LEBANESE IN AUSTRALIA Research, Writing and ‘Depictions’




Outline of Address to Australian Lebanese Historical Society
14 September 2001

In relation to research, writing and ‘depictions’ on Lebanese in Australia this talk aims to answer the following questions:

What has been done and why?
How has it been done?
What have we learned?
Where to from here?

In answering these questions we will examine our current knowledge of the Lebanese in Australia and show how new research, writing and ‘depictions’ are continually leading us to revise and expand our understandings of the field.

The term ‘depictions’ is used to cover exhibitions of photographs, objects, paintings and other art forms that have been used to depict any aspect of the Lebanese presence in Australia.

Comments on this ‘work in progress’ as well as additions to the bibliography would be appreciated.

What has been done?

It took almost 100 years of living in Australia before there was any systematic writing and research about the Lebanese in this country. The work undertaken since the mid 1970s falls into the following categories:

1.1 Family Histories
Examples include Batrouney, Mansour and Batrouney (1989), King (1994), Ansell (2001) and Nasser (2001). The motivations for undertaking such work include celebrating family reunions and anniversaries, a general interest in genealogy and sheer curiosity about one’s family. In uncovering family stories these works often express a sense of family identity and continuity. Family histories can sometimes lead the authors to undertake further work in the field.

1.2 Academic Research and Writing
This represents the largest body of work done on the Lebanese in Australia. Examples include the body of work of Humphrey, Hage and Batrouney as well as works by Tabar, Mackay, Ata, Burnley and Yarwood, among others. Current work includes the documentary research of Ann Monsour and Nola Bramble on the period from 1880-1920 in Queensland and New South Wales respectively. Academic studies present empirical, conceptual and theoretical perspectives on aspects of the Lebanese in Australia and enable it to be seen in the wider contexts of research and writing on migration, ethnicity, nationalism, race, comparative religion, and globalisation. These works are to be found in theses for higher degrees, conference papers, books, and articles in national and international journals.

1.3 General Histories
Examples are few and include The Lebanese in Australia, Batrouney and Batrouney (1985) and The Lebanese by Drury (1978). Motivations include presenting a comprehensive picture over time and across groups, identifying patterns in the Lebanese story in Australia and producing accessible works for students and general readers.

1.4 Histories of Particular Groups and Localities
These include studies of hawkers and shopkeepers (Wilton,1987), of Lebanese in Sydney (Burnley,1984), of the suburb of Redfern in Sydney (Wattan project, 2000), of Lebanese in country towns (Emmerton, 1993), and exhibitions such as those at Taree (2001).

1.5 Studies of Settlement Needs
These projects are usually commissioned by governments and include general settlement studies such as Batrouney (1982), Humphrey (1984) and Mackie (1987). They are often followed by the allocation of government funds and the establishment of community groups to deal with the issues identified and to implement the recommendations proposed.

1.6 Studies of Particular Social Groups and Issues
These include studies of young people (Collins, Noble, Poynting and Tabar, 2000) and the elderly (for example, Batrouney, 1989). These can be based on funded projects or academic research into an important social issue.

1.7 Fiction works
Examples include short stories (for example, Haikal, 1999), novels by Abbas el Zein (2001) and Haikal (2002) as well as a forthcoming novel by Denise Rowley (2003).

1.8 Exhibitions
These include art exhibitions (Wattan 2001) as well as exhibitions of artefacts (Jirrin Journey) and historical photographs and items (Family, Business and Community: The Australian Lebanese in Victoria). These exhibitions are sometimes attached to festivals or conferences. Their value lies in the wide appeal of visual presentations and in their capacity to provide counter images to those in the popular media.

2. How has it been done?

2.1 Oral History

Interviews have been the most common method of research for family histories. Their major limitations are

  • respondents’ lack of knowledge or loss of memory
  • distortions based on ‘impression management’
  • distortions based on ‘alternation’(reinterpreting or reconstructing past life in accordance with their present view of reality)
  • distortions from often repeated and embellished family stories.

