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The Chasm of Assimilation – My mother’s New Zealand cousins

This article is written by Cecile Yazbek who was born into a Lebanese family in East London, South Africa. She is the author of four books all related to the Lebanese diaspora. This is the first in a three-part series including Albinos and the Lagger and Transplanted Family Trees. All photos courtesy of author.

New Zealand Rules

In New Zealand in 1899, an English language test was applied to all migrants of non-Irish or British origin. In 1920, the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act provided that 98% of immigrants should be of British origin. The Lebanese remained classified as Asiatics, disqualified until 1930 from access to pensions or family allowances. In 1974, New Zealand finally introduced a non-racist immigration policy.

The Haddad-Akel Families

Nabeeha Akel (b.Haddad) 1922, Beirut.
Nabeeha Akel (b.Haddad) 1922, Beirut.

In 1910, my mother’s aunt, Nabeeha Haddad and her husband, Joseph Akel, left Lebanon for New Zealand. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Joseph took his wife and children back to Lebanon in order to join the British war effort. He worked with General Allenby and acted as a translator for T.E. Lawrence. Joseph’s nephew, Norman was a runner in the Arabian Desert.

In 1922, my grandfather, Alexander Haddad took his family from South Africa to Lebanon for a year. There was a joyful reunion with the New Zealand family; the children attended school in Beit Meri together.

A year later, the Haddads returned to South Africa and the Akels to New Zealand. Over decades the cousins exchanged letters and photographs.

In Australia, 1990
My mother in South Africa wrote to me that her cousin, Lili had moved to Australia from New Zealand. She gave me contact details for Lili’s niece, Dee. We met in Sydney. Her features resembled my mother’s siblings, awakening my longing to resume a cousinly conversation that had ended when I left South Africa. But Dee shied away from my Lebaneseness. I asked to meet Lili but she described Lili as, ‘English now’. In response to my offer to prepare some family recipes, Dee said, ‘What recipes? We prefer a lemon sole.’

It took me ten years to get past Dee, the gate-keeper – I finally met Lili before her ninetieth birthday. On a bright winter’s day, I drove across Sydney, a jumble of emotion. Was I English enough? Was I too Lebanese? My handbag was stuffed with photographs: my mother and her older sister Phyllis in their seventies, my siblings and our cousins. My head brimmed with decades of Haddad history.

At the front door of her home, an erect white-haired lady grabbed my hand excitedly. ‘I never had any relatives in Australia.’ I feasted my eyes on Lili, as much Haddad as myself.

Groups of our enormous extended family from towns and cities in South Africa would have given a limb to sit where I sat that morning. I asked Lili, ‘How was it in New Zealand with Lebanese parents?’

‘We were not allowed to speak Arabic at all. My elder brother insisted we spoke English. My father wanted us educated. On Sundays, we had to memorise a poem, or a quote from Shakespeare, and line up in front of him to demonstrate what we had learned in school. We were happy.’ New Zealanders, instead of nondescript foreigners. It sounded like that migration language test.

‘Did you feel Lebanese? Did you eat the food?’

‘Yes, I remember some Arabic prayers. My mother cooked stuffed vegetables but my Scottish husband preferred plain food.’

In a cross-cultural marriage, her culture was deeply buried. Perhaps in the folds of her brain there could be some Lebanese fragments. She didn’t need them, but I longed for their familiarity.

Lili’s daughter joined us. ‘They hid their origins; it wasn’t even mentioned. In fact, my mother’s youngest brother Fred, an orthodontist in Harley Street, attending to the teeth of royalty from east to west, never told anyone he was Lebanese.’

My pleasure in meeting Lili was tinged with sadness for my mother who had visited England at various times and tried in vain to meet Fred. ‘What’s wrong? Is there something shameful he doesn’t want us to know?’ If my Middle Eastern-looking parents had appeared, announcing their kinship, Fred’s cover would have been blown. No, Mother, nothing was wrong, he had decided to be English.

Lili Middleton and Cecile, first meet, March, 2008.
Lili Middleton and Cecile, first meet, March, 2008.

Acquired Differences

On first meeting those Lebanese New Zealanders, I felt our genetic similarity, but found differences in our identifications. The Lebanese in South Africa clung to the church that had won them their citizenship. Albeit in private, we retained our recipes and fragments of language in large family gatherings.

Early Lebanese migrants to New Zealand lost motherland and mother tongue. Echoing the Immigration Restriction Act, shame about their origins reached into people’s psyches, dismembering their pasts and connections. My cousins carried no Arabic, no recipes beyond memories of Nabeeha, who took the bus across town with a tray of kibbe to visit someone who was ill.

In the countryside

Haddads, 1930.
Haddads, 1930.

I recently accompanied Lili’s daughter to visit Dee, the gatekeeper, on her country estate.

I mentioned the family history that I was writing and she announced that being ‘English now’, she was no longer interested in historic family. ‘Do your neighbours know your origins?’

