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. 

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