Footprints on the Mountains
tracking a hidden heritage -
The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscape, but in having new eyes. Marcel Proust
When two Aborigines meet for the first time they ask each other, ‘What is your Dreaming?’ - Who are you, who is your family?
To experience the absence of a Dreaming is both powerful and devastating. Deprived of their Dreaming a person has no tribal identity, no connectedness, no belonging. Family roots are as important as the spirit of the land.
When I was eleven years old my mother took me into the laundry, shut the door, and whispered. ‘Listen carefully. I have something important to tell you. You’re not Irish. Your paternal grandfather was Syrian and your paternal grandmother was Chinese. And your surname is not really Mack. But you must not tell anyone that you know. Especially not your father. It is to be our secret.’
‘Why must it be a secret?’ I asked.
‘Your father is afraid for you. He knows people don’t like you to be different. They want you to be Australian.’
‘Does this mean that I’m not Australian?’
‘You are Australian, too.’
‘But how can I be all those things?’
I did not tell my father that I knew his secret. I did not tell him because he died a few weeks later, taking his heritage and his stories with him.
And with his death I did the only thing I could with my mother’s startling revelation. I bundled her words into a drawer of my subconscious, locked it, and threw away the key.
What I did not know then was that this drawer would slide open, always when I least expected or wanted it to, until decades later I set out on a pilgrimage to discover my tribal identity, my sense of belonging.
The family that my father shrouded in so much mystery were the Barakees and the Aboukhallils of Machghara, Lebanon. In 1892 my great grandfather, the Mukdah of Machghara, encouraged three of his sons to seek a new life in Australia. A few years later, his fourth son, my grandfather (who was at the time studying to be a priest at the Vatican) decided to abscond from the church and follow his brothers. Not long after arriving in Australia he married my grandmother, a Chinese woman whose father had arrived during the gold rush, and whose maternal grandfather was an Irish convict deported for his part in political uprising against the English.
The journey to my Dreaming was long and arduous. If my father loved me I was unaware of it. He was the patriarchal, distant, detached and disconnected figurehead of our large, isolated and insular family that was heavily reliant on each other for social interaction. We lived as if we had been plucked from nowhere and placed in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, with no background, no roots, and no memory.
And any remaining elder of my family had either died or, if they still lived, held on to their silence and their fear, remaining adamant that we were not ‘foreign’, that the past was dangerous territory and should be left where it was - buried. I soon realised that if I were to uncover my hidden heritage and find my father and grandparents, I would need to approach it in much the same way that Michelangelo approached his creation of David. ‘I didn’t create David,’ Michelangelo once said. ‘He was already in the stone. I simply stripped away the outer layers so that he could reveal himself.’
Peeling away over 100 years seemed to me to be an impossible task. It is the nature of stories and history to float around the ether only to disappear or change on enquiry, so my search was not by way of traditional documented research, but by uncovering and following each lead that presented itself, no matter how small. A snippet from someone’s memory, an unexpected conversation, old forgotten photos, a name or event remembered were precious gems of discovery until finally I entered the world of my Dreaming and let my father and my grandparents reveal themselves, and my novel, ‘Nimmitabel – Place Where Many Waters Meet’, was created.
I drove across the Victorian/New South Wale’s border tracking my father’s footsteps. I tried to catch the scent of him upwind as he darted and dashed through my jungle of memories, always eluding me right at the moment of catch. Like a hunter I stalked my prey. I was lured on by both the anticipation of finding him, and by the fear of actually bringing him to life.
The ‘Welcome to Nimmitabel’ sign told me that this High Country town boasts the same population as in 1892 when it was the highest and coldest town in Australia. I cruised through the main street then followed a side road to the pioneer cemetery on the hill behind the town.
I sat on the grass in the cemetery. The ice-cold breeze burned my skin. From there I had an uninterrupted view across the rolling Monaro Plains, the mighty Snowys in the distance. The air was a soft deep lilac. Beyond the cemetery’s barbed wire fence an old and gnarled tree stood naked, bare of any leaf, the setting sun illuminating its trunk. There were no sounds except a few cars winding their way along the Monaro Highway, and a distant crow calling his mate.
