Lebanese Presence in South Brisbane, Woolloongabba and West End
For anyone who has lived in or around West End in Brisbane this is a truly wonderful book. It is compelling reading giving historical significance to places familiar to many. Using pictures and words Anne Monsour has woven a thread demonstrating the community and family bonds that have lasted for 130 years among Syrian /Lebanese who had migrated to Australia in the 19th century.
If community means hospitality, love of culture, language, Mediterranean food and family then it is depicted in these pages. So is the mischief, the late night card games, the hawking of fancy goods, the means by which Lebanese overcame the White Australia policy and the Queensland government’s own unique forms of institutional racism.
For over 30 years Anne Monsour has traced the Lebanese experience and published a number of key books: Not Quite White and Raw Kibbeh are two. In A Continuous Thread, Anne looks at the Lebanese who settled in West End, the Gabba and South Brisbane from a historical perspective. She launched the project in early September 2019 at the Kurilpa Hall in West End and out of it came a book, a mobile exhibition and a website!
Forced to work in areas that did not compete with Anglo Australians the Syrian/Lebanese were highly successful in retail, shop-keeping, running regional stores, some farming ventures. They made sure their children received a good education so that the next generation could join the public professions and work in the public service. Sadly many lost their language because of the dominance of English in education, commerce and public life.
Australia’s Worst Union (AWU) brought its own brand of racism against the hard working Syrian/Lebanese. Anne Monsour writes about the AWU newspaper’s description of her forebears:
“Indeed, in February 1897, the Brisbane Worker (p. 2) described Stanley Street, South Brisbane as ‘Syrian town’. These Syrians, who were mostly from the area now known as Lebanon, were described disparagingly by the Worker as ‘coloured, towel-capped merchants’ who were threatening the livelihood of white retailers and furthermore, had ‘evidently made up their minds to stay’. Despite being unwelcome and encountering many obstacles, particularly as a result of the White Australia Policy, these Syrians did indeed stay.”
I had lived in West End in the 1970s and 80s and have maintained a connection there through friends and political struggles since that time; yet Anne has brought the place to light in a way I could not have guessed. Streets where I lived still resonate with the sense of community generated by the Lebanese, the Greeks, the Latin Americans and other migrant groups that called West End home. They did so in a place of unique significance to first nations people where Boundary Street was used by police and the authorities as a separation line between black and white in a colonial apartheid state exploited by reactionary governments like that of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
At the launch of the project, Jonathan Sri, the local councillor, called on older migrant groups like the Syrian/Lebanese to support the new refugees who have been forced into detention by state and federal governments. Fair enough. But isn’t that the job of all Australians regardless of their origins?
One of the many stories was about the Dyer family. I went to school with David Dyer at Nudgee Junior College and my parents knew the Dyer’s (Tony and Leonie). In the 1960s we used to visit their house off Bina Street in a locality then known as Moordale and now part of Chapell Hill. Till reading Anne’s book, I did not know how the Dyer’s had come to this place, Meanjin (Brisbane). I knew they were successful and made mattresses but Anne Monsour tells the story of their coming:
“Fifteen when he arrived in South Brisbane in 1895, Salem Dahur (Dyer) worked as a hawker and then general storekeeper (Blackbutt), before buying 719-721 Stanley Street Woolloongabba in 1923. Impressed with its prospects, he went into partnership with C.F. Thompson a bedding manufacturer who had patented the Madad mattress. When Madad Pty Ltd became insolvent in 1930, Salem assumed ownership and the debt liability. By 1938, the business was S. Dyer and Company which developed into a successful business that has involved three generations of the Dyer family. The licensee for Sealy in Australia since 1969, the company now operates as Sealy of Australia.
Photographs: Dyer Family: Back Row: George, Mintaha , Salem, Katoora; Middle row: Violet, Tony (standing), Mabel, Mary; Front Row: Nick, Henry, Pattie, c.1928. Courtesy of Dyer family 719 Stanley Street Woolloongabba, c1940. Courtesy of Dyer family”
As Phil Monsour said at the launch of his sister’s project: “we’re celebrating the lives of people who made their mark in West End; I wonder how we will be remembered for the mark that we leave in that same place?”
He added that he had written a song about the houses he had lived in during his life in West End. Phil brought a tear to the eyes of people in the audience when he played his song dedicated to his grandmother who lived her life in a small village in the Bekaa Valley. His song is called My Spirit.
It is a shame that Anne Monsour couldn’t tell us more about the Syrian / Lebanese that went into the professions and public life. She mentions that Sam Doumany was the first Lebanese member of Parliament in Queensland. An Attorney General in the Bjelke-Petersen cabinet, Doumany was on the conservative side of politics. Another descendent of Lebanese migrants, Jackie Trad, went on to become deputy premier but she chose the conservative route in a right-wing Queensland Labor cabinet dominated by the Australian Workers Union (Australia’s Worst union [AWU]). Following on the privatisation of Queensland Rail, Trad ignored warnings about climate change and welcomed the Adani corporation to mine and export coal from central Queensland. She also supported the ecological disaster known as the Toondah Harbour development. As treasurer Trad embrace neoliberal economics already discredited even prior to the Covid pandemic.
There have been some very active Lebanese people on the Left of Queensland politics including from the Monsours (her own family) and the Lutveys (O’Neill’s). Anne mentions the widely known David Malouf, the author of the evocative Edmonstone Street; however the three O’Neill (Lutvey) brothers are pretty well known for their writings and activism as well. Dan O’Neill was prominent in the struggle to rid Queensland of it racist government, the Bjelke-Petersen dictatorship. As was his brothers Michael and Erroll.
The other brother in the Lutvey clan was Erroll O’Neill, a prominent playwright and activist against apartheid (as the pictures show).
There is much more, but the author considered this to be outside her remit; and perhaps it is, however the eldest O’Neill brother was born in 1938 and this definitely fits within the time span of people discussed in her book. Of course they are mentioned but, curiously, not for their major contribution to public life in Queensland, their opposition to the status quote and opposition to the Vietnam war.
But then what Anne has written reflects the realities of Queensland and Australia. Assimilation was the only reality presented to Lebanese from the outset. Despite open racism because of their dark skin and discrimination Lebanese migrants emabraced Australia because of the opportunities it provided. Till the 1980s there were little if any sectarian divisions in church affiliation of worship. St Clements in South Brisbane had been unique in accepting all branches of Christianity in Lebanon – maronites, melkites, orthodox. But as the civil war in Lebanon progressed the sectarian divisions began to take shape here in Australia as well, but largely these were overcome by the reality of living here. There is no mention of the 2005 Cronulla riots but there is a discussion of multi-culturalism in the “A Continuous Thread”. My own feeling is that much lip service is given to multiculturalism but racism lies belief and perhaps this is why Anne Monsour has dealt so strongly with the White Australia policy.
Indeed many people of the Left failed to even recognise prominent Lebanese as being Arab, preferring to see them as being European. There is denial on the Left. To deny our past is a powerful element in Australian culture, most strongly felt with loss of language itself with the 2nd and 3r generation of Lebanese no longer able to speak Arabic. But not entirely. People of advanced age are still trying to remember what it was like at the beginning, growing up in Lebanese families. As Dan O’Neill said at the launch of Anne Monsour’s book: “I am still trying to remember what it was like (growing up Lebanese) when I was five years of age, (surrounded by my Lebanese aunties, uncles and cousins)“.
Anne Monsour’s own achievement in educating Brisbane people about the significance of Syrian / Lebanese migration should not be underestimated. This untold story shines a light on our Australia’s conservative past and hopefully makes us realise a more open, accepting society is needed.
3 October 2021