Saturday, 12 November 2016

Lessons from a Lebanese Family History

It was my grandfather’s funeral yesterday. I’m typing this at the desk he made for me. I’ve had a few family history-related thoughts swimming through my brain for a while, and seeing so many relatives (some for the first time in decades) has brought these all to the front of my mind.

My dad’s side of the family have clear roots in Lebanon, with migration to South Africa a little over a century ago. The history of Lebanon under Ottoman rule is well-documented elsewhere, and I’m far from an expert on that. But the short summary for now is that the Ottoman Empire was divided into lots of population zones with differing religious and ethnic identities, and most of these were run feudally, with peasant farmers taxed by local authorities, who passed on wealth to regional authorities, who in turn competed to send the most wealth to Istanbul. The competitive nature of this system meant that the peasantry were generally treated pretty poorly, coerced into paying up as much as possible, sometimes through violent means. One story goes that people started building their homes with the smallest possible doorways, because Ottoman cavalry were less likely to dismount to advance indoors and cause trouble on foot.

There were also local conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, sometimes intentionally stoked by the Ottomans to break apart any unity against their rule. One particularly violent internal conflict in 1860 had my ancestors very much on edge, and not long after that, the opening of the Suez canal completely upended the economy, smashing trade routes that had been stable for centuries. This economic shift led to more pressure from tax collectors, unwilling to set their goals lower. By the end of the nineteenth century, Lebanon was not the best place to live, so many families uprooted and travelled halfway around the world to make new lives. The Lebanese Diaspora is pretty varied, with most settlement in the Americas, Australia, mostly Central Europe, and all over Africa (taking advantage of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa that was going on at around the same time), but I’ll focus solely on my own ancestors moving to South Africa.

The Shams set out in the 1890s, apparently spent a short while living in Bermuda (no idea why there), and then several years in Australia, before settling in the southern African European colonies in the late 1890s (which then became South Africa in 1910). My grandmother’s side, the Leichers, came a few years later, and this family had planned on only a temporary migration, saving up enough to re-capitalise their old farm. But the group of them who returned got there just in time for World War 1, and the Turkish rulers were especially brutal in this period. The starkest examples of this were the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, but my relatives caught part of it too. Crops were simpy confiscated, farming became unsustainable, and starvation was widespread. Trudging on foot, begging for meals, they set off back to Beirut to try to sail back to South Africa. Of the Leichers who returned to Lebanon, only one boy (Joe, around 11 or 12 years old) survived to rejoin the South African family.

I am the product of refugee immigrants. When I see people today moaning about refugees and other foreigners, all it makes me think is that, a century ago, they would have been refusing to help my family, and it was probably the same sort of moaning, a century ago, that left poor little Joe Leicher to fend for himself in an unfamiliar city, in a state that more or less wanted to kill him.

Of course, in South Africa, things weren’t all rosy either. My grandfather was born in 1925, and he was legally classed as ‘White’. This was still a new advantage to have, as his parents and older siblings had been classified as ‘Asian’ until a 1923 court case “upgraded” them – and ultimately also me. (If nothing else, the flimsy flexibility of this racial definition shows how subjective and nonsensical it all was.) If you know anything at all of South African history, it should be pretty obvious that re-classification as white was a huge advantage. Prior to that, British colonial authorities were just as shitty to non-whites as the later apartheid authorities were. They were barred from a number of jobs, barred from owning property, barred from decent schools, barred from political processes, and subject to harassment by police and paramilitary forces. Many Lebs had been in the habit of lying and pretending to be Greek, as it gave a slightly better chance of being hired. (Apparently many Chinese immigrants similarly pretended to be Japanese to gain their “honorary white” status, at least temporarily). My definitely-undoubtedly-white British mother wouldn't have been legally able to marry my dad if that 1923 decision had never been made, which would have made my subsequent existence pretty unlikely.

The big book of Leb family history that I got this from presents the 1923 case as an early blow against apartheid, but I have trouble reading it that way. It looks to me more like my ancestors were climbing over other oppressed groups, foot on face, to lift themselves to a higher status. If there was a plan to help share this status change with other groups, it never went anywhere, but I don’t think that ever was the plan. In the generations before mine, for every relative I can name who opposed apartheid, however passively, it’s not hard to name two or three others who were (and still are) hugely and unapologetically racist, especially against black South Africans. I don’t know if the Lebs very quickly forgot what life had been like before 1923 (I get the impression that few Lebs in my dad’s generation are even aware that many of their own grandparents and parents weren’t officially born the same race as them), or if white schools trained that hatred into them, or if anti-black racism had already been common among them (somehow) before that, or if it was some sort of disguise mechanism that went too far, trying to fit in better among “real” whites by making a noisy show of putting down non-whites. Perhaps it was a combination of several of these factors. At least in my generation, that prejudice seems far less common.

To be clear, there’s never been any doubt that I’m white. Legally, I’ve never had even a flicker of a question about it. And socially, school bullies were apparently never well-informed enough to question whether Lebs should count as real whites, they just knew it made me something different from them, their default target group. But I’ve probably had just as much bullying over my Scottish origins as my Lebanese origins. More people have worried (worried!) that I might look somewhat Jewish than that I actually do look Lebanese. I have always had all the privileges our society affords an English-speaking white male, enough that I could write an entire post on that topic alone.

One final bit of family history worth sharing also concerns my grandfather. I didn’t know this story at all until about 3 years ago, when he felt I needed to focus better on sorting out my teaching qualifications. In the late 1940s he had gained entrance to study mining engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. He did well in his first year there, but the family still wasn’t wealthy, and funds ran out. Attempts to find a bursary failed, because at the time most of these were reserved for war veterans. And so his studies just had to end. He always regretted that, and consequently always placed great emphasis on education, ensuring that my dad would get his engineering degree (and later an MBA), as well as supporting both of my aunts’ tertiary studies; today they’re both PhD’s, one specialising in education. A strong emphasis on education carried on into my generation, and I think that the 7 Sham cousins have between us 10 or 11 degrees so far, plus who knows how many other qualifications. I have little doubt that all of this shaped my own interest in becoming a teacher.

So it’s been disappointing to see a couple Lebs opposed to the pro-education goals of the Fees Must Fall movement; unsurprisingly, there is overlap between those opposing it and those who are openly racist. Imagine what my grandfather might have achieved in the ‘40s if he’d had the benefit of fully state-subsidised tertiary education to allow him to finish his degree. Imagine how many other Lebs (not to mention literally everyone else) have been held back in life because they couldn’t afford to study. I still have cousins today who’ve been stopped from studying for purely financial reasons. (Now imagine your entire racial group of millions of people has that same problem, with no wealthy cousins to help them out; sympathy ought to be your natural response.)

Family history is an interesting thing. I think it’s often abused to try and force unity for unity’s sake, a way to increase exclusivity, while I’d rather use it as a way to learn from past mistakes and make the world better, more inclusive. I don’t really care if anyone identifies as Lebanese or not; most of us haven't ever been near the place anyway. And I don’t miss my Jidoo because he was Lebanese, I miss him because he was my Jidoo, and now nobody will cook for us the way he did.
Billy Sham
1925-03-08 to 2016-11-05