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.
Trunks full of trinkets
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.
Knock for arak
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.