Wide-eyed, she shook her head.

‘You look more Lebanese than I do.’

‘I tell them about our Greek ancestor.’

Lili’s daughter, who had been listening, said, ‘Lebanon is a joy: the food, the people, the country, it’s fabulous. We’re dying to go back.’

Dee shook her head again. This cousin who is genetically as Lebanese as myself made me feel as if my origins were a secret stain that I carried into her home.

Outside we strolled across paddocks, towards glassy ponds in which black swans glided. A light breeze teased the tops of the ghost gums, where black cockatoos called. On the way back to the house, a few residents were chatting in the lane. ‘Remember, we’re Greek – Kalimera – it’s good evening, I think.’

My mind roved far and wide, through decades of Dee’s personal losses and around the vineyard to find reality. I saw her cocooned from sadness inside her house, where everything matched and gleamed. Once she told her neighbours the truth of her origins, she thought the elegance of her home would be viewed as a borrowed façade, a disguise for her ‘unsavoury’ Lebanese identity. Her personal history was trammelled with racial shame.

All night the wind banged and shrieked. At breakfast, like a big bad wolf, the gale still howled, forcing itself through chinks and window frames as if propelling truth into the house, to set her free at last.


Further Reading

Hage, Ghassan. ArabAustralians Today: Citizenship and Belonging (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002).

Malouf, Amin. On Identity (London: Harvill Press, 2000).

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  1. Hi Cecile

    Thank you publishing this post

    I am one of lili’s grandsons and loved reading about our family history as know very little about our Lebanese heritage.


  2. Hello Cecile, My name is Joanne Yazbeck Rosenthal. All of my ancestors came from Hardine Lebanon. On my fraternal side my grandparents were Joseph Yazbeck and Sahia Habib. Maternal family name is Joseph. Curiously I have a sister Cecilia who was name after my maternal grandmother. I believe my grandparents migrated to the US around 1913. I found your post fascinating. Could we possibly be related?

  3. Hello Anoushka, So good to hear from you. It is such a pleasure to know that subsequent generations are at last openly acknowledging and sharing our history. I hope that we can meet one day. I am in Sydney. Best wishes.

    1. Dear Cecile. I am Christine Ballard and I am the daughter of Gladys Akel. Joseph and Nabeeha Akel were my grandparents. My mother was the baby of the family, the last child born to Nabeeha. By then the family were living in or near Wellington. I have the original photo of the Akel family you have used in your article. I also have many other photos you may be interested in. I replied to Anoushka saying much the same thing, i.e. I am happy to copy any photos you would like. My four brothers and I have been so interested in our Lebanese connection over the years. I have met Lili on those occasions I have been in Sydney. We all adored our nana Nabeeha. We spent many many school holidays with Nana and Aunt Olga in Lyall Bay Wellington. When I am in Wellington I go and visit the house. I feel I am taking care of it for them! So many wonderful memories there. Nana taught me how to cook the Lebanese way. My children love kibbeh and cabbage rolls. Anyway that’s enough to go on with. I would love to make contact with you. I live on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. Love from Christine.

      1. Hello Christine, Thank you for your interest in my writing. It’s good to be connected with you on Facebook.Every diaspora community has its own characteristics depending on how they were received in the host community. During the decades of apartheid,South African Lebanese, although openly centred around the Maronite Church, were fearful of losing their privileged white status. Looking forward to meeting you in Brisbane in 2019.

  4. Dear Caroline,

    I am Anoushka Akel, granddaughter of Dick Akel. I really appreciate reading your account of meeting Lili as I have had very little access to information about my Lebanese heritage for the reasons that you have illuminated here, amongst others.

    I look forward to reading and learning more, but in the meantime thank you for the great photo of my great grandmother and her children. All the Akel grandchildren have enjoyed seeing it.

    My best wishes,

      1. Hi Anoushka. I am Christine Ballard, daughter of Gladys Akel who was Dick (Richard) Akel’s sister. I have kept in touch via Facebook with your brother Torbin as we had met some years ago at an Akel and Alexander reunion in Auckland. It was there that we spoke of our Akel and Haddad beginnings. I have many photos of the Akel family that I could copy for you if you are interested. Likewise it was me who asked if you would photocopy the passport belonging to Nabeeha for my scrapbooking. Why don’t we all keep in touch with each other as these memories are so precious to us all. At the weekend I visited my cousin Sonya Austin. She is the eldest daughter of Norah and Norman Alexander. She has written a book and is launching this in Taupo in a few week’s time. It covers the early life of her parents then her own life with husband and family living in Taupo. She also recommended a book called ‘The Immigrant’ one of many books written by Ernest McIvor who is a cousin of Mum’s and your grandfather. So there’s a little info for you to go on with. I’m on Facebook- are you? You could private message me your address and I will gladly send on wonderful photos to you. I have the original of the Haddad family that is printed in this article. My regards to you – I’ll Facebook Torbin and tell him I found your enquirer here. My brother Robin has found this article and emailed me to read. I’m so glad I saw your message. Love from your ‘relation’ Christine Ballard.