Red roofs dotted the town. Two churches, the school, the convent, the Royal Arms Hotel: the scene was exactly as it had been over one hundred years ago. My grandparents’ presence was strong. I sensed their shadows across the plains, their songs in the air. And I knew that this countryside carried the stories of my father too, but for him Nimmitabel (Aboriginal for ‘a place where many waters start’), was merely a dot on the map where he happened to be born, a landscape he could not wait to leave.
And for a brief moment on a spring Tuesday late afternoon in a sleepy, snug township at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, I finally caught the sound of my father’s footsteps in the breeze. His image stopped mid-flight, and turned to face me. He crept closer, so close I could hear his voice and feel his breath before he leapt away, so swift and light he vanished immediately.
It was then that I learned the value of standing still and looking. And in so doing I was able to thread together the past, present and future which, I would soon come to understand, co-existed in the most ordinary way.
Port Jackson, NSW
On an early winter’s Monday the Habsburg was ending its three-month voyage across the world. By the time the ship sailed into Port Jackson in the colony of New South Wales, Australia, dusk was descending. Dark clouds swirled low on the horizon darkening the already heavy sky.
The disembarking men, women and children looked tired and slightly stunned after sailing the open seas, but they talked with great animation to each other, not caring whether their verbal language was understood. At least their body language was clear; it spoke of uncontained excitement, with some of the passengers bursting into rousing songs reminiscent of the homelands they had left behind.
The passengers gathered luggage and relatives and bustled into the waiting room, papers in hand, ready to be stamped. Squatters looking for servants moved among the passengers asking who might be available to shepherd sheep or perform house duties. Bullock teams waited outside ready to carry boxes and passengers to their new employment.
By the time the rain clouds hovered directly overhead, most passengers had left the boat; those still lagging looked exasperated as they tried to simultaneously subdue energetic children and juggle luggage. At the rear of these stragglers sauntered three young men. They each sported thick black handlebar moustaches, and wore checked caps that they had bought during the voyage at a portside market in Athens. They strolled down the gangplank as if they were in no hurry whatsoever to reach their new homeland.
Then, as if on some choreographed cue, the three suddenly whipped off their caps, tossed them high into the air and, with an uninhibited flourish, caught them on the descent. Then they ran their fingers along the brims of their caps, saluted each other, and bounded down the gangplank discharging loud and contagious hoots as they weaved around the remaining passengers.
As soon as they reached the end of the gangplank each of the three men fell on their knees, bent forward and kissed the ground three times.
‘Ahlan, Australia. Ahlan’…Welcome, Australia. Welcome.
For twenty one year old Kheirallah Barakee, and his brothers, Shikerallah and Faranjallah, kissing the ground three times was a symbolic gesture, one they had agreed to carry out even before they had left Lebanon, as an expression of their welcome to this new land into their life.
When the last of the passengers disappeared in their buggies to prearranged destinations, the three brothers put their arms on each other’s shoulders and danced in a circle. Their feet moved to unheard music until, again as if on cue, they broke free, picked up their luggage and hailed a single-horse cab to take them to Sydney Town.
‘Where to Mac?’, asked the Scots cabbie.
‘Ah, Mack.’, Kheirallah told his brothers. ‘This is a good name to have. People will be able to pronounce this name.’
If at first Sydney Town captivated the three men with it’s busy streets of carts, horses, people, trading shops and hotels it was not long before they tired of those same attributes. And besides, they had not yet found work, and what little money they managed to bring with them was fast disappearing.
‘We must ask for help,’ Kheirallah said to his brothers.
‘Go south,’ advised a distant relative who had been in Australia for six months. ‘Follow the road out of Sydney Town, and travel down to the High Country, the Australian Alps. There they have built townships with many people. And there you will find not only work as hawkers, but also peace.’
So it was that these three lives veered towards an unexpected path. A day or so out of Sydney Town, as they passed through barren flint-stone and granite country, they teamed up with four other travellers, men born and bred in the Australian bush and who were also travelling south with three pack horses between them.
They decided to travel together and, eager to get to their destination the party of seven planned an itinerary which involved walking up to twenty miles a day. This meant rising at daylight to the sharp frosts and temperatures of minus 10 degrees. It also implied abundant use of the scented oil Kheirallah had brought with him from Machghara to ease blistered and bleeding feet.
