Lying at the crossroads of the Orient and Europe, Lebanon, a mostly Muslim country, has a history of trading and dealing. The mountain village where many of Dunedin’s Lebanese originated is Bsharri (Bcharré). The name is biblical, meaning ‘milky white’, and refers to the snow-covered cedars of the Lebanon Mountains. Peasants there tended vines, figs, cherries, olives and mulberries. In this land of rocks, there were many travelling craftsmen such as stonemasons. The mountains also provided a refuge for Christians.
In the late 1800s population growth put pressure on the available land. Increasingly young men looked overseas for economic opportunity. In the late 1800s and early 1900s tens of thousands of Lebanese sailed west to the Americas. A few went to Australia, and a handful came even further, to New Zealand.
Arriving in New Zealand, the Lebanese quickly found opportunities to hawk goods to isolated farmers and gold miners. British people were often too proud to do such work, but the Lebanese saw no shame in it – besides, it could pay. With these earnings they built up businesses such as clothing stores.
In the 1890s and early 1900s many first- and second-generation Lebanese men were hawkers and peddlers. They spent weeks traversing the back roads of rural Otago, Southland and Canterbury. As a woman hawker, Saada Bacos stood out. She plied Central Otago’s roadways – pushing a large cane baby’s pram packed with suitcases of trinkets, jewellery and haberdashery. She would take the lot by train up the Taieri Gorge to the railhead, and then set off.
The Lebanese settled in clusters in Dunedin. The Catholics (Maronites) from Bsharri were concentrated in the southern inner city while the Eastern Orthodox followers from Tarābulus (Tripoli) gathered in South Dunedin. Some settlers anglicised their family names or adopted similar English names – from Yusef to Joseph, or Boutros to Peter. In Otago and Southland the name of Farry, which became associated with business, was originally Fakhry – a clan of families.
Many of Dunedin’s pioneering Lebanese traversed the hinterland selling fancy goods door to door. Although the women stayed at home, they stood out in Dunedin because of their fondness for jewellery and brightly coloured clothes. They also cooked with oil and used garlic – unusual practices at the time. Foods such as kibbeh (mutton, crushed wheat and olives) and tabbouleh (crushed wheat, lemon juice and parsley) seemed exotic. The Lebanese crushed their own wheat, a staple of their cuisine. Dunedin Lebanese recall how, as children, they used sticks to scare the birds from the sacks of wheat drying in their backyards. The cuisine has survived for many generations – largely because, being highly sociable, Lebanese would often gather to enjoy traditional meals.
As arak, an aniseed liqueur often enjoyed with meals, was unavailable in New Zealand, the Lebanese brewed their own. For many years Halim Kallil would sate the Dunedin community’s thirst. He would lug a huge copper to an upstairs bathroom that doubled as his brewery. At a knock on the door of the Kallil home, Halim’s son Kinnon would hand over a bottle of arak for 23 shillings and nine pence. Halim’s daughter Suzanne recalled her father’s illicit brewing activities:
‘As children, we were instructed to say nothing to anyone. The aroma of sultanas and the frequent presence of bees, at this time, is fresh in my memory.’ 1
Some Lebanese settled in Auckland as early as 1890. They blended into the community, and attended local churches as there was no money to send missions from Lebanon. Their sense of belonging, along with their language ability and entrepreneurial skills, gave them the confidence to become integrated without losing connections with their tradition and culture.
In Henderson, west Auckland, early Lebanese settler Assid Corban and his family cultivated their vineyard, slowly convincing the public that this was good wine country. The Corban family was instrumental in introducing commercial winemaking to New Zealand.
After the initial migration in the 1890s the number of Lebanese arrivals dropped. But relatives of earlier immigrants continued to arrive in small numbers. In 1936 there were 1,261 people of Lebanese origin in New Zealand; it has been estimated that in the early 1980s the descendants of Lebanese totalled 5,000. By the 1940s the Dunedin Lebanese were largely assimilated, and many have since moved to other parts of the country. In the 1990s some 1,000 Otago and Southland residents were descended from the original migrants.
A trickle of migrants arrived from 1975 to 1990 when Lebanon was ravaged by civil war. They settled mainly in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. Many of them ran cafés and restaurants. The cuisine has been welcomed in New Zealand and Lebanese (pita) bread is popular, as are hommos (hummus), kebabs and tabbouleh.
