Punchbowl, Sydney’s Lebanese cross-roads, tells its stories of honour, respect, shame and survival (another take)

Lebanese Australians have played a key part in building the nation – providing some of its most beloved leaders, including Dame Prof Dr Marie Bashir, retiring governor of NSW, and her husband former Rugby international and Lord Mayor of Sydney Nick Shehadie. They have been sports stars such as the NRL’s Hazem El Masri and Benny Elias, and business leaders like Talal Yassine and  Samir Dandan.  

They’ve also achieved notoriety as criminals, like “Kings Cross identities”  John Ibrahim and Bill Bayeh, or as violent thugs like Bilal Skaf and murderers like various members of the Razzak and Darwiche clans.  They feature amongst potential terrorists convicted in the aftermath of Operations Pendennis and Neave. We can hardly forget Eddie Obeid and his sons. 

The Australian media have been mostly taken by the dark side, with its bizarre terrorists, outspoken clerics, foul-mouthed hoods and over-the-top bikie gang lords.  Yet little opportunity has been provided to Lebanese Australians to tell their own stories, to present their experiences of being part of multicultural Australia, and of surviving in a world where honour is important, yet the wider society tends to prefer labelling them with shame.

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl , one story of Lebanese Australians, is back on track after a bumpy first start, when an aspiring actor decided to act out for the producers being a crim until thankfully sprung by News Ltd. The SBS program delivers a sustained insight into the dynamic through which Lebanese Australia has come to be such a controversial though important part of our contemporary diversity.

While earlier generations from the Lebanon succeeded in finding a place despite the barriers of White Australia, it was the Civil War of the mid-1970s which really set the conditions for the last few generations’ experience of settlement and integration. 

This period was not easy – thousands arrived from the War with few skills, no English, into an environment that offered little employment, schools with few capacities to respond to their needs, and a wider society unprepared for a large Muslim intake. White Australia was but a breath away, and racism had been a way of life for Australians since long before Federation in 1901. While the Lebanese population had been mainly Christian and Europe-centric beforehand, the War was to raise the proportion of Muslims dramatically and in very short order.

The Lebanese have been affected by global events in ways far beyond that delivered to other immigrant groups. As Arabs they have born the opprobrium of the West’s fear of the Oriental Arab; as Muslims they have carried the can for any act of Islamist terrorism. The big inflow of the 1970s occurred in parallel with the end of White Australia and the advent of multiculturalism. Their first decade or more occurred as the rhetoric of non-racism and multicultural equity intensified, even if the reality did not live up to the promise. Jobs were few, social provision minimal, education stretched.

Even so their first big “shock” came when they were confronted with a racist outburst against Arabs during the first Gulf War, when PM Hawke committed Australia to the anti-Iraq war. Australia’s Arabs were asked, whose side are you on? They had been promised that they could be both Arab and Australian: now they were told, especially by the media, that they had to choose.


Sydney became the focus for anti-Lebanese action by the authorities. A 1993 Arab picnic attended by 35000 people, degenerated into a brawl as the police attacked with dogs to break up a small altercation. The popular media saw this as an “Arab riot”. Things began to worsen as trust in the authorities declined; their young people were targets for what they saw as harassment, and the police would not protect the mass of citizens from a predatory criminal minority.

Through the 1990s, with the rise of Hansonism, public opinion hardened against the Lebanese, and in particular, against Lebanese Muslims. Key contributory events included the murder of Edward Lee by members of the Telopea St gang, a renowned centre for drug distribution, a widespread swoop on “Middle Eastern youth”, and a retaliatory drive by shoot-up of the Lakemba Police Station.

Then in 2000 a series of gang rapes by young men who claimed they were doing it “Leb style”, inflamed the popular press and public hostility. This was soon followed by an unconnected but murderous inter-family war over drugs, honour and the demand for a toxic form of respect 

Global events came back into the mix: Lebanese Muslims were portrayed as the proxy perpetrators of the 2001 New York and Washington Al Qaeda attacks, the 2002 Bali bombings, and the enemy within for the 2003 re-invasion of Iraq.  The Islamist radicalisation of a minority and the alienation of many more intensified during this period, culminating in the 2005 Cronulla “riot”, and the Punchbowl-centred retaliation. Thousands of people, Lebanese and not, Muslim, Christian and other, gathered in Lakemba to protect the Lebanese mosque from rumoured counter-retaliation.

While shock-jock attention (and participation) centred on these moments of inter-communal violence, the Lebanese communities were seizing back the day.  A new generation of Australian Lebanese leaders were running the community programs, building the schools, and developing the economy. When the Islamists tried to take on the police in a Sydney centre demonstration in 2012, these new leaders addressed Australia and said their behaviour was unacceptable.  But they also said that continuing racism against Lebanese, most of whom were fully integrated, was also no longer acceptable. They demanded that they be treated with respect, the same respect they accorded the Australian society that they had chosen.

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl, produced by Northern Pictures,  is broadcast over four weeks from June 19, SBS 1, 8.30pm. 


