I was born into a Lebanese family in South Africa at the height of apartheid. My father was a lawyer who entered public life. Inspired by his religious beliefs, he spoke out against racism and the injustices of the system. My mother was a kind woman who brought up her five children to be aware that our privileged lives carried responsibilities to help others where we could.
When I married and ran my own home in Cape Town, I did voluntary work with various organisations trying to combat poverty.
There's other kinds of people!
Migrating to Australia, we had to fly out of Harare in Zimbabwe because airlines followed international sanctions against apartheid and did not fly into South Africa. I had travelled in Europe as a university student but our South African passports did not allow us to travel anywhere in Africa.
Suddenly in Harare, the world opened before me. I saw people from Somalia, Sudan, West Africa and more. In the diplomatic zone, I saw flags and embassies of Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia and many countries that I knew existed but had no contact with because of South Africa’s political isolation.
Fabulous food in Sydney
I arrived in Australia in 1986. When my children went to school, their vegetarian lunch-boxes attracted interest. I crisscrossed the city, tasting, asking questions and purchasing ingredients I’d never used before. My vegetarian cooking school opened, using a great variety of recipes from all traditions available in Sydney.
It was also in trawling the city that I passed a bakery in Bexley one day. The aroma of zaater made me salivate and I found my eyes watering with nostalgia for my grandmother’s cooking. The exhausted baker, a refugee from the Lebanese civil war, welcomed me with blessed words of peace and invited me, a privileged migrant from Africa, to feel at home in ‘this excellent country’. As a result, I ‘came out’ most fully as a person of Lebanese origin. In South Africa, with some shame, we’d eaten our kibbeh and stuffed vegetables behind closed doors: here, with great pride, we could buy anything we needed in shops and restaurants.
My Books, and what they mean to me
My first book, a memoir, was published in 2007. The English novelist, Zadie Smith said, ‘Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some, a horror story for others.’ When I spoke at libraries, people approached me and revealed their pain as South Africans. Some described their memories of people, places and events they’d been too ashamed to enjoy. They thanked me for giving them permission to find and in some cases, forgive themselves for how they were within that harsh world.
The more I write, the bolder I become. My third book, a novel, Voices on the Wind, describes the secret history of the Lebanese in South Africa. Our identity as white people with all the rights and privileges of citizenship had been won in two court cases in the Supreme Court in 1913 and again in 1925. The story of those court cases was concealed after 1948 when Lebanese feared the apartheid government could reverse those rulings and re-classify us as Indian with many restrictions under the Population Registration Act. That act listed every person’s race and prescribed how and where to live, whom to marry, the quality of education, what sort of work a person could undertake, what sort of training and how far that training could go. I wanted the next generation to know, understand and appreciate the racist origins of our privileged status.
I am currently working on my fifth, a novel set in Australia with only one South African character of ‘foreign’ origin.
What multiculturalism means to me
Multiculturalism is a beloved concept. It is a place in which I feel comfortable in all the aspects of identity that I wear: Australian (after 30 years here),born in South Africa (33 years there) of Lebanese origin – my grandparents arrived there from 1896 onwards. We kept our ancestral foods, although our Arabic hangs in fragments of stilted even forgotten conversation. All these parts in me enable me to form human connections across cultures and identities.
Lebanese people like the Italians, Greeks, Chinese and more, who grow up and live in extended family networks, have adept social facility. It is a state of mind: our capacity to relate in a crowd enables us to make immediate social contact and by extension, form friendships in our countries of adoption. Thus we recreate an ‘extended family’ of sustaining relationships, a firm base for a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multicultural society.
Cecile’s books can be found on Booktopia.com, BookDepository.com, and in book stores around the country.
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