I am not actually Lebanese.
Sure, my parents are Lebanese, my Arabic is Lebanese-tinted and I can be extremely critical of my local Lebanese joint, but the reality is I am not actually from Lebanon.
No, I am a “Lebo”, a special blend of Lebanese and Australian, rooted in western Sydney and thoroughly unique. Born of the kids of migrants, being Lebo comes with its own fashion sense, steeped in sports brands, its own complex palette, politics and rough boundaries, over time developing into its own sense of self.
It’s hard to put into words what, specifically, it means to be Lebo. To me, it is defined by a particular crude honesty and brashness, a dismissal of any kind of limitation, and an unapologetic embrace of the local.
I’ve seen it easily attract condescension, with its overt authenticity and the way it stakes a claim to being Australian in its own way. But, having grown out of minority communities, it’s also characterised by paranoia and insecurity, born in feeling unwelcome in your own country.
Being called a Lebo was once an insult, that our backgrounds were never worth pronouncing. It was what Alan Jones called us in the lead-up to the Cronulla riots – famously reading out a listener text inviting “every Aussie” to “Leb and wog bashing day”. It was what we’d hear spat out by racists, disgusted by our existence.
But I’ve watched my community come into its own, and it’s high time we reclaim the name and identity, which I think is actually very distinct from being Lebanese.
I was born in Australia, and have lived my whole life among my community in western Sydney, its own little world. As a kid I had never actually visited Lebanon, only regaled with rose-tinted tales from my parents.
But once I had the money and the capacity, I went five times in three years. I was obsessed, I had to know how Lebanese I was, I had to shed years of minority angst and finally claim my identity.
But, of course, that’s not how identity works. What I found in Lebanon was worlds away from the Lebanese I had come to understand in Australia. I knew it would happen but I couldn’t help but hope I’d find some peace there.
Instead, I found an incredible, complex country, weighed down by its history and politics, bouncing with energy and creativity. Somehow, bursting with hope and utterly hopeless at the same time.
But certainly not “my” country. I couldn’t imagine their experiences, couldn’t connect with what it meant to be Lebanese, not by fault but by design. Simply put, I’d never lived there.
The realisation came in waves. I stood out like a sore thumb in a place I’d hoped to just melt away in.
Sometimes it came when I realised how different Australian Lebanese food is to food in Lebanon. It was in being picked out as a foreigner at every shop, regardless of what I did to hide that fact. It was the details in the language you miss when it isn’t your first language.
But it was most evident in my interactions with my cousins. Those around my age looked and acted nothing like the Lebos I knew in Sydney. They could’ve come from another universe at that point.
It wasn’t until I relented and abandoned my expectations that I better connected with them, until I accepted my understanding of Lebanese identity wasn’t universal, but particular to western Sydney.
But this isn’t a lamentation. It was that experience that led me to the radical realisation that I didn’t need to seek to know my identity, I already knew it! I just had to accept it.
It took a while. I have a fractured relationship with being Lebo, I tried many times to escape it. From growing my hair out in the hopes I’d look like Lleyton Hewitt circa 2004, to no longer wearing sports brands. I even began adjusting how I speak, so nobody could guess my background. I desperately didn’t want to be Lebo.
Eventually I just physically escaped, moving overseas where nobody would associate me with being Lebo. Where I could just reimagine myself over and over and pick new identities.
Of course it didn’t work, the constant running and delusions eventually collapsing onto themselves, leaving me with nothing but my identity in the rubble. I could only stare at it wistfully, hoping it’ll evaporate into thin air if I tried hard enough.
Most importantly, I just found myself constantly unhappy. It’s a strange pain to deny who you are, a suffocation you only realise when it is released.
To some degree, my angst was a product of Australia itself. I did not see myself or my identity in the TV shows I watched, only in the news. Inherently, I hated being Lebo because of the reputation it carried.
But it wasn’t until I realised that I missed the particular kind of charcoal chicken you can only get in Granville that I came to understand I was denying who I was.
I was searching for something I already had. A sense of self, a sense of belonging and understanding. I love my community, warts and all. I love western Sydney, its unique blend of crazy and delicious. I love wearing all my sports brands, love my sneaker collection and I love my accent.
It has taken me years to say that, but I could not be more grateful to be here. And now I will celebrate with some chicken, toum (garlic dip) and chips, content in who I am.