In the late 1980s, my grandmother, mother, sister and I moved from multicultural Sydney to lily-white Central Coast.
A week or so in, Mum invited the elderly woman next door, Gladys, over because she hadn’t sent an invite to welcome us into her home – a near criminal offence for Arabs. Plus we kept catching her peering over the fence, staring at us like aliens.
When she walked into our kitchen that day, I was writing a rap on the table (at nine years old, I loved DJ Jazzy Jeff & Will Smith, Heavy D, Salt N Pepa) and my Sita (grandmother) hovered over a frying pan of kibbe (a Levantine dish made of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef and spices) on the stove.
Gladys took one look at the food and literally gasped in horror. She covered her nose and mouth with one hand, rudely pointed at the stove with the other and exclaimed, ‘Ewwwwww. What in heavens is that?’ Even as a child, I recognised how defeated Mum and Sita looked and how hurtful Gladys’ remarks were. I wanted to pelt her with our beloved national dish.
But people like Gladys weren’t the only ones who made me feel like an interloper. I’ve even felt like an outsider with Lebanese-Australians on many occasions. My family disconnected from the community when my Sita, forever the headstrong maverick, married a Greek merchant seaman she met on George Street in the early 1940s.
Since then we’ve kept little to no old-world Middle Eastern customs and were almost forced to integrate with mainstream society, which lead to everyone becoming culturally confused. This is despite the fact the only family I’ve ever known is my Lebanese side. Sita’s husband, Nick Kosmas, came to Australia from Greece on his own and died before I was born, so I never felt connected to him. My father, George Kapsalides, was from Cyprus and only lived in Australia for a handful of years. He stayed just long enough to marry Mum, make my sister and I, divorce and head back there.
Sita’s family arrived in Australia from the village of Bane in Lebanon almost a century ago. Her father, Elias Bechara Hasserati, came to Australia in the 1920s. He’d spent earlier years in Boston as part of the first wave of Syrians as they were known at the time, who migrated there.
His American stint is denoted by vivid stories I was told as a child. Stuff like how Jeddo (grandfather) narrowly avoided being a passenger on the Titanic, and how he often hung out with revered writer Khalil Gibran. My Aunty Mella loves narrating these tales. Each time she tells them, my no-nonsense Sita – her elder sister – will yell out, ‘Bullshit!’ The two of them are oil and vinegar in human form.
I relayed those grandiose stories with me through high school, where I gravitated towards having Lebanese friends because it made me feel more Lebanese myself. Growing up, my mum was a big-hearted barmaid who swore like a truckie. This might’ve had something to do with the fact that Sita’s younger brothers, my Uncles Abie and Tony, were truckies, who drove the 2500 kilometre distance from Sydney to Far North Queensland like it was around the corner.
My friends Jihan, Lynette, Rima, Samar would joke my mother was the ‘wog’ version of Irene Roberts from Home & Away. She was the mother my friends would run to when their strict mums wouldn’t let them out the house. We were ‘Lebanese-adjacent’ in that we ate the food, understood the jokes and looked the part, but had long lost our connection to things I yearned for, like attending Layliehs (pre-wedding parties) and knowing how to dance the dabke.
My family has been in Australia for so long, they’re prime for wading knee-deep in bemoaning newer arrivals; especially those with different religious beliefs. Many of them vote Liberal (‘I’d rather swim with the rich than drown with the poor!’ my Sita dramatically once declared), listen to conservative talkback radio, and read The Daily Telegraph: a horrific trifecta for doing Lebanese-Australia Bob Katter-style.
We were ‘Lebanese-adjacent’ in that we ate the food, understood the jokes and looked the part, but had long lost our connection to things I yearned for, like attending Layliehs (pre-wedding parties) and knowing how to dance the dabke.
I made my first trip ‘home’ to Lebanon only a handful of years ago. My sister Julie and her husband Hugo travelled with me, and we were connected with an excellent guide named Abed for our four-day stay. The morning we took off from our Beirut hotel towards the mountains in the north, I was a nervous wreck. I prayed my irritable bowel syndrome would allow me to make the three-hour, bumpy car ride. Thankfully I was distracted with many special moments on the winding drive around the mountain.
We marveled at the beautiful Virgin Mary shrines between each village, smiled at the short old man commandeering a donkey loaded with fruit and vegetables, and cracked up laughing at the ‘Parramatta Road’ sign (the main road where my Sita has lived in Sydney the past 50 years) hoisted up in Kfarsghab. When Abed turned his ‘Taxi Lebanon’ car around what seemed like endless mountaintop bends - the village of Bane finally appeared and it was majestic.
Until that moment, my Sita’s birthplace had always been a mystical place in a faraway land. Now here we were, touching the sandstone walls of her dilapidated home (which is locked up to this day because, true to form, no one knows who the real owner is) and giving thanks in Saint George church, which was being built when Shamouna was a little girl. After Bane, we headed further up the mountain to Bsharri, taking in the home and museum of Jeddo’s old mate, Khalil Gibran.
I moved home to Australia straight after visiting Lebanon, having spent almost a decade in America. I’m happy to be back and prouder than ever to be Arab-Australian. Bridging the gap between cultures, and following in the indomitable footsteps of my one and only Sita.
Simone Amelia Jordan is a freelance writer. You can follow Simone on Twitter @SimoneAJordan.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each piece has been provided by Winnie Dunn and Michael Mohammed Ahmad.