Islam in the outback

The legacy of the Afghan cameleers

ON A DUSTY corner just before the Oodnadatta Track begins to unfurl across the centre of Australia, there is an unassuming mud-walled building on the edge of Marree, a town with a population of one hundred and fifty. Grey nomads pull up outside the general store across the road in their four-wheel drives to stock up on beer coolers and meat pies, and they barely notice the humble thatch-roofed structure. Behind them, young families clamber over the platform of the old Ghan railway, paying no attention to the building. The only identifying mark next to the dirt walls and old wooden beams is a small notice stuck on a stick in the ground, which looks like it is stencilled on in pen. It proclaims that this spot is ‘Dedicated to the memory of the pioneering Muslim cameleers and families of Hergott Springs (Marree)’. It is also the remains of the first mosque in Australia.

It is 685 kilometres from Adelaide to Marree, the town that was at the centre of the arrival of Islam to Australia and the camel men who travelled here in the 1860s from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan and opened up the centre of Australia for railways, pastureland, farming and trade as no one could before them. As a marker of the enduring influence of these men, on the second weekend of July each year, Marree hosts the Camel Cup, a day of camel races and a reunion. I was told that it is held to remember the influence of the cameleers and the impact of their culture on outback Australia.

Despite the Afghan cameleers’ efforts in Australia during the building of the Great Northern Railway and the opening up of pastureland, they were only ever employed on three-year contracts, which needed constant renewal. They weren’t allowed to bring family members out and they were only ever referred to as ‘Indian men: British subjects’. As I drive north I think back to a poster I’d seen in Adelaide, a profile of a turbaned man with the statement ‘Aussie!’ below it. Adelaide artist Peter Drew created this provocative image of cameleer Mongha Khan to force people to think about what a ‘real’ Australian is, considering the sacrifice these men, who were never Australian, made. Bearing in mind the fact that they were shunned when they were here and either sent back home or forced into lives of poverty or onto the peripheries of society, I’m not sure that it’s a fully accurate portrayal.

Marree seems like a regular country town on race day: farmers in their best shirts, old men with Afghan features wearing akubras, tourists with unscuffed hiking shoes and Aboriginal families lining up to give their kids a go of the solitary ride here – ‘Malcolm the Turnbull’, an automated bull which unceremoniously ejects passengers into a pit filled with inflatable balls. It’s the twenty-fifth Camel Cup today, though apart from the races along the rocky dirt track where the jockeys hold onto the backs of their camels as if they are trying to escape into the desert, there isn’t any mention of how the camels even came here in the first place. There’s no mention or acknowledgement of the Afghans for the prize event either, which is strange, especially considering why we’re here.

The place of the camels in Central Australia, more than one hundred and fifty years after they were first unloaded off the docks in Port Augusta, is an interesting one to consider. As Pamela Rajkowski writes in In The Tracks of the Camelmen (Seaview Press, 2005): ‘From the 1910s on, the number of idle camels was in fact becoming a serious problem in several outback areas.’ The cameleers were finding it harder to pick up work and to feed their camels, and there was significant anti-Afghan and anti-Asian sentiment spreading across Australia. The men were unable to pay for pasture for their camels and there were said to be up to two thousand wild camels around Marree alone by the 1920s. In 1925, the Camel Destruction Act was passed in South Australia allowing landowners to shoot nuisance camels. The Afghan community protested, though without the ability to pay for feed they were put in an impossible situation. Cars replaced the need for camels in many places and grazing stock changed from sheep to cattle, which was found to be more suitable to the land. With things looking desperate for the cameleers – they couldn’t shoot their companions and the only assets they had in Australia – many let their camels go to run off into the red desert of Central Australia alive. It is thought that from these acts of compassion Australia’s feral camel population is now more than one million.


DESPITE THE IMPORTANCE of Marree as the place of first Muslim settlement in Australia, it was not the first arrival of Muslims in the country. As far back as the 1500s men in Indonesian fishing boats from the trading city of Makassar would sail across to Arnhem Land in the north to trade for sea cucumbers, which were a valuable commodity in Chinese medicine and cuisine. This early international trade continued until 1906, when heavy taxation and a ‘government policy that restricted non-white commerce’ put a stop to their interactions.

Marree is the meeting point of the Oodnadatta Track – etched across an Aboriginal trading route thousands of years old – heading north towards the stock routes of Queensland. Marree was originally established for wheat farmers and pastoralists who intruded on this remote Aboriginal land in the 1870s. The railway extended here in 1883, and by 1886 Marree had a population of more than five hundred. By the 1920s, when most of the camel work dried up, it was the Ghan railway, which passed through here on the way to Alice Springs and Darwin, that sustained the town until the 1980s.

