Embracing the past – Lebanese in South Africa Faces in the Forest by Cecile Yazbek

Sydney author, Cecile Yazbek was born into a Lebanese family in South Africa: her father, Joe Yazbek’s family was from Hadeth Beirut and her mother’s family, Haddad, was from Beit Meri. Their parents went to South Africa from Lebanon between 1894 and 1910. To this day, their descendants cook authentic Lebanese food using ancestral recipes. Lebanese-Arabic language remains in small phrases and comforting words of welcome. Hospitality to all is strong in the remote South African community.

In Australia, South African Lebanese, sharing a history of that bedevilled time, maintain a loose affiliation. Cecile Yazbek has produced her fourth book about that community, Faces in the Forest.

Set in Cape Town in the 1970s, two sisters, Zeezee and Najla, reminisce about their family’s life in the early twentieth century as outsiders in a country town in the semi-desert Karoo heartland where Boer(as Afrikaners were known), amaXhosa, English and others shared the space. The sisters take the reader into the intermeshed lives of a community of honourable and dishonourable characters living through extraordinary times: apartheid South Africa, the place beset by a racist nightmare for almost fifty years. No one was spared.

Today in Australia, cruelty and prejudice toward asylum seekers and indigenous people remind Yazbek of that old South Africa where fear and labelling of the other was rife.

Yazbek is the author of the much-loved memoir, Olive trees around my table – growing up Lebanese in the old South Africa 2007, Mezze to Milk Tart – From the Middle East to Africa in my vegetarian kitchen, 2011 and Voices on the Wind 2015. She describes this last book as sorrowful. Set between 1890 and 1924, the migration era of her ancestors.

Yazbek says: ‘All the books I read reflecting people of Lebanese background were situated in other countries, like Ghana, Brazil, the United States, places whose history I did not share.

‘In general South African works, my background was missing. Lebanese whiteness with full citizenship rights was at issue before apartheid. But under apartheid, home was the only place where we could be ourselves. We feared the reversal of our status to the original classification as Indian (Asians, from the western coast of Asia).’

The American-born writer Randa Jarrar speaks of the importance of seeing ourselves reflected in the arts because without that we can start to wonder whether we are real – whether our pain is real, whether we deserve to be alive. ‘Revealing the racist origins of our status in my writing has been life-saving,’ Yazbek says.

Faces in the Forest will be launched on Sunday the 9th September at 3pm in Chatswood. voicesbycecile@gmail.com.

Yazbek will also speak at Turramurra Library on Tuesday the 21st August at 10 am and Margaret Martin Library Randwick on Saturday the 22nd September at 2pm. Bookings at the libraries.