Jacob’s new business venture was all contained in the leather suitcase the Chinaman in Little Bourke Street had made for him. He said goodbye to Eva and set off down the stairs and out into a chilly winter morning. He planned to begin selling his wares to domestic households in and around the suburb of Fitzroy. All he had to say to customers in English was ‘Buy something lady?’ and ‘Thank you lady.’ All was going well until a policeman demanded to see his hawker’s licence. ‘Well, you must get a licence! A licence! No more knocking until you get a licence! Do you understand?’ Jacob just nodded and handed him the piece of paper Mr Kahlil had given him with his address on it and a rough map of city streets. Unbeknown to Jacob, the ‘White Australia Policy’ dictated that all non-Europeans were required to carry ‘Certificates of Exemption’ which enabled them to work temporarily as assistants to local merchants. In any event, Jacob continued with his door to door trade as the policeman walked away in the opposite direction. At dusk he decided to head back home, with his case almost half empty and a reasonable day’s earnings in his pockets. He then realised with alarm that he had given the street map to the policeman. He was so tired he lay down on a street sheltered by a building and took a little nap, resting his head on the suitcase. People had assured him, ‘There are no murderers or robbers here.’
Close to midnight Jacob became aware of a man approaching. He jumped up and opened his case for the stranger to see the display of shirts, socks, hats, silks, towels and small items of haberdashery. He felt no fear when the man looked him up and down and intimated with words and gestures, ‘Hang on, I’ll get my friend, he might buy something as well.’ Jacob waited with a leather belt around his neck attached to the open suitcase ready for the two men to view upon their return. However, four men came back, one with a knife who deftly cut the belt from around Jacob’s neck and after the other three kicked and punched him, all ran off. Jacob called out for police but when he did find one, neither could understand each other. At 1am all the street lights went out and the moonless night smothered any possibility of Jacob navigating his way home. When he found suitable shelter in a doorway, he once again made his aching body as comfortable as he could. For the first time since he had departed his home country, Jacob had plenty of time to reflect on how immensely his and Eva’s lives had changed in only two months.
‘But I’ve already paid the fares to Port Said for my wife and me’, insisted Jacob in his native Aramaic. ‘I wasn’t given a receipt!’ Eva stood quietly by as he argued with the seaman from the steps of the jetty in Beirut Harbour. The dishevelled man scowled up at Jacob from the small boat, just as insistent that Jacob show the receipts for their tickets or pay the ₤3 per person. It was clear that the couple wouldn’t be allowed aboard until Jacob backed down. Jacob was a big man, with broad shoulders and huge hands. Although he was considered an Arab by his darker skinned countrymen, he stood out from the crowd with his light brown hair, blue deep set eyes and chiselled features. He was used to immediate respect so he was taken aback when the boatman treated him with such disdain. As Jacob helped Eva to climb into the boat, a fierce anger gripped him. To be swindled by a stranger was bad enough, but by Hussein, one of his own countrymen?
Jacob had languished with his young wife for the previous three weeks cooped up in a small hotel room in Beirut waiting for the ferry to Port Said. ‘I know this isn’t the best of honeymoons’ he conceded to Eva. After a few days stuck in what she felt was a prison, Eva cried to Jacob, ‘The drunken brawls and dice games going on outside this hotel frighten me, how much longer will we have to wait?’ Jacob had spent many days and nights in the city as a student and felt enlivened by its sounds. He would often go out for walks along familiar streets while Eva slept. Two persistent questions invaded his thoughts on his nightly exertions: ‘Will I regret disappointing my grandfather?’ and ‘Do I have the fortitude to keep us both well and safe on the long voyage to New Zealand?’ This waiting about was gnawing at his courage too.
It hadn’t seemed such a big deal to Eva when Jacob first told his betrothed of his plans take her to an island in some ocean she had never heard of. Jacob had been very persuasive and so handsome. The only time she had had doubts before the wedding was when Jacob’s grandfather discovered that Jacob intended to forgo the El Khouri tradition, and emigrate. Eleishah was very angry, the whole village knew of it. However the holy man eventually accepted the inevitable and performed the wedding ceremony. Eva forgot her misgivings when her wedding day arrived and she was treated like a goddess. Fourteen years old and dressed in the purest white, Eva felt very close to her beloved Virgin Mary. The marriage ceremony itself lasted for two hours, and they were finally man and wife. However, the festivities would continue for fifteen days, virtually unchanged from the pagan love festivals when Ishtar ruled as goddess of Lebanon, before the Catholic Mary usurped her throne. Couples made love under the olive trees, araq and wine flowed freely.
