NADIA BRIKHIA: Brikhia Means Blessed
When we think about elders and community leaders, it is often linked to race, culture, ethnicity and religion. Today I realised that there are also elders, or rather, pillars of inspiration for genders. In my case, women. This woman rattled me with the strength of her beliefs and what she holds true. My friend Simone said if I was going to do this project, I had to interview her mother. She was right.
NADIA BRIKHIA. I was born and grew up in Beirut Lebanon.
THE PIN. What were the main ideas instilled by your family around race, culture and also gender?
N. In Lebanon at the time I was growing up, race was not an issue. Religion played a very important role in the community. Not just for morality, but it dictated how you socialised with others. Your social fabric.
I am Assyrian, not Arab, from the ancient people of Mesopotamia, from modern-day Iraq. As an Assyrian child growing up in an Arab country, not only was it instilled in me to marry a Christian person, it was also instilled in me to marry an Assyrian person.
I remember a priest preaching to the congregation saying, “When we lose our children, we lose our identity”. Our ethnicity and our identity were very, very important. You had to stay within your ethnic group and your religion.
Did you believe it was wrong like the priest and other people had said or did you think differently, even if you did not say it out loud?
N. It scared me because I was thinking, what happens to me when I am older and I fall in love with someone? If you married within the religion it was ok, but if you married a Muslim or Arab guy you would be killed. It was the same for Arab and Muslim women. It was the norm.
When did you decide to come to Australia?
N. I decided when I was about 10. My mum said to me, “I pray every day that you marry a European man, because if you marry a Middle Eastern man you’re going to be at my doorstep everyday with black eyes”. Because I would be so defiant.
When I was growing up, I hated women-talk. I liked to play with boys, I liked to play marbles and games with boys. As I got older, I liked the conversations because they were about interesting things like history, geography, science and going away. All girls talked about was how their mother had taught them how to look after the house and how to cook. From then on I thought, “There is more to life than this”.
Were you allowed to finish school?
N. I was, but it was a struggle. If I didn’t come first, second or third in my grade at every exam, mum would threaten to kick me out of school and find me a husband. I was blessed to have an intelligent brain. I was brilliant at math. I would work so hard so that I was first, second and then maybe third. I remember my father, who was more open minded than my mum, saying to her, “The pen will feed her. She’s clever, don’t pull her back”. He even said to me years ago, before he passed away, “I wish you had gone to university”. This is my one mistake in life. I had the will, the potential and I wanted to go, but my mum was very old fashioned. As the eldest of 9 children, she had no choice but to send me to work. That’s how it was.
The Six-Day War was in 1967 between Israel and the Arabs and I was in my final year of high school, preparing for my exams. I would have started university in ‘68, but I started work instead.
A neighbourhood lady whose daughter worked for the airlines said to my mother that Polish Airlines were looking for a receptionist. Within a year I was a booking reservations administrator, and I was a supervisor by the time I was in Australia. I was earning almost as much as my father.
When you were on the plane on the way to Australia, did you know this was where you wanted to be?
N. When I worked for Polish Airlines we would get a free airline ticket. I first went to Poland - they took us there for training - and then I went to Sweden. I wanted to stay there, but it was such a cultural shock to me. I wanted to be part of that society but my moral values could not accept that people could live together, it was too liberal. After two weeks, I was homesick and wanted to go back home to what I felt comfortable with.
Anyway, I was suffocating in this country. Then, there was a guy working in our office whose brother lived in Australia, and I said, “Can you sponsor me?”. He said, “Okay”. So he did my sponsorship papers. When the visa came my dad said to me, “Go and see what the country is like, if there is a future for your brothers and sisters”. Mum didn’t know that. She thought I was going on holidays with an aunt that lived in Sydney. When I came to Melbourne, the first thing I did was go to a post office and send a telegram saying I am not coming back. Then a telegram to my work saying, “I’m resigning. I am not coming back, I am staying here”.
How did that feel to send that telegram?
N. It was like somebody finally coming out of the closet to their family. My mum would write telegrams saying, “Come back, we miss you and love you”. My sisters would write, “Don’t come back! Mum challenged dad to kill you as soon as you come home. Everyone is saying that you have become a prostitute and brought shame on the family”.
Do you think your dad would have?
N. There is a lot of pressure for men. I have seen women get men all worked up telling him he’s got to be macho and punish or honour kill. My older brother had that pressure from mum, but my second brother didn’t have that pressure on him. I can never ever repay him; all my memories of going out and being a young teenager were because of the window of freedom that he gave me. He got into trouble so many times.
What stood out to you when you came to Australia?
N. There’s a sisterhood here. There is no sisterhood there. But, it is changing and they are starting campaigns against abuse and honour killings. Women are saying enough! All of a sudden they are 40-50 years behind in feminism, but they are getting there.
