Stories

Afghans and their camels in inland Australia (NAA: A6180, 25/5/78/62)

Cameleers and hawkers

Certificate exempting Said Kabool from the Dictation Test, 1916. Said Kabool arrived in Australia in 1896 and worked in Coolgardie for seven years. (NAA: E752, 1916/42, p.12)

The first Muslims to settle in Australia for any length of time arrived in the 19th century to tend the camel trains that helped open the continent's vast interior. In 1858 George Landell, well-known exporter of horses to India, was commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to buy camels and recruit camel drivers. Twenty-four camels and three drivers, two of whom were Muslim, arrived in Melbourne in 1860 to join the Burke and Wills expedition.

In the decades that followed, many more camels and drivers were brought into the country. By 1901 there were estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 'cameleers' in Australia. This first generation of Muslims journeyed from India and Afghanistan, although they were generally referred to as 'Afghans'.

Some lived the adventure of a lifetime, saved their money, and returned to their homelands, but many remained behind. Often they lived two lives, making regular trips home to deal with family matters. Nabbi Bux, for example, was absent from Australia from 1896–98 and again from 1912–17. In 1924, he departed once more, but despite extending the certificate exempting him from the dictation test (CEDT) until 1933 he never seems to have returned.

See Returning in Fragments

The cameleers laboured across the continent, carting produce, water, mail and equipment at a time when roads and railways were still limited in their reach. The indomitable camels and their equally hardy keepers were crucial to momentous projects such as the construction of the Overland Telegraph, for which they carried supplies and materials used in surveying and construction work. They also accompanied a number of exploration parties into the little-known interior. These early Muslims contributed greatly to the development of rural and remote Australia.

Marree, also known as Hergott Springs, was a famous rest station at the centre of the camel communication network. Camel teams travelling from one state or colony to another converged at the dusty station on the busy railway head, where goods were loaded and offloaded.

The cameleers generally lived away from white populations, at first in makeshift camel camps, and later in 'Ghantowns' on the edges of existing settlements. In its heyday, Marree supported a thriving Afghan community, separated by the railway line from the European population. Some people called Marree, 'Little Asia' or 'Little Afghanistan'. The ramshackle, tin-roofed house pictured here served as a caravanserai, or resting place, for the camel caravans converging along tracks from Queensland, New South Wales and Alice Springs.

Tension on the goldfields

Camels were indispensable on the Western Australian goldfields in the 1890s. Carrying food, water, machinery and other supplies, they helped keep the towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie alive. In 1898 there were 300 Muslims in Coolgardie, a young transient population providing essential services.

However, the presence of the camel men also fostered racist fears and economic jealousies. Bullock teamsters and other goldfield workers saw Afghans as cheap labour and unwanted competition, especially in the transport industry. The cameleers were demonised in the press, and accused of various acts of aggression, including monopolising waterholes.

In 1901, Hugh Mahon, the federal Member for Coolgardie, questioned Prime Minister Barton about reports that Afghan camel drivers 'frequently take forcible possession of wells', often polluting them 'by washing their clothes and persons therein'. In the light of such 'serious breaches of the peace', Mahon asked whether Afghans 'now residing in Western Australia' would be deported.

Mahon's question set off a chain of correspondence between the Prime Minister, the Premier of Western Australia, and the state's Police Commissioner. The Commissioner noted that while 'reports and rumours of Afghans polluting the water and taking forcible possession of dams' had been received on various occasions, 'no evidence was obtainable' to substantiate the claims. The only occurrence 'of a serious nature' that had come to their attention was when an Afghan was shot and wounded by a white teamster named Kelly for failing to give way.

But while tensions were acute on the goldfields, others were grateful for the cameleers' efforts during the Federation Drought, which had devastated eastern Australia from 1895 to 1902. 'It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his Camels,' John Edwards wrote to the Attorney-General in 1902, 'Wilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburra, Milperinka and other Towns, each centres of considerable population, would have practically ceased to exist.'

Outback settlers, farmers, surveyors and other authorities who had business dealings with camel men discovered there were values they all held in common – a strong work ethic, respect for the law, basic decency, love of family, respect for the elderly and a determination to survive in a harsh environment. These people often vouched for the Afghans in their dealings with government.

Legal restrictions

Growing prejudice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also reflected in discriminatory legislation, introduced by colonial, state and federal governments. After 1895, for example, Afghans were prevented from mining on the Western Australian goldfields.

In 1903, a group of Indians resident in Perth put their grievances before the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Petitioning him on behalf of the 500 Indians and Afghans living in Western Australia, they asked the Viceroy to make enquiries into 'certain legislative restrictions' that were making their lives increasingly difficult. There were four major complaints:

  • they were barred from holding a Miner's Right on the Western Australian goldfields
  • travel from state to state in search of work was not allowed 'except under the most stringent conditions'
  • they were denied re-entry to Australia after a visit overseas
  • they were unable to be naturalised.

With the development of railways taking away their 'means of livelihood', the camel drivers found themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

Enquiries were duly made and the Australian Government was asked for its comments. In response, it was noted that the issue of Miner's Rights was a state matter. Similarly, it was asserted, the Commonwealth had undertaken to ensure that 'trade, commerce and intercourse' between the states was 'absolutely free'. Any restrictions on interstate travel must therefore have been the result of state legislation.

The government's reply also insisted that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 allowed legally domiciled non-Europeans to re-enter the country, and naturalisation was technically possible under Western Australian law. Government officials did not, however, explain that very few certificates of domicile were issued up until the early months of 1903, nor did they draw attention to the fact that the Naturalization Act 1903 was about to come into force, explicitly denying naturalisation to most non-Europeans.

See Becoming Australian in Fragments

Hawkers

In the wake of the camel men came Indian hawkers and merchants. Arriving from Karachi, Peshawar, Baluchistan, the Punjab and Bengal, hawkers travelled across the Australian countryside, offering their merchandise for sale to remote settlers. They were supplied by wholesale merchants, who opened small shops in the towns and cities.

Hawking was popular with the younger Indian men, because they could start with very little capital, travelling on foot until they could afford a horse and cart. Older men met them when they arrived, sold them goods, and provided advice. The tradition of hawking or peddling was common throughout rural India, and readily found a place among Australia's widely dispersed population.

The Punjabi and Kashmiri grandfathers of author Hanifa Deen were among those who arrived in the late 19th century. As young men they hawked in Victoria's Latrobe Valley and around Western Australia. In the 1920s, her father also worked as a hawker in the Latrobe Valley.

See Five generations in Stories

Newly arrived hawkers were linked in 'a peculiar chain of mutual dependency' with their more established countrymen:

Larger Australian warehouses sold goods on credit to small-scale Indian wholesalers. They in turn supplied their countrymen with goods to hawk around the countryside – again on credit. The hawkers sold work shirts and trousers, boots, fabric, dishcloths, safety pins sewing needles and sweets and a hundred other lines to their customers in the country – all on credit. In those days it might take as long as six months, or even a year, for a farmer or his farmhands to pay off a bill of 6s. 6d (Hanifa Deen, Caravanserai, p. 23).

Some farmers made the hawkers camp at a distance from their homesteads, and never allowed them inside their homes. Others forged lasting friendships with the men who travelled along the dusty roads with their horse and cart, and perhaps a pet dog for company. Sometimes the hawkers would slaughter chickens or sheep for the farmer. They killed the halal way, according to Islamic law, but the farmers either never knew, or never minded. In return for this service the men would usually receive their portions for free.

Licences

One hundred and twenty hawkers' licences were issued by magistrates in 1898 in Victorian towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Shepparton and Geelong. The hawkers' annual licensing day was a crowded and noisy event, as hawkers waited their turn. In Melbourne alone 300 licences were issued in 1900.

Regulations varied from state to state. In Queensland, after 1903, hawkers' licences were only issued to British subjects. Indians, unlike Afghans, were British subjects and therefore eligible. However, the cost of a licence in Queensland was 10 pounds, 15 shillings compared to one pound in New South Wales. This in itself was an effective deterrent for newly arrived immigrants. Occasionally some informal trading in hawkers' licences took place between Indians, when one hawker left for good and another of his countrymen 'inherited' his licence.

Hawkers were sometimes maligned in the press, with suggestions that they menaced women and children on lonely homesteads. Parliamentary debates in 1901 and 1903 referred disparagingly to the practice of hawking, and criticised Syrian hawkers for 'forcing poor women to buy their goods'. 'Syrians' was often used as a generic term for hawkers no matter what their ethnic origins, just as all camel men were commonly known as Afghans. Syrians, usually Lebanese Christians, and Jews also engaged in hawking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1930s hawking became popular with young men recently arrived from Europe. By then the number of Indian hawkers had declined; they had either died, retired, or risen in the world to become small shop owners or drapers.

Religion

The early cameleers and hawkers were practising Muslims, in spite of living in a Christian society not attuned to the rhythms, customs and religious traditions of their homelands. For most of the year they were solitary travellers lacking the camaraderie and powerful sense of community or ummah that Islam bestows on its followers. There were no grand mosques for them to pray shoulder to shoulder, no special Friday prayers or jumma with an imam to lead the prayer and deliver a sermon. Usually the camel men and hawkers performed their prayers five times daily out in the desert, the empty bushland, or countryside.

The highlights of the year were the celebrations for Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting), and Eid ul-Adha, 90 days later. According to Islam, fasting should not be undertaken while travelling, so the men would cease working and join together during Ramadan. At the end of the 30 days, during which no food, water or tobacco could pass their lips from sunrise to sunset, the men would enjoy the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration. On festival days there was no loneliness, just plenty of food, laughter, smiles and stories as they lounged around, feasting and enjoying each other's company.

Importing imams

Further evidence of the strong desire by cameleers and hawkers to maintain an Islamic identity is revealed in their efforts to persuade the Australian Government to permit imams and sheikhs to enter the country to serve their religious needs.