Eva was hit with reality as she was packing her trousseau in preparation for their voyage. That night she had sobbed her fears to Jacob: ‘I only know cooking, growing vegetables and olives, and doing good works. We might perish on the journey, or if we don’t, we’ll be trapped somewhere for the rest of our lives.’ Eva was very superstitious and later as she stood on the jetty, she felt despondent that so far the omens for her and Jacob’s future life together were not good. She had never forgotten her mother’s warnings about the Evil Eye and with a shiver blessed herself. Deep down she knew that was wise; to show too much joy, would only invite disaster. When she hugged her broken-hearted mother goodbye, she promised, ‘I will set up an altar to Mary Mother of God with candles, and pray to her every day.’ Eva offered further comfort to her mother, ‘Within two years, Jacob has promised, we will make our fortune and return to Bcharre. If you come back to New Zealand with us then, you will feel much safer because there will be oceans between Syria and New Zealand, not merely a row of mountains and trees.’
Eva Arida was a beautiful, petite girl with large brown eyes, olive skin and black curly hair. The quiet and pious disposition she displayed belied her strength of character and the skilful games she could play to get her way. She had smiled to herself when her parents informed her that the Fahkrey family had accepted her as a suitable bride for their priestly son. Other girls in her village dreamed of marrying Jacob, but she was the one his family chose, a family well respected in Lebanon. Jacob had received a privileged education under the auspices of his grandfather Eleishah El Khouri Fahkrey, a Patriarch in the Maronite Church. Jacob could speak four languages, and was instructed in, among other things, the Greek Classics. As the oldest son of an oldest son, he had initially followed El Khouri tradition and studied for the priesthood. But it was of no consequence to Eva or her family that Jacob had rejected his preordained destiny in favour of marriage and travel abroad.
At Last! They were on the ferry bound for Port Said! Although Jacob had regained his composure and his excitement for their future, Eva fretted. She couldn’t erase from her mind thoughts of a cold and dark ever-widening sea separating her from her mother. It seemed like an eternity since they had wept and hugged each other. The whole of the past month had seen Eva experience every emotion, from sheer joy to darkest despair. She lay down on a squab next to her husband and stayed there for most of the trip. After a relatively uneventful two days, Jacob alerted her, ‘Eva, we have arrived in Egypt!’ Jacob’s strong arms helped her to her feet and he led her to the side of the boat where they could see many people crowding the docks. ‘See all those ships over there, Eva? They are waiting to go through the canal.’ With wide eyes Eva took in the huge ships beyond the port.
Upon disembarking the ferry, all passengers had to pay a tax of one Egyptian pound each. Custom’s officials searched through everyone’s baggage but all they could find apart from clothes, were lemons and dried apricots to help ward off seasickness. The ship to Australia, SS Australien, had already been in Port Said for fifteen hours. While waiting to embark, Jacob and Eva sat on the docks with others from their country, singing and reciting poetry. An entry in Jacob’s diary reads: Our ship was so big, if you stood on one end you could not see the other end, and it took seven hours to pass through the Suez Canal. After the euphoria of boarding and waving goodbye to their dockside companions, the young couple were dismayed to find that all their fellow passengers on board were Germans who spoke only the German language. This disappointed Jacob especially, who relished the art of conversation so dearly.
Eva and Jacob were assigned a tiny cabin for the long voyage. Eva despaired of more days on end in cramped conditions, now tinged with fear of what lay ahead. Jacob tried to placate a weary and doubting Eva. ‘New Zealand’s just a little village, lush and green like Bcharre. You know my uncle Tunnous is already living there in luxury on a vineyard. I have shown you the letters he has written to me about the many Lebanese families living there, so there will be other young wives to keep you company.’ Secretly, Eva had begun to doubt that her parents had chosen the right man for her to marry. She could very quickly turn her admiration for someone into a scoffing derision if, in her eyes, they faltered in any way.
