Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Lamisa H.
“Arriving each year with sailing craft propelled by monsoon winds, stories about the prophets of Islam travelled to the Australian mainlands long before European colonisers did.”
Most of the time, when I ask my South Asian friends if they feel Australian, they reply with a hesitant or sharp “no”, even though most of them were born and raised right here in Sydney. When I press, they respond that they have never felt a true sense of belonging or association with Australian culture and by extension, it’s history. As if their place, usually as a first-generation Australian, is left without a historical story to inhabit or one that reflects their experiences of the world.
Samia Khatun’s book seeks to rectify this, as it challenges the suffocating monolingualism of Australian history, weaving together the stories of various peoples colonised by the British Empire to chart a history of South Asian diaspora.
A few months ago, I was taken back to memory lane when Samia found me on Facebook. She had not seen me since I was a little girl, but reached out to invite me to the launch of her anticipated book, Australianama: the South Asian Odyssey in Australia. She told me that the book opening was dedicated to her mother, so she was tracking down all the children her mother had raised. The prologue begins with a story of her mother, outlining how Samia’s journey had begun when she abandoned the migrant narrative of ‘Destination: West’ in a south-western hospital and sought to inhabit another story.
As a writer, filmmaker, and cultural historian, Samia has held research fellowships in Berlin, Dunedin, New York and Melbourne. She is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, spending about a decade in carefully curated research and writing to give stories in colonised tongues the historical justice they deserve (fan-girl!).
I knew Samia’s mother, Eshrat, as Shabhnam Aunty. I spent most of my childhood in her little brown house surrounded by sugar cane trees taller than the fence. Seeing this book dedicated to Shabhnam Aunty really touched me, and as a South Asian Australian, I connected to the story this book was telling.
KASASOL AMBIA, THE BENGALI BOOK IN THE DESERT
When in the hospital back in 2009, Samia came across front-page news about a copy of a nineteenth century Quran discovered in arid Australia. Intrigued as a historian, she traveled to a 150 year old mosque in Broken Hill to investigate, only to realise the book was not a Quran at all: It was a Sufi- Poetry book named Kasasol Ambia (The Stories of Prophets), written in her mother tongue (Bangla). The immediate question was: How did this book get here?
In order to allow this book to truly sing, Samia Khatun was confronted with the gruelling task of relearning Bangla and listening to the book rather than dissecting it. The book’s original mislabelling exposes a deep issue with the way non-European history and knowledge is approached. It is essentially treated as something of the past, not allowing the texts to speak for themselves and play a part in the modern world. Historians lack of engagement with books such as Kasasol Ambia, Samia explains, “robs the poetry of the ability to perform its purpose: to imaginatively transport people to the past. These readings, though from different contexts and historical moments, all share the problem of using interpretive techniques of the colonised rule, which operate by transforming knowledges of the colonised into dead, inert artefacts that have no place in the imagined future.”
White history actively erases other versions of history. When we uncover an alternative version of history, we are not dismissing white history, but rather recovering what has been lost and pushing it forward into the light. Western historians played a key role in painting a picture that not only ordered people into a racial hierarchy but also their knowledges-- turning colonised people’s knowledge into “dead artefacts” that could not bring any value to the present or future. I would never have imagined that there was a 150 year old history waiting to be told, and that there was a book's worth of brown history in Australia we were never taught.
THE LEGEND OF THE CAMELEERS
Instead of the tired narrative of the first fleet and penal settlement in 1788, I wish history teachers would delve into the legend of the 'Afghan' cameleers a little more. Often the history we are given shows only the results of historical moments, but simultaneously erases the people, places and processes that led up to that particular event. White history tells us that there are camels in Australia, but fails to really address why such an animal was there to begin with, leaving me to wonder, who were the people that guided the camel’s reins and where were they?
The thirty-one so-called Afghans that arrived with 124 camels in 1866 were not all Afghans, but camel owners; from Afghanistan; India, Pakistan and Egypt, grouped under the umbrella term of ‘Afghan’. Brought into the spotlight of the Monga Khan posters you’ve seen all over Sydney, a lot more people are now aware that there were actually migrations of South Asian people before, during and after the White Australia Policy.
During the 1860s, forty years before Federation, British colonisers realised that they needed camels to navigate the unforgivable terrain that is middle - Australia. The ‘Afghans’ became pivotal in building the country’s economy before motor transportation came about in the 1920s, and were instrumental in building the 54 hour train track beginning in Adelaide and ending in Darwin, aptly named the ‘Ghan’, as a shortened version of ‘Afghan’. The Australian government forbid the men from bringing their wives or families so many of them started marrying Aboriginal women, forming new Indo-Aboriginal and Afghani-Aboriginal communities. These communities were flourishing, with many becoming Muslim and others following values or beliefs that were seen as opposing Australian values. Therefore, at Federation (1900) the government refused to give any of these ‘Afghan Cameleers’ the right to citizenship, which forced many of them to leave Australia.
In a 1925 New York Times Article, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce addressed the White Australia Policy, claiming that “the immigration law is not directed at any particular race. Its object is to preserve our standard of living and to guard against the disruption of our economic position”. This (thinly-veiled racist) sentiment rang false though, because the ‘Ghans’ were the key to building the economy.
TAKING BACK AUSTRALIA
When doing some further research for this piece, I wandered the library in hopes to find something of substance. Instead, I stumbled upon Mark Latham’s book ‘Take Back Australia’. I was immediately intrigued by the white man that looked like the love-child of ScoMo and Gordon Ramsey on the cover.
In an article titled, ‘Leave Australia Day Alone’, he writes: “We need to find new and smarter ways of ensuring each indigenous Australian benefits from the unique advantages of the Western civilisation that arrived here in 1788 -- economic development, advanced health, services, education, housing, democracy and the rule of law.”
I could not believe something like this was sitting published in a local library. The statement itself is an act of erasure of Aboriginal geographies, disregarding any history other than white. It rings true to the message of Australianama. Our history, culture and civilisation “remains organised around a myth at the foundation of modern Western thought, the claim that the knowledge systems of Europeans are more advanced than the epistemological traditions of the people they colonised.”
The country’s history is still taught to us in a specific coloniser-praising way and our government policy is still dictated by our overwhelmingly white - male-dominated cabinet where we still have policies driven by racism and prejudice towards groups we perceive to be minorities. In this context, Australianama serves a breath of fresh air and brand new insight for a young Australian like myself.
This piece isn’t about me screaming from a rooftop, “Guess what! I’m finally Australian because I have South Asian history and Australia does too!” It’s more so about re-evaluating the lens we perceive our history, bringing non - European epistemology to the foreground of our personal knowledge. Kasasol Ambia was the gateway for Samia to listen to non-English-language history texts, and treat them as objects that have true potential in shaping the way we view past, present and future. In reading Australianama, it became clear that parallel histories exist and that there is a wealth of knowledge, tracks and stories waiting to be uncovered.
The myth of a homogenous Australian identity is as harmful as the myth of white Australia.
The privilege of having history on this land came at the expense of colonisation, and to persist in only nurturing one version of history over every other is to further a damaging narrative. Uncovering this hidden history didn’t make me feel more Australian, rather it reminded me of the importance to connect with the Bengali and Muslim parts of myself I don't pay enough attention to.
Lead Editor: Irisa R.