One drizzling day, two weeks into their journey, they passed through a valley where the four Australian bushmen decided it was time to replenish their food stocks. Between them the men carried only a little salt meat, flour for dampers, a few vegetables and fruits, and water bottles. A light load made for speedy travelling along the dust cattle tracks, and food could always be had from a homestead along the way.
The Australian bushmen slung rifles over their shoulders, took their leave of the Lebanese lads, and disappeared for the entire afternoon. By the time they returned the camp was organised with Kheirallah and his brothers waiting patiently for their promised dinner. Their patience was rewarded when the hunters tossed enough food for fifteen men on the ground: two emus and three kangaroos were to be their meal this night.
Together they skinned and sliced the animal flesh. Then they collected firewood, lit a campfire, and sat back in anticipation of what was promising to be their finest meal since landing on the shores of Australia. Smoke from the roasting kangaroo and emu wafted over the camp, stimulating everyone’s tastebuds to the point of salivation.
Replete, the travellers huddled around the campfire swapping stories of their lives, exaggerating some details, leaving out others, and drinking hot black sweet tea from the billy. Kheirallah watched the heat from the fire rise causing the uppermost leaves of the gum trees to sway hypnotically. When the fire died down to ashes and it was time to crawl into the tent for warmth and sleep, Kheirallah looked up. Millions of lights flickered in the indigo velvet sky that spread over the camp and stretched to the horizon where dark clouds clung. And for the second time since he arrived in his new country, Kheirallah whispered, ‘Ahlan, Australia, Ahlan.’
The next day one of the packhorses became stuck as they attempted to cross a creek. The men shoved and pulled and coaxed but could not move the poor unfortunate horse, which was in danger of drowning or dying of fright. Just as they were about to give up and shoot the horse, two young Aborigines appeared. The campers yelled for the Aborigines to come and help, and within the hour the horse was freed. The two natives immediately retreated to their tribe not far off in the bush, and the travellers put up camp for the night and retired early after a meal of only damper and tea, the last of the meat supply having been consumed at the mid-day meal.
If Kheirallah at any time during this seemingly endless and hazardous journey from Sydney to the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, wondered whether he had made the right decision in coming to this new land, his musing did not last long. Not only was he a naturally optimistic man, but there was simply too much to do just to survive, without expending energy on futile contemplations.
The Monaro landscape was most inhospitable to its human inhabitants and, on a winter’s Thursday evening in 1892, as the three men sat huddled together contemplating the town of Nimmitabel, the scene was less than inspiring.
Weary and bemused by their journey of over three months, Kheirallah and his brothers walked into the town just minutes ahead of a storm. Their four Australian companions had farewelled them two days prior. The bushmen had taken the mountain track up the Great Divide to find the Snowy, a fresh water river boasting the biggest trout on the Monaro, where they planned to camp and fish before heading south to Melbourne.
Uncertain where to go first to ask for accommodation, Kheirallah led his brothers to join a group of people standing on the bridge in the main street, watching a far-off storm approach.
But nature surprised them all, visitors and townsfolk alike. The storm was either not as far off as anticipated, or it travelled quicker than any of the locals anticipated. Before anyone realised what was happening Nimmitabel was under siege by one of the most severe storms: thunder, lightening, hail and rain, all at once. And within five minutes of commencing to rise, the Nimmitabel creek that flowed through the town was running 12 feet deep.
As Kheirallah and his brothers watched from the bridge, the creek transformed from a dried-up trickling water hole into a rushing torrent, sweeping fences, trees, casks and cattle before it, engulfing half the township.
Everyone on the bridge made a run for it, but before they had gone a hundred yards, the river was flowing two feet deep across the road. All they could do was to watch helplessly as the deluge of water destroyed Chinese garden plots of lush vegetables, and swamped the town and outer areas with sand and rubbish. And the bridge that they had only moments before been standing on was completely washed away.
Heavy hail-like blocks of ice cut down nearby farm crops, and lightning killed a number of cows on a nearby farm, and two men who were out in the paddocks mending fences.
But despite its unfavourable introduction, the rocky, volcanic landscape of the surrounding Monaro Plains undulating high above sea level reminded the three Lebanese men of their homeland, the little tanning village of Machghara at the foot of Mount Hermon.
And, as Kheirallah, Shikerallah and Faranjallah stood on the alpine plains where the air tasted like champagne, and the water bubbling out of the ground was just as fine as any spring water of Machghara, they turned to each other.
