‘One day, my habibi, when you are far away from here, you will remember that a man can no more forget his father and grandfather than a river can forget its source.’
When two Aborigines meet for the first time they ask, ‘What is your Dreaming?’ – Who are you, who is your family?
To experience the absence of a Dreaming is both powerful and devastating. Deprived of their Dreaming a person has no tribal identity, no connectedness, no belonging. Family roots are as important as the spirit of the land.
When I was eleven years old my mother took me into the outhouse, shut the door and whispered. ‘Listen carefully. I have something important to tell you. You’re not Irish. Your grandfather was Syrian and your grandmother was Chinese. And your surname is not really Mack. I don’t know what it is. But you must not tell anyone that you know. Especially do not tell your father that you know or he will punish me. It is to be our secret.’
‘Does this mean that I’m not Australian?’
‘You are Australian, too, child.’
‘But how can I be all those things?’
I did not tell my father that I knew his secret. He died a few weeks later, taking his heritage and his stories with him.
And with his death I did the only thing I could with my mother’s startling revelation. I bundled her words into a drawer of my subconscious, locked it, and threw away the key.
What I did not know then was that this drawer would slide open, always when I least expected or wanted it to, until decades later I set out on a pilgrimage to discover my tribal identity, my sense of belonging.
The journey to my Dreaming was long and arduous. If my father loved me I was unaware of it. He was the patriarchal, distant, detached and disconnected figurehead of our large, isolated and insular family that was heavily reliant on each other for social interaction. We lived as if we had been plucked from nowhere and placed in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, with no background, no roots, and no memory.
And any remaining elder of my family had either died or, if they still lived, they held on to their silence and their fear, remaining adamant that we were not ‘foreign’, that the past was dangerous territory and should be left where it was – buried. I soon realised that if I were to uncover my hidden heritage and find my father and grandparents, I would need to approach it in much the same way that Michelangelo approached his creation of David. ‘I did not create David,’ Michelangelo once said. ‘He was already in the stone. I simply stripped away the outer layers so that he could reveal himself.’
Peeling away over 100 years seemed to me to be an impossible task. It is the nature of stories and history to float around the ether only to disappear or change on enquiry, so my search was not by way of traditional documented research, but by uncovering and following each lead that presented itself, no matter how small. A snippet from someone’s memory, an unexpected conversation, old forgotten photos, a name or event remembered were precious gems of discovery. I began to tease these threads to the surface in much the same way as the most slender rose thorn buried deep under layers of skin can be enticed forth with gentle persuasion until finally I entered the world of my Dreaming and let my father and my grandparents reveal themselves. After an extraordinary five-year physical and spiritual journey from the Australian High Country, through China, the Vatican City and to Mount Hermon, Lebanon, my father’s secret was revealed to me at last and I reclaimed my sense of place and belonging for which I had so long yearned.
And I knew that what my grandfather had once said to my father was true. ‘One day,’ he said, ‘one day, my habibi, when you are far away from Lebanon, you will remember that a man can no more forget his father and grandfather than a river can forget its source.’
© Denise Baraki Mack, 2006
A version of this story is published in Lebanese Diaspora – History, Racism and Belonging – edited by Paul Tabar, published by Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon, 2005.