My mother, Siham Fahour, has an incredible talent for silently dishing up life lessons – alongside the most amazing, mouth-watering pastries. Many of my earliest life lessons (and the best baklava I’ve ever eaten) were served up at 50 Lygon Street, Carlton. In the late-1970s, that double-storey Victorian terrace was both our family home (upstairs) and Mum’s business, a Middle-Eastern bakery (downstairs). My mother toiled selflessly at either end of those stairs – day and night – to bring a degree of stability to our growing family. I am the eldest of eight kids.
As is often the case with enduring life lessons, my mum didn’t use words to make her point. She did it by example – through her tireless work ethic and unending commitment to our family.
Mum opened her Lygon Street bakery, Damascus Sweets in 1976 – it was an authentic slice of old Beirut transplanted in inner-city Melbourne. Sadly, at that time, Beirut was descending into war-torn chaos. Over a 15-year period, the Lebanese civil war would reduce much of that great city to rubble. But prior to 1975, Beirut was known as the "Pearl of the Middle East" – an exciting city and popular holiday destination for Europeans. Mum’s shop combined the cosmopolitan feel of old Beirut, with the sophistication of a Parisian cafe.
Damascus Sweets was among the early pioneers of Middle Eastern bakeries in Melbourne. In that regard, my mother played a small but important role in the culinary revolution that has occurred in Australia over the past 50 years.
Life lesson 1: Timing is everything
Depending on what version of our family story you choose to believe, my mother either had incredible commercial foresight – or maybe she was just blessed with very good fortune. Mum opened the doors of Damascus Sweets at a time when Australians were starting to embrace the flavours of foreign cultures. And she also had the foresight to hang out her shingle on Lygon Street – the epicentre of Australia’s culinary revolution. In hindsight, it’s easy to recognise that the circumstances were exactly right for success. But at the time, it was a pretty bold move.
To put it into perspective, Damascus Sweets opened for business several years before Abla Amad’s legendary Lebanese dining institution, Abla’s, opened in 1979 on Carlton’s Elgin Street. (Amazingly, Abla’s is still going strong 33 years later in exactly the same location – just around the corner from Lygon Street.)
It’s hard to comprehend today, now that multicultural food options are so prevalent, but back in the mid-1970s, pizza was still a fairly new dining option for Australians. In fact, the nation’s first commercial pizza restaurant, Toto’s Pizza House, had only opened its doors in 1961 – down at the southern end of Lygon Street.
In those days, Lygon Street had this wonderful multicultural village atmosphere. Today, it’s commonly referred to as Little Italy, but in the 1970s, it was home to a vast range of nationalities and cultures – Italians, Greeks, Arabs and Jews were all intermingled along that strip.
This mix of immigrants was augmented by a more bohemian, youthful population. A lot of Melbourne University students, as well as nurses and medical professionals from the nearby hospital, all contributed to the Lygon Street melting pot.
Through this younger population, the rest of Melbourne soon came to learn that there was some great-quality eating to be had along Lygon Street – at a very affordable price. It wasn’t long before news of Mum’s delicious Middle Eastern pastries spread beyond Melbourne’s Lebanese community, to other migrant groups and local students, and then into the wider community.
I can remember working behind the counter on Saturday mornings and the vast majority of customers walking into Mum’s shop were from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. People would travel from all over the city to get a taste of these exotic, addictive baked treats.
I completely understood that addiction. I would have travelled across town too! In fact, as an adult, I often do drive half an hour to places like Balha’s Pastry on Sydney Road in Melbourne’s Brunswick, just to get a taste of their baklava or znoud (filo pastry filled with clotted cream).
Working in the shop as a boy, I simply didn’t have the willpower to resist my addiction. I have to admit there were mornings when I would have eaten as many pastries as I sold. Not surprisingly, my weight started to balloon in my early teen years and a good portion of the profits from Mum’s shop went directly to dentists to fix the cavities in my teeth.
Life lesson 2: The sharing of food promotes social inclusion
Our family migrated to Australia from Lebanon in 1969, when I was just three years old. We were very fortunate to settle in Melbourne’s Carlton. Not only did we have the greatest football club in the world on our doorstep, but we were also surrounded by delicious food from across the globe.
One of the reasons that multiculturalism has flourished in Melbourne is this appreciation of interesting and different food. Great food is a celebration of our shared humanity. It is a bridge to cultural understanding and harmony.
When it came to her baked goods, Mum didn’t compromise her exacting standards (or her traditional Lebanese recipes) to account for Australian tastes. The customers not only loved Mum’s food; they were curious about the recipes and the culture that it came from. So food was the start of a conversation about culture that led to understanding, appreciation and harmony.
Life lesson 3: Great sacrifice brings enormous reward
My father was involved in a serious car accident just after we moved to 50 Lygon Street. It was a very “Melbourne” kind of incident – a tram crashed into our car!
Dad was lucky to survive. He spent months in hospital and then almost a year convalescing at home. As he slowly recovered, Mum worked endlessly.
A baker’s life, as anyone knows, inevitably means getting up well before dawn to ensure the product is on the shelf by the time your customers wake. A parent’s life, as I’ve come to understand, involves a never-ending schedule of cooking, cleaning and caring.
Throughout that period, my mother worked triple-shifts – as businesswoman, baker and parent – to hold our family together. It was, undoubtedly, the most stressful and sleepless period of her life. But it was also the period that laid the foundation of a very happy and fulfilling life for her children and grandchildren.
Mum sold Damascus Sweets as a going concern in 1979 – and our family moved to Preston, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. My parents still live happily in that family home today. They are both retired now. Mum says her greatest pleasure is watching her descendents grow and succeed in her adopted homeland.
The backyard of their Preston home is still the scene of regular family gatherings. About 30 or 40 members of the Fahour clan come together for these barbecues. We all share our food and – much to Mum’s relief – we share the workload these days, too.
Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, my mother is in her element. She finds these barbecues enormously satisfying; sitting back and taking pride in the fruits of her labour. On these occasions, her life is truly sweet.