Les Betro

My father, Les Betro, was a gambler. For a time he was also an illegal bookmaker covering bets on various horse race meetings throughout Saturday afternoons. This he would do at our kitchen table, upon which were copies of the Friday Flash and the Turf Digest as well as a couple of stub pencils and a jotting pad from Whitcombe and Tombs. Various men from the Lebanese community would wander freely in and out of our house during the afternoon to place their bets. Some stayed all day seated around the table, or more accurately around the radio, which monitored the racing and which was situated in the centre. The talk between the men, whether teasingly friendly or even volatile, was always - loud. Goading each other about “mug” bets and “jonah” horses often gave way to personal animosity and swearing, sometimes in Arabic. Only two things would cause this behaviour to suddenly cease – the entry of my mother into the room or, more likely, the start of the next race. Whilst the horses were running all epithets and curses were redirected to the radio: “Break a leg, break a leg” “Shoot the horse” “Shoot the bloody jockey” “Yakr-en din, what a shayton rider!” Yet this weekly gathering of the men sustained them, and they lived and gambled together in contentment and family friendships.

As a boy of ten or eleven I would sit in the kitchen and listen to the anecdotes and stories which would accompany the days fixtures. To me was often given the task of offering round to the men an amber glass dish which contained cigarettes. I discovered very early on that this was conducive to the telling of tales, and often an incentive I recall with hilarity the story of Joe somebody or other who, if met with on the race course, always claimed that his horse had either won or lost “just by a nose”. Consequently he was nicknamed Joe the Nose, not only for his horse’s predilections, but also his proboscian features.

Then there was the demon barber Jock George. If I ,or my younger brother Gerard, saw Jock coming up our path with a little black valise we knew to stay well away. That valise contained scissors and combs. Apparently Jock had learned to give haircuts to soldiers during the war. Fine! A soldier’s hairstyle is traditionally short back and sides and nothing like the Elvis Presley style that we desired, so it was a disappearing act for us.

Also on the scene was my Uncle, Phil Coory (PC), known throughout the community for two things in particular; his vigorous and spirited pinching of children’s cheeks and his working hours. His business card read: “Philip Coory- Plumber - Day and Night”.. This was at least fifty percent inaccurate as he only ever worked during the late evening hours, becoming eccentrically known as the midnight plumber.

My whole childhood was dominated by my passive listening to the adults of my family and community, relating their own family fables, tales, mythology and gossip.. It was wonderful and enriching.

Another source of anecdotal pleasures emanated from my mother and the women who came often to visit.. Sometimes these visits were of a practical nature, especially the drying of the Burghul. In its raw state it was locally bought in bulk, washed and thoroughly dried, then sent to the mill to be ground down, after which it was shared out in the community. Before it could be stored properly it had to be dried in the sun, to rid it of the residue moisture, which would otherwise cause mould. This drying was done on a large white double bed sheet fully spread out in our back garden. Seated around the sheet, to keep the birds away, would sit the women. The would knit, crochet, sew or mend to wile away the afternoon, but mostly they would talk – and boy could they talk. Jamilie Lahood was a regular as were Marie Joseph and Adele George.

Jamilie Joseph came one day wearing the most extravagant hat I had ever seen. It was a very dark shade of green with a peak and a brim and set off with a very long brown ostrich feather, the tip of which waved and wiggled about two feet above her head. It stayed on her head all afternoon. She was an ebullient woman, full of life, laughter and fulsome generosity. But, paradoxically, her stories could often be sad or bittersweet. She once told of a woman from my maternal grandmother’s home town of Baalbek, whose very young son was killed in a tragic accident, just after the first World War. The woman was deeply and dramatically affected, eventually losing her mind and her reason. She lived out her days with her husband’s family, hardly speaking and barely eating. She was often to be seen searching in cupboards and under beds, calling out the name of her dead child as she did so. This story and the telling of it is still vivid in my memory.

As well as hearing about people there was often mention of events in distant, far away places with exotic names like Broken Hill, The North Island and Up Central.