It seems like a cliché of the American South, but the railway track still segregates the communities here. On the eastern side behind the petrol station and general store, the streets stretch back to abandoned buses, simple corrugated iron shacks and the vacant paddocks behind. This is ‘Ghantown’, where the Afghan and Aboriginal people have lived since the 1880s. The old camel yards are here, and looking at an old map in the pub I see where the homes of the Dadleh, Moosha, Dervish, Zada and Khan families were, along with Syed’s fruit shop and the old shearing shed. Many of the original Afghan families still live here, though from the outside it is hard to tell. Further behind the Afghan houses are the Aboriginal homes, closer to the edges of the desert.

On one of the corner blocks in Ghantown, Western music is blaring from a caravan while two Muslim men with flowing robes, long beards and taqiyah head caps talk in the long grass. A young man with curly brown hair and wraparound sunglasses stretches his hand out and introduces himself as I approach. Mathew Zada is the great grandson of Zada Khan, who came from Afghanistan around 1891 and delivered the mail in western New South Wales around Broken Hill, before settling here with his Aboriginal wife. They are part Afghan and part Aboriginal from the Wilcannia mob. We’re on the sandy block where the old camel yards used to be. They have a fire-pit going and benches, chairs and tables are dragged across the ground in a square for the preparation of the reunion tonight that started as an extension of the Afghan ‘charities’ of sharing food and gifts with the community after traditional funerals.

Mathew introduces his cousins Corina and Donna and another relative, Abdul Sultan, an old, portly man from Whyalla. They all grew up in Ghantown and they use the Camel Cup weekend as an excuse to catch up with their extended Afghan family. Donna tells me she did their family tree a few years ago.

‘It’s metres long,’ Mathew says, pointing from here to the other side of the fire. ‘It’s more like a family forest.’

‘Apparently I’m also 19 per cent Irish, whatever that means,’ Donna adds, though her daughter’s bright red hair, despite both her parents having black hair, is further evidence of this, she thinks.

‘We’re a good mix,’ Mathew smiles. It is a sentiment shared by everyone here it seems. As the sun begins to dip below the flat plain to the west, the crowd builds. There is a familiarity with most of the people here, their families have lived around Ghantown for generations, and despite the fact that I’ve just arrived, I’m welcomed as if my own family has lived in Ghantown since the 1880s as well. Mathew says that while there are strong family links here, there are still many things they don’t know about their ancestors.

‘A while ago the Maritime Museum in Sydney rang me – and I thought great, they can help us answer a few questions. But it was the opposite, they were hoping we could tell them how our ancestors arrived,’ he says. ‘We don’t know about their voyage, they’re not on the passenger lists; were they listed as cargo, or livestock? We don’t know where they came from.’

Mathew also says that many of their ancestors’ origins are put down as Baluchistan (in present-day Pakistan), Karachi or Kabul, but often this was just the closest port or region they left from. ‘We don’t know,’ he says. Donna brings out coffee for us and we chat by the fire, drawn to the smoking coals despite the heat of the day still lingering.


CORINA SHOWS PHOTOS on her phone of the plaques commemorating her great grandfather in Broken Hill, recounting the day in 1900 when Zada Khan, ‘astride a big bull camel’, delivered the mail from Broken Hill to Wilcannia – a distance of two-hundred kilometres. The next photo on her phone is of the letter in 1921 informing Zada that his application for naturalisation had been rejected. ‘My other cameleer great-grandfather [Dadleh Balooch, from Baluchistan] was allowed to stay because he married a white girl,’ she explains.

While Mathew grew up in Ghantown like many here, he left Marree when he was nine years old after the railway was rerouted in 1980 and the town’s population shrunk to the level it’s still at today. He takes off his sunglasses to adjust an old sleeper from the Ghan that is smoking on the fire and I notice his eyes: they are a piercing emerald green. There is a lot happening this weekend, though you don’t have to stretch the imagination too far to see how quiet and isolated it would be during the rest of the year.

‘What did you used to do here?’ I ask of his childhood. He smiles, thinking back for a moment.

‘Lots! We’d look for rabbits, swim in Coopers Creek, have races with these milk tins filled with rocks…’ he trails off, thinking.

‘My favourite game, though, was when we’d lie down in the fields and play dead for the wedgies,’ he says. My eyebrows raise and he elaborates. The enormous wedge-tailed eagles that float on the thermals looking for easy prey in the outback would swoop down to investigate the ‘dead’ kids in the paddock he says, before they’d spring up again and throw rocks at the birds.

Later, I ask about the mosque in town. It turns out that it’s a replica of the original from 1883, which was built by the spring. No one seems to know exactly where, though.

‘Karen Burke, our neighbour, put up the replica in the ’80s,’ I’m told.

Mathew’s dad was Muslim when they were growing up, though as the town began to dissipate and the links to their great-grandfathers faded, it was something that was never pushed on them.

‘I do remember some of their superstitions here,’ he says. ‘My grandmother always made us clean up crumbs, we weren’t allowed to look at the moon and whistling was the work of the devil we were told.’

Another descendant, Maxi Dadleh, who has a shining bald head and looks to be in his sixties, thinks he remembers exactly where the old mosque was. He is also one of the few who still follow some Muslim customs.

‘He still won’t eat pork,’ Mathew adds.

