Virtual reality brings ‘invisible history’ of the outback Muslims who helped build Australia to life

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ABC North and West SA / By Gabriella Marchant Posted Fri 18 Jan 2019


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Virtual reality image of an outback scene at sunset with a small thatched shack, that is Australia's first mosque.
A virtual reality impression of Australia’s first mosque at Marree as it appears in the exhibition.(Supplied: Islamic Museum of Australia)

Ammin Nullah Shamroze has the thick drawl of a person born and bred in the outback.

The caretaker of the old mosque in Broken Hill, who goes by the name Bob, is one of the last remaining direct descendants of a Muslim cameleer history that is often forgotten.

A woman and man smiling for the camera.
Ammin Nullah ‘Bob’ Shamroze, a descendent of Muslim cameleers, and his wife Janet.(Supplied: Bob and Indiana Shamroze)

“If it weren’t for the cameleers, the country wouldn’t be like it is today,” Mr Shamroze said.

Mr Shamroze, who has lived in Broken Hill most of his life, is part of a small network of those who descended from the cameleers who stayed and are scattered throughout the Australian outback.

His father, Shamroze Khan, travelled from his home — most likely Pakistan — in the late 1800s to assist British settlers navigating the country’s hostile interior.

Now, an exhibition at the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne aims to tell the next generation of Australians about the hand the Shamroze family and other Muslims had in building the nation.

The museum’s education director Sherene Hassan said it was part of setting the record straight for a new generation.

“As Australian Muslims, it’s very meaningful for people from the wider community to understand the contributions that Muslims have made to Australia for centuries,” she said.

The Mecca to Marree exhibition uses virtual reality technology to take visitors on a 3D journey from Islam’s ancient inception at Mecca to the site of Australia’s first mosque, built by cameleers in the South Australian outpost of Marree in 1885.

Who were they?

Ms Hassan said the Adelaide to Darwin railway, The Ghan — named after Afghan cameleers — is misleading, as they were not just from Afghanistan.

“They hailed from many different countries, not just Afghanistan, but Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Turkey,” she said.

Writer Hanifa Deen, whose book Ali Abdul v The King tells their stories, said they came for both work and adventure.

“Three Afghan camel men landed with just 20 camels to join the Burke and Wills expedition in 1860,” Ms Deen said.

“The British realised just how arid the Australian desert country was and thought ‘the camels could handle this country, and we need the blokes who know how to handle the camels’.”

Cameleers driving cart in outback Australia.
A team of Middle Eastern cameleers in outback Australia.(Supplied: Indiana Shamroze )

Not allowed to mine gold like the Chinese, or bring their wives to Australia, early cameleers generally stayed for just a few years, establishing themselves as the most efficient means of transport through the interior.

Ms Deen said those that returned to their homeland unofficially recruited others.

“They would sit around back at home telling stories about ‘these strange white people with weird blue eyes’ and so on,” she said.

“People wanted an adventure of a lifetime and they wanted money, so Australia was a great place to do that.”

Why is this an ‘invisible history’?

Mr Shamroze said the Muslim history on both sides of his family — his mother was also the daughter of a cameleer — was barely discussed.

“No one ever spoke about anything, that’s the thing I’m wild about,” he said.

Picture of two people of Pakistani descend smiling for black and white old-style portraits.
Ammin Nullah’s parents Miriam and Shamroze Khan posing for portraits in Australia.(Supplied: Bob and Indiana Shamroze)

“We never asked questions, I could have asked my [maternal] grandfather where dad came from and when he came here, but no one asked nothing,” he said.

“We didn’t know any of dad’s people at all, we didn’t know what boat he came on or the proper date he came here.”

Ms Deen said it was also part of the selective telling of Australian history.

“It’s an invisible history … we’ve always concentrated on white history,” she said.

“It’s only the last decade or so that Indigenous history is coming out and that’s because of the voices of Indigenous Australia demanding they be a part of Australian history.

“Most cameleers either went home, back to their country of origin, or they died out.”

Living history

Three men in white robes sitting by an outback waterhole, next to a shack.
The first known Australian mosque was built in the outback town of Marree in South Australia.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

While few remain practising Muslims, Mr Shamroze said he and his family still bury relatives using traditional methods.

He recalled learning the practise from an uncle when his maternal grandfather, a Pakistani who left his hometown of Attock at 17, died.

“We went down to the mosque and we had to give granddad a wash, he showed us how,” Mr Shamroze said.

Long history of the Australian mosqueMosques are part of our suburban landscape, and those opposed to their building do not recognise their long history here or potential to support Australian ideals, writes Sam Bowker.Read more

“I did the same for my brother.”

He said Muslims from Australia and around the world enjoy visiting the old mosque in Broken Hill, as well as the old mosque site at Marree.

“They love it,” he said.

It is an experience, enhanced by technology, that Ms Hassan from the Islamic Museum hopes to give Australians of all ages and backgrounds.

“Virtual reality is something that can really take visitors on a journey and allow them to experience it first hand,” she said.

“Every scene, every dimension of every object is historically and archaeologically accurate, so it’s an amazing, authentic, immersive experience.”


Virtual reality brings ‘invisible history’ of the outback Muslims who helped build Australia to life – ABC News

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