Gibran Khalil Gibran has now finally settled in the City of Bankstown, dear home to the Lebanese Community. On the corner of Restwell St and South Terrace, Gibran’s monument stands to salute all the passers-by. Gibran now feels at home amongst the very many members of his community.
Writes Raymond Abi-Arraj- from Sydney-Australia.
The unveiling ceremony of the Gibran Khalil Gibran’s statue at Bankstown was conducted in the presence of his Excellency George Bitar Ghanem, Consul-General of Lebanon and a large gathering of prominent Lebanese who attended to witness this important event.
As the saying goes: “It takes two people to tango”. In fact, it took two hard-working and prominent people to achieve a very worthwhile project which became the talk of the town and enlivened a whole area: Wally Wehbe, the initiator and the driving force behind the idea and Khal Asfour, the facilitator who made the idea achievable.
“I was inspired by a visit to Boston in the USA where I experienced the value of Gibran” says Wally. “I wanted to do a good deed for my beloved country Lebanon and to uphold its name and at the same time to do something good for Australia and in particular for my Community within the municipality of Bankstown”
Wally is quite reluctant to talk about his contributions in monetary terms. His well-known generosity does not permit him to state the financial assistance he has provided towards this project. His main preoccupation mainly revolves around how he can help his country Lebanon and his adopted country Australia.
“Australia is my country and I could never match what Australia has done for me personally and for my community” adds Wehbe. “Australia has given us a tremendous lot and we owe it to her to give something in return and as for Lebanon, it is true I migrated from Lebanon, but Lebanon has never migrated from my heart and mind”.
Why Gibran? “The Gibran Monument is a unifying element- It’s a cultural event- We unite around cultural and historical events- We won’t let politics divide us or ruin our relationships with others.. Gibran is universal and one of the greatest humanists, not to mention that he is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. More importantly”, states Wehbe, “we needed to break away from religious connotations and politics and opt for what united us, and the author of ‘The Prophet’ was the one”, hence the involvement of Sydney Cedars Sports Club in this project.
And when asked about the Sydney Cedars Sports Club, the President Wally Wehbe rushes to explain: “It was established in 1987. It is non-political, a non-profit organisation whose primary objectives are Sports, Social and cultural activities. The Club which I founded with Joseph Haddad has a strong stance against drugs, crime and all social injustices”
Wally adds “The Sydney Cedars Senior players competed in the Masters Games and won Gold Medals both in 2005 and 2009. The Club has also embarked on many visits to Lebanon and the Middle East where the Sydney Cedars Volleyball team competed against various national and top teams”
What about Australia? “In Australia”, says the Founding President “the club has organised a number of sporting and social events such as Backgammon, Table Tennis and Squash competitions, social trips and Volleyball tournaments in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra etc”
It is often said: actions speak more than words. It only follows that if you want to judge a man's character, you look at more than what he says; you look at what he does. In the case of Wally Wehbe, along his journey over the last 3 decades, he has earned himself the following titles: President and Founder of the Sydney Cedars Sports Club, President of Australian Lebanese Christian Federation, Successful Business man, Owner and Publisher of numerous print Media: El Telegraph, Al Anwaar, Al Noujoum magazine, just to mention a few.
I have heard, and it is quite credible, that Wally Wehbe genuinely likes working with other people and, without making a big deal of it, without having to be asked, will often go out of his way to do a favour for someone or help them out when they're in need.
Finally why Bankstown? Wally with his spontaneity says: “Bankstown is quite multicultural and all nationalities and all religions co-exist harmoniously in this City where the presence of the Lebanese community is prominent... Moreover, Mayor Khal Asfour welcomed and encouraged the idea when I approached him”.
And who is Khal Asfour and what was his role in the erection of Gibran’s monument?
Khal is the Mayor of Bankstown City Council. He was elected as an East Ward Bankstown City Councillor in March 2004. In June 2011, he commenced his tenure as Mayor and once again received the confidence of his Councillor colleagues when he was re elected as Mayor in September 2012.
“Bankstown is home to one of the most multicultural communities in the nation, Khal Asfour says. “There are more than 120 language groups residing in the 76.82 square kilometres of the Bankstown Local Government Area”.
He adds: “This incredibly rich mix of cultures, languages and ethnicities in addition to the fantastic range of entertainment and cuisine, makes it a fascinating place to visit and live in. In a sense you could say we are a microcosm of the world, we don’t go to the world, the world comes to us!!”