Following representations by the Muslim community in Victoria, the religious teacher Saied Lal Shah was allowed to enter Australia in 1911 for a period of 12 months. The following year, an extension of his certificate was granted to allow local Muslims 'to have the use of his Spiritual and Religious services' during Ramadan. Again in 1913, permission was sought for their 'spiritual advisor and teacher' to return to Victoria from India. SM Jaboor, a Syrian merchant with premises in Lonsdale Street, provided the necessary bond of 100 pounds.

In such negotiations, AH Pritchard, secretary of the Austral–Indian Society, provided an effective conduit between the Victorian Muslim community and the government. Pritchard wrote long, well-argued petitions to the Minister on behalf of local Muslims, interceding when difficulties were encountered over matters such as re-entry to the country.

Lal Shah was allowed to visit Australia a number of times, but authorities were careful to monitor his activities. In 1916, police reported that Lal Shah 'has been employed ministering to the spiritual wants of the Indians during the past twelve months' and 'follows no other occupation'. His comings and goings from Australia were also carefully recorded.

In 1904, Sydney Muslims petitioned the government in support of their own religious leader, Sayid Mahomed Shah Banuri. The 'Mohamedan priest' intended to advance his religious knowledge through studies in his native country, but wanted to be assured he could re-enter Australia on his return. 'The said Sayid preaches religion and morality to Mahomedans residing in Australia', the petitioners explained, 'he follows no other occupation than that of a preacher and thus his regress into the Commonwealth, we humbly believe, does not affect the spirit of the Immigration Restriction Act'. The letter was signed by more than 30 shopkeepers and businessmen.

Sayid MS Banuri had only been in Australia for a few years and could not be regarded as domiciled. However, after a series of negotiations and misunderstandings it was agreed that the religious teacher would be permitted a Certificate of Exemption of two years duration on his return.

Many of the camel men and hawkers were only partially literate in their own language. But even the literate needed the Qur'an read and explained, for the sacred book was written in Arabic and translations were not yet in wide use. They needed a religiously educated man who had read the sacred book and the tafsir, or commentaries on the Qur'an, and could discuss the meanings of the different suras (chapters) to remind them of their obligations.

Building mosques

Just like the Muslim diaspora scattered throughout the world today, early Australian Muslims felt an overwhelming need to build their own mosques. At first a special room set aside in someone's house served as a place of prayer. In the more remote areas like Maree and Coolgardie, simple mud and tin-roofed mosques were initially constructed.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, community leaders in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane went to great efforts to secure land and raise funds for the purpose of building permanent mosques. In 1895 Perth Muslim leaders lobbied the state government for a land grant in line with the grants given to churches and synagogues. When this approach failed, they looked to their own resources, inspired by the construction of the Adelaide Mosque in 1890.

Fundraisers in Western Australia toured the goldfields or the country places where cameleers and hawkers operated, calling on their brother Muslims to rally and donate some of their hard-earned savings for the sake of Islam. Donations were collected throughout the state by leaders like Mohamed Hasan Musakhan, a highly educated Indian born in Karachi. Musakhan owned a Perth newsagency and spoke five 'oriental' languages as well as English – Pashto, Persian, Sindi, Urdu and elementary Arabic. These efforts were successful with the Perth Mosque being constructed in 1905.

In 1910 the Department of External Affairs sought to discover how many 'Mohammedan priests' there were in each state, along with the number of permanent mosques. Replies came in from Customs authorities around the country. In Sydney, it was explained, Mohamed Shah, a local businessman, had been 'selected for the position of Priest owing to his being sufficiently educated and there being no permanent Priest here'.

From Western Australia it was reported that, as well as the 'principal Mosque' in Perth, there were mosques in Coolgardie, Mount Malcolm, Leonora, Bummers Creek, Mount Sir Samuel and Mount Magnet. There were two resident priests and about 25 sayeds, or lay preachers, who were 'all working men and conduct these services without any remuneration'.

The most comprehensive report was submitted by AH Pritchard of Melbourne who demonstrated his extensive knowledge of the Muslim community in Australia. He noted that while there was no permanent mosque in Melbourne, there was 'a room set apart for praying and religious instructions' in a house in Fitzroy. There was also a 'detached room' off Little Lonsdale Street, 'which was especially built for praying and holding religious ceremonies'.

The end of an era

The camel era ended with the advent of improved roads and trucks. Some men returned 'home' to die. Those who remained in Australia mostly clung to the margins of white society living humble, impecunious lives. They lived out their lives quietly in Ghan towns and old city mosques, where they were looked after and accorded great respect and an Islamic burial by a younger generation of Muslims. Their last years were spent in tiny rooms inside mosque courtyards, where they smoked their hookahs and dreamt of days gone by.

Sources

  • Michael Cigler, The Afghans in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne, 1986
  • Hanifa Deen, Caravanserai: Journey among Australian Muslims, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2003
  • Nahid Kabir, Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations, and Cultural History, Kegan Paul, London, 2004
  • Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in Western Australia, 1870–1970', Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 12, part 5, 2005, pp. 550–65
  • Christine Stevens, 'Afghan camel drivers: Founders of Islam in Australia', in Mary Lucille Jones (ed.), An Australian Pilgrimage: Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Victoria Press in association with the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 49–62
  • Christine Stevens, Tin Mosques & Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989

The wonder man

'Afghan who has given away thousands in charity', Smith's Weekly, 12 August 1933 (NAA: B741, V/11437, p.1)

Mahomet Allum

Mahomet Allum was the most famous Afghan of his generation to settle in Australia. Herbalist extraordinaire, philanthropist and enemy of the medical establishment, the handsome Afghan attracted a popular following in his day that numbered in the thousands. Australians around the country, rich and poor alike, knew the name 'Mahomet Allum' and his reputation for 'miracle cures'. A wealthy and flamboyant man, with a flair for self-promotion and publicity, he was unlike any other Afghan or Indian living in Australia at the time – or ever since.

Pioneering days

Mahomet Allum was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but precise details of his birth and the date of his arrival in Australia are difficult to ascertain. A letter he wrote in 1923, claims he entered Australia 'when a boy' some 26 years earlier. But in 1951, he reflected on his 65 years in the country. Other sources suggest he may have been born as early as 1858.

It seems likely that Allum arrived sometime in the late 1880s, a young man in his 20s or 30s, eager to make his fortune. He had already had some commercial success, selling horses to the British Army during the Second Afghan War, 1878–80. He may have used the capital he acquired to buy supplies and invest in camels in Australia. Horse trading with the British in Afghanistan might also have honed the business skills that brought him such success in his new home.

Like his fellow Afghans, Allum entered Australia with dreams and aspirations, searching for opportunities and the chance to make good. He possessed the characteristics of an 'adventurer': boldness, enormous self-confidence, vision and charm. The scope and diversity of Allum's career shows a man prepared to take risks to turn a profit. He seems to have been a charismatic man, who genuinely liked people, and was in turn well liked.

Although reports indicate that he neither wrote nor read English and his English signature looks laboured, he spoke English and most likely required no intermediaries in his early dealings. He made his way with his camel teams through Australia's dry remote inland, geographically not unlike the tough inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan. In 1903 he was present, with his string of camels, at the opening of the Perth to Coolgardie pipeline, when Sir John Forrest praised the contribution of the camel men. But the water pipe helped put the cameleers out of business so, like many others, Allum left the goldfields of Western Australia and headed east.

Mahomet Allum's pioneering years are recounted in a testimonial, published under the name of Con Noonan in the SA Turf Review in 1938. It describes in glowing terms how he worked in the Western Australian goldfields, laboured in the mines of Broken Hill, and was well known through inland Queensland and New South Wales.

In Coolgardie, the article notes, this 'sturdy Afghan' was in charge of a team of 100 camels which transported from Perth all of the machinery used on the goldfield. Allum was said to have the 'physique of an athlete' in his younger days, and his generosity was evident even during his time as a miner in Broken Hill: 'As they grew to know Mahomed Allum better they appreciated him more for his goodness of heart, his straightforward dealing with all men, and the practical charity which was becoming so widely known'.

This fulsome praise stands in stark contrast to reports from police in the Cloncurry district where Allum resided in the early 1920s. Constable Spencer had known Allum for about four years, and while he knew 'nothing definitely against his character', the policeman considered Allum a 'rogue' who 'very rarely works'. He also noted his marriage to Annie Baker, a local prostitute.

More serious allegations were recorded by Constable Landells, who described Allum's time in Duchess, a small mining town about 100 kilometres from Cloncurry. Allum operated a drapery business there for some years until the building and contents were destroyed by fire 'under suspicious circumstances'. According to the constable's information, Allum was a 'notorious liar', who had been charged with perjury in New South Wales. He was also suspected of being a 'Gambling House Tout' who it would be 'worth watching for Opium'. 'I always looked upon him as a slimy suspicious individual', the constable concluded, 'but I know nothing definite against his character'. Despite all the allegations and innuendo, no convictions were recorded against Mahomet Allum.

The herbalist

After years of hard physical toil across the Australian outback, Mahomet Allum finally settled in Adelaide in 1928, opening a herbalist's office at 181 Sturt Street. It seems possible that Allum was descended from a line of Kandahar herbalists, skilled in identifying and collecting the herbs for which the area was famous. He may have been influenced by Sufism, the mystic branch of Islam. [Footnote to Christine Stevens, see pp. 198, 288]

Chinese herbalists had been operating in Australia since the mid-19th century. By the 1920s and 1930s, alternative medical practitioners had won a substantial following, much to the annoyance of the medical establishment. Herbalists, called 'hakims' in India, used plants and herbs to treat a variety of illnesses, including skin complaints, kidney stones, diabetes and asthma. Their treatments were generally cheaper and less invasive than those of conventional doctors. During the Great Depression, many poor and unemployed Australians found relief through herbal remedies.

At the time of Mahomet Allum, herbalists often operated from small shops and were closely watched by state health authorities. None of them, however, were as famous – or as beloved – as the South Australian Afghan.