Lebanese have been called ‘the quiet immigrants’ because they were easily assimilated into New Zealand society. But not everyone was welcoming. In Otago and Southland some people considered the peddlers to be tramps and vagabonds, even though many farmers’ wives and remote miners were only too happy to see them. After all, they were colourful characters who brought rare goods and rural gossip.
In the 1890s there was a move to introduce legislation that would stop Lebanese migration and ban those already resident from peddling goods. It was partially successful. In 1900 Lebanese immigration became more difficult with the introduction of an English language test. Although those who had arrived could be naturalised as British citizens, Lebanese could not draw pensions or family allowances until the 1930s, as they were officially classified as Asiatics.
The Lebanese brought with them different Christian faiths. The three main followings were Maronites (a Catholic rite), Antiochian (Eastern Orthodox) and Melkites (Greek Catholics). Because of the similarity of their religions, the Dunedin Maronites settled quickly into the local Catholic parish.
Initially Dunedin’s Orthodox Lebanese aligned themselves with the Anglican Church, before building the Orthodox Church of St Michael in 1911. They appointed a Russian priest (the only Orthodox priest in New Zealand at the time), but this did not last, and many Orthodox Lebanese became Anglicans. Early Orthodox Lebanese in Auckland, such as the Corban family, also attended their local Anglican church.
By the 2000s there were three Antiochian Orthodox churches: St Michael’s in Dunedin, St Simon’s and St Jude’s in Christchurch, and St George’s in Auckland. They served a diverse community of Middle Eastern and other peoples. By 2003 an Antiochian Orthodox Mission was also established in Wellington. Ordained in 2003, Father Ian Neild, the priest of the Antiochian Mission, worked in the Reserve Bank during the week and served his community in the weekends. In Wellington, masses were chanted in a mixture of Arabic and Greek along with English translations for the young.
There was also one Melkite church, Mar Elias Greek Catholic Church, in Auckland. It was built in 2001 and served some 40 to 70 people of all Eastern Orthodox denominations.
In New Zealand’s 2013 census there were 5,481 residents born in Iraq, and 3,084 born in Iran. Most had arrived as refugees during the 1990s. Almost three-quarters of Iraqis lived in Auckland followed by Wellington and Hamilton. Many Iraqis were Assyrian Christians, who suffered greatly during the Iraq–Iran conflict and the Gulf wars. Oppressed by the ruling Muslim Sunni class in Iraq during the 1990s, many emigrated to western countries as refugees.
Almost half of the Iranians resident in New Zealand in 2013 were Muslims. Like Iraqis, they were also concentrated in Auckland.
In Auckland, Iraqi and Iranian Christians attended three main churches: the Chaldean Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. In Wellington, Father Aprem Oraha Pithyou headed the Ancient Church of the East. In 2003 the Iraqi community received a visit from the Chaldean Patriarch and official ceremonies were held in Wellington and in Auckland.
In the 2000s Auckland Assyrians could tune into the United Assyrian Voice Radio on Saturday afternoons on PlanetFM.
In their new environment Iraqis and Iranians have worked hard to build a better future for their children. The kin group and the church remain the focus of their social interaction.
Shahab Forouzandeh flew single-engine FT-33 aircraft on reconnaissance and training sorties during the Iran–Iraq War. But as a follower of the Baha’i faith he was persecuted for his beliefs in Muslim Iran. He arrived in Wellington in 1989 as a refugee, and two years later was driving buses. While the pedestrians and winds of Lambton Quay were a far cry from the desert skies of the Middle East, Shahab was philosophical about his new role: ‘Well, it’s a job … I like to meet people.’ 1
By the 2000s there were also small numbers of people from (in descending order) Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Oman and Bahrain. Of these diverse peoples, the Turks have been the most visible, with many operating kebab houses serving falafel, hommos (hummus), baklava and of course lokum (Turkish delight).
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries of the Middle East.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Farry, Matthew. 'Shifting identities among second and third generation Lebanese living in Aotearoa New Zelaand. In Lebanese diaspora: history, racism and belonging, edited by Paul Tabar, pp. 251–273. Beirut: Chamas, 2005.
McDonald, Alan. Lebanon's children: a pictorial history of the Otago/Southland Lebanese community. Dunedin: Cedars of Lebanon Club, 2004.
McGill, David. The other New Zealanders. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1982.
Page, Dorothy, and John Farry. The hawkers: a family story. 2nd ed. Dunedin: Ezyprint Solutions, 2010.
Scott, Dick. A stake in the country: Assid Abraham Corban and his family, 1892–2002. Auckland: Reed, 2002.