Of Bread And Salt
They call them the ‘Lebanese gang’; shades of grey huddled onto chairs rusted 80s blue. I don’t know what their story is. I don’t know if they ever spoke English; the jokes they repeated or the songs they liked listening to.
I don’t know whether they loved or were loved; whether their scraped knees were kissed better and the monsters scared from under their beds. Or, whether their childhood was a series of packed, bulging suitcases; bribed through customs by Lebanese officials who knew an uncle’s wife’s brother’s nephew, and so made their way to 1950s Australia.
I do know that memory in these parts drapes itself loosely, receding as skin reclaims itself from white, soft, thinning, wavering threads. That food here is mushed beige.
One of the old men laughs, muttering triumphantly as he dunks the bread he took from someone else’s plate into his orange juice.
This is not meant to be the way of things, I think. We are not meant to eat in cultural isolation.
I wind back the click clocks of time and imagine my Lebanese gang in their prime. Tetas in the kitchen and jiddos in the garden. Each connected to the meditative elements of the life they know best.
Air is held between teta’s floured hands and summersaults between the licks of fire and her expert flipping of saj bread. Water runs from jiddo’s garden hose, trickling down his granulated hands before impatiently rushing towards the cavalcade of mint, basil and parsley that sprout from row upon row of upturned earth. Vegetables and fruits defy all 150m2 of the backyard and nudge across the neighbourly fence. Life can not be contained.
Jiddo brings in tomatoes and cucumbers. Like sword through satin, their hearts are pierced with teta’s surgical precision. Teta unties the magician’s cloth that overnight transforms Greek yoghurt to labneh. She forms a womb in its centre to hold the extra virgin olive oil; a lone decorative track of paprika corners its rims. Fried eggs, fool mdammas and olives from this season’s pickings crowd the kitchen table, as do the fig jam and tahini. Cups wait patiently by the side of each flower-patterned plate for the mint-flavoured black tea being boiled on the kitchen stove.
Fayrouz and Abd el Haleem play in the background. There is no need for watches. The procession of scents is memorised by heart, and the clacking of kettle off kitchen stove is the key that unlocks it all. Boats are carved out of the warm saj bread. Breakfast is hauled by the mouthful. They make their peace around the table; sar baynna khibz wmilh – between us now lies bread and salt – is what teta always says whenever someone new joins the fold.
This remains the way of things as time stretches mountainous limbs between them and the packed suitcases of childhood. Food grows to be the last link to teta and jiddo’s Lebanese identity; the one thing they can take with them and claim with pride in a country that is not always ready to accept their differences and eccentricities.
Yet here, among the chairs rusted 80s blue, all of this is forgotten.
Despite 100s of years of migration, this pioneering Australian generation is slowly trickling into the care of social services which are struggling to keep up with their cultural needs. Hands that once served now lay idle, awaiting others who do not always know the geography of their food nor the history of hope and suffering that crinkles their bodies.
I don’t want it to be this way, not for my Lebanese gang nor for the hundreds of greying community elders.
This is a call for a revolution. For us from multicultural backgrounds to remain connected with our elders, to hold their hands in the last years of their journey, as they once held ours in our first steps of life. This is a call for us to come back to community, for the clack of metal to once more be the secret password that brings us all around the kitchen table and each other into the fold of family.
For these words to always be heard and ring true: Sar baynna khibz wmilh.