In 1935, Mahomet Allum boasted that 30,000 satisfied patients had supplied him with testimonials praising his abilities. He offered to pay 500 pounds to charity if any of these endorsements could be proved false. Sceptics were invited to visit his rooms to inspect the letters for themselves. With a claimed 600 consultations daily, it certainly seems possible that the herbalist would have collected thousands of testimonials over his long career.

Mrs Irene Wagner, for example, had despaired when doctors informed her that her three-year-old son's convulsions were incurable. But the 'wonder man', Mahomet Allum, had instantly recognised the problem. After two months' treatment the boy passed a lead weight, which the grateful mother apparently forwarded to the herbalist with her thanks. Ethel Stevens found conventional treatments offered no relief from her sugar diabetes, but after taking one of Allum's powders she observed 'the action from the bowels was most remarkable'. 'If I continue to improve like this', she added, 'what more could I say than "God bless Mahomet Allum" '.

Allum compiled many of these letters of thanks into glowing newspaper advertisements that praised both his character and his curative powers. Often they included photographs or drawings of Allum, showing a handsome man with black moustache and patrician features, wearing an elegantly wound turban and a European style suit – a mixture of East and West. He most probably dyed his hair as he grew older, but so did most men of his age in India and Afghanistan. The herbalist was certainly a walking advertisement for his remedies, as his own health and longevity were remarkable.

Challenging the doctors

Mahomet Allum was stubborn and not inclined to pass up any opportunity to confront the medical establishment. He believed that much surgery was unnecessary and expensive, needlessly draining the poor. In his advertisements he denounced conventional medicine as 'the profession which seeks to cure by slashing with the knife and by the injection of poisonous serums into the human blood stream'.

In a letter in 1949, Allum congratulated Prime Minister Chifley on his continuing battle to provide free health care in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association. 'I have profound admiration for your strength in this matter', he commented, 'to all my hundreds of patients who come, I tell them all: "Vote for Mr Chifley when the Elections come".

In contrast to doctors and surgeons who supposedly became rich on the misfortunes of their patients, Allum presented himself as a friend to the poor. 'I am not a rich man, but I do not ask for payment for my services', he proclaimed in 1935, 'How many doctors, much richer than I, work for nothing?' This was part of a broader challenge to the medical profession, published under the title 'Mahomed Allum Fights for Humanity'. This full-page advertisement, published in the Mirror, declared that Allum had evidence thatproved his remedies had been effective where conventional treatments had failed: 'I challenge the members of the medical profession to take up this matter if I have done wrong in exposing their methods and the success of mine.'

His credentials were tested that same year, when he was charged with posing as a medical practitioner. Allum assembled a large cast of witnesses to attest to the fact that he had made no such claim, but he was convicted and fined nonetheless. None of this tarnished his reputation in the eyes of his adoring fans. The publicity merely gained him more patients, and he was eulogised as a man who identified with the average working Australian.

'A sign should be written in the sky to tell people of Australia the treasures they have been deprived of and are losing', wrote nurse Clare Peters in 1952, on hearing that Allum was temporarily leaving Australia for India, 'I consider you to be the real Medical man in Australia, I would not go to Doctors (a title forbidden to you) because I dread the use of the knife and drugs'. It was the medical system that was at fault, she argued, 'I would, if I could, appoint you if you would accept it, Medical Superintendent of Australia, with control of all medical treatment and learning from University onwards'.

Against the odds

Most Afghans of his period lived out their lives quietly in Ghan towns and old city mosques. They either quietly prospered or faded into oblivion after leading for the most part marginal lives. Mahomet Allum escaped this fate by sheer force of personality, an ability to sense commercial opportunities and a remarkable work ethic. In the second half of his career he controlled the manner of his day-to-day living, beholden to no man, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in a large house in Adelaide, idolised by many of his former patients and recipients of his largesse.

But despite his comforts and public acclaim, Allum remained subject to the restrictions of the White Australia Policy. Unlike many of his compatriots, however, he did not suffer in silence. As in his ongoing battles with the medical profession, Allum was quick to exclaim his annoyance and frustration. In 1923, he declared himself ready to leave the country forever. 'I have not had a fair chance to make a fair living anywhere in Australia', he wrote to the Minister for Home and Territories. 'I am called an Alien, and second a blackfellow', he continued 'all I want is justice from King and Queen, Sovereign and Crown, and yourself'.

By 1932, Allum had again endured enough prejudice and abuse. He wrote to Customs officials in Adelaide seeking a 'passport', explaining, 'I am weary of the treatment received by me from the public of South Australia and am in need of a rest'. Despite his efforts in curing '14,000 sick and suffering people', he complained, the press had treated him 'shamefully'.

On returning from an overseas trip in 1934, Allum suffered the indignity of being searched. His complaints did not impress the Collector of Customs in South Australia, who suggested that 'instead of causing him pain of mind', the search was 'actually much appreciated by him as it tends to make him a hero in the eyes of his patients, and consequently swells his receipts'. It was admitted, however, that Allum was 'held in high esteem in Adelaide by a large number of persons, including high officials in the State Government Service'.

Allum's return trips to India were always surrounded by the publicity hype at which the herbalist excelled. Before a trip, he often warned his fans that he was weary of his ongoing battles with the medical establishment and might leave Australia for good. His supporters duly rallied, asking him to reconsider. On one occasion, he was presented with a petition containing 19,000 signatures, 'including those of many leading citizens', urging him to remain. Some months later Allum would return in a blaze of publicity, with yet another set of testimonials. Sometimes these came from medical people in India, who gave him respectful titles likesahib and maulvi, a term used to describe religious scholars.

But in Australia he was still an 'alien'. Denied the right to be naturalised – even after living in Australia for 65 years – there is a sense of bitterness revealed in Allum's letter to Prime Minister Menzies in 1951. 'Although I am technically regarded as an Alien', he wrote, 'I still do all I can to serve your country, and will do so until I die, as I am a Mighty Soldier of Allah, and only want to do His will'. Changes to government policy in 1956 allowed Asian residents to be naturalised. But despite having lived most of his life in Australia, Allum did not take up this opportunity. Perhaps it simply came too late.

In his letter to Menzies, Allum also offered his services to treat King George VI. In evidence of his abilities, he enclosed 'just a few testimonials, at random, from the many thousands in my possession, just to show you what has been done for sufferers who have spent all their money on Doctors, with little, no good effect'.

Reporting on Allum's offer, FB McCann, Deputy Director of Health in South Australia, noted that he was 'quite a reputable citizen and somewhat of a leader of the Moslem community'. But he was also 'a straight out herbalist without any qualifications' whose claims could hardly be taken seriously. The Prime Minister's Department was duly informed: 'There is no reason to suppose that the well-intentioned herbalist can offer His Majesty any therapeutic agent or discipline not already available to him'.

Allum's letter to Menzies is an example of a man driven to seek approval or validation from the political establishment and the upper social echelons. Perhaps he needed the adoration of his patients as much as they needed his remedies. One of his favourite letters was from Lady Gowrie, the wife of the Governor-General. Lady Gowrie's letter to Allum was always mentioned in his advertisements.

Marriage and religion

Mahomet Allum's first wife Annie Barker deserted him sometime in the early 1920s. But on a visit to India in 1937, he believed he had found a suitable replacement. Miss Ekbal Begam, whom he married in a religious ceremony, was 'a lady of wealth and good character'. He wrote to Edmund Dwyer-Gray, a member of the Tasmanian parliament, asking him to forward a letter to Prime Minister Lyons seeking permission to bring her to Australia. She was, he explained, 'someone who would never ever be likely to become a burden on the State or the Commonwealth'.

Allum was keen to have help and companionship in his latter years. 'As I am elderly man, well past the prime of life', he noted, 'I feel that in my declining years, it is most desirable that an understanding lady of my own colour, creed and nationality should be with me to assist me with the special cooking so necessary for the observance of my Islam faith'.

The request was refused after government inquiries could find no evidence to support Allum's belief that his first wife was deceased. Questions were also raised about Miss Schwerdt, his 33-year-old secretary. Allum was informed that his application would be reconsidered if he could provide evidence of either divorce or death in relation to Annie Barker.

Three years later Allum married Miss Jean Emsley under Muslim rites. She bore him a daughter the following year, when he was in his 70s or 80s. In 1953 his wife died of smallpox in India or Afghanistan, after they had both made their pilgrimage to Mecca. Allum's daughter reportedly blamed him for her mother's death because Allum had refused to have the family vaccinated.

The man who worked so hard to make his fortune early on gave much of his wealth away in the second half of his career. His enemies could perhaps fault him as a 'man of medicine', but his reputation for philanthropy was unchallenged. Patients who could not afford his remedies were treated for free. 'For his advice and aid there is no charge', one of his advertisements declared, 'Those who can afford it may give what they wish'. He also made donations to a variety of worthy causes.

Compassion and charity are key tenets of the Islamic faith – zakat or almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Allum's generosity is evidence that he was a devout or, at least, a practising Muslim. In his later years the herbalist also became a hajji, a title of honour indicating that the bearer has made his hajj, or undertaken or pilgrimage to Mecca. This is another of Islam's Five Pillars of faith.

Allum also made donations for religious purposes. He supported the publication of a booklet entitled Islam in Australia: 1863–1932, edited by Musakhan of Western Australia. On the front page is the acknowledgement:

Reprinted as a Gift to Islam by 
MAHOMET Allum, Afghan, 
the gifted Physician of Kandahar, 
Herbalist in Australia, 
181 Sturt Street, Adelaide, 
South Australia 
Dated – 15th Ramadan, 1350 Hijri, 
23rd January 1932

But in typical style Allum could not resist the chance to promote his services. This 96-page book on the history of Islam in Australia devotes 31 pages to testimonials praising Mahomet Allum, 'the wonder man'. In careful terms it is stated that Allum preferred not to use the terms 'miracle' or 'miraculous', ascribing 'his power solely to the Divine Guidance of the Holy Qur'an'. Indeed, his advertisements often sounded like ringing eulogies to his Creator. He was always careful to remind everyone that he was God's servant, and that his skills were God-given. 'God is good,' was one of his favourite sayings.