Advantages include

  • obtaining accounts of direct experiences of interviewees
  • obtaining their memories of the earlier generation
  • tapping feelings, attitudes and family anecdotes
  • seeking a retrospective reconstruction of social reality.

Documentary Research
Advantages include

  • the fact that many records of government actions, decisions and correspondence have been preserved and are accessible
  • the variety of documentary sources which enable a cross-checking of information on individual stories and historical events
  • the large amount of information kept to record decisions concerning a marginal group such as the Syrian-Lebanese.

Limitations include

  • the fact that important family and community events, traditions and attitudes will not find a place in these records
  • errors in recording made by government officials
  • its primary focus is on relations with government which is but one aspect of the life of a family or community.

Social Science methods
These include questionnaires, interviews and participant observation and are essential tools for social science research with large samples. However, without an adequate theoretical and conceptual framework and historical perspective the use of these alone can lead to ‘abstracted empiricism.’

Historical context
All matters of interest to the researcher, writer or ‘depicter’ have a historical context. Awareness of the historical context of the Lebanese community and wider Australian society will enable a richer interpretation of the matters under study. Failure to take this into account will lead to the trap of seeing past events and people through contemporary eyes and interpreting them through contemporary values.

Creative imagination
This involves the researcher, writer or ‘depicter’ in entering empathically into the lives of the subjects they are studying and presenting their stories creatively and with sympathetic understanding or, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘the eye of pity.’

Different research tasks will require a different mix of methodologies. However, the more open the researcher, writer or ‘depicter’ is to using a range of these methods the closer they will come to doing justice to the stories they are telling and the analyses they are undertaking.

3. What have we learned?

Those of us with an interest in the topic now have some understanding of the following:

Lebanese migration

  • Lebanese migration and settlement across three waves spanning 120 years: the first from the1880s to the outbreak of the First World War; the second as part of Australia’s great post World War Two migration; and the third during the civil war in Lebanon, 1976-1990.
  • The internal migration of Lebanese over 100 years initially to country areas and then from country areas to capital cities, especially in New South Wales and Queensland.
  • A fourth movement of people consists of the large numbers of return visits of Australian Lebanese to Lebanon in the 1990s, mainly for family reunions and tourism.

White Australia Policy period

  • The impact of restrictive legislation at the time of Federation on Syrian-Lebanese migration and taking up of Australian citizenship and the responses of community leaders and individuals to this official discrimination.
  • The ‘defensiveness’ of Australian Lebanese during the White Australia Policy period in the face of official discrimination, nationalism and imperialism and its impacts on Australian-Lebanese communities, families and individuals in subsequent years.
  • Some of the forms which this defensivenes can take may be seen in affirmations of public spiritedness and loyalty (see below), in Australian Lebanese obscuring or denying their Lebanese backgrounds or ‘claiming’ prestigious Australians as members of their community.

Australian Lebanese families

  • Lebanese families across generations in both rural and urban areas, including changes over time in occupations, education, religion, community activities and family values.
  • The significant role of women in Lebanese families, migration and businesses from the hawking period to the present.
  • Lebanese family values in relation to social activities and across the life cycle.

Australian Lebanese Occupations and Businesses

  • The occupations and businesses of Australian Lebanese across the three waves, including the occupational pathways of each of the waves, the entrepreneurial activities of some and unemployment experiences of others.
  • The role of families in creating and sustaining businesses.

Australian Lebanese communities

  • The formation and characteristics of Australian-Lebanese communities in the different contexts of capital cities and larger regional towns.
  • The contribution of Australian-Lebanese community organisations, including Australian-Lebanese associations, welfare organisations, village associations, cultural and sporting bodies and the special place of churches and mosques in Australian-Lebanese communities.
  • The responses of Australian Lebanese communities to the changing official attitudes to Australian-Lebanese from the White Australia Policy period, through the assimilation period to the multicultural period.
  • The impact of the Civil War on Australian Lebanese communities, especially on settlement experiences and needs of the third wave immigrants.
  • Interactions, positive and negative, between different migration waves and their struggle to ‘represent’ the community.

