SMH Comment piece: Punchbowl tells its stories of honour, respect, shame and survival

Punchbowl tells its stories of honour, respect, shame and survival
July 8, 2014

Andrew Jakubowicz

Lebanese Australians have played a key part in building the nation – providing some of its most beloved leaders, including Dame Marie Bashir, the retiring governor of NSW, and her husband, former rugby international and Lord Mayor of Sydney, Nicholas Shehadie. They have been sports stars such as the NRL’s Hazem El Masri and Benny Elias, and business leaders like Talal Yassine and Samier 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 Operation Pendennis, which uncovered a terrorist network in Sydney and Melbourne in 2005, and 2009’s Operation Neath, which foiled the plot against Sydney’s Holsworthy Army Barracks.

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, a story of Lebanese Australians, is back on track after a bumpy start which resulted in the series being put on hold after it was discovered its star Michael LaHoud’s claims about his criminal history were fraudulent. 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 Lebanon succeeded in finding a place despite the barriers of White Australia, it was the Lebanese Civil War starting in 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 and 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. 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 borne 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. 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 Arabic family carnival attended by 35,000 people at Tempe degenerated into a brawl after police used 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 Dib family on Telopea St, 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 September 11 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.

The final episode of Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl is on Thursday night on SBS ONE at 8.30pm.

Andrew Jakubowicz is a sociologist at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Reflecting on Punchbowl feedback —- truth, lies and videotape



The final week of SBS’ four-part documentary series Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl brings us to the last decade’s crises for Lebanese Muslim communities in Sydney’s west, and the path to redemption they have sought to follow. It is a story now that both unites and divides Sydney’s Lebanese communities.

The Lebanese-background population in Australia remains majority Christian, with the simple Muslim/Christian differences complicated by sects and tensions within and between each of the main blocs: Maronite Catholics, Melkites and Eastern Orthodox, Shi’a, Sunni and Alawi, Druze, the political and the non-religious.

Whatever the specific religious belief system they follow, there remains among them a shared cultural concern for respect, a currency that sustains the networks of families and clans. Sometimes that cultural economy of honour and shame can become toxic under the impact of fear, hatred, violence and crime. The Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl series starts from that point of tension to explore how the image of the Lebanese has become so corroded in Australia.

The series has revealed that the Lebanese-Australian story today is an Australian story, forged from the interaction of people fleeing war, and finding a society unprepared for their arrival and the problems they carried with them.

For a century, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants have travelled to Australia. Earlier generations battled White Australia to become a respected part of our diversity, ultimately providing long-standing and much-loved New South Wales governor Dame Marie Bashir.

In comments I have received (and more than 130 on a previousConversation article exemplify these trends), there are four themes which find themselves at loggerheads. In a sense they reveal the backstory to the series, and the ongoing debate that Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl has entered.

The most poignant moment for me came when I took a call from my local mechanic, a man I knew by his Australian first name. He had come to Australia as a 16-year old during the civil war in Lebanon after his Muslim family fled the violence. He had experienced racism throughout his life, changing his name to avoid the disdain his Arab name used to attract. He now runs a successful operation with his very Australian son.

For him, the archetypal successful family small businessman, Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl had been the first time he had ever seen any recognition of his people and their lives in Australia outside the repetitive media stereotypes of inarticulate thugs into guns and gangs.

The previous evening I read an email – one of many I have received over the years offering similar poisonous insights. The author, whose name appears Anglo-Australian, was certain of many things about Lebanese Muslims and about me as the series interlocutor:

[Your] one sided viewpoint (was) truly terrifying. I assert it is people like you that are responsible for the horrendous issues now facing Europe … Overly liberal do-gooders like yourself doing your best to ensure the islamisation of proud European nations populated by law abiding people enjoying their own impressive cultures.

For this man, there could clearly never be a Muslim who was acceptable, no matter how moral, peaceful and productive.

One of the other issues raised but in no way resolved by the series has been the Christian/Muslim divide. Filmmaker George Basha, one of the main characters in the series, is of Christian background, and his parents and the Muslim Lebanese parents in the series shared many experiences of difficult settlement, as their children did of racism.

However, there is a growing apprehension among some Christian commentators that the series made three wrong moves. In private conversations it has been put to me that Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl suggested problems that they feel are essentially associated with Muslims but have been sheeted home to all Lebanese.

It has also been said that this is the first real story of the Lebanese ever shown on Australian TV and should not have focused so much on the dark side of crime and violence when Lebanese have contributed so much to Australia’s development; and that the series resurrected “bad news” stories from the past that were best left undisturbed.

The fourth type of response comes from people who were not part of these more intimate and impassioned engagements. The absence of stories of immigrant communities from most media unless they are a cause for fear, concern or momentary adulation (usually as sportspeople) has contributed to an extraordinary ignorance among Australians about our shared and complex histories.

Similarly to the interest evoked in Vietnamese settlement by the Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta series in 2012, viewers have found that this series provided a very accessible history lesson, which integrated cultural awareness, personal narratives and social and political analysis.

Viewers have appreciated the very non-stereotypical characters (discounting yours truly playing the sociologist) and understood the commonality of experiences and the reciprocated concerns expressed by Muslims and Christians about each other’s situations.

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl has a very clear central concern. It wants to take the headlines and look behind them; to take the stereotypes and humanise them; to take the issues and reveal their complexity. As with Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, in this series we can see how culture and power meld, and how the powerless seek to find respect, and a fair place in society.

The past few years in Punchbowl have seen the passing of two symbols of the old regime, both of whom who are carefully bypassed in the series despite the consequence of their actions. Sheik Hilaly, the former imam of the Lakemba mosque has retired, and his worst excesses have faded.

Not far away, the political machine created by Christian politician Eddie Obeid is crumbling as the Labor Party he thought he once owned tries to recover. New players are now filling the void in politics, business, government, religion and crime. Perhaps now we might become more interested in and more aware of what that future holds.