‘I wake up sometimes and I look in the mirror and I wonder: Is this the Iranian me? The Iraqi me? The Australian me? And I’m half-Kurdish as well.’
You’d think if anyone was a candidate for an identity crisis, it would be actor Osamah Sami, but he seems to be holding together rather well. Our conversation, which ranges across many of the problems facing the Muslim community in Australia today, is serious without becoming sombre. Although life can occasionally drift into absurdity for an Australian guy called Osamah living in a post-9-11 world, he has the happy ability to turn adversity into anecdote. He can flip almost any experience over and see the funny side.
The play he’s about to rehearse, however, has a different tone. MTC Education’s I Call My Brothers was written by Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri and follows the main character, Amor, played by Osamah, as he goes about his business in a city in the hours after a terrorist attack. Osamah knows well the psychological labyrinth the play describes. He was eighteen when the World Trade Centre went down and marks it as the moment everything became weird. Like young Amor, he became very self-conscious in public. ‘And it wasn’t just that I thought everybody was watching me,’ he says. ‘It was a crazy two way thing. It was also me watching them watching me. Which also made me assume the worst. Do they think that I’m a terrorist? Do they think I’m going do something to harm them? And it got me so worked up that I could very well say something to provoke the situation. And I’m sure some of it was in my mind. How did I know what some guy on the tram was thinking? But at the time, everything was heightened. Out of control. So when I read this script, yeah, it was telling me about something I’d lived through.’
Sami’s father, a Shiite cleric from Iraq, had been a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. He met his Kurdish wife, Osamah’s mother, in an Iranian refugee camp. Osamah was born in Qom and the family came to Australia in 1995 when Osamah was twelve. He speaks Arabic, Farsi and English, which he says gives versatility to his acting career: ‘Yes, I can play both an Iranian asylum seeker and an Arab terrorist.’ He starred opposite Claudia Karvan in the SBS drama Saved and in Belvoir’s production of Baghdad Wedding. He writes, too. His memoir Good Muslim Boy will be published later this year and he’s co-written a screenplay soon to be directed by Wayne Blair, director of The Sapphires.
In part, the movie will be based on an incident that occurred to him and fellow cast members travelling to Detroit to perform a musical-comedy called The Trial of Saddam. Written by his father in Arabic and rehearsed in the local mosque, the show had already been a hit among the Iraqi community in Australia. The Detroit shows had sold out. But this was 2005, not long after the London and Madrid train bombings. The company never got past US immigration in San Francisco.
‘It was too much for the American officials to digest that Osamah and Ali and Mustafah had come to America to do Saddam – the Musical. They wouldn’t believe us. They said, “You are far too organised to be a theatre company.”’ Osamah laughs now at the absurdity of it all, but at the time it was scary. The group was interrogated for twenty hours before being handcuffed and deported. The authorities took particular interest in certain text discussions Osamah had on his phone concerning a terrorist cell called Essendon Football Club, suspiciously known as the Bombers.
‘I named the whole team for them – James Hird, Matthew Lloyd – but they just thought I was using it as a front to talk about my terrorist activities.’
‘Some of the guys didn’t recover – still haven’t recovered,’ he says. Asked why he is able to find the funny side of the experience, Osamah speaks fondly and at length about his late father, who had endured so much. ‘He could put your worries into their place: “Really? Is that the worst that could happen?”’
MTC Education’s I Call My Brothers is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Lawler from 16 April to 1 May. Tickets are available from just $26.
The production will tour to regional schools from 4-15 May, with a performance at Geelong Performing Arts Centre on 18 May. For more information about our schools performances, visit the ‘School Bookings’ tab on the play page
This interview first appeared in Scenes, MTC’s quarterly subscriber magazine.