My wedding was beautiful. My father-in-law gave a speech that left me in tears. He expressed that one of the greatest gifts was the convergence of two cultures, that day we were witnessing an expression of hope for the future in this union of Australian and Lebanese culture. He had seen the news that day, December 11, 2005.
It was the day of the Cronulla riots.
My family had gathered from around the world, many from the western suburbs of Sydney for a relatively small (in Lebanese terms) wedding. One hundred people from my side, 20 on the groom’s. I heard whispers of some sort of violence in Sydney, racial violence, I heard the words “Lebs getting bashed”.
I tried to ignore it and enjoy my day but when we got back to our hotel room that night I switched on the television. I saw it, men with writing on their bodies “SAVE NULLA F**K ALLAH” and “F**K THE WOG”, a sea of men with one arm raised in a salute, a camera panning over a boy bent over a car getting punched in the head surrounded by faces filled with loathing and animosity. That boy could have been any one of my cousins.
I sat there in silence, television on mute, tears running down my face, in my ivory wedding dress. My new husband was sympathetic. That first night of our honeymoon I joked that the Cronulla riots were a bad omen for our marriage.
I think we had both had reservations about the marriage as our home lives were so different, but I truly wanted it to work. His parents loved travel, embracing new cultures and his mum could make a mean tabouli from a cook book, but just attending a dinner at each family home was a steep lesson in cultural diversity.
Family lunch at the Chemali household was loud, with music, drinks and all the food in the world laid out on a buffet to feed at least 50 guests. There’d be kids screaming, people dancing and cousins shouting at each other in various languages. By contrast, when his family invited my parents over for afternoon tea there’d be Spode crockery, fabric napkins, tiny cakes, and actual tea for the six people in attendance.
I was born in Beirut during a civil war. My family moved to Australia to escape the violence of neighbour turning on neighbour - but my wedding day was the first time I saw mass racial violence in Australia. It was the closest thing I had seen to war since my childhood.
In recent years we have seen the gradual re-emergence of of white supremacist groups, the racist abuse of AFL player Adam Goodes and tours from speakers such as Lauren Southern and Stephen Molyeux who spouted anti-migrant and anti-Aboriginal sentiments in Sydney this earlier year.
This seemed to have reached some sort of climax with Fraser Anning, the same man that gave the “final solution” speech; addressing the Senate and proposing a plebiscite for the return of the White Australia Policy. Pauline Hanson also proposed new laws to stop “discrimination against white people”. The Senate, thankfully swiftly shot these bills down with a vote.
When a commenter on my Facebook page, Pete, later told me my reaction to White Australia plebiscite proposal was “overcooked” I couldn’t help but laugh. I realised that the majority of white Australia doesn’t see the cultural differences, the pain and fear of living in a country where you hear, daily, that you aren’t welcome, aren’t wanted, that you don’t belong, despite working so hard to contribute.
The man that sat there patiently holding my hand on the night of my wedding is now my ex-husband, and friend. I don’t think the Cronulla riots were the beginning of the end for our relationship or anything dramatic like that, but it was the day I realised that despite pushing past our cultural differences, much of Australia hadn’t and couldn’t.
When I think back on that day I don’t think about my dress, or the beautiful cake, or the dancing. I think of the Cronulla riots, the day that two sides of my world turned on each other.