Public spiritedness and loyalty

  • The public spiritedness of Australian Lebanese as evidenced by their collections for charities and professions of loyalty, especially in times of war.
  • The story of Lebanese as ‘enemy aliens’ during the First World War, how Lebanese reacted to it and its impact on the community.
  • The involvement of Australian Lebanese men and women in the armed services and wars of the twentieth century.

Stereotyping and Racism

  • The impact of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings engendered by the first Gulf War and other international events on individual and community well-being and self-perception.
  • The stereotyping and racism directed against Lebanese and the wider Arabic community by elements within government, the community and the media and the responses of different sections of the community.

Contacts with Lebanon

  • Changes in the extent and means of maintaining contact with Lebanon over time.
    The impact of communications technologies on access to information about Lebanon and Lebanese culture.
  • The impact of return visits to Lebanon on issues of identity.

4. Where to from here?

Although we have some understanding of the elements of the Australian Lebanese story outlined above, we need to:

  • continue to research, write and depict aspects of the story in which we have made a start as well as open up new fields for research
  • continue with existing methodologies as well as develop new methodologies and combine methodologies as appropriate.

Some specific suggestions

In terms of subjects for research, writing and depiction we need to:

  • uncover and record more stories of Australian Lebanese families and individuals in order to expand our knowledge and challenge our existing generalisations and assumptions; recent research by Bramble, Monsour and Batrouney are uncovering examples which are challenging, or at least expanding, our understanding of the first wave immigrants;
  • produce stories of the formation and development of Australian Lebanese communities in country towns (such as Albury and Taree) and rural areas as well as in the cities such as Redfern in Sydney and in the ‘Khara’ in Melbourne; nor should we ignore the more wealthy Lebanese communities which formed in the prestigious suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne;
  • write histories of Australian Lebanese community organisations such as churches, mosques, Australian Lebanese associations, welfare organisations, village organisations and media; histories of two churches in Melbourne (St Georges, 1980 and St Nicholas, 2000) provide examples;
  • produce histories of Australian-Lebanese businesses such as warehouses, factories, shops, restaurants and the involvement of families in those businesses; see The Business of Life (Ansell, 2001) and the Australian Lebanese Heritage Project exhibition Family, Business and Community: The Australian Lebanese in Victoria;
  • begin to focus more on second and third wave Australian Lebanese stories, covering issues listed above
  • produce more detailed histories of selected periods as well as a general history surveying the total period and providing a synthesis of information and perspectives.
  • In terms of methodologies we might consider the following:
  • undertake comparative studies across states in Australia: for example, are the findings about the first wave in Queensland concerning the proportion of women hawkers and the ‘claiming’ of European birthplaces equally true for New South Wales and Victoria?
  • keep abreast of international and Australian literature in the field; for example, the work of Shakir (1997) alerts us to the significant, and often, independent role of Arab women in families, migration and commerce;
  • be aware of the historical context of our stories and seek to interpret them within the Lebanese community and wider national contexts;
  • try to obtain letters and photographs for first wave immigrants given their importance in keeping in touch with their families in Lebanon and other countries of the diaspora;
  • conceive of the story of Lebanese in Australia across the whole span of 120 or so years and ensure that it is inclusive of all groups, including smaller ones such as Druse, Protestant Christians, among others and of interactions between groups;
  • encourage post-graduate students to study aspects of the Lebanese experience in Australia;
  • search for continuities and discontinuities in the Lebanese story in terms of families, occupations and businesses, community organisations and relations with government;
  • avoid idealising the first wave of Australian Lebanese and perhaps ignoring (or even denigrating) later waves;
  • systematically collect and record photographs, objects and movie films for lodging in libraries and museums;
  • finally, there may be an emerging need for a national centre or storing house to collect, or at least record, the research, writing and depictions on the Lebanese in Australia.


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Dr Trevor Batrouney © Trevor Batrouney
Adjunct Professor First published in Records made Real
RMIT University Lebanese Settlement: 1865 to 1945.
Sydney Records Centre, The Rocks,
NSW 2001