Conclusion

Most of what we know of this engaging character is through his public persona. Although it is likely that native English speakers wrote his letters and flyers, it is difficult to think of anyone writing his lines or feeding him his cues from the wings. Allum was the master showman and stood centre stage under the spotlight.

The enigmatic Mahomet Allum possessed the remarkable ability to reinvent himself more than once, and to thrive in a society where most of his countrymen lived frugal lives on the edges of society. A procession over a mile long followed his funeral entourage from the mosque to the Centennial Park cemetery when he died in 1964. Somehow this act of public respect seems a fitting end to the life of a remarkable man who refused to be marginalised.

Sources

  • Madelaine Brunato, Mahomet Allum: Afghan Cameldriver, Herbalist and Healer in Australia, Investigator Press, Leabrook, SA, 1972
  • Christine Stevens, Tin Mosques & Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989

Five generations

Photograph of Fatteh Mahomed Dean submitted with his application for a Certificate of Domicile, October 1903 (NAA: K1145, 1903/80, p.5)

The story of Hanifa Deen's family

Fatteh Mohammad Dean was an Indian British subject who arrived in Australia in 1896. He settled in Perth with his half brother Mahmood and two male cousins. Ethnically Fatteh Dean was a Punjabi. His home province, the Punjab, was part of India at the time, but would later be divided between India and the new state of Pakistan.

As he had entered the country before the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Fatteh Mohammad Dean was able to live and work in Australia. But like other non-Europeans, he faced a difficult problem. How could he build a home and a family while the White Australia Policy was in force?

Two lives

Many of the early Muslim arrivals were already married, but preferred their wives to remain in the comfort and security of their extended families, rather than travel to a foreign country where women were granted liberties that would not be countenanced at home. Most of their women wore purdah to shield them from the gaze of men who were not relatives.

Indian and Afghan men who could afford it, or who could borrow money from friends, travelled to and fro between India and Australia. They lived two lives: one in Australia and one in their homeland, where they married, started families, adjudicated over family problems (if they were older sons), and buried their parents and loved ones. In between times, they sent remittances home for the support of their extended families.

This traffic is illustrated by the hundreds of applications for re-entry stored in the National Archives. Before leaving Australia, domiciled Asians had to obtain a certificate that would exempt them from the Dictation Test on their return. These certificates show that some visits home were short, while some lasted for years, going well beyond the expiry dates listed on their exemption forms. In such cases, special permission had to be obtained, with authorities considering carefully whether the applicant was indeed domiciled in Australia. Officials were also wary of acts of chicanery where one Indian left Australia and in his place another would return passing himself off as the legally domiciled Indian.

See Returning in Fragments

Reuniting families

Those who sought to bring their families back with them to Australia faced far greater problems. While 'Asiatics' who arrived before Federation could remain domiciled, their numbers were not meant to increase. Relatives were rarely allowed to take up permanent abode. A clause in the Immigration Restriction Act, which provided for wives and families to enter the country with their legally domiciled husbands, was made almost impossible to use. In 1903 it was repealed by proclamation, and was later removed altogether. In 1906, however, further changes allowed the wives of non-Europeans to visit their husbands for periods of up to six months.

See Family reunions in Fragments

Occasions did arise when men were able to plead a special case if they needed to return home for personal reasons – such as a seriously ill parent, a son's wedding, or to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – and there was nobody they trusted to supervise their camel teams or run their shops. Under such special circumstances a male relative might be granted a temporary stay (after a bond was posted), but the son or cousin had to return forthwith once their father or cousin returned.

In 1904, restrictions on certain classes of Indians were eased with the establishment of a passport system. Under this system, merchants, students and tourists were able obtain passports from Indian officials that would grant them entry to Australia for an initial period of 12 months. These categories were strictly defined. A merchant, for example, was expected to be a man of substance, involved in trade between India and Australia, and not merely a hawker or small shopkeeper.

Fatteh Mohammed Dean was married on one of his return trips to the Punjab. Not content to leave his young bride behind, he twice tried to bring her to Australia – and twice he was refused. But the third time was different.

The young wife

On 13 May 1905, 15-year-old Mrs Fatteh Mahomed Dean arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia, with a document bearing an official stamp and signed by a colonial Indian magistrate. The document, it was claimed, was a passport entitling her to enter Australia. Most likely she was also accompanied by her husband, who had returned temporarily to India in 1903.

The Australian Government was not impressed, and sent a letter to the Indian authorities drawing their 'attention to the circumstances of a case which has just arisen in which it is regretted that the action taken in India has apparently been somewhat irregular'. Mrs Dean was clearly not a member of one of the three categories approved for the issue of passports. This fact, it was pointed out, should have been obvious, as the form itself stated that Mrs Dean intended to remain in Australia for five years. 'I shall be glad if you will be so good as to communicate with the officers concerned in the issue of the document in question', the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs insisted, 'with a view to preventing a recurrence of the irregularity that has taken place in this case'.

While seeking to comply with the Australian request, the Indian authorities were understandably confused. Section 3(m) of the Immigration Restriction Act allowed wives to join their legally domiciled husbands, unless the clause itself was repealed by proclamation. Had such a proclamation been issued? The Indian government presumed this was the case 'as Mrs. Fatteh Mahomed Din, who is not the wife of a prohibited immigrant, would otherwise have apparently been entitled to claim admission into the Commonwealth'. Australian officials confirmed that the clause was no longer in operation.

Despite their concerns, Australian authorities respected Mrs Dean's passport. And so she stayed – a young 15-year-old village girl with no female friends and hardly anyone she could talk to, other than her 36-year-old husband and his male cousins. In the first instance, she was permitted to remain in Australia for 12 months, but while there is no document extending her stay in the records, she did not leave until 1908.

What the authorities could not have known at the time was that, on her arrival, the young girl was three months pregnant. The Deans' first-born son, Abdul Majeed Mahomed Esa, was born in Perth 13 November 1905. His brother, Abdul Ahmed Mahomed Moosa, was born 18 months later.

When the mother and her two boys finally left in 1908 to return to India, they were the proud bearers of three certificates exempting them from the Dictation Test on re-entry to Australia. Under instructions, the handprints and photo requirements were waived, perhaps because Mrs Dean was in purdah (veiled). It is not known whether her husband or another relative accompanied her on her return trip, but she would not have travelled alone without a male relative. Most likely her husband went with her to show off his two sons and demonstrate that this Punjabi local boy 'had made good'.

Fatteh Mohammed Dean was a man of standing in his own community. He was proud and probably a little vain. In public he always wore western clothes and was never seen with a turban – or a beard for that matter – perhaps to distinguish himself from the cameleers and hawkers.

By 1905 Dean was describing himself as 'Superintendent' of a night-watch company, and had established his own small night-watch business. Men on bicycle or on foot turned shop lights on or off and checked doors for any break-ins. Traditionally in Indian villages, village watchman moved around checking torches and watching out for strangers or marauders – this tradition found a home in Australia on a different scale. Dean was certainly an ambitious man who bought property as soon as he could.

It is not clear what Fatteh Dean did before he became a night-watchman. He may have started off working as a hawker, or selling drapery items in the Busy Bee Drapers, a large shop employing five or six Indian men on the corner of William and Stirling Street in Perth.

Fatteh Mohammed Dean is listed as one of the first trustees of the Mohammedan Mosque, founded in 1905. Today it is called the Perth Mosque. Among the register of contributors he is recorded as having donated six pounds – five pounds for himself and one pound from his newly born son, Abdul Majeed Dean. His son was born on 13 November 1905, the same date on which the mosque's foundation stone was laid. Dean was among those who attended the ceremony marking this great occasion.

Among his own Indian community, Dean used the title of 'Mirza', meaning landowner. He listed his ethnicity as 'Moghal' and Punjabi, claiming descent from the Moghals or Mughal retainers dispersed after the 1857 so-called Indian Mutiny. This offers further evidence of a man who knows that social status is important, especially for an Indian living in a white Australia.

Postscript

Fatteh Mohammed Dean's wife never returned to Australia. She died about 40 years later of cancer. Her relatives in the Punjab remember that on her death bed she bitterly regretted losing her husband and her first-born son to Australia. Abdul Majeed Dean rejoined his father in Australia at the age of 19 or 20.

Father and son fell out when Abdul Majeed journeyed to Perth, only to discover that his father had taken a second wife in Australia. This was not unknown at the time, as Islam permits polygamy under certain conditions. The young man also found he had two half-sisters of whom he'd had no prior knowledge.

Loyal to his mother, the Abdul Majeed left Western Australia and spent some years hawking in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. There he married Neisha Deen, the Australian-born daughter of a Kashmiri hawker. In the late 1890s, the Kashmiri Mr Deen jumped ship at Melbourne. He married a Welsh widow with eight children, producing two Kashmiri–Welsh offspring of their own. Neisha Deen is remembered as a woman of great beauty and style, who had been raised as a Muslim by her hawker father.

Mr AM Dean, as he was known, later became a herbalist. During the 1930s depression, he worked on the goldfields of Western Australia, living with his young bride in Kalgoorlie, Boulder and Wiluna. By 1942, he had returned to Perth and established a herbalist shop on the corner of James and William streets. By 1950, he had founded a night-watch company in the tradition of his father. This eventually became a modern security service in Subiaco, complete with armoured transport vehicles and a large staff.

Although integrated into many aspects of Australian life, Mr and Mrs AM Dean remained devout practising Muslims and performed their hajj in the 1970s. They also established the first Islamic Society of Western Australia. Their three children (Jennet, Hanifa and Jon Muhammad) and eight grandchildren have been brought up as Muslims.