  5. I think who ever is ashamed to be Lebanese hell with them because they have no idea who they are and how proud is to be a Lebanese and what a beautiful country is Lebanon
    Im a Lebanese women who came to California 41 years ago the day the war started
    4/13/1975 i still love and adore our people and our country the culture is amazing no comparison to any country in the whole middle east , when i tell somebody I’m from Lebanon right away they said ( the Paris of the Middle East) only uneducated people denied themselves from that beautiful God Given Country its their lost .

  6. Hi – I always struggled with my father’s sense of shame and privacy regarding his Lebanese background (Australian born, 1926 in Charter’s Towers) and have had to try and piece together why. For me, growing up in a proud “multi-cultural” Australia I wanted to know about my heritage. Sadly, for my father’s and grandparents’ generations, Australia was a vastly different place. Being “different” was to be avoided at all costs. My father never went to Lebanon, a constant source of sadness for me. On returning from my own trip to Lebanon and my grandparents’ villages in 2001 my father was interested in one thing only – the food I ate!! Dad is now no longer with us but this still brings a smile to my face.

  7. This is fascinating. As a Lebanese Canadian, I have no trouble at all because Canada prides itself as a multicultural country and in fact has taken in 25000 Syrian refugees, with more arriving next year. Our prime minister greets them personally at the airport and gives the children a gift of winter coats! I was born in Lebanon and still speak Arabic and cook Lebanese food that my Kiwi husband enjoys.

  8. Cecile, a fascinatingly sad story with a good ending, Fear of rejection and exclusion were undoubtedly behind it. In Queensland a 1925 Royal Commission found Southern Italians and Mediterranean people could contaminate the then hoped for Australian white race. Socially, non-Anglos were referred to as “dagos” a term of contempt and rejection. Economic consequences were also potentially involved. Understandably and sadly Dee was terrified by feared exclusion. At age 96 I speak from knowledge of others and experience not hearsay. WW1 service helped some post 1918 but much has changed since WW2 when many Lebanese Australians served in Australian armed forces with distinction. Understandably, present day attitudes make understanding of early C20 snobbery and racism almost incomprehensible to 2016 folk.The London report, of course, resembles the “upper-class” Australian attitude of those early days- probably more so. Thank you for an excellent article. Yes, I have been to Lebanon and re-established links with family after nearly 100 years.

  9. Cecile, I was much moved by this story and by the responses to it. In Australia today the spectre of fear and mono-culturalism is again emerging. There’s a saying attributed to Teilhard de Chardin, ‘union differentiates’, which may well be reversed, ‘differences create a richer form of unity’. Your ancestral writings, and recipes, have brought an exiting range of flavours and humanity to our community. With thanks, Richard

  10. Hello Cecile, I have no trouble telling everyone who might ask my of my origin, especially at my golf club the prestigious Royal Auckland and Grange Golf Club, that I am a Lebanese, South African Kiwi grocer dwarf!

    1. Thanks, Rob. You clearly have no issue with who you are. In fact, sometimes, vestiges of white South African entitlement empower successful males in places where they may have been marginalised. It’s the younger ones whom we should be concerned about in societies that maintain strong margins for those who are different. That said, I believe that NZ society has become much more inclusive.

    1. I agree, and hence we were never taught our mother tongue for fear that we might be classified ‘non white’ and deprived of a decent education especially in Bloemfontein where I was raised!
      Thank you so much for exposing all of this Cecile!

      1. Thanks, Ninette. I believe that education drove our inclusion in a society where our origins might have put us in the margins. The pain of the loss of personal recognition of our Middle Eastern origins troubled the older generation. Reclaiming and accepting our historical identity is essential to becoming rounded, inclusive people and a gift to those who come after. Indeed, the conversation itself can free us.

  11. Sadly, I’ve seen this way too often. It seems that in general, in SA, different backgrounds are way more accepted, for better or worse, than in oz and nz, where it’s merely tolerated if it doesn’t rock the status quo. “Tolerance “”, how I despise that word, and it’s connotations…

    1. Thanks, Nick – it seems as though the strong British colonial influence in this part of the world had some people clinging to the past, fearing change brought by newcomers of all shades. So in the mutual discomfort felt by both incumbents and newcomers, it was the newcomer who had to dumb down their origins.

  12. Interesting. Ive never met a Lebanese person in South Africa who was ashamed of, or hid their exotic origins. I’m so proud of my heritage, and always eager to show off my few words of Arabic learned from “Tete”, or my mom or others, and enjoy sharing the Leb dishes I know how to cook.

    1. Thanks, Joy. That was the shock for me, finding this shame among some of my NZ relatives. It seems that internalised shame about one’s origins/race can also bounce off shame in one’s personal life.