Olive trees around my table
This sensational book by Cecile Yazbek is an absolute must for every Lebanese bookcase. Cecile is a born writer, who has captured the historical stand of brave Lebanese in the Old South Africa, who were instrumental in bringing about change in this beautiful country.
Now living in Australia, with her family,
Cecile has forever cemented her ties to South Africa, leaving us with a beautiful reminder of
the strength of the Lebanese Globally.
Olive trees around my table – Growing up Lebanese in the old South Africa
by Cecile Yazbek; East Street 2007
Copyright: Published with permission
From Chapter 1 The Kwela Child page 8
Walks with Granny in the garden were regular and comforting. She told me stories along the way of her cooking preferences and experience. It was on one of our rambles that she told me how she’d made her first laban (yoghurt) in South Africa with rowbee (yoghurt culture) taken from Lebanon.
‘Tai, ya immi (Come my darling),’ her mother had called her as she packed trunks and tea chests for the voyage to Africa. ‘Fee rowbee (Some yoghurt culture)’. She handed over a small fabric bundle rolled in a piece of damask. ‘My older sister Mary sent her husband to the markets in Damascus to bring back linen and table linen for my trousseau, all real Damask which your mom uses now. Your granpa, you didn’t know him. He only ate perfect food. My mother knew that if I didn’t make laban with the flavours of the blaird (homeland), he’d refuse to eat it. He’d be grumpy and make my life all alone over here, hard. So I carried the first starter for the laban dried in a cloth. When we got to Queenstown after all those months of travelling, I boiled the milk and put the whole cloth in, wrapped the pot in blankets and left it overnight. The next day we ate Lebanese yoghurt in Africa. It is from that beginning that your mother makes laban every Friday.’
Granny held my little hand as if to seal the jewel of memory that she was passing on to me. She realised what I know now: loss and separation from her motherland and culture engendered a deep appreciation of the mundane in the life that she had left behind, and as she taught us about our foods, her joy and hope in the new generation eased her loss. Writing this, I suddenly realise that the olive cloths in which I break fresh green olives before pickling, were part of Granny’s trousseau from Damascus.
CODA – The Blessing of my Ancestors page 211
My father, Joseph Anthony Yazbek, was born in 1915. He was a bright-eyed baby who was silent until he was four years old. After hoping for a scholarship to study medicine, in 1932 he won a place in law at the University College of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein where they were taught in both English and Afrikaans. In 1937, he graduated BA LLB. He had been helped by the Lebanese community and worked at menial jobs, stringing tennis racquets in the days when animal gut was used. The gallery of photographs in our downstairs playroom when we were children, bore testimony to my father’s vivacity and determination during his five-year university course. He was in the drama society, debating, playing hockey, tennis, rowing, boxing, strumming his banjo ukelele at every opportunity. His BA major was geology: ‘By jove, she was a beauty and I just wanted to look at her all the time,’ he enthused fifty years later over his geology lecturer! But after graduation life threw up a challenge. Florie, his mother, was in congestive cardiac failure and needed to live at sea level. He could have stayed in Bloemfontein under the patronage of Toefic Khalil, the lawyer to whom he’d been articled, but decided to care for his mother first.
While Durban or Port Elizabeth were bigger coastal cities, with possibly more opportunity, the social environment was mostly English-speaking and the atmosphere at that time was not as friendly toward Lebanese migrants. So my father, his mother and his youngest sister Susie went to live in East London where other Lebanese families like the Allams, Michaels and Sanans were well established by the 1930s.