Tell us about yourself.
My grandparents, parents, 11 aunts and eight uncles migrated from Lebanon to Australia in 1970. Most of them settled in Lakemba, a suburb which housed so many Arabs that we called it ‘Leb-kemba’. That’s right – we fled halfway around the planet just to end up back where we started. Growing up in Lakemba, I became accustomed to negative stereotypes about Arab, Muslim and western Sydney communities. To counteract these kinds of simplistic, essentialist and racist portrayals about my community, I devoted myself to writing. I sought to create a different portrait of Arab, Muslim and western Sydney communities from the ones we saw in the Daily Telegraph. In 2012, I also founded the literacy movement Sweatshop to support other young people from First Nations and culturally diverse backgrounds in my neighbourhood, to find their voices and tell their stories.

Today, I remain a proud resident of western Sydney. I live with my six-year-old son and his mother. My first cousin’s house is joined to ours, where he lives with his wife and two sons. As we say, “You can take the wog out of Lebanon, but you can’t take Lebanon out of the wog.”

What do you love about Sydney?
I love western Sydney, and what I love about western Sydney is that on any random street at any random moment, over 100 languages are being spoken.

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What’s your favourite restaurant?
My favourite restaurant in Sydney is Bankstown McDonald’s – but I’d only recommend this to people who grew up in a house where Lebanese cuisine was normal and hamburgers and fries
were exotic. For everyone else, I strongly recommend El-Manara Lebanese Restaurant in Lakemba. It has terrific vegetarian, vegan and halal options. Everywhere you sit will feel like home and the staff treat you like family. It’s the next best thing to eating at my grandmother’s house.

It’s your birthday – how do you spend it?
Every birthday you’ll find me taking a nap with my son on the grass at Auburn Botanic Gardens. We’re surrounded by emerald water and the pink cherry blossoms that fill the trees and cover the gravel pathways, and the damp timber steps and the rooftops of the wooden tea houses. Peacocks glimmer from the bushes and ducklings congregate by the ponds and the sound of children’s laughter fills the air as they feed the tadpoles and the swans. [My son] Kahlil will say to me, “Dad, I wish you were Peter Pan, because then you’ll never grow old.” And I’ll reply, “If I never got old, then I’d never have met the most beautiful person in my life – you.”

Where do you go for brunch or breakfast?
From Punchbowl to Bankstown, Fairfield, Granville and Campbelltown, I’ve got three words for you: manoush, manoush, manoush. Every one of the Lebanese pizza bakeries throughout the western suburbs is phenomenal. Become a manoush connoisseur and go on an adventure to try them all. By the end, I’d love to know which is your favourite restaurant. I’ll meet you there for a za’atar.

Do you have any favourite shops?
Better Read Than Dead. This gorgeous independent bookshop is one of the must-visit stores in Newtown. It has the friendliest, most helpful staff and a world-class selection of books. They also hold regular book launches and readings.

When you want to impress someone, where do you take them?
Over the last three decades, Muslim communities in Australia have experienced an onslaught of negative media and political attention. These one-dimensional narratives don’t just impact us on an emotional and psychological level, but also on a very physical and tangible level. They gave rise to incidents such as the 2005 Cronulla Riots, in which 5000 white Australians marched on the beach chanting phrases like “No Allah at Cronulla”. While I don’t really have a place in Sydney that I take people to “impress” them, there’s a place I take people to help subvert and challenge their misconceptions and that’s Auburn Gallipoli Mosque.

As soon as you step barefoot on that soft red carpet and stare up into that magnificent dome ceiling, you’ll know the true beauty, humility and peace that lives within the heart of Australia’s Muslim community. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit – just remember to greet the kind faces at the entry with “Salaam alaikum”.

Who makes Sydney a better place?
Allow me to introduce you to Winnie Dunn. She’s a Tongan-Australian writer and community arts worker from Mount Druitt. As the general manager of Sweatshop, Winnie is an inspiration to thousands of culturally and linguistically diverse young people from low socio-economic backgrounds. She empowers them to transform their lives through reading, writing and critical thinking.

She’s written an avalanche of masterful articles and stories about contemporary Pasifika identity (like this one), and she’s edited several critically acclaimed anthologies, including Australia’s first literary series produced entirely by women of colour, Sweatshop Women: Volume One. She also edited Another Australia. It includes the work of award-winning writers such as Nardi Simpson, Amani Haydar, Omar Musa, Sara Saleh, Osman Faruqi and Sisonke Msimang.

What’s one of the city’s most underrated places?
Rookwood Cemetery. It’s the oldest, most culturally diverse working cemetery in Australia and the largest in the southern hemisphere. You’ll find me there sitting by the grave of my grandfather, who was the first Muslim Alawite to ever pass away on Australian soil. I’ll be reciting verses from the Qur’an – “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” (In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful) – and chapters from James Joyce’s Dubliners: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” It’s a place where you’ll find solace, harmony and clarity.

Do you think there’s an essential Sydney book?
Blacklight: Ten Years of First Nations Storytelling. This brand-new publication showcases 48 short stories, poems, vignettes, essays and artworks by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives. It’s edited by Wiradjuri writer and cultural producer Hannah Donnelly, and features some of Australia’s most dynamic First Nations artists, including Jasmine Seymour, Jazz Money and Ali Murphy-Oates. We can never have a serious conversation about Australia, about New South Wales, about Sydney, unless it’s rooted in the histories, experiences and stories of this nation’s First People. Blacklight is essential reading for all of us.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and author of The Other Half of You, The Lebs and The Tribe. He edited the anthology After Australia and he’s speaking at three events during Sydney Writers’ Festival, from May 16–22.

My Sydney” is a regular column discovering the places and spaces that captivate and entice Sydney’s well-known residents.