When you came to Australia, how did you meet your husband?
N. I lived with my friend and a group of Lebanese men in a flat in Moorabbin and my husband was their friend. When I arrived to Australia they said, “We’ll introduce you to an Australian, and when you meet him you’ll never go out with an Australian”. So we went to his parents’ house and they told me to tell his parents that I was his girlfriend, knowing that he wouldn’t be home because he was at TAFE. So I did.
When he came home, his mother told him that his Lebanese girlfriend came over asking for him. He thinks, “The Arabs are playing a trick on me. No Lebanese girl would come to Australia by herself (in 1972) and stay with them. I’m going to fix them up!”. So we’re sitting at the flat, at night, and there’s a knock at the door. They say to me, “You go open the door”. So I go open the door and he says, “Oh! It’s you”. I said, “Yeah, come in”. He stayed til 3 in the morning. We talked all night and he couldn't believe I had come here on my own. He said he wanted to take me out, and I said yes. And oh, they were not happy...
Who was not happy?
N. The Lebanese guys.
They said, “You don’t go out with Australian guys”. Yet, they go out with Australian girls and sleep with them, but an Australian boy can’t go out with a Lebanese girl. I said, “I am going out with him. I didn’t come 2000 kilometers or whatever it is to go out with a guy from Lebanon. If I wanted to do that, I would have stayed home, where I had a bigger pool to choose from!”. They told me I had to move out and that was fine with me. I moved. I arrived on the 10th of October 1972, and on the 17th of October I met him. So I went out with him to spite them and ended up marrying him.
SIMONE [daughter]. It was their 42nd wedding anniversary last week!
When you returned to Lebanon to bring the rest of your family to Australia with your husband, what was that like for the both of you?
N. The war started in 1974 or ‘75. Dad wrote to me and said get your brothers out of here. Before the war we got one brother out, George. He wrote to me telling me he felt something brewing with his Muslim friends and his Christian friends.
Dad was already paying an exemption levy because he didn’t want my brothers to fight. The only way I could get them out was for me to physically go there and get them out of the country, because of all the corruption at the embassies. In August 1977, I went with my husband to Lebanon. I was scared.
As the ship was docking, I remember thinking “Oh my God, this is a desolate place”. It was just awful. I could also see mum and dad waiting on this empty place that used to be a port, and thought, “She is going to try and get dad to kill me”.
I introduce my husband to my family and my mum takes us around to all the people who had said I had become a whore. She said, “This is my daughter and my son-in-law, and they have come to take me to Australia”. She did! When her visa was finally in she did another round to all the houses.
Bodies were everywhere. Dad would say, “Don’t let your husband look, there is a body on the street”. It was a basic instinct to keep your head down and worry about getting home with some food. My younger sister told me there was a time when it was so bad and the young people decided that they needed to do something. Bodies were even blocking front doors. So they got wheelbarrows and started carting bodies. The stench of bodies was horrible!
Did you and your husband's perception of each other's cultures and countries change when you got to know each other?
N. It did. Tony’s perception of Lebanon changed. In Lebanon, there was a lady in the flats opposite, whose husband was bashing her. My mum told me to keep my husband off the balcony because we didn’t want him to witness a murder. He was going to kill her. Tony said to me, “You used to tell me about what life was like here, and I never believed you. Now I do”.
When I came back home to Australia after that trip, I no longer had the longing to go back to Lebanon. The day I left Beirut to come back to Australia (September 1977) I thought it was the last time I was going to see that country. I never wanted to come back, ever again. I came back to Australia very settled. There was no more angst inside me about who I was. I knew - I am Australian.
What were the visions you had for your children and how did you want your children to identify themselves and grow up?
N. As Australians, but I also don’t want them to forget their Lebanese and Assyrian heritage. My ethnicity is very important to me. When I travelled around Europe I used to say I am Assyrian by race, Lebanese by birth, Australian by choice - I'm a citizen of the world.
Did you see a cultural change in the way that your family worked together compared to when you were in Lebanon?
S. Of the seven siblings only one of them married within the race; everyone else married different races. One of our cousins is half-Polish, another four of our cousins are half-Greek and half-Dutch, and Steven and I are half-Australian. So there are four of us who are Assyrian with a mother from Iraq, but Assyrian within the ethnic group. Apart from the four that have Assyrian on both sides, none of us speak the language.
Is that something you wish you could do?
S. Yes. Mum can speak four languages and I can only speak English. It’s not fair!
It’s like you said, you’re a citizen of the world and it’s reflected in your family. They’re of the world.
N. It’s really good and really lovely that they changed like that.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice of being in the skin you're in, what would it be?
NADIAH BRIKHIA. Be more assertive. I could have been stronger. I could have spoken my mind more and really challenged myself, but there were times that I was a bit scared. Be stronger and escape as soon as you can.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: provided by Nadia Brakhia