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