Trails and Tribulations of a Family Historian

As a lover of all things historic, it was no surprise to find myself adopting the role of our family historian. Mary Surtees

With a paternal side from England and a maternal side from Lebanon, it has certainly made for some interesting discoveries. The advent of the Internet made my research in England so much easier. In saying that, there are still daily brick walls that I run in to. But…at least, I can speak the lingo and having visited there on numerous occasions, I am fully aware of my surroundings.

The research into my Lebanese side has not been so easy. I am yet to visit Zahlé though my sister has. My few words of Arabic would get me a room in a hotel or a meal in a restaurant but it would not in any way, allow me to converse with people about my relations nor can I read Arabic. My efforts to contact the Lebanese Embassy in Canberra for assistance were next to useless. So anything I have found out has come from family members and their memories.

My darling mother – Eva Magdalene was born in Gayndah, the 11th child of 14 to Callil and Shufier Farrah. My understanding is that Callil came to Australia from Zahlé when he was about 13 years of age. He is believed to have come with his father Habib and his sisters, Eva and Amenie, circa 1889. I believe that his mother, Zhara, was dead and they left to start a new life. They arrived in Sydney and made their way to Lismore. As was the custom [but I am not sure why it was the custom], he had a hawker’s license. He traveled extensively throughout northern NSW and Queensland and settled for a time in Gayndah. Memories of my grandfather, whom I never met, have him as a gentle, kind and loving man but not a businessman by any stretch of the imagination! He and my grandmother, Shufier, bought land in Woodmillar, near Gayndah, but the land became overgrown with prickly pear and they had to walk off and leave it behind. The very next year, the cactoblastis caterpillar was introduced to combat the prickly pear but it was too late for them. Habib Farrah worked a substantial parcel of land somewhere – family gossip has it in Bundaberg or Mareeba or Lismore. Wherever it was, I have not been able to ascertain, and his death and where he is buried remain a constant mystery to me.

With an ever-increasing family, the Farrahs moved around. Callil, Shufier and three children lived in Wolfram Camp – near Mareeba where he worked in the mines until his health failed him and then he opened a drapery shop. They also lived in Maryborough, Brisbane, and back in Gayndah, to name a few places. Fathering seven sons and seven daughters ensured that his house was filled with much love and laughter but not a lot of money.

My grandmother, Shufier Solomon, came to Australia with her mother Abda and her sister Zacchi. A son, Michael, had already left Zahlé to travel to San Paulo in South America. Shufier was only a child when they arrived sometime in 1886. They had paid their passage to America and were dumbfounded to discover they had landed in Sydney. Further research has revealed that this was a regular occurrence as unscrupulous ship owners had no hesitation in taking their money under false pretenses.

I am not even sure if Solomon was their surname because no-one spoke English and the customs people in Sydney at the time would simply have written down what they thought was being said. I have their naturalization records in Queensland in 1899. Zacchi died at 15 years of age from peritonitis so that left Abda and Shufier alone in a particularly harsh time and land. I have records of Shufier owning a small dressmaking business in Mareeba and although she and Callil came from the same village of Zahlé, they did not know each other before. Their marriage took place in St. Monica’s in Cairns in 1901 but I believe they had a civil ceremony anything up to two years before and when the opportunity arose, they had the marriage blessed in a Catholic church when they were next in Cairns. The recording official in Cairns in 1901 was obviously not well traveled because he has listed down their place of birth as Bayroot! Needless to say, with recording efforts like that, it makes my job doubly difficult!

I accept even the smallest pieces of my family history from wherever I can – people who knew my family, who grew up with them, who worked with them or who married into the family. Of the fourteen children, only three remain. I curse myself that I didn’t ask lots of questions when I was younger. But the young always live for the here and now and also believe that relatives will be around for ever. So I keep digging and I am occasionally rewarded with a small nugget of information which represents another piece of my extraordinary puzzle known as my family history.

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