Not Quite White – a review

“The day was changed, which once had been flat as a pastry board. Now it was full of talk, and laughing, and the whining of the Syrian’s mangy dog, and the jingled harness of his old blue horse. Now there was no question of work, now that the Syrain had come”

– from Patrick White’s novel ‘The Aunt’s Story’.

Name the first popularly elected non-anglo political leader in Australia.

Now give that person’s cultural background.

Having trouble?

If you read Anne Monsour’s book “Not Quite White – Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947” you may begin to understand why.

The Lebanese/Syrian in Australia were forced to hide their identity by white Australia policies which restricted “non-white” immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973.

Lebanese were described under these policies as ‘Asiatic’ aliens in colonial Australia.

Kids were called wogs at school and adults were discriminated against in employment. They were racially profiled and Syrian commercial activities unfairly prosecuted.

Lebanese were denied citizenship. To overcome these hardships many concealed their language, religion, food and place of birth.

A  bitter debate rages in National Front circles as to the ethnicity of one notorious right-wing intellectual who denies his Lebanese origins and prefers to be viewed as European.

Anne Monsour has identified the first wave of Syrian/Lebanese migration being from 1880 to 1947. Using modern historical research methods, Dr Monsour has written Lebanese Australians into history and dispelled myths about Australia and its immigrants. Ironically, the descendants of the colonialists sometimes identified Lebanese as Aborigines – indigenous people who have been here for over 40,000 years. In a cruel twist of this racism, an aboriginal friend was told as a child that she was Lebanese – she was an adult before she found that she was a Bungalung woman.

Anne Monsour challenges historical wisdom and condescending popular belief (Patrick White?) that Lebanese migrants were illiterate, poor and uneducated. She delves behind the immigration archives and demonstrates that many Lebanese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century were fluent and literate in Arabic and English. She shows that the immigration dictation test was designed to keep out non-Europeans – not to test linguistic ability. The test was administered in languages unfamiliar to the immigrants, one example was a Lebanese fluent in Arabic and English was given a test in Italian.

When knowledge of English was limited strong Lebanese social cohesion ensured that someone was on hand to read a letter or translate a government document or write a response.

Anne Monsour details the occupational background of Lebanese who arrived in Australia prior to 1900 – trades such as shoemaker, blacksmith, pottery maker, tailor, farmer, English teacher, and merchant were recorded in official documents.

The early Lebanese arrivals disguised some aspects of their religious beliefs and identified themselves as Christian. They did not place stress on the eastern rights of the orthodox church from which some came and fell in with established Christian institutions, often the Roman catholic church.

Anne Monsour outlines the strong village ties and shows how important family and church were to the Lebanese in Australia.

If I understand her correctly Dr Monsour places the importance of family and village first before religious affiliation and nationality. Families to this day identify bonds formed in villages in Lebanon like Zahle and Rass Baalbec.

From the outset of World War I, Lebanese families were declared enemy aliens despite their sons having enlisted and fought against the Turks and Germans. Ironically they were classed as citizens of the Ottoman empire, even though their country around Mt Lebanon was colonised by the Turks and that they had resisted. It is likely that the Lebanese had placed more faith in the Britain than in Turkey or France, yet the British Australians rejected them. When the middle east was carved up at Versailles after the war their homeland was split – with Lebanon coming under the French, and Syria under the British.

There are various theories as to why Lebanese came to Australia. Some postulate escape from the Ottoman yoke, religious sectarianism, economic advancement. But once again Anne Monsour cuts through the myth and goes for the evidence in government archives and oral histories.

Many families brought knowledge and skills to help build prosperity in a new nation federated in 1901. They put their talents to good use despite discrimination. The Lebanese were mostly successful – often starting out in low paid jobs like hawking and carting. Many were denied property and voting rights – nevertheless were prepared to fight their case in the courts and through the political system. In the end, many won out.

Lebanese women participated as partners with the men in enterprises. They worked in other occupations apart from hawking – often as dressmakers and retailers. When I walk through Stones Corner I can still see the shop where  two of these women  now deceased carried on their dressmaking business.

Their marriages had been arranged traditionaly but more with the idea of a match of equals than of the woman being subservient as in Australian culture of the time. The Lebanese settled in regional Australia trying to operate on the periphery to make the best of limited options.

Dr Monsour’s conclusion challenges the notion of Australia as an egalitarian multicultural country and in the process identifies European Australia as xenophobic and backward thinking.

The White Australia policy is exposed as a racist instrument that reduced diversity and richness in Australian culture to this day. By seeking a European identity to achieve ‘success’ many Lebanese lost much – they lost language, culture and identity.

In the end, all Australians were losers because our society came to worship the narrow fulfilment of money. It was not enough that some succeed, others must fail.

So who was that Lebanese person who became a popular political leader – it was Steve Bracks, former Premier of Victoria.

It is a wonder we even know that Steve Bracks is Lebanese.

Thanks to Anne Monsour for all her work in shedding light on this important subject. I recommend her book and hope that someone follows in her footsteps and  has a serious look at the next wave of migration after 1947.

Ian Curr
Jan 2011


clip_image002Not Quite White

Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947

by Anne Monsour

Post Pressed, Brisbane 2010

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