There are now five generations of the Dean family who have had a continuous presence in Australia, with four generations Australian-born. Third-generation members of the Dean family have always identified themselves as Australians of Pakistani ancestry and maintain links with their Pakistani cousins, many of whom, by the 1990s, eventually left Pakistan and emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States. But their 'ancestral village', as they call it, is still retained by the Pakistani side of the family.

Five generations of the Dean family have called Perth their home, something they still enjoy reminding other Australians who ask them, 'Where do you come from?'

Ali Abdul v. the King

List of prohibited immigrants issued by the Home and Territories Department, 8 September 1921 (NAA: A1, 1923/13157, pp.24–26)

The cast

Defence

Defendant: Ali Abdul, 57-year-old Indian charged with being a prohibited immigrant 
Ali's lawyer before the High Court: Mr T Wells 
Ali's witnesses: Emma Croaker, Victor Phillips, Anthony Hawley, Gerald McElligott

Prosecution

Investigating officer: Detective Inspector Thomas Maher, Customs Officer, Department of Trade and Customs 
The Crown's lawyers before the High Court: Mr Mitchell KC and Mr Bowie Wilson 
Crown witness: Rhamut Khan, Indian Muslim

Three court hearings

Stipendiary Magistrate: Mr GS Shepherd 
Chief Tribunal Quarter Session: Judge White 
High Court Judges: Justice Rich, Justice Evatt, Justice McTiernan

Overture

Ali Abdul was arrested in 1931 and charged with being a prohibited immigrant under the Immigration Act. The crux of the case against him was the date of his arrival in Australia. If Ali had entered after 1901, then he could be subjected to the Dictation Test and declared a prohibited immigrant.

Ali pleaded not guilty and four witnesses gave evidence in court on his behalf. Swearing under oath that he was of good character, the witnesses testified that they had first met the Indian shopkeeper 33 or so years earlier, giving details of when, and under what circumstances, they had known the young itinerant worker.

Despite this testimony, Ali was found guilty on 12 October 1931. The magistrate sentenced him to six months hard labour, following which he was to be deported to India. A month later, Ali and his lawyers appealed to the Court of Quarter Sessions in New South Wales. Although the trial chairman, Judge White, believed Ali's witnesses, he nevertheless dismissed his appeal on a point of law on 30 November 1931. If Ali Abdul was to stay in the country, he had to appeal his case to the High Court of Australia.

The case for the Crown

Customs officers were charged with the task of enforcing Australia's immigration policies. They had to be vigilant because it was not uncommon for crew and stowaways to jump ship at Australian ports. Concern about the numbers of non-Europeans entering the country illegally led to a gradual tightening of the immigration legislation. Customs officers gained increased powers to prosecute prohibited immigrants, while the burden of proof was shifted onto suspects to prove their legal status.

Detective Inspector Maher was the customs officer who investigated Ali Abdul's case. Maher's evidence, tendered at the earlier trials, was presented to the High Court on 14 December 1931. Maher had first questioned Ali on 30 July 1930. After checking the answers Ali had supplied, Maher returned on 26 August 1931 and conveyed the shopkeeper to the Customs House for further questioning.

Maher explained to Ali that his responses had proved unsatisfactory. 'I am therefore going to submit you to a dictation test of not less than fifty words in the English language,' he continued, 'My name is Thomas Victor Maher, I am a Customs Officer acting under the Immigration Act. The first reading will simply be for the purpose of enabling you to get the swing of it. On the second reading I will expect you to write out the passage and if you fail to do so I will deem you to be a prohibited immigrant.' Ali failed the test and was taken to the Water Police Station and charged.

Unfortunately for Ali, he could not recall with any accuracy the name of the ship from which he claimed to have disembarked. Nor did he appear on the passenger lists of several ships that had moored at Australian ports at the time. Under amendments to the Immigration Act, the only way the defendant could disprove the prosecutor's assertions was by providing such information.

Maher believed that Ali Abdul was a stowaway who had landed in Brisbane sometime between 1915 and 1917, long after Commonwealth legislation restricting immigration had come into force. In Maher's eyes Ali was dissembling when, under interrogation, he stumbled over various ships' names.

Tracing Ali's movements around the country and checking where he claimed to have worked was a mammoth task. Maher admitted that in some cases the relevant records had been lost. In other cases, people who needed to be traced were either dead or had moved on. Maher provided the court with evidence of his inquiries, maintaining that Ali's claims could not be substantiated.

Adding weight to the Crown's case was the evidence of an Indian named Rhamut Khan. After swearing on the Qur'an, Khan testified that he had met Ali in 1916 or 1917 in South Brisbane. Ali had just stepped off the boat, Khan inisisted, and was wearing Indian attire that he soon after exchanged for western-style dress. Later it emerged that Khan owed Ali money and the two men were not on good terms. Under cross-examination, Khan admitted that he had once been arrested for drinking, and on his own volition had gone to the Customs officers after meeting Ali Abdul in Sydney.

Ali's defence

At the time of his arrest, Ali Abdul was a small businessman, with a confectionery and fruit shop at 136 Abercrombie Road, Redfern. But he still remembered his early years in Australia, when he hawked fruit and took on whatever work he could find. Born in Lahore in 1874, Ali claimed to have embarked from Bombay, reaching Melbourne via Colombo around 1898.

'I came on a ship called Valletta or Rosetta. I really forget the name,' Ali testified, 'When Mr Maher questioned me he closed all the doors and windows and I took a fit and he had to bring me water. I mentioned four or five names to him.'

Ali explained that he had paid his passage to a man wearing a uniform. He was 'like a boss over the sailors', Ali noted, and he had told the trusting Indian, 'give your money and I will take you to Australia'. Ali had asked about ticket, but despite the man's assurances a ticket was never supplied. Ali insisted he had made no attempt to evade authorities, and had willingly submitted himself to a medical inspection on his arrival in Melbourne.

In an attempt to prove that he had entered Australia before 1901, Ali provided a long list of districts, towns and cities in which he had worked – sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for a few years. He had lived the life of an itinerant worker who scrambled for a makeshift living.

After leaving Melbourne he worked for a Chinese gardener in Seymour for two years, then moved to Corowa working as a wood cutter for a Mr Wallace for 18 months. From there he went to Braidwood, where he first met the Croaker family (Mrs Croaker was a witness). Later he moved to Sydney with Wallace, selling fruit until he moved back to Queensland cattle droving, again in the company of Wallace. After his droving days were over he shifted to South Brisbane where he lived for eight years. For three of those eight years he worked for two other Indians, 'for my tucker and clothes'. This was followed by five years working all around Queensland. Later he went back to Sydney and worked for two years in Coff's Harbour and Macksville. The outbreak of war saw Ali back in Brisbane, working at Mr Fatteh Mahommed's shop 'selling quilts, teapot cosies and mosquito nets'. The list of town names continued: Brisbane, Gympie, Longreach – hawking and labouring.

The court transcript of 1931 provides only the answers and not the questions put by opposing counsel, but clearly at one point in his cross-examination the Prosecutor attacked Ali's character by suggesting that white women had visited him at his shop, and that he fathered an illegitimate child. Ali denied these claims. 'No white woman was accustomed to visit my shop in Wagga', he insisted.

Ali also disputed some of answers Maher had recorded from his interview. Yes, he had signed the document Maher had placed before him, but he was suffering from a 'fit', and sometimes could not understand the questions Maher put to him.

Old friends and hard times

Mrs Annie Emma Croaker was a 60-year-old widow, who had borne eleven children. She gave evidence that she and her husband first met Ali around the turn of the century, at their home between Goulburn and Braidwood. Her husband, a fettler on the railway, met Ali in the bush, took a shine to the young man, and brought him home. Ali earned his keep by chopping wood and cleaning up the place, and slept in a shed at the back.

'I fix the time,' she said, 'because I had a baby at home, a baby in arms. I also had another child at that time. She was nearly 12 months old then. I think from memory that she was born in 1899.' From this time on, Emma Croaker told the court that she and her husband met Ali periodically; at first every two or three months and then intermittently every few years. 'My daughter worked for him at a shirt factory in Burwood three or four years ago. He has always born a first class character,' she testified, 'My husband became fairly fond of him. My husband talked to him when they were both home. They mostly yarned outside.'

Under cross-examination the widow refused to change her story: 'I am not a friend of Indians. They do not visit my place, nor do I visit Indians' places. No Indians visit my home.' Her answers rejected the insinuation that only a woman of low moral standing, used to consorting with Indian men, would give evidence for someone like Ali.

Victor Joseph Phillip's sworn deposition declared that he was born in 1886 at Dubbo. When he was about 14 years old, he remembered Ali Abdul buying fruit from his brother and him at the old Belmore Markets. In later years, Ali became a regular customer. 'He was very straight and upstanding then and made an impression on me', Phillip maintained, 'I used to give him credit. He could get credit from anyone in the Markets which is saying something.' Off and on, over 20 years, Ali Abdul came to buy fruit which he then peddled. Under cross-examination, Phillips insisted that the man he first met in 1900, and then again seven years later, were definitely one and the same.

Witness number three, Anthony Howley, a native of Syria, recalled meeting Ali seven or eight years before his marriage in about 1907.

Ali's last witness, Gerald McElligott, also testified that he had known Ali for three decades. They first met when Ali was working for 'Jimmy' the Chinese gardener in Seymour and earning tobacco money on the side by 'performing as a minstrel'. 'Boys would gather round him in the evening,' he elaborated, 'There were other coloured men there. I saw him for several weeks until the novelty wore off.'

The two young men saw each other on and off in different country towns over the next 12 years. Under cross-examination, McElligott could not be budged – he had first met Ali before 1901. 'The reason why I noticed him was that he was a black man,' he explained, 'I have not seen a colored [sic] man with a personality like this man. He had tambourines and would do what may be called singing.'

When, after many years, they bumped into one another at the Sydney Hospital, where they were both outpatients, Ali said to him: 'Some people have been telling untruths about me. Will you come and tell the truth about me?'

