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Lost between war and peace, the Leb wild Westies

By Joseph Wakim - posted Tuesday, 20 December 2005

In the wake of the racist orgy in Sydney recently, there are suggestions that the Lebanese community harbours a predisposition to violence. To seriously understand the fears and fantasies that may drive these youths, we need more than a one-dimensional microscope.

The Lebanese culture is an evolving dynamic and can never be easily summarised. The community is inter-denominational, including Maronites, Orthodox, Sunnis, Alawis, Shiites and Druze. It spans more than 160 years of immigration. Lebanese embrace the full range of hair, eye and skin colour.

Most parents of the second-generation youths in question fled the war in Lebanon in the 1970s. The knee-jerk temptation is to assume that their mentors are warlords, that they are territorial by nature and that they sleep with weapons under their beds. This pathologising of a culture would be celebrated by those who prefer to absolve any Australian responsibility for the criminal behaviour of recent days.


But it is far from the truth. These parents fled to Australia because they chose peace, not war, because they did not want to raise their children in a climate of fear and oppression.

Their dream was the same as most Australians: their own home, security and family. Their fear was that their children would be corrupted by aspects of an overly permissive and promiscuous Australian culture. Their response was over-protectiveness, which perhaps fostered a more rebellious attitude in their young.

Most of the Lebanese settled into predominantly Arab suburbs, usually close to mosques or churches. The aim was not to create ethnic ghettos, rather to minimise the cultural shock and maximise the support network. But in this comfort zone, the risk of cultural insulation and chauvinism is heightened. Hence, some parents may be guilty of raising children in a monocultural environment.

When youths are raised in a climate of fear, it is natural that they feel safety in numbers. But this can be easily misconstrued and leads to a cycle of intimidation and counter-intimidation through larger gatherings, as we witnessed in this cycle of threatened retributions and jihadist-style SMS messages.

This fear has been compounded by the Howard Government's dog-whistle politics regarding home-grown terrorist cells. It is further compounded by media references to Lebs terrorising the streets while Aussies were described as defending their territory. This has encouraged suspicion and distrust of Middle Eastern neighbours, the blurring of the line between victim and villain and the removal of the hyphen in Lebanese-Australian identity.

Much of the evolving cultural identity of our home-grown Lebanese youth is made in the US, with the pervasive influence of the American hip-hop culture in music and fashion. The rap lyrics dwell on economic disadvantage, victimisation, oppression and defiance.


I worked with street kids and gangs in Melbourne in the 1980s: the Lebanese Tigers, the West Side Sharps and the Black Dragons. The groups began as school playground protection against racist name-calling at the time of the civil war. The kids were derided as a barbaric and bloodthirsty race. One repeated line in our conversations could have been their rap anthem: On the streets, I am a king, everywhere else I am nothing.

The youths caught up in the Sydney violence have hybrid identities spanning three dynamic cultures - Australian, global American and ancestral. This stereotype is exploited in the Fat Pizza characters who glorify the chick-chasing and chest-beating macho. This subculture celebrates the idea of a stupid Leb, moronic Leb, amoral Leb, who casually commits crimes, hangs out in gangs, leers out of cars harassing females and has a vocabulary confined to four-letter words.

Yet the more these youths are demonised, the more they are driven to the margins to find meaning and identification with gangs and a subculture of defiance. The full force of law enforcement must be coupled with an understanding of the fears that underpin the anger that underpins the violence.

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First published in The Age on December 14, 2005.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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