As part of 10 Stories from Bankstown, Bankstown City Council’s Community Harmony project, Olivia interviews Michael Nakhle who migrated on his own from Lebanon at the age of 16. Michael has been living in the Bankstown area since 1968.
What did your parents do back in Lebanon?
My dad was a hairdresser/barber. My mum was a housewife.
So you carried on the family tradition by being a hairdresser?
Is that expected in Lebanon, to equal or exceed your parents’ occupation?
No, it is up to the person. But because I did not like going to school much my dad said, “if you don’t go to school, you have to learn to be a hairdresser”. It was easy for me to learn and I did it.
Did you enjoy learning to be a hairdresser?
In the beginning yes, I did enjoy it. I was young and when I first started learning I was always trying something different. My school teachers were young too, in their 20s or 30s, and they all liked to look different. There wasn’t any person in the town where I came from with that job. My dad used to be a very good hairdresser and I learned the way he cut hair and everybody liked it.
What did you do for work when you first arrived in Australia?
In the beginning I worked in a factory for few months. Then I got my hairdressing licence. In the beginning I was working for someone else in Dulwich Hill and later on I bought my own business in Lakemba. I ran that for 15 years. After that I went to Bankstown for four years, then to the city. Now I am working in Strathfield.
Your hair is something personal so I guess you would have good conversations with clients in order to build their trust?
Yes, and you always hear more stories from ladies. In the hairdressing business you always see and hear a lot of things from customers.
Coming out here did you ever feel you should send money home to Lebanon?
Yes I did, even when I was there (in Lebanon) working I gave my parents money.
What were your actual reasons for coming here to Australia?
I don’t know, I always liked to go to new places. I was not allowed to do a lot of things over there (in Lebanon), because I was too young and they were tough times. I was about 15 when I first went to the out of town cinema by myself, otherwise my dad was with me or I was not allowed. I always wanted to go see the world and different people. I had a chance to come to Australia or go to South America. I thought, “well, I have an uncle in Australia on my mother’s side, and an uncle in South America on my father’s side”.
I also thought there might be more work here. Back home (in Lebanon), there is work but not the same as here, and I used to see a lot of people return to Lebanon from overseas who were wealthy, and I used to say “that’s what I want”.
Did you go out with any young women who weren’t Lebanese when you were young?
Yes. When I was at the Sunbeam factory I was still only 17, and the man who gave me the job was Australian (Anglo-Saxon). He was a very good person and he looked after me like his son. I didn’t speak the language, I only knew a little bit. He, his daughter and his wife taught me a lot of English. His daughter was a nice girl but I was very shy around girls. I didn’t know anything about the culture here and actually she asked me to go out with her. I was surprised and I was very shy of her. I said to her, “what if your mum found out about us?” and she said, “oh, it doesn’t matter”.
When I was talking to her I also found out that her father had said to her that he will only let her live with him ’til she is 18, and if she doesn’t want to get married she can stay in the house ’til she is 21, after 21 she has to go.
And I said to her, “no, we (Lebanese) don’t do that”. Even if a woman was 70 or 80 years old and not married, she is supposed to stay at home with mum and dad.
Did you find your wife’s parents were a lot stricter about her going out than the Australian (Anglo-Saxon) girl’s parents?
Yes, with my wife, the first time we went out together we were in a group, and after we got back home we still got in trouble (for getting home late). Actually I felt guilty for getting her in trouble.
Where did you meet your wife?
I met her at Lakemba. She used to pass the salon every morning on her way to school. She was very young but I didn’t know her age, she looked a lot older than she was.
How old were you?
At that time I was 26. One day her sister walked in and said, “my sister is looking for a job, do you want an apprentice because she wants to learn hairdressing?”. I said, “yes, who is she? Tell her to come and see me”. The next day they came, and I said, “Is this your sister?”.
Then I went to a party and she was there, but she thought I was a married man when she saw me. Even when she came to work for me she thought I was a married man. We have had great times together.
What sports did you play when you were young?
I played volleyball in Lebanon, but after coming here I played squash and went swimming. Unfortunately I don’t do either any more. Back in Lebanon we used to play volleyball every weekend with our neighbours, that was the only time my dad used to let me go out ’til 9 o’clock. We didn’t go out later than that unless there was a special game on.