Why did Ali Abdul's Australian witnesses come to his aid? They had only met one another intermittently over the years and could hardly be described as friends. Yet these people went out of their way to help the Indian shopkeeper. The social distance separating people on the basis of skin colour was widespread at the time. What could Ali Abdul and these ordinary Australians possibly have in common?

Perhaps it was a case of respect for a decent hard-working chap. Perhaps they shared similar values. Ali, while not an 'Aussie battler' in the strict sense of the word, was nevertheless a man who, like themselves, knew all about hard times. These were the men and women whose families were hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many unemployed men had been forced into an itinerant lifestyle, doing odd jobs and living from hand to mouth, just as Ali had done for the first decade of his life in Australia.

The verdict

Ali's lawyer argued that the evidence showed that his client had arrived before 1901 and that it was therefore invalid to apply the provisions of the Act to him. 'Immigration before the Constitution was established', he maintained, 'is not within the legislative powers of the Commonwealth'. Judge White, in the Court of Quarter Sessions, had dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the only 'personal evidence' the act seemed to allow were the details of the ship upon which the defendant had arrived.

Prosecution

Investigating officer: Detective Inspector Thomas Maher, Customs Officer, Department of Trade and Customs 
The Crown's lawyers before the High Court: Mr Mitchell KC and Mr Bowie Wilson 
Crown witness: Rhamut Khan, Indian Muslim

Three court hearings

Stipendiary Magistrate: Mr GS Shepherd 
Chief Tribunal Quarter Session: Judge White 
High Court Judges: Justice Rich, Justice Evatt, Justice McTiernan

Overture

Ali Abdul was arrested in 1931 and charged with being a prohibited immigrant under the Immigration Act. The crux of the case against him was the date of his arrival in Australia. If Ali had entered after 1901, then he could be subjected to the Dictation Test and declared a prohibited immigrant.

Ali pleaded not guilty and four witnesses gave evidence in court on his behalf. Swearing under oath that he was of good character, the witnesses testified that they had first met the Indian shopkeeper 33 or so years earlier, giving details of when, and under what circumstances, they had known the young itinerant worker.

Despite this testimony, Ali was found guilty on 12 October 1931. The magistrate sentenced him to six months hard labour, following which he was to be deported to India. A month later, Ali and his lawyers appealed to the Court of Quarter Sessions in New South Wales. Although the trial chairman, Judge White, believed Ali's witnesses, he nevertheless dismissed his appeal on a point of law on 30 November 1931. If Ali Abdul was to stay in the country, he had to appeal his case to the High Court of Australia.

The case for the Crown

Customs officers were charged with the task of enforcing Australia's immigration policies. They had to be vigilant because it was not uncommon for crew and stowaways to jump ship at Australian ports. Concern about the numbers of non-Europeans entering the country illegally led to a gradual tightening of the immigration legislation. Customs officers gained increased powers to prosecute prohibited immigrants, while the burden of proof was shifted onto suspects to prove their legal status.

Detective Inspector Maher was the customs officer who investigated Ali Abdul's case. Maher's evidence, tendered at the earlier trials, was presented to the High Court on 14 December 1931. Maher had first questioned Ali on 30 July 1930. After checking the answers Ali had supplied, Maher returned on 26 August 1931 and conveyed the shopkeeper to the Customs House for further questioning.

Maher explained to Ali that his responses had proved unsatisfactory. 'I am therefore going to submit you to a dictation test of not less than fifty words in the English language,' he continued, 'My name is Thomas Victor Maher, I am a Customs Officer acting under the Immigration Act. The first reading will simply be for the purpose of enabling you to get the swing of it. On the second reading I will expect you to write out the passage and if you fail to do so I will deem you to be a prohibited immigrant.' Ali failed the test and was taken to the Water Police Station and charged.

Unfortunately for Ali, he could not recall with any accuracy the name of the ship from which he claimed to have disembarked. Nor did he appear on the passenger lists of several ships that had moored at Australian ports at the time. Under amendments to the Immigration Act, the only way the defendant could disprove the prosecutor's assertions was by providing such information.

Maher believed that Ali Abdul was a stowaway who had landed in Brisbane sometime between 1915 and 1917, long after Commonwealth legislation restricting immigration had come into force. In Maher's eyes Ali was dissembling when, under interrogation, he stumbled over various ships' names.

Tracing Ali's movements around the country and checking where he claimed to have worked was a mammoth task. Maher admitted that in some cases the relevant records had been lost. In other cases, people who needed to be traced were either dead or had moved on. Maher provided the court with evidence of his inquiries, maintaining that Ali's claims could not be substantiated.

Adding weight to the Crown's case was the evidence of an Indian named Rhamut Khan. After swearing on the Qur'an, Khan testified that he had met Ali in 1916 or 1917 in South Brisbane. Ali had just stepped off the boat, Khan inisisted, and was wearing Indian attire that he soon after exchanged for western-style dress. Later it emerged that Khan owed Ali money and the two men were not on good terms. Under cross-examination, Khan admitted that he had once been arrested for drinking, and on his own volition had gone to the Customs officers after meeting Ali Abdul in Sydney.

Ali's defence

At the time of his arrest, Ali Abdul was a small businessman, with a confectionery and fruit shop at 136 Abercrombie Road, Redfern. But he still remembered his early years in Australia, when he hawked fruit and took on whatever work he could find. Born in Lahore in 1874, Ali claimed to have embarked from Bombay, reaching Melbourne via Colombo around 1898.

'I came on a ship called Valletta or Rosetta. I really forget the name,' Ali testified, 'When Mr Maher questioned me he closed all the doors and windows and I took a fit and he had to bring me water. I mentioned four or five names to him.'

Ali explained that he had paid his passage to a man wearing a uniform. He was 'like a boss over the sailors', Ali noted, and he had told the trusting Indian, 'give your money and I will take you to Australia'. Ali had asked about ticket, but despite the man's assurances a ticket was never supplied. Ali insisted he had made no attempt to evade authorities, and had willingly submitted himself to a medical inspection on his arrival in Melbourne.

In an attempt to prove that he had entered Australia before 1901, Ali provided a long list of districts, towns and cities in which he had worked – sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for a few years. He had lived the life of an itinerant worker who scrambled for a makeshift living.

After leaving Melbourne he worked for a Chinese gardener in Seymour for two years, then moved to Corowa working as a wood cutter for a Mr Wallace for 18 months. From there he went to Braidwood, where he first met the Croaker family (Mrs Croaker was a witness). Later he moved to Sydney with Wallace, selling fruit until he moved back to Queensland cattle droving, again in the company of Wallace. After his droving days were over he shifted to South Brisbane where he lived for eight years. For three of those eight years he worked for two other Indians, 'for my tucker and clothes'. This was followed by five years working all around Queensland. Later he went back to Sydney and worked for two years in Coff's Harbour and Macksville. The outbreak of war saw Ali back in Brisbane, working at Mr Fatteh Mahommed's shop 'selling quilts, teapot cosies and mosquito nets'. The list of town names continued: Brisbane, Gympie, Longreach – hawking and labouring.

The court transcript of 1931 provides only the answers and not the questions put by opposing counsel, but clearly at one point in his cross-examination the Prosecutor attacked Ali's character by suggesting that white women had visited him at his shop, and that he fathered an illegitimate child. Ali denied these claims. 'No white woman was accustomed to visit my shop in Wagga', he insisted.

Ali also disputed some of answers Maher had recorded from his interview. Yes, he had signed the document Maher had placed before him, but he was suffering from a 'fit', and sometimes could not understand the questions Maher put to him.

Old friends and hard times

Mrs Annie Emma Croaker was a 60-year-old widow, who had borne eleven children. She gave evidence that she and her husband first met Ali around the turn of the century, at their home between Goulburn and Braidwood. Her husband, a fettler on the railway, met Ali in the bush, took a shine to the young man, and brought him home. Ali earned his keep by chopping wood and cleaning up the place, and slept in a shed at the back.

'I fix the time,' she said, 'because I had a baby at home, a baby in arms. I also had another child at that time. She was nearly 12 months old then. I think from memory that she was born in 1899.' From this time on, Emma Croaker told the court that she and her husband met Ali periodically; at first every two or three months and then intermittently every few years. 'My daughter worked for him at a shirt factory in Burwood three or four years ago. He has always born a first class character,' she testified, 'My husband became fairly fond of him. My husband talked to him when they were both home. They mostly yarned outside.'

Under cross-examination the widow refused to change her story: 'I am not a friend of Indians. They do not visit my place, nor do I visit Indians' places. No Indians visit my home.' Her answers rejected the insinuation that only a woman of low moral standing, used to consorting with Indian men, would give evidence for someone like Ali.

Victor Joseph Phillip's sworn deposition declared that he was born in 1886 at Dubbo. When he was about 14 years old, he remembered Ali Abdul buying fruit from his brother and him at the old Belmore Markets. In later years, Ali became a regular customer. 'He was very straight and upstanding then and made an impression on me', Phillip maintained, 'I used to give him credit. He could get credit from anyone in the Markets which is saying something.' Off and on, over 20 years, Ali Abdul came to buy fruit which he then peddled. Under cross-examination, Phillips insisted that the man he first met in 1900, and then again seven years later, were definitely one and the same.

Witness number three, Anthony Howley, a native of Syria, recalled meeting Ali seven or eight years before his marriage in about 1907.

Ali's last witness, Gerald McElligott, also testified that he had known Ali for three decades. They first met when Ali was working for 'Jimmy' the Chinese gardener in Seymour and earning tobacco money on the side by 'performing as a minstrel'. 'Boys would gather round him in the evening,' he elaborated, 'There were other coloured men there. I saw him for several weeks until the novelty wore off.'

The two young men saw each other on and off in different country towns over the next 12 years. Under cross-examination, McElligott could not be budged – he had first met Ali before 1901. 'The reason why I noticed him was that he was a black man,' he explained, 'I have not seen a colored [sic] man with a personality like this man. He had tambourines and would do what may be called singing.'

