From Beirut to Wagga


I came to Australia from Lebanon in 1976. I was 19. Yet, I had no problems adjusting to Australian culture or to Australian values.

First of all, the sacrosanct trio: democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech. Despite some people’s ignorance of it, Lebanese society had, and still has, a very vibrant ‘democracy-tolerance-freedom of speech’ sort of atmosphere. So, I never, ever, had a problem with this wonderful side of Australian life. When it came time to vote, I never asked: ‘How do you do this?’ I just did it. Unbelievable, but true.


I never had a problem having civilised arguments with people respecting their views even when I disagreed with them (OK, maybe not always, but most of the time). That’s because I did this kind of ‘respect the other’ thing in my youth. And when I didn’t, the adults told me that I should.

Likewise, I had no problem with another apparently Australian value: easy going-ness. I’ve always been pretty easy going Mah te’tal himm mah fee Mashkal, as the Lebs say, which translates as ‘no worries, no problem.’ Furthermore, when I came to Australia, I immediately mixed with people who were not from ‘my cultural background.’ It was Mah te’tal himm mah fee Mashkal here, too. I didn’t need an induction in ‘Australian values’ to do it because, in Lebanon, I was already quite used to mixing with a variety of people. My school friends back there were not only Lebanese, they were European, Iranian, Armenian, American, Syrian, etc.

Many of my friends from my early days in Oz were quintessential Aussies (with what then appeared to be frightening accents), and yet we remain friends to this day. This shows that I had no problems building deep on-going friendships (or mateship as it is known here). None whatsoever. It just came naturally to me because I was doing it all my life. And, yes, I know that mateship is more than ‘just friendship.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

True, I had to sit in front of the mirror and practise saying, ‘G’day mate!’ until I kind of got used to it. Nonetheless, I easily got the essence. Some might say: ‘But not all Lebanese migrants are like this.’ Fair enough. But not all ‘Australians’ are like this either. There are lots of differences among Lebanese and among non-Lebanese according to a variety of sociological variables.

In Lebanon, I was a fan of the guitarists Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin, and of the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. At the age of 19, I thought musical taste defined the person and I wouldn’t have been caught dead with people who didn’t understand ‘what Zappa was about.’ So, naturally enough, once in Australia, I became friends with people who liked Zappa, McLaughlin and Ponty. They were pretty much the same as my Lebanese friends same dark sense of humour, same disdain towards society.

So here again: I didn’t need to learn anything to take on board these seemingly very Australian values (conveyed, appropriately enough, by American jazz rock).

In much the same way and I know some people will find this incredibly hard to believe the truth is, I had no problem treating Australian women the way they more or less expected to be treated. Indeed, I think I did quite well.

My partner for the last 20 years is from Tasmania. I don’t think I’ve had a problem relating to her in an Australian kind of way. (I had more problem adjusting to her ‘Tasmanian’ kind of way.) Actually, relating to her was no different from the way I used to relate to women in Beirut. That was even the case with my first wife who was an Australian from Irish stock and from Wagga Wagga, to boot.

I never had to stop and ask: ‘Well, I wonder how I should treat this woman in a respectful Australian kind of way.’ Of course, I’ve been called sexist on a number of occasions, in Lebanon and here. But no more and no less than any of my quintessential Aussie mates get called sexist by their girlfriends, partners or wives.

My ex-wife and I are as open minded as the next cosmopolitan couple. We’re still friends. Again, I didn’t have to take on board any specific ‘Australian’ values to do this. My teenage years in Lebanon moving between girlfriends, getting upset with one girl, she getting upset with me, moving on, becoming friends again prepared me well for my Australian experience.

So, throughout my years in Australia and please let me brag: that’s 30 years now I really have had no serious problems with any Australian values or aspects of Australian culture. None whatsoever well, except one.

Let me state it clearly: my problem with Australian culture is those painful people who insist that, regardless of what I think, I do have a problem with Australian culture.

They are the prejudiced and very ugly Australian assimilationists.

Even though, on the whole, they are not the best specimen of what our nation has to offer, the ugly Australian assimilationists like to think that, unlike others, they have a unique access to what being Australian means, and that it is up to them to provide anyone they think is different with instructions on how to become better Australians.

I met them the very first year I came here and I’ve been meeting them on a regular basis ever since. I’ve even made an academic career studying them.

I used to think that the ugly Australian assimilationists have this simplistic, psychologically naïve belief that if you harass people into becoming something for long enough, then, people just become it. Like, if you see someone who doesn’t know how to play cricket or doesn’t like it, you just shout at them: ‘Go ahead, play cricket! Come on, love cricket! Adopt cricketing values, now!’ and, if you persist, before you know it they’re aspiring to become Bradmans.

Likewise, if someone is sitting around our nation not looking or acting Australian it is enough to just keep telling them: ‘Become Australian go on adopt Australian values!’ This is supposed to work and make people want to become Australian.

I used to think that these great national assimilationists actually believed this. But they are not so naïve. They know very well that harassing people into becoming Australian doesn’t work. They also knew that if you tell someone: ‘Go ahead! Become Australian!’ you achieve two things simultaneously. You make yourself feel as if you are supremely, obviously and wonderfully Australian. And you make those you are harassing feel that they are much less Australian than they really are.

This is the underlying, dirty secret of all those who like to scream at the top of their voices about the need to adopt Australian values and assimilate. The last thing they want is for the people they are screaming at to actually assimilate. What assimilationists revel in is that very moment when they are nagging people to assimilate.

In fact, they hate it when someone points out that people assimilate quite naturally according to how long they’ve been in a place, according to their socio-economic background, according to their level of education. And the assimilationists certainly don’t want to hear about the very obvious fact that if there’s one thing that is guaranteed not to have any influence on people assimilating it is being screamed at about their need to assimilate and adopt Australian values.

Assimilationists are the real exclusionists of Australian history. They actually stop people from assimilating.

And th
is is, paradoxically, what they desire deep down. They scare people off. They drive them away. They make them hide. They force them to live outside mainstream society. And having done that, they then start telling the very people whom they’ve excluded that they are living in ghettos and that their problem is that they are not assimilated enough.

These assimilationists are ugly. They are nasty and malicious towards the people they are addressing. I have never heard an assimilationist showing love or respect for the people they are haranguing to assimilate. They always do it either aggressively or with contempt.

Assimilationists are very caring towards their own mob wanting nothing but their relaxation and comfort. But, at the same time, they are mean spirited, cruel and uncaring towards those who don’t fit their cultural norms. They do not wish them well. They want to hurt them. They openly call on such people to integrate, while they secretly work to see them disintegrate. That’s the most important feature that makes assimilationists ugly.

And for the last 10 years we’ve had a Prime Minister who is one.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.