for having me. I am currently based in Punchbowl, South-West Sydney, the place where my book is set.
I wrote The F Team for two reasons: reading in my community is often viewed as a school chore and the fact that I never read as a kid. I found it boring and there were too many words on the pages. My high school English teacher gave me two books: Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah and Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta and that changed the way I saw books. It wasn’t necessarily reading that I didn’t like, it was the fact that I couldn’t find a book that I connected with.
The F Team came about for the exact same reason. I teach in the same community that I was born in and so the lack of reading was and is still prevalent. I wanted to tell my communities’ story from an insider’s perspective not what people read in the news. I wanted young boys and girls to feel safe and feel worthy of being represented in literature.
For whom have you written this book?
For every boy or girl who felt as though their story didn’t matter. Often when you grow up in Western Sydney, people can make you feel second-best. I want any person of colour and minority to believe that they have just as much to offer as the rest of the world.
Your protagonist Tariq is in Year Ten. He is an alpha male – both charming and a troublemaker. He radiates charisma. Could you please introduce him?
Tariq Nader, is the kid with potential yet cruises by in life thinking that things work out themselves. He’s the leader of the Wolf-Pack with his mates from school and also is the captain of the rugby league team. Tariq falls for a girl named Jamila who challenges him and he begins to realise that his good looks can only get him so far. At home his outspoken ways have brought him into conflict with his family and now with complications on all fronts, he must learn to control his anger, and find what it takes to be a leader.
Tariq and his mates’ school is very important to them. Could you briefly describe its value and also how it is under threat?
School is the place where they chill and hang out yet play as many pranks on one another. Some pranks go wrong and students end up in hospital or they earn the chance to enter Punchbowl Boy’s very own Guinness Book of Records. It’s the place they spend most of their time, the place they feel safe, however enrolments are dropping and being in the news consistently has attracted the Men in Suits. These people are hired to now decide whether the school is worth keeping open since the boys are not taking closure too seriously.
The teachers are great role models. Could you tell us about one and how his or her style is so successful with these students?
The teachers were based on my real-life teachers who taught me throughout school. I think they’re all great but Mr Archie’s style really resonated with the boys. He has a no non-sense attitude and if they’re not here to make the school a better place or of they’re not here to support their mates, then there are many exits in which they can leave. He has a one chance policy and after that, you’re gone. He raises the bar really high not because he’s mean but because he believes that the students can achieve that and beyond.
How important are mates, family and/or strong females in this story?
It was very important for me to represent the females in this story as characters who can stand on their own and that don’t revolve around the males or even Tariq as the protagonist, rather his story revolves around them. They are central in his growth and it’s only because of their fierceness that he finally understands that his words and actions have consequences.
Most of Tariq’s mates, teammates and opponents have nicknames. Which nickname is your favourite and why?
I like them all, but Nintendo is pretty cool.
How important is religion to Tariq’s family?
Religion is what keeps Tariq grounded as amongst other things. His father in the story is a religious man and so whenever advice is given, it centres around the Quran or the Hadith (Prophet Muhammad’s teachings). Tariq does push the boundaries but it’s his religion that helps keep him in line.
What is the significance of your title, The F Team?
You’ll have to read the story to find out!
Your scenes at football are riveting. What is your secret to writing great sport?
The secret is being a sports fan myself. I am a Bulldogs supporter and so are my six other siblings. I know, I know, they didn’t do so well, but I’m a loyal fan. Let’s hope 2021 shows us some love.
One of the greatest attributes of this novel is the dialogue. How would you describe your approach to writing dialogue?
I didn’t know it at the time but as a child and even in my teenage years, I observed people and their mannerisms—not in a stalker sort of way, but I was fascinated with how people interacted with one another. When it came to writing the dialogue, all I had to do was go back in time and think about all the things I picked up to try and make it as authentic as possible. Plus, I come from a really large Lebanese family so it was easy to take down notes whenever we had a family barbecue.
What is your favourite funny scene?
When Matt, the white surfer kid, thinks he accidently converted to Islam. That always makes me laugh.
What do you hope your readers take away from this novel?
I want readers to reach out to people and cultures that are different to their own. The F Team was born out of feeling lost, feeling helpless and worst of all, feeling as though I didn’t matter. I never want anyone to feel like that, let alone teenagers who are at a critical stage in their lives trying to find themselves. I want readers to feel inspired that no matter how hard things get; they have the ability to turn their lives around and make something for themselves, even if the whole world is standing in their way. The F Team is for anyone who felt second best, for anyone who was ignored, and most importantly for anyone who wants to make the world a better place.
What are you writing now or next?
Ooh, this is tough one. I’m currently tossing up between two ideas but hopefully I’ll have that figured out soon. What I can say is that it’s going to be centred around a group of cheeky teenage girls who…
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
I have my social media on Instagram which people send me direct messages or contact me via my website that’s in my Instagram’s bio.
During the story the Principal Mr Archie, tells Tariq, “Words have power, Tariq. But their words can’t define who you are.”
Through your writing of The F Team, Rawah,you have skilfully shown the importance of words and how they can challenge assumptions and attitudes as well as change beliefs and behaviours.
The F Team needs to reach a wide readership.