• Mohamad Tabbaa

War's Children

How do we remember our past?


This question churned over in my mind as I sat to watch episode 1 of the recent SBS documentary, Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl. I was not sure what to expect; I had observed people discussing it online in different ways, some good some bad, but nothing too revealing. However, I would have never anticipated the chilling effect it would have upon me.


Stories of the encompassing violence of war and tragedy are always difficult to listen to. But this was different – it hit home quite personally. The documentary – specifically the recollections of the older generation of migrants – was particularly difficult to watch. I was struggling to understand why it was evoking such a strong, personal reaction, why I was feeling a piercing pain in my chest.

It didn’t hurt because it brought back memories; it hurt precisely because it didn’t.

The time period in Lebanon that was being described and shown on the screen was that of my birthplace, specifically during the Lebanese Civil War, which, Wikipedia tells me, took place from 1975 to 1990. And that was the problem, I realised, as my wife attempted to provide me with some context to what I was witnessing: I knew next to nothing of my own history.


The documentary hurt not because it rekindled old memories that had long been dealt with and relegated to the dustbin of my mind. It didn’t hurt because it brought back memories; it hurt precisely because it didn’t. Instead, it forced to the fore the painful realisation of ones’ violent rupture with their own past which often accompany migrant stories. It forces one to confront the lack of a sense of continuity that characterises and haunts a migrant experience, sometimes permanently.


The story of Karl and Nadia Saleh captures perfectly the difficult situation of the migrant: leaving behind what one knows and owns for the promise of a better future; risking life and limb to escape the violence of circumstance; recalling with teary eyes and a choked laugh how close to death one came.


But perhaps the best summation is Karl’s expression of hope upon viewing Sydney’s picturesque Harbour Bridge from his plane: “I looked from above, to this beautiful sea between the Darling Harbour and the Opera House, and since I’ve seen this picture, say ‘This is my country. This is the country where I want to spend my rest of life’”. He is innocently unaware that this serenity is reserved for an exclusive class and that for people like him – foreigners – life would take place largely at the intersection, the bridge itself, that transitional space between homes that is neither here nor there. And still it remains for asylum seekers today.


The remainder of the night saw my body occupied by my mind’s thoughts: confused and tired, guilty and angry. Maybe I hadn’t given enough respect to the resilience of my parents’ ordeal those years ago when I angrily censured my mother: “Where were you when we were caught up in gangs and crime?” Maybe this rupture helped explain certain things, like the fragmented formation of our family – more like a shared accommodation of strangers than a family bound by experience and blood. Maybe this explains my parents’ stubborn silence towards any historical discussions.


Maybe this rupture has something to do with that empty yearning for something more whole, or the sense that one is an orphan – with parents; an orphan of history itself?

Watching the documentary enflamed my rage towards a society whose first instinct towards a population that had been traumatised by war and conflict was further brutalisation …

It could also explain why the little knowledge I did have was through second-hand sources and helped little. I know for example that neither of my parents was able to finish primary school due to the realities of life in Lebanon, each having to take adult roles before puberty. I know that my grandparents on my mother’s side were apparently killed by a car bomb, which my mother would have been in on any other day. I know that my father survived a bomb explosion that tore apart the whole street. On both sides of my family, I was born of violence; an unconsciously inherited violence which no doubt shaped our upbringing and the way we interact with the world at large. But I know little more than that.


I do know one thing for sure, though. Watching the documentary enflamed my rage towards a society whose first instinct towards a population that had been traumatised by war and conflict was further brutalisation; a society who demanded that the violence scarred upon our being ought to magically disappear upon crossing an arbitrary line in the sand that is our border. Worse, a society who denies that they themselves have inherited a similar violence and that it drives much of their actions, particularly towards minorities.


I have long felt that the framing of ‘discrimination’ is largely insufficient in explaining and measuring unequal relations. It does not, and cannot, take into account the loss of time, energy and resources inherent in structural disadvantages. The excessive loss of one’s time working 60 hour weeks – never seeing the sun, as in the documentary – due to inherently unequal labour conditions is not counted as discrimination; time that could be better spent actually living with one’s family. The amount of energy a coloured person has to exert anxiously monitoring their space in a country that has never sufficiently dealt with its white supremacism is not counted, for example, as an opportunity cost; energy that could instead have been spent forging a resistance. The resources spent by Muslims today proving to white Australia that “we’re not evil” is not considered when we ask whether Muslims face discrimination; resources that could be put to much better use tackling a host of issues commonly facing minority communities.


Why didn’t I know more about my history and where I’ve come from? Perhaps spending so much of my time in factory work from a young age simply to get by, where bosses would generously oscillate between calling us Taliban or Al-Qaeda, had something to do with it. But that’s not sufficient. Perhaps my arduous history with a brutal police racism, which often meant having to run away from police on sight, stripped me of some time and energy. But this still doesn’t account for enough. Or could it be that children of the September 11 generation like myself have to exert so much energy defending their existence as ’non-terrorists’, that the pursuit of learning who we are simply loses out to persistent demands to prove who we’re not? This relentless demand has only increased in intensity with time.


But perhaps, after all of this, I was actually asking the wrong questions.

Instead, it might be more worthwhile to consider my own position in this dynamic. Perhaps better is to recognise that the idea that we had escaped war was too easy, and ultimately inaccurate. It seems, rather, that we had simply gone from dodging a violence upon the body to dodging a violence upon the mind and soul: one form of violence simply replacing another; same intensity, different target. The nagging fear of losing friends and relatives to bombs and bullets is now replaced with a matching fear of loss by imprisonment assault and death in custody; a mind still occupied by fear.


I was born in a war-zone in Lebanon, 1985. We never escaped war, we simply changed zones. This is, after all, a war. Who has time to learn?


[Part 1 of a 4 part review of SBS documentary, Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl. First published in RightNow Magazine]

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