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Not just Australians' values

By Ghassan Hage - posted Monday, 18 September 2006

I came to Australia from Lebanon in 1976. I was 19. Yet, I had no problems adjusting to Australian culture or to Australian values.

First of all, the sacrosanct trio: democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech. Despite some people’s ignorance of it, Lebanese society had, and still has, a very vibrant “democracy-tolerance-freedom of speech” sort of atmosphere. So, I never, ever, had a problem with this wonderful side of Australian life. When it came time to vote, I never asked: “How do you do this?” I just did it. Unbelievable, but true.

I never had a problem having civilised arguments with people - respecting their views even when I disagreed with them (OK, maybe not always, but most of the time). That’s because I did this kind of “respect the other” thing in my youth. And when I didn’t, the adults told me that I should.


Likewise, I had no problem with another apparently Australian value: easy going-ness. I’ve always been pretty easy going - Mah te’tal himm mah fee Mashkal, as the Lebs say, which translates as “no worries, no problem”. Furthermore, when I came to Australia I immediately mixed with people who were not from “my cultural background”. It was Mah te’tal himm mah fee Mashkal here, too. I didn’t need an induction in “Australian values” to do it - because, in Lebanon, I was already quite used to mixing with a variety of people. My school friends back there were not only Lebanese, they were European, Iranian, Armenian, American, Syrian and so on.

Many of my friends from my early days in Oz were quintessential Aussies (with what then appeared to be frightening accents), and yet we remain friends to this day. This shows that I had no problems building deep on-going friendships (or mateships as they are known here). None whatsoever. It just came naturally to me because … I was doing it all my life. And, yes, I know that mateship is more than “just friendship”.

True I had to sit in front of the mirror and practise saying, “G’day mate!” until I kind of got used to it. Nonetheless, I easily got the essence. Some might say: “But not all Lebanese migrants are like this.” Fair enough. But not all “Australians” are like this either. There are lots of differences among Lebanese and among non-Lebanese - according to a variety of sociological variables.

In Lebanon. I was a fan of the guitarists Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin and of the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. At the age of 19 I thought musical taste defined the person and I wouldn’t have been caught dead with people who didn’t understand “what Zappa was about”. So naturally enough, once in Australia, I became friends with people who liked Zappa, McLaughlin and Ponty. They were pretty much the same as my Lebanese friends - same dark sense of humour, same disdain towards society.

So here again: I didn’t need to learn anything to take on board these seemingly very Australian values (conveyed, appropriately enough, by American jazz rock).

In much the same way - and I know some people will find this incredibly hard to believe - the truth is I had no problem treating Australian women the way they more or less expected to be treated. Indeed, I think I did quite well.


My partner for the last 20 years is from Tasmania. I don’t think I’ve had a problem relating to her in an Australian kind of way. (I had more problem adjusting to her “Tasmanian” kind of way.) Actually, relating to her was no different from the way I used to relate to women in Beirut. That was even the case with my first wife who was an Australian from Irish stock - and from Wagga Wagga, to boot.

I never had to stop and ask: “Well, I wonder how I should treat this woman in a respectful Australian kind of way.” Of course, I’ve been called sexist on a number of occasions, in Lebanon and here. But no more and no less than any of my quintessential Aussie mates get called sexist by their girlfriends, partners or wives.

My ex-wife and I are as open-minded as the next cosmopolitan couple. We’re still friends. Again, I didn’t have to take on board any specific “Australian” values to do this. My teenage years in Lebanon - moving between girlfriends, getting upset with one girl, she getting upset with me, moving on, becoming friends again - prepared me well for my Australian experience.

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First published in New Matilda on September 6, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Ghassan Hage is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney.

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