‘Yes,’ the brothers said. ‘This land is now our home.’
Trekking across the Australian High Country was for me a pilgrimage of a spiritual nature. I walked the plains absorbing the landscape of my ancestors. I talked with locals and solitary folk who lived high in the mountains and remembered my family. I read local historical papers. I met Lebanese cousins I hadn’t known existed, and heard of hundreds of others living around Australia.
Then late one afternoon an ancient man with three front teeth missing, and skin as rugged as the mountains he lived in, dragged a dusty magenta-coloured photograph out of a box in his tool shed. In the photo my Lebanese grandfather is a young man dressed in the robes of a priest. His hands are folded on his lap. His face is inscrutable. And around his neck, hanging half-hidden among his robes lay a crucifix on a chain: I recognised it as the same cross my father had always worn around his neck.
I studied that photo for a long time trying to bring to life the grandfather I never knew. But I was looking for him in the wrong place. The soul of a man is revealed, not by a blurred two-dimensional image; a man’s soul is revealed by the songs he sings and the stories he tells…and by what he passes down.
It was mid-winter and the Australian High Country was an inhospitable place. As the three brothers sat huddled together contemplating the town of Cooma, about 30 miles from Nimmitabel, the scene was less than inspiring. High winds ripped straight off the Snowys, slashing the Monaro grasslands.
The hawkers’ load was a heavy one. These adventurous souls suffered tedious hours on horseback or bumped around in a cart crossing the many rivers, and green grassy plains dotted with sheep and cows. They forged their way over muddy, dusty, or flooded pot-holed roads and through bush so thick in places they could not see the sky.
And the Macks and Bookallils did it tough. For years they travelled on foot carrying their heavy wares and bedding on their backs. Besieged in turn by blowflies, snow, high winds, dust storms, sweltering sun, and bushfires, they stayed away for days at a time, leaving their women at home to care for the children and take responsibility for the running of the home.
But there were distinct advantages to hawking in the High Country. The lure of the wilderness was powerful. Being so high above sea level accentuated the perfume of pine trees and flowering gums, and the wild flowers that spread across the plains. The days were coloured with conversations with mountain men who drove their cattle to graze in pastures high in the mountains. And clear azure summer skies, far from city noise and pollution, enticed the hawker to take a break and sit under a gum tree and yarn or smoke their pipe.
It may have been tough, but hawking was also lucrative. Country people relied heavily on the pedlar’s supplies. With their earnings from hawking, the Macks and Bookallils began to establish stores in Cooma and Nimmitabel. Early photos of the main streets display their names above general stores, ladies and men’s wear, haberdasheries, cordial factories, and fruit and soda stores. The Mack Store is still a flourishing business in Cooma today.
It was the nature of the first-wave migrant Lebanese to develop strong bonds, and the Mack and Bookallil families formed a close network of business and personal support and became an integral part of the Monaro district’s community. They married and had families. They sat on council meetings, voting on local issues that steered the way for future generations.
As their businesses flourished, so did the economy of the towns. These hard working, versatile Lebanese immigrants were willing to turn their hand to anything. They farmed the land, harvested their own vegetables, and buried them in the ground to keep them fresh for the long freezing winters. They raised and killed their own meat. Milked their own cows, baked bread, sewed clothes from flour bags, and made furniture, soap and candles. They gathered and preserved chook eggs, and grew and harvested their own supplies of fruit, spreading it on the red rooftops to dry in the alpine summer sun.
The first wave immigrants lived off the land sharing with their families and neighbours. In a time when the Snowy Mountain region was far more isolated than it is now they created a busy social life among themselves and the townsfolk. And they were a unique and colourful people. They added a new and welcome dimension to the raw and sparsely populated Australian Alps. The local newspaper reported the death of Shikerallah Barakee with these words:
‘Jack Mack Senior was one of the Monaro’s best known, oldest and most colourful personalities. He was 97. During his seventy-two years in Australia he fished most of the Monaro streams. He walked most of the country from Queanbeyan to the Victorian border. His memory recall was so vivid he remembered the Russian Turkish religious wars of the 1870’s.’
