Since I’m not really much of a dancer, I usually sip scotch and eat kibbeh and sambousek at the Christian Maronite ceremonies I’ve attended—but at my cousin Joseph Rizkallah’s layliah, things got complicated.
For the Lebs, layliah is a ceremonial pre-wedding party, meant to symbolise a final goodbye for the bride and groom before they begin their new lives together. Joey, one-year younger than me, twenty-four on hiswedding day, related to Mum, threw the layliah at the community hall in the South Western Sydney suburb of Greenacre. The party was ablaze with drumming, over a hundred relatives and friends of the family clapping their hands and dancing around Maria, his soon-to-be wife. The traditional Lebbo music, turned up way too loud, played from speakers directly behind my family’s table, made it impossible for anyone to talk.
On the dance floor, guests took turns lifting the bride and groom onto their shoulders. They started the dabke, a folkloric Lebanese dance performed by a large group; the Leb equivalent of the Greek zorba. The dancers move as one by interlocking fingers and pressing their shoulders against one another. Nearly everyone attending the community event will take part. The movements follow the rhythm of the drum, based on the repetition of certain steps, and led by the energy at the front, where a raas (‘leader’ in Arabic)leaps and twirls athletically, often improvising nimble moves which are mimicked by the first few dancers. In Greenacre, my relatives formed a semi-circle and moved according to the raas, my uncle-in-law Elie Awad, who twirled and bounced faultlessly with his hands in the air, reaching out and interlocking with Joey’s.
“Come on, habib,” my mum, Pauline, said to me. “Come dance with your cousin.”
“Come on, habib,” my mum, Pauline, said to me. “Come dance with your cousin.” Soon I was among the drums, joining the tail of the dancing serpent. I wanted to celebrate with the gleeful abandon of the Lebs around me, many who attend weddings on a near-weekly basis. And truthfully, selfishly, I felt more entitled to celebrate than them: Joey is my closest cousin, a brother, we’d grown up together. But as my mum tugged me along, I just couldn’t get the dance steps right. Noticing my awkwardstamping, in all the wrong places, Mum disentangled us and took me out the hall and into the carpark on Waterloo Road, opposite Al Aseel. I think she could tell, with that motherly telekinesis, that I was embarrassed, and wanted to shield me from judging eyes.
As the son of a migrant Lebanese mother and an incandescently white Aussie dad, you can take one look at me and know I’m not a ‘real Leb’. The irony is not lost on me that my mother’s name, Pauline, is shared by a politician who thinks it’s okay to wear the burqa to parliament. My mother came to Australia from a village outside of Beirut when she was six years old, with the rest of her family. She learnt Englishwhile attending St John Vianney School in Greenacre; worked herself into Macquarie University, where she specialised in Egyptology translating hieroglyphs, and met my father, a law student at the same uni.
She’s never been back to Lebanon; whenever I raise the notion she dismisses it—she doesn’t identify with Lebanon, not as her ‘motherland’ at least.
I was no longer spectating a dance made to be performed, but holding onto the tradition that holds me.
This identity I’ve inherited has its complexities: on the one hand, I’ve enjoyed all the privileges of whiteness, afforded to me by my father’s skin pigmentation and a white guy nose and chin. This has a distancing effect, producing barriers, from geographical location to class status in Australian society,between me and the Lebanese community. I was born in Epping, raised in Sydney’s Lower North Shore, and after graduating from St Aloyius in Kirribilli I moved to Newtown. My mother told me that many years ago her relatives owned a fruit market on Enmore Road. We’d often walk along the hipster-cafe-clad street examining each graffiti facade, while Mum wondered, Was it that one? Maybe this one, here? In many ways, I am more associated with the culprits of gentrification than the people it continues to push into the suburbs.
“Look habib, it’s forward, back, forward, back, forward, forward and step.” Mum and I formed a line, just us two, and practiced a few times in the darkness (the Lebbo music could be heard from out there) and once we got in sync, Mum broke our step and took me by the hand, through the doors and back into the party. “Now go dance with your cousin,” she said, linking us with the dabke again.
I was reassured when I read more about the dabke in On Being Lebanese in Australia by Paul Tabar, Greg Noble and Scot Poynting. The book claims that the dabke’s performance generates a sense of collective belonging and power in an otherwise alienating (and often hostile) environment. The authors reflect on attending a number of community events during which “many were charged with affective intensity and remarkable enthusiasm. Male and female migrants of various ages, class backgrounds, and generations of migration showed a keen interest in learning the dabki and participating in its performance.”
By the end of Joey and Maria’s layliah I had established myself in the dabke whenever it materialised on the dance floor. For my family, like many other Lebs, the dance is an expression of connection to one another. I joined hands with my cousin on one side, my mother on the other, and performed the steps nearly in time with the music, no longer spectating a dance made to be performed, but holding onto the tradition that holds me.
Jack Cameron Stanton is a Sydney writer of Australian-Lebanese descent. His work has appeared in The Australian, Sydney Review of Books, Sweatshop, Sydney Morning Herald, Southerly, Overland, The Lifted Brow, Mascara Literary Review, among others.
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.