My interest in the Lebanese community in Wellington stems from my own family history. My grandfather arrived in New Zealand from Lebanon with his family as a young child.
Aside from a few years overseas experience in Europe, I have lived in New Zealand for most of my life, and I am always happy to return home after my travels. When I first had the opportunity to spend a few months in Australia however, it was the start of my continuing love affair with the country. Why I wondered, did my Lebanese ancestors choose to live in Wellington, when so many of their fellow migrants settled in Australia?
In 2009 I began to research a thesis on the experience of Lebanese migrants in Wellington, hoping to find some answers. According to the stories I’d grown up with, it seems that many Lebanese families made a significant contribution to Wellington’s cultural diversity and special character, but where was the information?
Lebanese migrants formed communities in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin and also in smaller centres, including the Wairarapa and Palmerston North. Because Lebanon was not recognised as a separate country until 1946, the birthplace of Lebanese migrants was recorded as Syria, and census information is unreliable. As Akoorie suggests, the lack of records is partly due to the fact, with the exception of the Dunedin community, ‘the Lebanese in New Zealand were religiously and geographically diverse’ (2007, p.764).
Mementos, documents, photographs and stories are preserved in some family collections throughout New Zealand. In Henderson for example, the Corbans kept meticulous records of their family history, and their progress as they strived to turn their viticulture business into ‘a stake in the country’ (Scott, 2002).
Members of the Dunedin Lebanese community have shared their experiences in the form of written publications, and websites. Thanks to the efforts of many, this wonderful legacy is now available to a wider public. When I began work on my thesis, the archived oral histories of Dunedin Lebanese recorded between 1988 and 1991 were my only source of recollections about events and lives which would otherwise have been lost. This was indeed ‘valuable information about aspects of the past inaccessible through other written sources’ (Green & Hutching, 2004, p.3).
My experience of listening to these sessions gave me insight into both the challenges of recording, and the inestimable value of oral history. I recall everything about the Alexander Turnbull Library that first afternoon I began my research. Headphones on, I listened to the clear recordings of voices from the past. I turned my head at the echo of rattling teacups from twenty years before as the elders told their family stories interspersed with the Arabic they learned from their parents and grandparents. The energy of generations filled the room for a while.
Oral history….offers almost the only feasible route for the perceptions and experiences of whole groups, who did not normally leave a written record.
(Hareven, 1996, p.248)
My own memories of recording interviews for the first time in 2009 were a series of firsts. The equipment checks and the nerves have all been caught on tape as part of my own history. These sessions of intense listening and connection would inevitably result in a crashing headache; an indication I’d succeeded.
After completing my thesis I aimed to construct a central archive of oral histories for all the descendants of Lebanese migrants who settled in Wellington. In 2012, I received an award from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage which enabled me to run a pilot project, recording and abstracting two interviews. I also attended excellent training workshops at the Alexander Turnbull Library. New Zealand Oral History Awards in 2013 and 2015 have allowed me to continue constructing this archive.
So far, I have recorded more than 30 hours of oral history interviews. These voices will be preserved at the central repository of the Alexander Turnbull Library, where future generations will find them. As I make progress, I recognise oral history as an energy which carries personal testimony through shared experience towards a wider audience. The complex reconstruction of past and present in each interview continually challenges my understanding of the changing face of cultural identity.
Memory re-constructs the participants’ experience of belonging to a community with a shared sense of culture and history. For a wider public, this is a gift of insight into a community’s shared culture and historical social circumstance.
Richie Romanos was born in Wellington in 1928 to hard-working Lebanese parents. The photograph shows Richie, sitting on the runner board of his parents’ Dodge around 1935; a time when very few families owned a vehicle. The family used this car to run their business, buying small goods and haberdashery from Wellington wholesalers and selling the merchandise to country farmers. Too mischievous to be left with his older siblings at home, Richie would accompany his parents on their trips. They would live in a makeshift tent attached to this vehicle for two weeks of every month, in every weather. To my knowledge, Richie is the last living person in Wellington, if not New Zealand, to experience this culturally specific way of life.
Richie Romanos sitting on the runnerboard of his parents’ Dodge circa 1936 (courtesy Marina Fontein)
Clan and family naming customs, did not translate well in Wellington. The Anglicisation of names on official records was inevitable and understandable, and reflected the British ideal of the times. Lebanese history is an oral tradition, and the interviews have helped to untangle clan origins and family connections.
These are the stories of grandchildren kept close, and grandparents who were first teachers of values, religious beliefs, language and traditions. These were story-tellers, business people. Children listened to their family stories, learned to cook, learned about hard work. Remembering the ‘dialogue between interviewer and interviewee’ (Ritchie, 2015, p.1), I have gained insight into the fundamental importance of the relationship between Lebanese grandparents and their grandchildren for the transmission of culture. In my case, the link was broken by my grandfather’s accidental death before I was born, and the personal gift of memory for me has been the interviewees’ treasured recollections of their grandparents.
As I recorded more interviews, it became clear that many migrants left Lebanon without a clear idea of their destination. Often they thought they were heading to America. One octogenarian said that as a young man he just wanted to ‘go somewhere’ on an overseas adventure, and never intended to call New Zealand home.
Despite meeting many friendly members of the Lebanese community, I never found anyone in Wellington whose family also originated from Kfarsghab. This may seem strange to the many migrants from that village who settled in Australia, and whose descendants may be reading this.
Marina Fontein pictured here with interviewee Edna Peters (January 2016)
A few years ago in Sydney, I discovered some wonderful extended family related to my great grandmother’s branch of our family tree. When I was a child, my father told me a vague family story about a shipwreck, and a female ancestor who had to swim to shore.
Thanks to a recent interview with another of my warm and hospitable ‘cousins’ (this time in Auckland), I began to realise the true significance of this fragment.
The Tasmania was shipwrecked off the coast of Gisborne in 1897, and with it a young couple named Zghir and Hawa, and their baby Kemlie (Emily). I can only imagine Hawa’s terror as she held tight to her baby, parted from her husband in the dark salty violence of shipwreck that night. Like most migrants from Lebanon at that time, Hawa didn’t speak English and I understand it was a week before she was reunited with her husband. I can only guess at the trauma she experienced. These details are not recorded in any book. This is the power of oral history, and here is the answer to my question; at least as much as it relates to one branch of my family.
Once Hawa arrived in Palmerston North, understandably, she never wanted to go near the sea or a ship again. I am descended from one of Hawa’s brothers-in-law, and in the Lebanese way I have come to know and respect, the family chose to stay in New Zealand together.
Richie’s father Joseph Romanos spreading wheat to dry on canvas, Wellington, circa 1935. Richie’s mother Saada and sister Johanna also in frame. Photograph courtesy of Marina Fontein.
Akoorie, M.E.M. (2007), ‘Lebanese entrepreneurs in New Zealand’ in Lѐo-Paul Dana (ed.), Handbook of Research on Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship: a Co-evolutionary View on Resource Management, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 754-779.
Green, A. (2004), ‘Oral history and history’, in Remembering, Writing Oral History (eds) A. Green & M. Hutching, Auckland University Press: Auckland, pp. 1-8.
Hareven, T. (1996), ‘The Search for Generational Memory’, in D. Dunaway & W. Baum (eds). Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology 2nd edition, Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, pp. 241-256.
Ritchie, Donald A. (2015), Doing Oral History 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, NY.
Scott, D. (2002), A Stake in the Country: Assid Abraham Corban and his Family, 1892-2002. Auckland: Reed Books.