My parents immigrated to Sydney from a tiny village in the north of Lebanon in 1976. I was born in Camperdown in 1987. I grew up in Concord and Strathfield. I moved to London and Melbourne. I now live in Marrickville with my partner in an old terrace house. It’s one of three, and my neighbour tells me they were built for a businessman and his two daughters in the early 1900s. A Greek family has owned the house for over forty years. They’ve painted it white and blue and paved the yard, added a brick archway, a gaudy green bathroom and an afterthought laundry that will one day peel off the main house and fall on its side. They’ve also tacked on a concrete block garage, accessible via the laneway parallel to our street. A narrow staircase in the yard leads to its rooftop. There’s a Hills Hoist up there and a table I found on the street in Alexandria, chairs I salvaged from down the road and plants we have nursed to health that were left outside Newtown Garden Centre. We cut each other’s hair up there, have drinks with friends, sunbake. We affectionately dubbed the rooftop ‘Little Mykonos’, except instead of the blues of the Aegean, we see the earthy rooftops of Enmore shadowed by the sluggish aeroplanes passing through Sydney airport.
Most days there are notable things happening in the laneway. Enterprise-grade bottle and can reaping, mattress abandonment, tipsy couples quarrelling, dog owners darting away from poop. If you were down there you wouldn’t think to gaze up over the garage doors, never imagine that there might be someone sipping tea peering down at you from the heavens like Zeus.
One morning after hanging the washing I looked over and saw a pale guy crouched outside our roller-door. Surrounding him was a shopping trolley on its side, a mound of soil, broken pots, uprooted plants (which I recognised from the reserve outside Marrickville Metro) some rope, bags. The road was blocked, the mess a riot. I called out to him.
He was startled; his head darted around like a hungry pigeon, searching for my voice.
‘Good morning,’ he said.
‘Morning, what are you doing?’
‘I’m making art. You want some?’
His eyes were sunny-side up, he scratched at the tie-died skin on his forearm. It was a nice gesture, the ‘art’ offering, but I couldn’t get past the state he’d made.
‘No thank you. I don’t think that’s the best place to be doing that. Will you clean up once you’re done?’
He stood up, barely.
‘Obviously you’re not from around here. In Newtown we do this type of stuff in the street. Where are you from? Have you not been around here long enough to get it?’
The sarcasm in his brow, the bravado of the land-grab wafted up, made me woozy. I tried to steady my hurt, fend it off by blaming his bile on drugs, on daftness, on his childhood trauma perhaps. But my knee-jerk clemency faltered that morning. And I realised the onus wasn’t on me to fathom why the stranger in the laneway blew his horn of indignant otherness, of superiority, of entrenched colonialism.
I have a beard. A thick black beard, a monobrow, a shark-fin nose, and caramel skin. I look undeniably Arab. I’ve been held-up in airports in L.A, Tel Aviv and Wellington. I speak Arabic, I wear a gold chain that Mum bought me from Tripoli, I have a tattoo of Horus on one arm and a Phoenician sun symbol on the other. When people ask where I am from, I say Australia. When they ask what my ethnicity is, I say Lebanese. I look Lebanese, I sound Australian. How do I convey this cornucopia of identity to a stranger in a split second? How do I tell him I am proud of my little parents for having endured immigration and for choosing to raise me as a flourishing hybrid? How do I stop myself from cussing, from perpetuating a tired archetype? How do I show him how well I know the curves of Inner-Western Sydney, how I adore the corners of Australia’s coast, how much of the world I have traversed and never felt at home anywhere?
Sorrow flushed my cheeks. I broke our laser-beam stare-off and retreated down the stairs, into the slanted laundry. We have an old telephone table-seat in there for when we’re waiting for the washing cycle to finish, for daydreaming out the window, for sadness. I sat heavy in the seat. I jogged around my brain trying to muster something to say to him before it was too late, but all my good words were in hiding. In their place was hot disappointment in tight waves. In among the waves were vignettes of my childhood, of genuinely not being made to feel different except by our flying-fox neighbour who once sprayed Mum with the hose because she’d decided we’d had too many visitors one Sunday. There was being told ‘You’re not like other Lebs, George.’ by friends in high school probably because I wore skinny leg jeans before they’d taken off. Envious remarks about my skin tone. Nothing venomous. Yet here I was in my thirties, with a cultivated and robust spirit, being reminded by somebody who knew nothing about me, that I am displaced. As though I should be grateful, reminded, that I am borrowing space from this frosty visitor in the laneway and not from the original custodians of the land. As though I were a bystander to the culture of the Inner-West, an intruder with no idea about my hometown happenings.
An hour passed before I gathered some words. I climbed the stairs faintly like I was stepping up to a diving plinth with my family and friends in the stands watching, waiting for the free-fall. I peered over but he wasn’t there, his grime still scattered on the road. I surveyed the rooftops, the Thai Airways aeroplane overhead, the leftover soil, and I said ‘I’m here. We are all fucking here.’
Later that day my neighbour Mario and I tidied the road up, washed the dirt away.