Asked about for the make-up of Bankstown?
“Bankstown has a significantly-sized Lebanese and Vietnamese community and a number of countries in the Mediterranean and Europe are also well represented, including Greece, Italy and Macedonia” (Refer to table below), says Khal. “These residents tend to have migrated during the 1960’s and 70’s and are for the most part more established. More importantly, I take great pride in the harmony that has been established in our City”
Was Gibran’s Monument’s Launch his first cultural celebration?
“No” states Asfour. “In November of last year I had the pleasure of officially unveiling the Vietnamese Boat People Monument, which honours those who lost their lives in the hope of finding freedom in Australia. Their courage and love for freedom is truly inspirational and helps our community appreciate the great privileges we enjoy as Australians. The Monument, located in Saigon Place, Bankstown, also pays tribute to the invaluable social, cultural and economic contributions Vietnamese residents have made to our City”.
Why a statue of Gibran?
“First of all, Bankstown’s Lebanese residents have had a huge positive impact on our City”, says Asfour. “Much of the economic and cultural strength we enjoy as a community is due to their hard work and willingness to share their culture with others”.
“This can be clearly seen by the number of Lebanese community organisations and community workers, restaurants and small businesses etc..I felt the time had come for Bankstown to officially honour them”.
“The reasons why I specifically chose the Khalil Gibran Khalil Monument as a way of doing this are as follows:
- Gibran's key message/s accord well with the philosophy of Council and my vision as Mayor; to promote harmony and mutual respect for people of all faiths and creeds;
- Gibran’s writings are also full of good moral values and inspirational teachings which apply to people of all faiths-or none at all. We all have much to learn from him;
- Gibran is a greatly esteemed literary giant with an enormous international following- one need not be Arabic to have heard of him or appreciate his work; and
- Gibran had an inspirational passion for freedom and creative self expression. He was a great artist and a humanitarian and serves as a fantastic role model for residents of all ages.
What does it mean to him the philosophy of Gibran?
Asfour responds: “Establishing harmony in Bankstown is one of most important priorities for our City’s political and community leaders, especially for me”.
“In my pursuit of this goal I find invaluable insights and inspirations in the life and writings of Gibran Khalil Gibran”.
“Gibran was clearly a person of deep conviction and genuine concern and respect for people of all races, religions and creeds (as I have already mentioned).The quote as follows is a good illustration of this;
You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith - the Spirit.
“Gibran also possessed a great passion for freedom and strongly rejected control and repression in its many forms, including the subjugation of women and minority groups”.
“This is another theme which resonates strongly with our community-and me. As I indicated earlier, the Vietnamese Boat People Monument was also a celebration of the love for freedom”.
Does the community support his various actions?
“I have always said that our City belongs to its residents and they alone have the right to decide how it is run” says the Mayor.
“That’s the reason behind Council’s Ten Year Community Plan and Road Shows, as well as my constant engagement with residents, business and community organisations via phone, fax, letters, emails and personal visits”.
“Based on the feedback I receive via my networks across the City, as well as community surveys and so on, I strongly believe the community approves of my actions and decisions”.
Khal adds: “I make decisions in unison with my Councillor colleagues who are also in constant touch with the residents of their areas as well as the City overall”.
“The Gibran Monument was a joint initiative with the Sydney Cedars Sports Club. It was great to have this respected community organisation on board and to see how well the Monument was received.”
What lies ahead for the Mayor? Any personal objectives or future aspirations in Australian politics?
“Definitely not”, he says. “My passion is on making a difference to the City I love, Bankstown.”
Mayor Khal Asfour,Raymond Abi-Arraj and Wally Wehbe (from left to right).
“A great deal has been achieved on the economic, cultural and social front. We have an exciting and active community life year round, our economy is growing faster than ever and pride is growing in our City.”
Khal Asfour concludes: “Saying that, I believe the future has even greater things in store, but there is more work to be done- and I want to be around to keep us moving forward.”
Although Khal Asfour has his heart in this splendid city, it is nevertheless hoped that the popular and quite likeable Mayor will one day be able to accommodate the Community’s wish and represent them in the State of NSW Parliament.
(Raymond is a Former Deputy President of the Australian Lebanese Association (ALA) of NSW and current Honorary Secretary of the Maronite Catholic Society of Australia (Al RaaBiTah Al Marouniya).