When I was at school over there (in Lebanon), by 4 o’clock you would have to be home, you would have a sandwich, you could do what you liked for half an hour or so, then by 5 o’clock at the latest you had to be home. If you were not back by then you were in big trouble from your parents. Even if your teacher saw you on the streets after that time, you would be in trouble at school the next day.
Why did you have to be home?
For dinner, to study and do all your homework.
So the children in the town were watched by everybody?
When you think about it even now, I still think it’s a good idea, that way kids don’t do anything silly.
Do you think that if parents took more responsibility for their children there would be fewer problems?
Maybe, yes. If you want to leave your kids to do what they want, or to find out what’s good and what’s bad for them, it’s too late and they will do a bad thing. If they find out it’s wrong after they do something, they are in trouble. So, which one is better, to look after them and tell them what’s good for them, or leave them to find out for themselves?
I think it all depends on the child.
If you don’t teach the child how will they know?
Through their own experiences.
That’s what I mean, if you let them make the mistakes, then they learn from those mistakes – but then it’s too late.
They don’t always make mistakes, some children do make the right decision to begin with.
That is, if their parents look after them and teach them what is good and bad.
You don’t think children on their own can establish what’s a right decision?
It’s very, very hard for children to work it out.
Do you have any great plans for your children or do you want them to do what they want to do?
Parents always like to see their children in a good position and I am the same. I could give them an idea of what I would like them to be but I cannot force them to do it. They must do what they like and to do it perfectly and be good at it. My dad always wanted me to do something I was not interested in.
Do you think it’s important to make sure that your children retain some of their culture, like speaking Arabic, going to church, etc?
We have held on to the old traditions more than some of the people back in Lebanon. Because we are doing things as we remember doing them years ago when we were back home.
Do you want your children to go back to Lebanon for a visit? To see what it’s like where you grew up?
It is necessary to know what is your heritage, to know where you come from and where your parents were born and grew up.
Do you think that more immigrants should try to assimilate a little more than what they do, by trying not to impose their old traditions from their homelands so much?
M:Yes, they should. If you live in a different country you have to make a bit of an effort to assimilate, and understand how the people of that country live and behave. You have to love that country if you live there otherwise it is better to just go back to your own country.
Did you ever reminisce about the life you could have had back in Lebanon?
In the beginning I used to feel homesick, but after I settled down and had my own house, I was happy.
So you have no regrets?
No way, I love Australia. Even when I went back for a holiday (to Lebanon), after the first couple of weeks, I wanted to come back. I enjoyed myself there with my parents, but most of my friends have come over here.
There is only one thing I would change. I think I should be wealthier. I have spent a lot of money over the years but I have had a good time. I’m not poor, I’m just comfortable. But I should be better off for my age.
You can now measure your wealth in two ways, the house you live in or the family you have built. You are happy with your family I assume?
Of course, I am very happy with my family. And I wish all the people to have a family like mine.
Was there any particular reason you chose to live in the Bankstown area?
When I first came to Australia, my uncle used to live in Bankstown and I lived with him. Then when I started to look for a house, this is the only one I found that was suitable for me and not far from a cousin.
Have you had any problems in the Bankstown area? Any culture clashes because of your nationality or religion?
I am a good man, everyone likes me and I like everyone. I have nothing against Muslims or Christians or who ever it is. When a person is good to you, you will be good to them.
Do you think that your children have benefited from growing up in Bankstown?
Benefited, yes. I think it’s very nice for a person to mix with people of all cultures, and if they are smart and good, they will pick up all the good things from their friends and will leave the bad ones behind.
Do you think Anglo-Saxon families are as close as Lebanese families?
No, I don’t think that they are that close. We don’t just leave it from one Christmas to the other to see my parents or my friends or to see my cousin. We don’t see each other everyday but we don’t leave it for a very long time.
I am assuming that’s how it is in Lebanon or is it because Lebanese people are so far away from their homeland that they like to keep close to the relatives they have in Australia?
They like to stick together, and in Lebanon it used to be like that, but I don’t think it is anymore.