Broken Hill was where my father grew up and where he married my mother, his cousin, in 1936. My eldest brother Martin was born there and soon after they all came back to my mother’s hometown of Dunedin. Broken Hill was also where my father learned his entrepreneurial skills, running two-up schools and operating side shows with a travelling circus. This was during the Great depression, so these were necessary attainments at the time. Any source of income was to be welcomed.

My father came from a family of nine. All of his brothers died before him and his one sister, Lillian, died of TB at age 22. Whenever I and my brothers argued or fought, as brothers are inclined to do at a certain age, my father would intervene saying, “brothers shouldn’t fight each other. You’re lucky to have each other. I lost most of my brothers in two wars.” Unfortunately I wasn’t old enough or sensitive enough to empathise with what he was saying, until years later when I discovered the little pocket diary kept by his oldest brother, Joe, at Gallipoli. In it he describes how he has been shot in the face whilst on stretcher duty. His nose has been blown away. His final entry reads; “After getting myself dressed last night I was taken aboard the hospital ship at first thing this morning. They started to operate on me and take the bullets out of my face and by God it was painful.” He died later that same afternoon, aged twenty, and his body was brought to England on the hospital ship. He is buried at Wandsworth cemetery, South London, where I regularly visit his grave.

I visited Broken Hill in the 60’s when I first left home. Matilda Johns of Dunedin had married a Mr. Haddad and was living there at the time. One evening my cousins and I went to her home for a barbeque on her large back lawn. One of her other guests that night was a Lebanese lady who knew my family, not only in Australia and New Zealand but also in Lebanon. Her story, related to me and the rest of the gathering that night, has intrigued me ever since.

In 1912 a large number of Christian Lebanese, including relations of mine, made a concerted effort to leave their homes and country and flee from the persecution being inflicted by the Ottoman Turks. Over 130 men, women and children, from many of the mountain villages boarded a ship in Beirut harbour in March of that year and sailed to Marseilles in the South of France. They made their way from there to Cherbourg in the North of France where they were soon to board an ocean liner bound for America. Also waiting at Cherbourg were another 30 or 40 Lebanese who had arrived a couple of weeks earlier. The night before they sailed, a big gathering had been organised at the Church Hall of St. Sepulchre following a Mass officiated by a Roman Orthodox priest (as the Maronites were then described). There was not much food at this gathering as there had been no place to prepare it, but the priest had managed to beg or borrow bread, cheese and olives, and apparently some of the refugees had Arrack which had accompanied them all the way from Lebanon. They commiserated with each other about the families and villages left behind, but looked forward to the new life that America promised. Some would be joining relatives already in America, especially in Cleveland and Chicago.

The liner they were waiting for was a new and large, modern floating palace which was making its maiden voyage from Southampton in England, calling at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland, before crossing the Atlantic to New York. All the Lebanese passengers were travelling third class, but they were together at least, and as they boarded the White Star liner they shared the same hopes and fears about the uncertain future.

Out in the Atlantic the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the freezing dark waters. The legend of the Titanic has exercised a potent, universal fascination ever since.

From the time that I first heard this story I have often wondered about it and sought to verify it. I tried the Maritime Museum in London and The British Library, researching documents and passenger lists looking for the names of my long lost and forgotten relations. My efforts were initially unsuccessful at both of these venerable institutions but a couple of years ago I was directed to a website called “Arabs on the Titanic.” This has been compiled by a Lebanese American who is the grandson of one of the survivors. There I found the passenger list I had been searching for. And there I found so many familiar surnames that we all know: Betro, Peters, Barbara, Boulos, Hanna, Joseph, Khalil etc.

The Titanic went down in 1912. and in the same year in Dunedin, a different Lebanese group was photographed for posterity . This was of the Cedar Club – Men’s Group. At one time every Lebanese family in Dunedin had a copy, and it is reproduced on page 12 of Lebanon’s Children. It is sad and humbling to compare the two events.

And so is life. Played by the nights on the stage of destiny as a tragedy; sung by the days as a hymn. And in the end guarded by Eternity as a jewel.—Khalil Gibran (A Tear and a Smile)

Denis Betro 2006