When, after many years, they bumped into one another at the Sydney Hospital, where they were both outpatients, Ali said to him: 'Some people have been telling untruths about me. Will you come and tell the truth about me?'

Why did Ali Abdul's Australian witnesses come to his aid? They had only met one another intermittently over the years and could hardly be described as friends. Yet these people went out of their way to help the Indian shopkeeper. The social distance separating people on the basis of skin colour was widespread at the time. What could Ali Abdul and these ordinary Australians possibly have in common?

Perhaps it was a case of respect for a decent hard-working chap. Perhaps they shared similar values. Ali, while not an 'Aussie battler' in the strict sense of the word, was nevertheless a man who, like themselves, knew all about hard times. These were the men and women whose families were hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many unemployed men had been forced into an itinerant lifestyle, doing odd jobs and living from hand to mouth, just as Ali had done for the first decade of his life in Australia.

The verdict

Ali's lawyer argued that the evidence showed that his client had arrived before 1901 and that it was therefore invalid to apply the provisions of the Act to him. 'Immigration before the Constitution was established', he maintained, 'is not within the legislative powers of the Commonwealth'. Judge White, in the Court of Quarter Sessions, had dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the only 'personal evidence' the act seemed to allow were the details of the ship upon which the defendant had arrived.

The pearl diver

Photo of Samsudin bin Katib, supplied with his application for naturalisation, 1947 (NAA: A435, 1947/4/1253, p.11)

Samsudin bin Katib

On 3 November 1948, the MV Charon set sail from Broome bound for Singapore and Indonesia. On board was an unwilling passenger, the Sumatran-born pearl diver Samsudin bin Katib. Officially, Samsudin was being deported because he could no longer find employment in the pearling industry and was therefore in breach of his indenture agreement. However, underlying his deportation was a complex story of vested interests within the lucrative pearl shell industry.

Pearl shell harvesting in Australia's northern waters was brought to a halt by the war. By 1945, with the shell fetching around 500 pounds a ton, the pearl shellers knew that their banked-up supplies would fetch a handsome profit. However, they also recognised that, now the war was over, Dutch and US vessels would be moving into Indian Ocean waters, competing for the precious resource. The shellers argued that to re-establish the industry on a competitive basis, it was necessary to reintroduce the indentured labour system. Under this system, Malay and Indonesian workers were brought to Australia on bonds to work in the pearl shelling industry. Once they were no longer required, they were expected to be returned to their country of origin.

The indentured labour system had continued after Federation as an uncomfortable exemption to the White Australia Policy. In 1946, the Chifley government sought to phase out cheap coloured labour and to re-establish the industry using white workers. However, knowing that it would take time to recruit and train suitable workers, the government bowed to pressure from the shellers to allow an extension of the indentured labour system for a further five years. It was effectively business as usual for the pearl shellers, who for the time being could continue to exploit this convenient source of cheap labour.

A war hero

Samsudin bin Katib was born in Padang in Sumatra on 15 July 1918. He was 18 years old when arrived in Australia aboard theCentaur on 10 June 1937. Disembarking at Broome, the young man worked as a pearl diver until 1942, when wartime Japanese attacks forced the town's evacuation.

In Perth, Samsudin joined the Australian militia and served in a variety of labour and employment companies, including working at the fish markets with the Water Transport Company. The only blemish on his service record came at this time, when he was fined 40 shillings for disobeying the lawful command of a superior officer. Military authorities eventually recognised that his skills and abilities fitted him for more challenging duties, and in December 1943 he was transferred to join the commandos in the 'Z' Special Unit.

Samsudin's small size (5' 2½") proved no barrier to him undertaking the tough combat training demanded of commandos at Fraser's Barracks in Queensland. He also qualified as a parachutist. In June 1945 he was deployed overseas, helping to gather intelligence behind enemy lines in Borneo prior to the Allied attack. He was discharged with the rank of corporal in Melbourne in May 1946.

After his discharge, Samsudin remained for some months in Melbourne, working in factories such as General Motors Holden. In March 1947, perhaps planning for the future, he applied for naturalisation. He must have known that his chances were slim, but hoped, nonetheless, that his war service might sway officialdom in his favour. As one official noted, 'Whilst it is known that persons of coloured origin are not normally eligible for naturalisation, the usual report is submitted in view of the circumstances of this man's Army Record'.

Samsudin's application was rejected, however, and authorities were instructed to remind him that, under the terms of his admittance as an indentured worker, he was forbidden from taking alternative employment. He returned to Broome and resumed his life as a pearl diver.

A troublemaker?

The pearl shellers were adept at using the technicalities of the indentured labour system to suppress the wages of their workers. Anyone who dared agitate for better conditions was simply denied work, rendering them vulnerable to deportation under the conditions of their bond.

As the pearling fleet prepared for a new season in February 1948, the shellers proposed a 10 percent cut in wages. Samsudin took the lead in resisting the offer, forming an association of Malay and Indonesian workers, and organising a general strike. In response, Samsudin was effectively banned from working as a pearl diver on any boat in Broome. By imposing such a boycott, the shellers created a situation where Samsudin was in violation of his indenture contract. Although he found alternative employment as a barber, it was no use. The shellers shipped Samsudin to Perth to await deportation.

'It would indeed be a tragedy', Samsudin wrote to Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration, 'if those of us who offered our lives in service for freedom and the right to work and earn at reasonable wages and conditions were to become the subject of persecution only for the reason that we desire to put those ideals into practice'. Press criticism encouraged Calwell to stay Samsudin's repatriation. Instead of being shipped off to Singapore, the pearl diver was instructed to return to Broome to work for Mrs Dakos, the one pearl sheller who seemed willing to break the boycott. Meanwhile, the government sought to negotiate an end to the wage dispute.

'We have not yet reached the stage in Australia at which people who agitate for better conditions must be deported merely because of their colour,' Calwell proclaimed in parliament when his decision was questioned. Nonetheless, he was clearly concerned to ensure that the industry, which had earned US$1 million in the previous year, was not hampered by labour problems.

He was also sensitive to any suggestion that the White Australia Policy might be undermined. 'We are informed that the season for gathering pearl shell begins on 1st March and concludes some time in November,' he added, 'Malays may return to their own country during lay offs or may remain in Australia but we insist that none of them shall be allowed to come south of latitude 27 degrees, because we do not want them to come into contact with our own communities in Perth or elsewhere.'

Samsudin's return to Broome was greeted with howls of protest from the shellers, who claimed that his presence made any negotiated settlement impossible. The position offered by Mrs Dakos mysteriously evaporated, and Samsudin was left once more, unemployed and marked for deportation.

With the pearl shellers predicting not only the ruin of the industry, but the breakdown of law and order, pressure mounted on the Minister to act. As well as possible economic damage, Calwell was concerned about the precedent that might be set if Samsudin was allowed to stay in defiance of the White Australia Policy. Despite continued protests from friends in Melbourne, as well as the Seamen's Union and some branches of the ALP, the pearl shellers prevailed over the young 'war hero'. Samsudin faced deportation once again.

Friends and supporters

The Seamen's Union strongly supported Samsudin and his attempts to organise workers in the pearl shelling industry. 'We believe the deportation of the leaders of any Union movement can only be for the benefit of the employers', they wrote to Calwell in June 1948. When the Minister confirmed that Samsudin and his fellow organiser, John Pattiasina, were scheduled for repatriation, the union argued their defence once more. 'This is a brutal and deliberate victimisation,' they insisted, 'and while these men are available and willing to work in the pearling industry they should be allowed to remain in Australia.'

Elizabeth Marshall was the Honorary Secretary of the 'East–West Committee', which opposed the White Australia Policy and defended the welfare of Asians in Australia. She knew Samsudin personally from his time in Melbourne and thought him 'a sane and reasonable young man, who desires to work constitutionally'. She also understood the power of the pearl shellers. 'The position is that not only is Samsudin being victimised for helping his fellow-men', she observed, 'but that any man whom the owners dislike can automatically be victimised by the same process'. 'It is little enough recompense for his years of war service in our Army to be allowed to earn a living in the country, in Broome', she added pointedly.

JK Ewers of Perth was on an expedition through the north-west when he made the acquaintance of Samsudin. He was clearly impressed with the young man, and quickly grasped the significance of his situation. 'It is a clear triumph of an employers' organisation over the destinies of their employees', he wrote to Kim E Beazley, his local MP. The pearl shellers had attempted to smear Samsudin, charging him with 'inculcating what appear to ideas of a most communistic order'. But as JK Ewers observed, 'everyone who protests against exploitation is dubbed a Commo'.

Other protests were lodged by the Essendon branch of the Labour Party and the Bootmakers Union. Samsudin himself wrote to the Minister, surprised that Calwell had apparently approved his deportation. 'We do not think you said this', he wrote, 'because you said no man should be punished for trying to get better conditions for the workers'. But this time there would be no reprieve.

John Pattiasina was repatriated in September 1948. Samsudin bin Katib's removal was delayed as Australian officials struggled to arrange the necessary travel documents. Indonesia was in the midst of a revolution, with Republican forces seeking to drive out the vestiges of the Dutch colonial administration. Eventually, the new Republic's representative in Australia provided a letter authorising Samsudin's re-entry. Authorities also hastily issued a certificate of identity to allow Samsudin to pass through Singapore en route to Indonesia. The certificate notes that the pearl diver is leaving Australia 'permanently', and is endorsed, as required, by a 'prominent citizen' – in this case, Stanley Davis, manager of Streeter & Male, the largest of the pearl shellers.

Postscript

Elizabeth and Eric Marshall described the circumstances surrounding Samsudin bin Katib's deportation in a pamphlet entitled ASIA … The White Australia Policy and YOU. They argued that the government had tacitly approved of the reintroduction of the indentured labour system, and that wages were being deliberately suppressed by the pearl shellers exploitation of this system.