Work hard they did, but they also had times of great festivity, celebrating life with backyard gatherings abundant with traditional foods and songs and dances and story telling. They caught eels using home made spears; took picnics out onto the plains in the spring sunshine; played cards and musical instruments at night. Summer evenings often found the growing families sitting around campfires beside the Murrumbidgee River telling stories that had been passed down through generations.
And I like to think of my grandparents sitting with the others on the back porch on a clear alpine night, sipping a glass of arak or the sweet Monaro spring water that tasted like champagne, watching the moon rise over the undulating plains. As the light changed from pink to purple my grandfather was reminded of Machghara, the picturesque tanning village he had left behind and he said, ‘It is true that a man can no more forget his father and grandfather than a river can forget its source’.
Then an event occurred that caused a link in this strong family chain to work itself loose and break away.
Pioneer life made the Australian High Country folk tough, especially the women. They carried water from springs, cooked, helped run stores and farms, hunted rabbits with homemade catapults, shepherded sheep and children, and wrote letters home, patiently waiting months for a reply. With the nearest doctor thirty miles away they learnt how to treat snake and spider bites, influenza, tooth extractions, homesickness, and childbirth. My grandmother, Alice, married at seventeen and gave birth to fifteen children in almost as many years, most of the births without a doctor or midwife, just a neighbour whose only experience was her own births. My father’s birth occurred before her nineteenth birthday.
Inside the front room of Number three Bombala Street, Alice heard the corrugated iron over the front verandah clatter against the drainpipe with the force of the wind. A loose picket banged against the fence rail. Next door’s shingles rattled.
Hannibal Napoleon Mack made his inauspicious entry into the world just moments after Alice felt the vibration of the black storm clouds as they discharged the entire contents of their swollen bellies against the corrugated iron roof. The impact caused the two-bedroom semi detached weatherboard cottage with the finest vegetable garden in town to shudder on its foundations.
Daoud was not at home during his wife’s labour. Being absent had nothing to do with lack of compassion for the woman he promised to love and cherish and who now lay on sheets grey with perspiration. Certainly it would have been fairer had he been with his wife. But fair was a state rarely achieved by pioneer families whose energy was focused on summoning up the necessary physical stamina and inner resources needed to survive life in a country town in the Australian Alps in the 1890’s.
Life could not afford to miss a beat. Mouths had to be fed, bills paid, stock counted and purchased, and customers placated. Who but Daoud could attend to these matters? Besides, his own father would never forgive him if he shirked his duty as head of his house. And Daoud Barakee grew up believing a man could no more forget his father and grandfather than a river could forget its source. This was one of the ‘Lessons of the Kings’, which he transported to Australia from his birthplace, a narrow strip of mountainous land caressed by the waters of the Mediterranean and where life was grounded in the unwritten codes of ancient philosophy.
A place of breathtaking beauty, so ancient even the grains of sand were said to hold history, Lebanon bred passionate souls. And Daoud Mack never lost his yearning for the rocky soil of his homeland. Images of sunburnt gold hills, and streams that rustled in the quiet of night burned in his memory every day. And like his father and centuries of his forefathers, Daoud’s psyche was rooted in the ‘Lessons of the Kings’; a way of being that had been whispered across the desert since before the birth of Christ.
One of the ‘Lesson’s, and without doubt the one considered by Dauod to be the most important, insisted that honour and dignity be revered above all else. And Daoud had striven all his life to this code of ethics, enforcing it on his children with the strength of conviction of a true autocrat.
‘Come, Hannibal. Look.’ he would demand of his disinterested son, pointing to Joshua in the Old Testament. ‘Here is our family name. Our name reaches deep into the past, as deep as the roots of the towering cedar tree. 600BC, Hannibal. This is a long time. More time than you or I can think of. Your roots, Hannibal, go deep. Never forget that.’
It was these ancient philosophies his father embraced with intent and vigour that the young Hannibal came to detest. He did not know why his father clung to a tradition that bore no relevance in the tough Australian High Country landscape. If he had thought about what his father felt on arriving alone in Australia as a young priest fleeing from his church elders in the late 1890s, Hannibal might have gleaned some understanding. But a young boy cares little about his father’s life outside the family, and cares even less about the person his parent may have been before he became a father.