Six days into the voyage, more pressing needs took the place of regrets and reminiscences. The sea whipped up enormous waves that pitched and rolled the ship, terrifying passengers into thinking the ship was about to sink. The newly weds were so ill from seasickness they were barely able to pray together for God and Mary to spare their lives. Eventually their prayers were answered and the seas fell into calmness. At the moment land was sighted, Jacob muttered aloud, ‘I am so heartily sick of seeing nothing but sea and sky for days on end. It will be a relief to walk about on land!’ But Jacob would have to wait a while longer. The SS Australien made a short stopover in Adelaide to unload passengers and freight, then steamed on to Melbourne.
In May 1897, exhausted and apprehensive, Jacob and Eva disembarked at Port Melbourne. Jacob listened intently for anyone among the crowds of people who could speak Aramaic. Fortunately, a man heard Jacob speaking and offered his assistance. Upon learning they were from Lebanon he hugged them both and invited them to ride with him in his horse-drawn buggy to meet his friend Mr Kahlil who owned a three storey warehouse over in Exhibition Street. The young couple were welcomed with open arms. Stories of ‘home’ were exchanged and finally Eva and Jacob could relax a little. That same day, Mr Kahlil was able to find them suitable accommodation in a two storey terrace house in Hanover Street, Fitzroy. ‘Melbourne has been in the grip of a depression since the early nineties’, he explained, ‘and there are many furnished rooms available for sub-letting at quite cheap rates.’
After the couple were settled, Mr Kahlil made enquiries on their behalf as to how and when they could travel on to their final destination. The news was disheartening. They would not be able to travel to New Zealand until they could at least read and write a few words in English. Recovering from their disappointment, Jacob and Eva resigned themselves to remaining in Melbourne for a few months. It wouldn’t be so bad now that they had somewhere to live and Jacob was able to set up business as a hawker. Mr Kahlil was more than happy to sell him imported items at a much reduced rate so he could make a profit. ‘Since the opening of the Suez Canal’, Mr Kahlil boasted, ‘imports have become much cheaper, because bigger ships mean more freight turnarounds within shorter time frames.’ He went on, ‘There are many people coming to Melbourne now because the sea voyages are less arduous.’ Jacob smiled across at Eva. Mr Kahlil added, ‘Also, there are now shops here that make clothes, shoes and fabrics, good for you to carry in your suitcase too, Jacob.’
All in all, Jacob mused, he and Eva had prevailed. He looked up at the sky as dawn spread out like spilled pastel pink paint. It took awhile to straighten his back when he stood up, but he felt his spirits lift as the noises of Melbourne on the move reached his ears. People were coming out of their homes, going to work and opening up their shops. Jacob walked among them until he arrived in Collins Street. He noted that the street was already busy with horse cabs and over-full trams. Many men were resplendent in dark suits and the women were dressed in fashionable ensembles. As he walked along Collins Street he heard a group of men speaking a familiar language. He sidled up to them to hear better what they were saying, when one of the party turned on him: ‘Are you a spy?’ he shouted accusingly at the slightly crumpled man acting suspiciously. Eventually they realised Jacob was lost and could speak fluent French, their language. “I am a friend of Mr Kahlil who has a warehouse in Exhibition Street…’ Jacob began. ‘Ah, we know Mr Kahlil well, one of us will escort you there, it will be no trouble.’
On the way to the warehouse, Jacob asked the Frenchman, ‘Why are there so many well dressed people about so early in the morning?’ Some were even sitting atop verandahs and on windowsills. His escort explained, ‘Melbourne and Britain’s Queen Victoria are together celebrating their respective Diamond Jubilees during this month of June. People are vying for the best vantage spots to see the procession rolling through the main streets of Melbourne later this morning.’ Touching Jacob’s shoulder and pointing, ‘See, there are Mounted Police gathering at the far end of Collins Street ready to control the large crowds expected’, he said ‘This is something that will please Eva’, thought Jacob. ‘and I will buy her a new frock and hat to wear.’
Jacob and Eva had spent almost a year in Australia and when they finally arrived in New Zealand, Eva was pregnant with their first child. They named her Elizabeth after one of Jacob’s favourite streets in Melbourne. Like a suitcase full of enticing goods on display, their new country offered exciting prospects and financial rewards. Although they didn’t make a ‘fortune’, they lived well and could have returned to Bcharre, but they never left New Zealand’s sandy shores. Eva would go on to have another eleven children; six daughters and six sons in all. While Jacob quickly learned English, his wife could only read and write in her native Aramaic, although she did speak a kind of broken English her family understood. For most of her married life she lived in a three storey house built by her devoted husband and sons, and never tired of reminding Jacob of his unfulfilled promise.