Ethnic Literature: Flavour – Lebanese

By Cindy El Sayed


(In line with all literary categories available to non-whites: successful yet bittersweet immigration story/religion/school/family and food. Qualified and accredited by the white people for brown ethnic writers committee.)


1. Successful yet bittersweet immigration

My mum came here alone and pregnant with me. She did this for each kid, and I’m glad she did, otherwise I might not be here. There was a beautiful but brief stint in what I still consider my homeland, even though I was born in Paddington, Sydney. I lived in a town outside of Beirut, a tiny but great apartment on the ground floor.

We had cherry curtains, a ‘90s patterned sofa, a tv, bookshelves and an office. Nearby was an apple orchard where me and my mother picked a basket full: there was also a pale-coloured horse that we gave an apple to whenever we went. A fairy tale childhood, but then here I came back to the city I was born in, Sydney.

We had to live here for a year or two without dad, but he sent us all his pay checks. I vividly remember hating our Mascot townhouse, its tiny backyard and crappy carpet. I more vividly remember not having legs on our table because mum couldn’t build it herself, so we ate KFC on the flat table top. It wasn’t bad. But I miss everything about Lebanon, and the little fragments I have are not enough, and I wouldn’t be the same if I grew up there; I think I might have been happier some days.


2. Religion

Religion comes to me in bursts – it always has since I was old enough to know what it was.

It’s always there in my mind and heart’s periphery, on the edge, waiting for me. More patient, stable and accepting than any person, really.

A cool pebble in my sweaty palm, a clacking of rosary beads in busy fingers.

Islam is in my mother’s voice, in my father’s words. It’s there in every crackling, awkward conversation with relatives that I know I love, but don’t remember.

It’s there in every “m’ashallah” when I do something good, in every “bismillah” before we eat.

I do find myself in a complicated relationship, and I feel like an outsider sometimes, but it’s a part of me.


3. School

I am three. Tiny child. Curly hair, red coat. There are sugar cubes in my pocket. Next to the sugar cubes, tiny hands scrunched up, sweaty. They are melting the sugar.

“Sylvie, what if they make me write, I don’t know how to write or read.” Sylvia laughs. She turns the car into a street. We stop near a fire station and I think it’s beautiful. Mum is sitting in the front seat, trying not to cry.

Sylvia is my mum’s friend’s daughter and my third favourite person after mum and dad. She turns off the car and says to me, “Don’t be silly, they won’t make you write!” She says it kindly and I’m assured.

It’s my first day of preschool. I meet a girl named Layla and love her immediately because she has red hair and blue eyes. Primary school and high school were blurs of Catholicism and confusion. English was my favourite subject, and I liked art. My general maths was the worst score I got for HSC, but I am secretly proud of getting a nice, raunchy 69, which I still think is funny.


4. Food and Family

My family is a dad, a mum, an aunty, two sisters and three cats. They are all really great and I love them. I grouped food and family together because food in Lebanese culture is central to family. Obligatory ethnic food mention: tabouli, fattoush, hommus, mjadara, meat on sticks. Lebanese sweets like baklawa, znud el set, ashta and Lebanon’s take on the Black Forest that everyone just calls gateaux (French colonialism mention). Ramadan is the best because it’s always most of these things at once, every day. Food is emotional, spiritual even, in ethnic cultures as the stereotypes suggest. We take photos of food before people at parties (yeah that one is really true).