Ali Abdul v The King, Muslim stories from the dark days of White Australia
Ali Abdul v The King is an engaging foray into the lives of the Afghan cameleers, as seen through the archives. ‘Australian Muslims had left behind a paper trail and underneath … lay a hidden history.’ Hanifa Deen started her archival search for Muslim men living in Australia during the years of the Immigration Restriction Act. She discovered photographs of row upon row of handsome men. I think this is when her interest really sparked, for her descriptions of these men are tantalising; in particular when she discovers the photograph of her own grandfather who came to Australia in the 1890s. There were so many stories Deen could have told and, as she wrote in her introduction, she had to decide who ‘to marry and who to leave at the altar’. Hanifa Deen settled her gaze upon the ‘troublemakers’; the cameleers, hawkers and pearl divers who caused bureaucratic stirs: an astute choice for the archivist and storyteller.
The men who arrived in Australia as cameleers and traders were called Afghans, Ghans, Hindoos or Syrians by white Australians regardless of where they actually came from. They hailed from an undivided India, from Punjab, Kashmir and Turkey. They somehow slipped under the White Australia radar (often arriving in the 1890s before the WAP’s official implementation) and lived within its racist regime and the community antipathy or support that accompanied it.
Many of these men remained unmarried throughout their Australian lives. Others married into Aboriginal and European communities. This aspect of the stories reminded me of a conversation I had at a ‘Back to Carrollup’ event a few years ago, when Aboriginal people came from miles around to revisit the mission. I stood in the one-room museum and stared at an old photograph of those ‘handsome men’ from the camel trains.
‘Khan,’ I said out loud. ‘Khan?’
‘I’m a Khan,’ someone said behind me and I turned to see an Aboriginal man, his ancestry beautifully written into the slender lines of his face.
In the book, Deen describes her own Pakistani-Muslim background and meets other researchers on the same journey. She places anti-Muslim sentiments after September 11, 2001 and current anxieties about asylum seekers into disturbing context with the open hostility directed at cameleers, hawkers and herbalists – especially if they were too good at their job in times of mass unemployment or social change.
Deen’s humour and feistiness prevails throughout this book. In describing a restaurant where the special of the day was camel hump, wrapped in bacon, she writes: ‘How could I swallow my friend the camel even if he/she wasn’t tied up in a big pork bow? Haram, haram flashed the neon light in my brain!’
It is a tough call to keep a research project such as this from becoming completely unwieldy. Deen’s skill with narrative and her self-discipline in archival research wins through. She deftly spins narrative nonfiction into a ripping yarn of the outback, the courts and the openly racist application of immigration dictation tests. Deen paints vivid pictures from the archives but does not let the strictures of academia intrude into her work. I like that the stories are not punctuated by footnotes or intext references. Despite the freedom of her narrative nonfiction, the acknowledgements at the end of Deen’s book are extensive and each chapter, usually focussing on one particular ‘troublemaker’, are tight, disciplined and focussed. Hanifa Deen is also unafraid to throw in a chuckle, a pointedly personal take on an ambiguous piece of historiography with a raised textual eyebrow: ‘Not bloody likely!’
I found Ali Abdul v The King refreshing and engaging. Hanifa Deen is a natural storyteller and her colourful history of our country’s early Muslim communities is a great read.
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