DW Burbidge, a Research Officer with the Immigration Department, reviewed the Marshalls' publication and found most of its claims to be justified. While the government had not willingly sought the re-establishment of the indentured labour system, there seemed no doubt, he reported, that around Broome 'the indenture system as it existed before the war, is now in full swing'. The government's insistence that the system should be phased out, with the gradual introduction of white labour, was simply being ignored by the pearl shellers.

Burbidge's report confirmed that Samsudin and Pattiasina were victimised by the pearl shellers because of their efforts to resist cuts to wages and conditions. 'There seems little doubt', Burbidge noted, 'that they have chosen to settle the recurring disputes in their own favour by direct action, within the law, to remove any workers who might succeed in organising their fellow-workers'.

Inquiries by the Marshalls revealed that Samsudin bin Katib died in Singapore on 20 December 1950. They were unable to find out whether he ever made it back to Sumatra. 'Once he was a hero', lamented a report in the Melbourne Herald on his deportation.

A displaced person

Photographs of Assim Ethemi, submmitted with his application to enter Australia, October 1949 (NAA: A11921, B42, p.22)

Assim Ethemi

In 1949, Assim Ethemi sought to leave behind the strife of Europe and start a new life in Australia. Ethemi was a 25-year-old ethnic Albanian, born in Kosova. He had left his home in 1944, journeying via a chain of refugee camps in Italy to the International Refugee Organisation's (IRO) Middle East Mission in Damascus.

Before the war, Kosova (the Albanian name for Kosovo) had been part of Yugoslavia, despite its large population of ethnic Albanians. Under Italian occupation, most of the region was integrated into Albania, but at war's end the new communist government in Yugoslavia reasserted control. Bitter tensions between Serbs and Albanians were exacerbated, with claims of atrocities on both sides.

Ethemi's application for assistance explained that his uncle, Ferhat Bey Draga, was well known as a leader of the Albanian minority in Yugoslavia. His efforts to start a political party in the 1920s had resulted in his internment. Freed during the war, Draga took up armed struggle and died in the mountains. His son and nephew, 'the only males left of that family', fled to safety, fearing Yugoslav reprisals under the postwar regime. After an extensive interview, the IRO officially classified Ethemi as a refugee, and declared him eligible for assistance. His Certificate of Eligibility, issued by the IRO, describes him as a 'political dissident'.

As his land and house had been confiscated, Ethemi was classified as a 'hardship case', eligible for 'care and maintenance' pending his resettlement. But where was he to go? On his application form is a note – 'resettlement to Australia if possible' – indicating that the young man may have wanted to join a relative or friend here.

On 2 October 1949, Assim Ethemi applied for entry to Australia. The young Muslim, who gave his occupation as 'mechanic', was well educated, with five years of secondary schooling. He was fluent in Albanian, Yugoslavian and Turkish, and could speak some Italian as well. He impressed the Australia selection officials and was duly offered admission.

By this time, Ethemi had been transferred to another refugee camp in Beirut. Here he underwent a rigorous medical examination and was pronounced 'medically fit for migration to Australia', although some 'dental attention' was required. His general good health, as noted on the selection report, confirmed his 'suitability for manual labour'. With Australia seeking to supplement its workforce, this was an important criterion.

While responding to the humanitarian crisis in Europe, Australia immigration policy remained restrictive. It was hoped to maintain the country's racial integrity, while obtaining workers for industrial expansion. On selection documents, Ethemi's race was declared to be 'Aryan'. He was also required to sign a form stating that he understood the conditions under which displaced persons were allowed to immigrate to Australia:

I fully understand that I must remain in the employment found for me for a period of up to two years and that I shall not be permitted to change that employment without the consent of the Department of Immigration.

Assim Ethemi signed this document on 21 October 1949, completing the necessary formalities. He arrived in Melbourne aboard a US troopship on 18 December 1949.

As an 'alien', Assim Ethemi was required to inform authorities of any change of address or employment. His Certificate of Registration records these details, telling us that he lived at a number of addresses around Melbourne, and worked for the Union Can Company in South Melbourne. In 1957 he became naturalised and his certificate was cancelled.

An assisted passenger

Mehmet Musa Mehcur, his wife Hayriye, and their their children, Saliha, Semiha and baby Seyfi, c. 1969 (Courtesy of Kuranda Seyit)

Musa Hodja

In 1969 Mehmet Musa Mehcur, his wife Hayriye, and their three small children finally reached Australia under the Assisted Passage Scheme for Turkish migrants. Mehmet's long journey, to what would become his permanent home, began at the age of six in Turkistan in Central Asia. After the establishment of the Soviet Union, communists purged Turkistan of wealthy landowning ethnic Uzbeks, forcing Mehmet's father to flee the country. The family was reunited in Afghanistan, and lived as refugees for 17 years, enduring terrible hardship.

In 1952 Turkey permitted the entry of Turkistani refugees, and Mehmet seized the opportunity. He had always regarded Turkey as his motherland. He became a human rights activist speaking out against human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. He also formed a co-op with some fellow Uzbekis, which unfortunately went bankrupt in 1967. Although many Turks of Uzbeki ethnicity eventually chose to emigrate to the United States, Mehmet, by 1969 a married man with children, set his sights on Australia.

On arrival, the family lived in a hostel at Villawood. Soon they moved to Redfern, and later to Newtown. Life was difficult: Mehmet was employed at the Leyland car manufacturing plant, while his wife Hayriye worked in a cigarette factory. Mehmet's last job before retiring was as a cleaner in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

When the first planeload of Turks arrived, very few men had sufficient religious knowledge to guide their community. Religious studies were not encouraged by the then secular Turkish government. From his years in Afghanistan, Mehmet had acquired a strong background in religious learning, which he put to good use in Australia. On several occasions he was asked to lead prayers at Sydney's first Turkish mosque, established in Erskineville in 1975.

This led to him being affectionately called 'Musa Hodja' or teacher. Later he taught the Qur'an and Arabic at the Mt Druitt mosque, and was active in fundraising activities for the Auburn mosque.

Seyfi

Musa's son Seyfi, as he is called by his many friends, is a leading figure in Muslim community affairs and interfaith activities in Sydney. As a child, he survived the 'wog' taunts to finally become accepted by his mainly Anglo schoolmates. After completing a degree in theatre and archaeology, he embarked on a life-changing journey: following the Silk Road through Iran, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Eastern Turkistan, and through to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Along the way he rediscovered his faith. On his return to Australia he began working at a Muslim school, met his wife and married.

Today, he is the editor of a Muslim English-language monthly newspaper, the Forum on Australian Islamic Relations (FAIR). He serves on numerous committees, and is the architect of the 'Goodness and Kindness' project, which involves a Muslim, Jew and Christian visiting schools to dispel stereotypes and myths. His great love is making documentary films.

A remarkable journey

Turkish wedding at Islamic Centre, Preston, 1971 (NAA: A12111, 1/1971/13/19)

Sheikh Fehmi

Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam arrived in Melbourne in 1951 as a 23-year-old from Tripoli in northern Lebanon. The former theology student suddenly found himself in another world.

There were no mosques in Melbourne then, and few Islamic institutions. Following Islam was a private matter carried out in one's own house. Families gathered together at home to celebrate festivals. If necessary, a community hall might be rented for the evening. In Perth and Adelaide the mosque was always the centre of prayers and celebrations, but there was nothing comparable in Melbourne. Mosques were eventually built, but only after legal and political struggles with local authorities – struggles that were often bitter, expensive and prolonged. Today there are approximately 36 mosques and Islamic institutions in Victoria.

Sheikh Fehmi recalls of his early days in Melbourne that the spirit of White Australia was still strong. If you sat in a tram or bus and spoke in your own language to a fellow Lebanese, you were likely to be reminded, 'You're in Australia now! Speak English!'

Sheikh Fehmi has borne witness to a remarkable transformation. Victorian Muslims now have a strong presence in their state, as the number of mosques, schools and religious organisations testify. He led the way with others like Ibrahim Dellal and Pakistani-born Dr Aziz Kazi, who taught for many years at Melbourne University. Such men fought to ensure an equitable and just existence for all Muslims, regardless of ethnicity.

In 1957 Sheikh Fehmi and a small group formed the first postwar Islamic Society in Victoria (ISV). Later, in 1976, he became the organisation's full-time imam, and began the ambitious project of building a large Islamic centre in Preston. Like the first generation of Muslims in the early 20th century, Sheikh Fehmi and his friends set about raising funds. The Preston Mosque was completed with donations from the Saudi government.

Sometimes conflicts over cultural practices could be solved by discussion and compromise. After a number of court cases, an agreement was reached between imams and health authorities in most states, allowing Muslim dead to be buried in a shroud without a coffin. In the mid-1970s the Preston Mosque became one of the first mosques to build its own mortuary.

The issue of marriage also caused problems. Islam was not originally recognised under the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961, forcing Muslim couples to undergo two ceremonies – one legal, one religious. This was apparently due to government concerns about the possibility of polygamy.

Ibrahim Dellal was ISV President at the time and Sheikh Fehmi the General Secretary. The ISV committee successfully mounted a campaign for change, so that imams like the sheikh could marry Muslim couples in religious ceremonies that would be recognised legally under Australian law. Sheikh Fehmi became the first registered Islamic marriage celebrant in Victoria, and performed the first Islamic wedding under the new arrangements in 1967. Ibrahim Dellal acted as the witness and interpreter for the Turkish couple.

Today Sheikh Fehmi is Australia's longest serving imam, and is recognised as one of Australia's most influential religious leaders. In 2001 he received the Order of Australia for his services to multiculturalism. Preston Mosque, where he acts as imam, attracts thousands of mainly Lebanese Muslims each Friday for the Jumma service, which is always followed by a sermon. The sheikh continues to sit on the Board of Imams as its secretary, and in 2007 was appointed Mufti of Australia.

Sources

Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: a brief historywww.icv.org.au

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017