Neither did it occur to Hannibal to question whether fate, coincidence, or love of the landscape drew the young Daoud to the township of Nimmitabel. The truth is, had Hannibal bothered to question whether his father yearned backwards, he would have realised that Daoud did not then, nor ever in the future allow it to show.
But Daoud Mack did find the cultural, geographical and emotional transition to the Australian Alps difficult. Reconciling life on the Monaro Plains, selling sherbet water ices and pomegranates, with his former monastic life at the Vatican took considerable effort. When he fled from the Vatican, the institution that had been his home for six years, and walked across the Roman cobblestone piazza for the last time, he shoved both his crucifix and his god into his pocket, vowing never to take either of them out again.
Inevitably his underlying sense of disconnection and dissociation was passed on by osmosis to his eldest son. From the moment he was old enough to realise there was a place beyond the township in which he was born, Hannibal Napoleon Mack anticipated the day when he would be able to escape. He firmly believed his future life lie in a place other than the Australian High Country.
From the start it was obvious to most of the townsfolk that Hannibal wished he were elsewhere. He held himself aloof, keeping more than the usual country distance from the inhabitants in the small town, many of whom were his cousins, aunts and uncles.
Yet he knew no other place. He tried to imagine a town with more than one street where the winter snows blocked the entrance to the post office and the main store, and horse’s fluid excretion sizzled and steamed with a loud hiss as it burned into fresh white snow.
Some months after Hannibal began delivering the mail for the post master at the order of his father, Alice became concerned that tramping through snow and over ice with newspapers wrapped around his legs and feet was the cause of the arthritis that periodically crippled her son. Without letting Daoud see, she always served Hannibal generous helpings of kibbee and lubin at mealtimes in an effort to keep him warm and strong.
She knew that Daoud had little time or concern for moddle-coddling his children. When she begged him to go easy on their son, the family was regaled with yet another version of the by now familiar tale.
‘Far less than what I suffered,’ Daoud would begin. ‘I walk donkey carrying doctor’s bag of medicine up mountains, all day, all night. I am only nine when I am sent away to be with goats for three weeks. I am to look after goats. Eat only cheese, olives. A little meat, dried. When these foods run out, I hunt berries, kill few rabbits. At night I sleep in cheese bag. In day, goatskin keeps me warm. I cannot go home, because in my village there is no food. All is gone. My job was to get food for people of the village.’
And he would send Hannibal back out into the snow the next day to battle the sneers of some of the less enlightened townsfolk, and the numbing cold.
So it transpired that Hannibal escaped the Australian High Country before the snows began in earnest on the alps, two months prior to his fifteenth birthday. He had saved enough money for a one-way train ticket to Sydney. On a bleak Friday night he packed his belongings in one of his mother’s flour bags, tucked the money under his cap, wrote a short note to tell his mother not to worry and not to try and find him, and headed for Sydney, the first step in his journey.
Australia was a different place then; a country where being ‘the other’ was less tolerated than today. The first wave Lebanese families laid the foundations and left a strong legacy for future generations. Their courage and perseverance in forging a new life in a foreign, untamed country, continue to inspire and encourage their hundreds of Lebanese descendants.
My father never learnt how to blend his cultures into one man so that he could just be himself. I’m not sure how he would have felt about my tracking his footprints and uncovering his heritage. But ancestral roots grow deep and are not so easily forgotten. They are passed down the centuries through memory and genes, and by the distant echoes of our forefathers.
I knew my father for only eleven years and three weeks, but it was long enough for him to impact my life. I now track my grandfather’s footsteps back to Lebanon, to the mountainous village of Machghara, the place of ‘secret flowing waters’. There I will sit on a verandah with a rakwee of coffee, and watch the moon rise over Mount Hermon and spread its dark fiery colours across the grapevines, the fig and apple trees, and the people of the village. And I will speak into the night air. A person, I will say, can no more forget their father and grandfather than a river can forget its source.
© Denise Baraki Mack 2003
Published in Lebanese Diaspora - History, Racism and Belonging - edited by Paul Tabar
Published by Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon, 2005.
Paper presented by Denise Baraki Mack
The Lebanese Diaspora Conference, Lebanese American University,
Beirut Campus, June 28 – July 1, 2001
Note: Portion of this text are taken from D. Mack, ‘Nimmitabel – Place Where Many Waters Meet’ (novel currently under consideration by prospective publisher)