Talking about Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl: rescuing Lebanese honour from shame?

The Conversation    Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl: SBS

Mediterranean societies have been described as communities of honour and shame. The fundamental currency of their social order is respect. When the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975, drove thousands of its citizens to seek refuge in Australia, a moral economy of respect travelled with them. 

 This moral economy confronted a society not ready to receive the migrants; nor were they expecting what they found. The story of the sometimes fraught relationship of Lebanese immigrants, their children and Australian society underpins SBS and Northern Pictures’ four-part series Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl.

 In the midst of Australia’s confusion in 1976 over how it should or could respond to people fleeing crises, the Fraser government put together a Lebanese concession that eased restrictions applying to normal immigration applications, especially in relation to employment skills, language and assimiliabity.

Over the next four years around 20,000 Lebanese arrived in Australia, just under half Muslim (mainly Sunni but also Shia from the south), joining a Lebanese Arabic community that had been until then overwhelming Christian with smaller Druze and Alawi groups. 

As a government report of the day shows, many of the refugees from rural parts of Lebanon were poorly educated, and lacked skills necessary for work in Australia. They were often traumatised by the war, and had often lost family and homes in the back-and-forth movement of forces. They also entered the country as industrial employment opportunities were contracting, and investment in education was being reduced.

 As a result, the conditions were put in place that would lead to significant and growing frictions with the wider Australian society, especially for a minority that would become more marginalised and alienated.

 These initial conditions of settlement were not to be resolved. Sociological research suggests that in the first period of immigrant settlement all is chaos, and the first things to get organised are crime and religion. Each struggles for the hearts, minds, money, fears and hopes of people setting out on new lives. 

By 1977, the first Lebanese Sunni mosque was established in Lakemba in Sydney’s southwest, but there were also signs that both the longer-established Christians and the newly arrived Muslims were generating what would become significant criminal networks. There is some evidence that it was the Christian-background criminals who were moving in on Sydney’s lucrative Kings Cross drug trade that were recruiting Muslim-background youth from the western suburbs to provide muscle, and deal the drugs at street level. 

 This latter group would later break away – or be forced out – and build its own black economy in Punchbowl around Telopea St and Punchbowl Park. Meanwhile, the same generation of refugee Vietnamese youth was doing much the same in Cabramatta, a few suburbs away.

The Lebanese story has been marked by moments of public crisis, and these have served as the backbone for the Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl narrative. The 1991 Gulf War, where anti-Arab racism was widespread in public and media reactions to the conflict, confronted the Lebanese with questions about their loyalty to Australia. As during World War Two when Australia interned thousands of Italians, many of whom were citizens, paranoia about the enemy within was widespread. This had a major impact on a generation of young people who had been promised they were both Arab and Australian in contemporary multiculturalism, but were now told they had to choose.  This period marked the first major upsurge in anti-Arab sentiment.

By 1993 tensions, especially in southwest Sydney, were growing between police and young people. Facing an education system that had systemically failed many of them, facing mainstream racism and being drawn into alternative ways of gaining respect in criminal networks, some found a certain freedom and respect in a world of drug use.  In October police attacked a group of young people at an Arabic community picnic, using dogs and batons to break up what they later claimed was a riot. Later inquiries supported community claims of police racism.

 The situation deteriorated further with the rise of Hansonism in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Into the midst of these local events came a series of new global crises involving Australians – the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the murders of Australians among others by jihadists in Bali in 2002, and the 2003 invasion of  Iraq in which Australia was also involved.  Each event set up the enemy as either Arab or Muslim or both, and with the largest single group of Muslim Arabs in Sydney coming from Lebanon, despite their not being involved in any of these events, they became the proxy target.

These events also introduced into the Australian mix a new dimension, radical jihadism. Some young people found in the increasingly militant language of  some minority Islamist preachers the promise of new meaning and a form of ego-asserting salvation. Imbued with a masculinist discourse which confronted the demeaning racisms that had undermined the perceived honour of men for generations, many were drawn to the space in which faith could be sometimes used not to reassert a Muslim identity within Australian society, but rather assert a new identity against Australian society and the wider targets of jihadism. 

A more volatile situation could be hard to design. It boiled over in December 2005, when spurred on by Sydney radio shock-jock Alan Jones, Cronulla beach became the scene for savage attacks on anyone of Middle Eastern appearance.  That evening young men gathered at Punchbowl Park and moved east in convoys, retaliating against those symbols of the other Australia that had so debased them. The RSL at Brighton–le-Sands, cars and shops in Maroubra, Anglo-looking men walking along the darkened streets of the eastern suburbs, all became targets for revenge.

Out of that conflict arose a new determination by the mainstream Lebanese Muslim community to assert a right to be seen as part of Australian society.  This took on a number of forms, from the conservative to the deviant.

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl tells this story and others through the eyes of those who have lived it. If anything is clear it is that the politics of respect has to be rescued from those who have turned it toxic, and that the perpetrators exist on all sides.