Golden pastries piled like pyramids, halal smallgoods and racks of steaming hot flatbreads. Wandering through the buzzing Punchbowl shopping precinct, it’s no surprise that 45 per cent of the suburb’s population was born overseas and the Lebanese are the largest group in Punchbowl’s migrant mix. Women’s outfits range from the burqa and the hijab, to the denim mini and low-slung jeans, but no-one raises an eyebrow, one way or the other. The smell of grilling kebab meat wafts down the street and the call to prayer is piped into restaurants. If requested, Habib Akra, owner of eatery Jasmin 1, will turn on the Muslim radio station to broadcast the call, so his fasting customers know when they can eat, as many fast regularly throughout the week, not just during Ramadan.
The shopfront displays of eggplants, tomatoes and pale green zucchinis in this suburb are enough to give anyone an appetite, fasting or not. It’s vibrant, relaxed and friendly, but this wasn’t always the way. This pocket of south-western Sydney has a reputation for racial tension, even clashes, that sees some non-local food-lovers opting to visit on tours rather than shopping solo. Domestic and global events, such as gang crimes and the Gulf War, have fuelled hostility towards the Australian-Arab community and this suburb has felt its brunt.
“In all this time in Punchbowl, I haven’t seen one fight. Maybe around here, there are problems, but I believe if you don’t go looking for trouble, trouble doesn’t come to you,” says Jackie Chahine, coowner of Profiterole Patisserie.
She has lived in Punchbowl for 12 years, choosing this suburb mostly because a local primary school taught Lebanese, a language she wanted her three children to maintain. Others come because it’s close to the mosques in the two adjacent suburbs of Lakemba and Belmore, and the established Lebanese community is a magnet.
Punchbowl’s an unusual name for a suburb that is largely populated by non-drinkers, but the origins are actually geographic. Local history states the road to Georges River crossed Cooks River at the place easiest forded, a wide and almost circular valley that settlers named ‘the punch bowl’. Never mind this geographic feature was three kilometres away; the suburb itself got the name because its train station, opened in 1909, was on Punchbowl Road, named for the shallow valley.
Lebanese settlement in Australia got off to a slow start in the late 19th century, and those who came were mostly Christians. But the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, beginning just after Australia had repealed the White Australia Policy, led to another bigger wave of migration, this time with Muslims joining the religious mix. And, while those migrants who’ve worked hard to build their lives here acknowledge their community has weathered hostile storms, most of them, including second-generation ones like Mohamed Fettayleh, wouldn’t live anywhere else. He co-owns Abu Ahmed Butchery, was born here and feels happy and settled in the suburb. “Punchbowl’s a good area,” he says. “Unfortunately, you do have the occasional problem with certain people, but that’s the world, wherever you go.”