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So somehow I felt a sense of destiny in moving there. It felt like a beautiful peaceful retreat after a busy and active decade living in the city of Dunedin. Before that I had spent nearly seven years working and studying in London whilst traveling a lot in Europe and Asia.
Now I felt as though I wished to take stock, slow down and reflect on what was most important to me. So began the gentle meandering through the beauty of the local Catlins landscape as we worked to make our year old house at Pounawea more habitable! My dad would come to visit us from Dunedin and share stories and memories of the George family's life there at the turn of the twentieth century. We visited the old George farm land, the old Tahakopa railway station and the tiny school at Kahuika where my grandmother Katie Soraya George and her sisters and brothers attended.
It seemed amazing that my great grandparents could come all the way from Lebanon to live in this remote, rugged and albeit, very beautiful part of Southern New Zealand. Thus I wanted to explore the Catlins and learn more about how it was for them to live there, as well as having a break from city life. But first a little bit more about me and my family My name is Suraya. I took the name of my grandmother Soraya over twenty years ago in honour of my special memories and great love for her. Suraya is an Arabic name meaning light or sun. But it would seem that years ago it was probably important to blend in with the predominant English speaking culture of that time, to not stand out and be too different!
My father also told me that many of the surnames of our Lebanese ancestors were changed when they arrived here, often probably because they were unpronounceable for English speakers!
Our great great grandfather in Lebanon was Geryes Boulas Fakhry. Joseph George our great grandfather ,took his surname from his father's first name Geryes when he arrived in New Zealand. His first name Yousef became Joseph. My great grandmother Nurr became Nora. The Fakhry clan became Farry or Farr. The Khouri families became Coory. There are many more. So I grew up in Dunedin within the warm embrace of the Lebanese community that immigrated and settled here.
I was the fifth child of eight born to my mother and father over an eleven-year period. My twin brother Richard joined me for the ride. Whilst my dad had the colour and drama of Lebanon in his blood, mum was a sensible, quiet woman who immigrated to New Zealand as a nurse from Great Britain in Perhaps having that quieter English blood was a good counterbalance to the Lebanese passion and eccentricity I saw about me!
I remember being surrounded by cuddly, dark eyed, olive skinned great aunts and uncles who smothered us with kisses and Arabic endearments and wonderous amounts of Lebanese food. Even when we were groaning with fullness they continued to shovel it on our plates. No one in the family seems sure of the exact date. Joseph's older brother Michael George and sister Christina, settled in Dunedin like many other Lebanese from the village of Becharre in Northern Lebanon.
But Joseph, a strong, earthy character according to my father, chose to go farming, after ten years in the Dunedin area working as a hawker like many other Lebanese Immigrants. First he had a small parcel of land at Tewaewae Point in Southland where he ran a few sheep, felled trees and worked for the local sawmill.
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Then in , when he had saved enough money, he bought acres of land on Mouatt-Saddle Rd in the Tahakopa area of the Catlins, South Otago. He ended up farming there for twenty years and he and Nora had eleven children in total, although sadly two boys and a girl died as babies. However their first daughter Mary was born in Lebanon and accompanied her parents on the long journey from Port Said in Egypt to Port Chalmers, Dunedin where they arrived by ship over years ago.
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My great aunt Jessie Yasmine Paget nee George , their youngest daughter, recalls being told that they experienced some very rough seas on the journey. At one point Mary, only 1 or 2 years old nearly pitched overboard after a big wave and was only saved by Nora grabbing her dress and dragging her back from the edge! My grandmother Soraya, the fourth born child was brought up in the Catlins with her siblings where they attended the Kahuika school. I look back on photos of Soraya and her sisters at their local school and see dark eyed little girls gazing out. Some of the children have bare feet and I wonder if they are hardy characters and it is summer or is it the economics of large families and the difficulty to have enough for even the basics?
A Slice of Lebanese life. The George Family in the Catlins and Dunedin
After all this was the time when the Catlins area was considered an impoverished area of N. I also look back at photos of my great grandmother and grandfather and wonder how it was for them to live, work and bring up their children in the often harsh climate of southern New Zealand in a simple two room farm house. Great Aunt Jessie said they worked very hard on the land and she even remembered how her mother Nurr would push her young children in a pram and accompany Yousef to sell goods in the to the local people of Tahakopa to supplement their income.
I also remember my grandmother Soraya, told us how she and her sisters,Jean Jamille and Margaret Molki would often ride to school on a horse, particularly when it snowed and there was no other way to get there! There are quite a few photos of Joseph and his sons John Jock and Joe, felling trees and working hard on the land with cattle, sheep, vegetables and an apple orchard. Great Aunt Jessie said they had to be a 'hardy lot' to survive in the Catlins at the turn of the century. My great grandparents only spoke Lebanese Arabic when they arrived and must have been unusual and strangely foreign to the predominant flow of English speaking immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland into Otago at that time.
Dad also remembered that he had a warm and loving nature but was firm with discipline and rules with his children and grandchildren. He would ask my father run to the local store at Kahuika to buy his pipe tobacco and time him with a stopwatch! Dad's grandmother Nurr was tall for a Lebanese woman and, was also very warm and nurturing. She worked hard bringing up eight children with the very basic amenities of their farmhouse and cooked many traditional dishes of Lebanon.
Kibbi, made with minced lamb, bulghar wheat and herbs,was a favourite dish and still much loved today by the Lebanese community of Dunedin. I There was also imjudra rice, onions and beans ,lahie illos potato, onion and tomato , mishee cabbage rolls stuffed with minced lamb and rice , and fasulia green beans and tomato. Great Auntie Jessie recalls how her mother also made her own flat bread man'oushe , yoghurt luban , butter sumnee and white cheese arishi whilst her father Joseph raised pigs and cured his own bacon.
She also remembered they had large amounts of apples every year from their orchard on the Catlin's farm and many were preserved by an old drying method, such as they had done with the abundant fruits growing in the fertile mountains and hills of Becharre.
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My father said his grandparents always spoke in broken English despite many years in New Zealand as they mostly spoke the colloquial dialect of Arabic at home. Dad remembered that they were hilariously funny in some of the things they said and told me that jhidi often told him how he hated bloody 'Bort' Chalmers as as that is where he first arrived in New Zealand on a cold, grey and windy wet day in Apparently there is no 'p' sound in Arabic so he always used a 'b' sound instead!
Then there is the funny story of Nurr. She and Yousef shifted back to Dunedin in because of her deteriorating eye sight and the wish to give their now grown up children more opportunities in the city. She was returning from town one day to her Dunedin home in Whitby St in a taxi. When the taxi driver had difficulty following her instructions because of her broken English, he drove past her house. Nurr had died in just before they shifted there. Nora remembers Jhidi as being a 'lovely old man' who enjoyed going to movies and being with his family in his retired years.
Even though she was only 3 or 4 years old she can remember he had scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning made by his daughters Jean and Margaret. He also had a cup of tea with a special wide brim to accommodate his large bushy moustache! He would always pour some of the tea into the saucer and give it to his grandchildren. He was also very playful and she remembers, on hot days he would often pretend to catch flies in his hands and put them in his mouth to the delight and horror of his grandchildren! They all adored him. He loved to take his grandchildren to the movies.
Sadly he died at the movies in , his grandson Michael, only a toddler on his knee.
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The ushers found him. Nora remembers him being in the open coffin at his home in Stafford St for some days. She remembers picking yellow buttercups and putting them in his hands. So why did they leave Lebanon to come to such a new and faraway landscape?