Earlier this year Brown Cardigan and Reddit shared a photo of a street sign. The sign was for Sydney’s Parramatta Road, but instead of being on Parramatta Road it was halfway up a mountain in Lebanon.
Now it didn’t seem that odd to me that someone would steal a road sign from western Sydney, fly it halfway across the planet, and then reinstall it in a remote Lebanese village. I just wanted to know which legend did it.
Parramatta Road is the main artery of Western Sydney, and to be honest, it would be an ugly industrial motorway if it weren't for the Lebanese. The last 100 years, from Burwood to Granville, migrants have brought a sense of culture to the monstrosity that is Sydney’s main varicose vein.
Not everyone feels this way, of course. When Beirut became ground zero for Lebanon’s 15-year long civil war, the former NSW premier Nick Greiner described Parramatta Road as "Beirut on a bad day."
Recently, I found myself in Beirut on a bad day. Not quite a civil war, but 13 degrees and raining. So with a bit of time to kill, I decided to drive two hours north to the town of Kfarsghab (pronounced firiss-garb), to where I was told I'd find the Parramatta Road sign, a whole 14,000 kilometres away from its original home.
The village of Kfarsghab has has a population of around 800 people, but in the winter months villagers move to their second homes further down the mountain to avoid the snow. So when I arrived it was basically deserted. With no one to ask about the sign, I decided to knock on the door directly opposite and a guy with a beard answered.
The bearded guy told me his name was Antonio and then I asked him about the sign “This sign?" He asked, pointing back across the street. "Yes, it’s something special! Kfarsghab is a very small village. But everyone comes to see the sign!”
Antonio then told me that most of his extended family migrated to Australia in the lead-up to Lebanon’s civil war beginning in 1975. So during the summer months, he now drives a lot of Lebanese-Australians around the mountain, with the sign being an obvious pit-stop. “Just two days ago I took a group from Australia, they’re not even from Kfarsghab and they wanted to take a photo in front of it,” he exclaimed. “It’s like a tourist attraction!”
I was hoping Antonio would know who'd originally stolen the sign and made it through two countries' customs in their luggage... but he didn't. So I made a phone call.
“The sign has been there since 1995!” explained Jennifer Hanna, Secretary of the Australian Kfarsghab Association. “I shook my head when I saw the Instagram post. People from our village know the truth, we grew up with it.”
She explained that instead of being some kind of obscure prank, the street sign was a gift to the village by the Parramatta City Council, in recognition of the deep roots linking Kfarsghab and Australia.
According to Hanna, Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock and the late Parramatta City Councillor Joe Barakat gifted the sign to the town in 1995 to honour the 20,000-plus Kfarsghab descendants living in Australia, and particularly Parramatta. They held a renaming ceremony for the road, and threw a banquet for residents and a delegation of Australian officials. And today the sign continues to stand as a lasting symbol of the connection between Lebanon and Australia.
But that's not the only lasting symbol of Lebanon’s connection to Australia. A short 15-minute drive up the mountain to Bsharri, you’ll find some other hints of Australia, starting with the main shop, which is named the Kangaroo Super Market.
The place is managed by sisters Rita and Leila Rahmi on behalf of the owner, Mansour Fakhri, who'd also returned from Australia. When I met with Fakhri he claimed he'd been the "king" of High Street when he'd lived in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote.
Fakhri returned to Lebanon with his family years ago, but he told me he still misses Australia. “It is my home. Even though I am living here, I think of myself as an Australian.”
You won’t find Vegemite at Kangaroo Mart, but you will find it on the menu at Café Trottoir, just up the street. The owner, Tony Khalif, is a 61-year-old Bsharri resident who spent most of his life working and living around Parramatta Road. His café serves Vegemite on toast and Aussie beef burgers, and is nestled between Bsharri’s main Maronite Catholic church and the hospital.
“A local guy saw me eating [Vegemite] on toast once. The guy said ‘what the fuck is that? A chocolate?’ I said ‘No, it’s not mate, it’s grease from a truck!’"
Tony explained that like many others, he'd moved to Australia during the civil war, which broke out while he was doing his compulsory service in the army. “I lost about 15 of my best friends during the war," he told me as we huddled around the fireplace in his café. "I’ve got only two of them left now.”
When he arrived in Sydney, Tony found the transition from Lebanese soldier to Lewisham high school student difficult and he had to repeat year 12. “My first year in Australia was tough," he says. "At school they were calling us ‘wogs’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about! Some people were very prejudiced against us.”
After school Tony tried dentistry but it wasn’t for him. So he studied electrical engineering and got himself a job selling car alarms, along Parramatta Road in Burwood. It was years later, when Tony met his first wife in King’s Cross that he felt like he had roots in his adoptive home.
Tony finally returned to Lebanon in 2010 to care for his aging parents. Since their passing, he’s remained to manage the café. Of the two surviving friends he had in the army, one of them also lives in Bsharri.
“We really loved our time in Australia," he said as I put on my coat to leave. "It’s a beautiful country. In fact, if it wasn’t for Australia, I might be dead by now.”
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