Carols in the gangland


'Carols in the Gangland' by Chris Johnston As they gather in strength and unity, their roaring voices are a perfect match with the beating and pounding that characterises who they are and where they come from. Men of dark hair and olive skin, travelling together in seeming packs and bound by an unbreakable tradition. There is a leader among them, and even if he is not explicitly seen, he is found in their actions and in their pursuits, and in their quest to dominate the task ahead.

They have found a niche for themselves in South-West Sydney, and no matter how they are stereotyped and represented, they will continue to meet, greet and roar as they beat, Pa-Rum-Pum-Pum-Pum, on their drums.

You'd be forgiven if you thought I was writing of something criminal and sinister and un-Australian. After all, representations in our press would have you assume that South-Western Sydney is the heartland of gangs, where terror reigns and where Australian ideals are in rapid decline. They'd have you believe it was an Islamic enclave, or a place where you couldn't walk alone for fear of abuse or crime or rape.

But drive in its midst during this Advent season and you'd be surprised. Here reside a people that the press has forgotten. A Lebanese Christian population who, tarnished by the criminal representations that their nationality connotes in the press, has retreated further and further into old ways of living — as outsiders in a country they chose because of its hopes for a better life and a stronger, bigger, prosperous future.

Instead, the past decade, plagued by gang rapes, street crime and race riots, has questioned the value of their presence in Australia and riddled our multicultural policies with big and bold question marks.

Driving in a Punchbowl street this December could erase all those questions of the values of multiculturalism. I am thinking this as I watch the St Charbel's Youth Association Choir sing passionately in preparation for their Church's annual youth Christmas carols concert, while the Christmas lights and decorations of the surrounding homes brighten up the experience. Oh come all ye faithful, the lights and carols say, joyful and triumphant.

The church, which I am proud to worship at, is a Maronite Catholic institution that has as its core objective the maintenance, in Australia, of the traditions of the Lebanese Maronite Order. Its parishioners, young and old, born down under or in the old country, are encouraged to embrace and love their Australian home as much as the home of their forebears.

I see this tonight as the choir mixes traditional Anglo-Celtic carols with the elements of their cultural heritage. The derbake and the Tubbel, mixed with 'Jingle Bells' and 'Silent Night' and 'Away in a Manger', in a mix so delightful and exotic it warrants a news report in and of itself.

Hark! the herald angels sing. Men and women of middle-eastern appearance gathered in a manner warranting no concern. As the conductor gives them a two minute break between sets, two girls pipe up that they'd like to sing the Aussie take on 'Jingle Bells': kangaroos instead of reindeer and a rusty Holden Ute instead of a sleigh.

A few days later, as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, signalling the celebration they have been waiting for, the church will swarm with attendees. They will fill its sprawling courtyards with their prayers, acknowledging what the season represents, while inside, the priests burn incense and pray in Aramaic, the language of their Lord and Saviour, Christ made flesh. Frankincense to offer have I ...

The mass will fuse the English and Arabic language, and after Communion, the congregation will join the priest as he prays for the sick and the poor, the travellers and those close by, for the Australian nation and the Lebanese one, for his parishioners and for all the Lord's children. Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

And on Christmas Day, these same people will gather with their loved ones, eating and drinking and bearing gifts. Chicken and ham, roast vegies and salads, ice-cream and sweets. Beer and bonbons and noise! The Aussie summer sun, and not much else to ask for. Oh what fun it is to ride ...

In the end, the reports of the goings on in this part of Sydney are thinly-veiled accusations of difference, further dividing our society along an axis of 'us' and 'them', and fuelling a need for answers to questions of otherness that could have catastrophic consequences. Divisions that could have young boys growing up to be gangsters and criminals because that's what they're already labelled, and that's what they're expected to be.

But in the end, no matter where we hail from or the degree to which we believe, we'll decorate our trees and watch as the Messiah is born in a manger. And by fusing our various cultural takes on Christmas, instead of separating ourselves, we can make our celebrations more exciting, and finally put to rest those questions of multiculturalism and whether or not it belongs. Lessons like these make Christmas all that it's meant to be.

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!


Sarah AyoubSarah Ayoub is a freelance journalist, speaker and copywriter. She is co-publisher of Trespass and editor of Wordsmith Lane. Sarah is a postgraduate research student at The University of Sydney, where she is writing a thesis on the glamorisation by the Australian media of gang culture among Sydney's Middle-Eastern community.

Topic tags: christmas, gangland, south-west sydney, gang culture, maronite, punchbowl, lebanese, middle-eastern, carols



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Existing comments

Not happy with "the Messiah is born in a manger". He was born in a stable, and laid in a manger. It's a good story, and we should get it right.

But thanks for the insights into the South-West Sydney scene.
Michael Grounds | 18 December 2009

Sarah, Thank you for making this point. It's good that someone with an entree into both communities makes this point and makes it so eloquently about the divisiveness of the diatribe against difference that goes on in relation to the middle eastern community in south west Sydney.

I would like to wish you, your family and friends a truly happy and peaceful Christmas.
Margaret Gibson | 19 December 2009

I also am grateful to Sarah for her article. I hope to study the basics of Aramaic at a summer school next month, and look forward to joining in the Maronite liturgy some time thereafter. Sarah should not worry about Michael's correction. It is he who should get it right. My copy of Luke's Gospel, at 2:7, does not say Jesus was born in a stable. It reads that Mary "gave birth..and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn". The Greek word which is translated "manger", (phatne), means "manger, feeding trough or stable". (A concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, by Barclay M Newman Jr.)
Alan Hogan | 19 December 2009

Great compilation of tadition, culture and festivity. Being of Lebanese Maronite Catholic tradition and being born in this Great South Land I relate to all that you have written.

Let's keep in mind that this land of ours was enriched with the Anglo-Celtic traditions in which many Lebanese Maronite Catholics have embraced with their own tradition to be identified as Anglo-Celtic-Lebo!

Christmas in the South West of Sydney may be witnessed through the bright Christmas lights. The spirit of Christmas is well in this so called 'gangland'.

Well done Sarah!
Robert Milan | 19 December 2009

My impression is that the tensions in Sydney have to do with Lebanese Muslims. Lebanese Christians have integrated well in Australia for decades. This suggests that difficulty is not race but religion and other cultural markers.
Sylvester | 22 December 2009


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