Coming of Age in the War on Terror: A Review

By Sam Brennan

A generation of Australians have now grown up during the war on terror, the effect this has had on Australian society is pervasive, and nowhere more so than in our schools, as Randa Abdel-Fattah writes in her book Coming of Age in the War on Terror.

Randa Abdel-Fattah did not set herself an easy task in writing her new book. In both subject and style, Abdel-Fattah had to juggle a lot of balls. 

The book incorporates elements of academic qualitative research, cultural critique as well as sections of poetry and creative writing. Trying to weave these different styles of writing together is complicated enough, however, Abdel-Fattah did so while discussing the equally complex issues of race, religion, class and gender. 

Abdel-Fattah said she was inspired to write Coming of Age in the War on Terror in 2015. A year before the release of this book, her eighth novel, Abdel-Fattah was visiting a Sydney high school when one of the Year 10 students, called Bilal, told her “school used to be the one place I felt safe” but now he is worried as “stuff in the Middle East might be taken the wrong way.”

She would mull over Bilal’s words for a few years and eventually look to study “whether young people feel that school is a safe space to navigate questions of religion and political identity” during the war on terror. 

Abdel-Fattah had to rely on her personal connections to conduct her research, as the government rejected her ethics application, ironically because it would be a “risk to the students’ psychological and social wellbeing.” 

The interviews with high school students and their creative writing form the spine of the book. However, they are only with students from schools in New South Wales. This does mean a few references will go over the head of those from outside Sydney. But the lack of variety in geography is more than made up for by variation in class and culture as Abdel-Fattah went to private, public, religious and secular schools.

The book is worth reading on a technical level alone just to see how Abdel-Fattah threads the needle between the different tonal shifts from poetry to research to social analysis without making the book a hodgepodge of conflicting styles. 

That is not to say she always gets it right, there are sections where the balancing of these styles starts to wobble. These include sections where really interesting cultural analysis comes to a grinding halt as a dozen poems using the same basic structure are stacked back-to-back with little time to appreciate each one. 

Conversely, there are times when ideas that were succinctly communicated by Abdel-Fattah and the students are vastly overcomplicated by academic references to Foucault and Gramsci. However, these are exceptions and only reinforces how amazing it is that the vast majority of the book so brilliantly nails the difficult tone. 

The conclusion of the book, that the government’s promotion of surveillance in schools and mistrust of Muslim students who voiced a political opinion promotes racism and general political apathy, is not exactly revelatory. However, the way Abdel-Fattah proves this point is, providing a voice to the very people who are the most silenced by the current school system. 

It is hard not to be amazed at poems by high schoolers that reference the Reserve Bank of Australia’s ’s current cash rate and corporate monopolisation. There are also sections that show a deep emotional and social intelligence of students like 17-year-old Fatina who made the following comment in front of her class: 

“I tend to always have the thought, well, they’re scared of me. I shouldn’t fear them. Like, it’s a little kid or, like, an adult, they feel scared. I feel like I cope with it, saying to myself, ‘They’re scared of me. I should not be scared of them.’ But the thing is like, miss, fear like… doesn’t hold people back all the time, does it? So their fear, in their heads, becomes like my fear, like in my actual life, you know what I mean?” 

These sort of insights are what makes the book so important. As Abdel-Fattah notes, these students are in high school, they are still growing up, they are still figuring out what it means to be themselves. 

At the same time, the government is instituting ill-conceived and little researched programs that force Muslim students to both be spokespersons of their religion while also not being able to freely speak about and explore their religion. 

With the first-ever White nationalist group being added to the terror watch list and a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, it is tempting to see this book as a reflection on the Islamophobia and Government obsession with groups like al-Qaeda over the past two decades. 

But far from bookmarking a bygone era, Abdel-Fattah brilliantly captures how the Government can systematically enforce mistrust and bigotry based on little to no information. In this way Coming of Age in the War on Terror works as both an informative analysis of the recent past, as well as a warning about the future.