The soft cadence of the names that spill from the buildings in Punchbowl are lulling, Alafrah, Mervat, Baalbeck, Dounya, Sallam and Safadi, Akkaaoui, Kheir, Al-Nour, Alsati, Hamze, Khassoum & Moujalli.
This lilting vernacular weaves a cocoon of exoticism, evoking far-flung lands rich in Byzantine and Assyrian glory, an other-worldly intrigue, of a people swathed in fabric, the scent of wooded spice, jasmine, cedar and pine on their skin.
In reality this weary suburb lacks the ornate promise of this rich ancestry. The roads spill with snarling traffic yet the shops are empty. The surge of noise that catapults around the corners is the grinding screech of movement, trucks, buses, low-slung WRXs and souped-up trolleys trailing angst and piloted by surly teens. The swarm of sound is only tamed by suburban streets that swallow it whole, choking it down into bellies aching with interference.
The air is soupy, a mix of bitter coffee, tar, rose water, cement and heavy pollution. It is a sickening mix and we retreat into the backstreets for a different perspective.
Here, life takes a laid-back approach. A bare-metal car snoozes peacefully beneath a tarp, heavy sun shutters droop contentedly and paint pots line up excitedly at the prospect of a little home improvement:
Beneath a stately power pylon, all gangly limbs and proud purpose, Arabic inscribed Christmas decorations either linger a little too long or are a touch presumptuous, and the beautiful face of the local independent stares confidently out of a green-hued placard calling for True Blue representation. The streets are tired but wide, threadbare lawns are kept shorn and windows sparkle, eyes peeping out at the world from behind every twitching lace curtain. This is the partially covered face of the proud Lebanese community that calls Punchbowl its own.
Soon though, the cool, garlicky calm of Jasmin 1 hauls us in from the sticky asphalt. The walls are alive with frenetic frescoes and gilt-edged back-lit inverted domes, a psychedelic renovation in honour of a Mediterranean homeland thick with Cedar trees, crumbling antiquity and camels, though everything else has a clean simplicity.
Frankly, Michelangelo could have had a go and I would still be here for the toum not the art. This rich, silky, pungent garlic sauce is not only incredible it is free, which spins the Secretary into another dimension. She orders more immediately and continues her frenzied flat bread jabbing.
We order up big. Crisp, vinegary pickles entertain the Tin Lid for a while, but he is soon more intrigued by the woman behind us who is wearing a burqa and her little girl, peeking out curiously from the cool depths of her hijab. They seem as intrigued by his flaxen locks and petrol blue eyes and the kids are soon flicking fatoush at each other, shrieking with laughter. The slightly-smoked baba ganoush is lapped up with hot bread and salty-sweet salad and charred chicken caked in garlic and spice has an earthy glory that sates us.
Picking coffee grounds from my teeth as we leave, in the chintzy depths of a tat shop I unearth a plaster cast Ned Kelly umbrella stand and a full-size BPA-free American Indian, while the Secretary has stopped to peruse the McDonalds halal menu. Then there is Fadi’s, a beauty salon with a curiously confused message. Splashed across the front of the glass windows and doors is an image of sublime Nordic beauty, a perfection of blonde-ness with no hint of the cultural norm that exists here.
I cannot understand why this paragon of waxen beauty would be something the community might covet. Certainly it is a striking image, a visceral beauty-slap, but it is far removed from the cloaked, cloistered faces I see here.
On the door the sign reads:
Beneath the scarves and pins and rules, behind closed doors and in private rooms there is a different life, an untrammeled existence in which blonde beauty might be the norm. It is a life I am sad I am not privy to.
We are warned not to drive down Telopea Street. From a distance this run-of-the-mill street has all the trimmings of suburbia, from Hills hoists flying stained singlets and scabby verges, to the car wreck plastered with neon removal notices, devoid of dignity and wheels. Mature trees provide some shade but the whole place has a sunburnt look, gardens abandoned for the cool of the air-con inside. We slink a little closer. Still suburban. Not quite ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’, but unremarkable none the same.
But then the secretary goes quiet. Strangely quiet. She whispers words to me, plucked from chilling media reports; random killing; stabbed to death because he went to the wrong house on his way to a birthday party; synonymous with gangs, shootings and dawn raids; Moustapha Dib; “what the fuck you looking at?” “I just clicked. Fucking Asian deserved it”; Edward Lee; RIP.
We drive away without a backward glance, eyes on the similarly unremarkable road ahead of us.