‘Really?’ one of the other descendants who has moved closer to the fire says, shaking his head. ‘I brought up heaps of bacon for tomorrow morning!’

‘When they had to give up the camels, that’s when the Muslim life went too, I reckon,’ Maxi says trying to put a point on the moment things changed here.

‘We never went to the mosque as kids,’ he says, though the separation and segregation were still evident in Marree between the two sides of town even up until the 1980s, Mathew recalls.

‘There used to be a turnstile between Ghantown and Marree,’ he says. ‘The locals would grease it with pig fat and because all our parents and grandparents were Muslim, we’d have to walk around the long way.’

Over by the caravan is young Amy, the niece of Butch Bejah, who is the grandson of Bejah Dervish, a sergeant in the Raj army, and son of Jack Bejah, a member of Madigan’s 1939 expedition that gave the Simpson Desert its name. Amy is one of the jockeys at the Camel Cup. It’s not much, but I’m happy that there is still a connection between the descendants and the event, which to me seems largely like an excuse to drink beer during the day.

There’s a nice atmosphere to the get-together, with people chatting in groups and local Arabunna Aboriginal man Reg Dodd treating the crowd to renditions of Johnny Cash on his guitar.

There is a break in the music; the fire crackles with old fence posts as steaming pots of curry are brought out to the crowd of seventy or so. We eat, cradling flatbread, rice and curries on our laps while an old Afghan love song, ‘Khala Khala’, is performed by Butch and Larl Zada on the accordion in remembrance of why we’re here.

‘Dick Smith was here for my fiftieth birthday,’ Rick Dadleh tells me of the event four years ago. ‘There used to be lots more people here then and we had camel rides at sunset through the town for the kids. Dick didn’t come for my birthday,’ he confirms, ‘though he did come for this,’ he says looking around at the crowd tucking into the curries together and listening to the locals singing to commemorate their roots.

People weave in and out of conversations under the full moon and I sit down next to Abdul Sultan to chat. He worked in the Whyalla steelworks for many years and as we talk he tells me of one descendant he knew who passed through Marree many years ago.

In 1928, the goldfields of Western Australia were a rough and isolated expanse of dust and desert. Despite the conditions, an Afghan cameleer named Jack Akbar and a local Aboriginal woman Lallie Matbar fell in love. They were forbidden to marry in Western Australia, largely because of the unorthodox union of these two outcasts in white Australia, so they fled across country hidden in a truck to South Australia. The authorities chased them and an Aboriginal assassin with emu feathers on his ankles pursued them, though eventually they found peace and brought up their family together on the banks of the Murray River.

I meet Larl Zada, a former railway worker whose job was once to dress as an ‘Afghan guard’ for travellers on the Ghan. He is a squat, friendly looking man with dark skin and large eyes framed by enormous lashes. Larl comes from the Dadleh and Zada line of Afghans in Australia and his grandfather, Khan Zada, was married to May, a local Aboriginal woman.

Larl tells me he once drove one of the old cameleers from Marree down to Adelaide to see an Afghan herbalist because he didn’t trust regular doctors. After many of the cameleers were forced to seek alternative sources of income in the 1920s and ’30s, some became miners, hawkers and herbal healers. The most famous herbal healer was Mohamed Allum, a cameleer and horse trader from Kandahar who moved to Adelaide in 1928 and opened a clinic on Sturt Street just down from the Central Market. Many of the recently arrived cultures – Welsh, Italian, Greek, Indian, Chinese and Syrian – all believed in natural remedies and Allum would source cascara bark and senna leaves as laxatives, and anise, figs, dates and camel milk to fix headaches, toothaches, dandruff and worms among other ailments. Allum’s main belief was in stomach cleansing, and his ‘black jack’ purgative of senna pods, butter, honey and anise was famous. There would often be six hundred people on the streets waiting for an appointment on a Saturday morning.

I ask Larl about his Afghan roots and if the link to his youth still persists. ‘I see it as part of who I am,’ he says sipping his beer. ‘My dad died in 1955, so I never really got the stories of what it used to be like as a cameleer here, or back in Afghanistan,’ he adds. Larl looks across the plains lit by the full moon and tells me that the Afghans opened up most of the tracks here in the outback and even some of the Aboriginals would continue to use their paths through the desert.


WHILE MOST OF the people here are blood descendants of the Afghans, one lady I meet by the fire in between songs has an interesting connection to the group. Sue Dadleh has been in Marree for fifty years and has no plans to leave. She married descendant Ron Dadleh, and has never left.

‘I married Rick’s uncle Ronnie,’ she tells me, and worked as a telegraph operator while their kids grew up in town. She eventually started working for the local Aboriginal school, and even though she retired last year she still helps out most days. ‘They ask me, “How do you do this?” or “Can you drive a bus?”, so it keeps me busy.’

Sue tells me that it used to be paradise here. There was so much to do and it was a social place: ‘Five hundred people lived here, there were lots of jobs, 118 kids at school and we had a great Christmas!’

‘Even though many people were Muslim?’ I ask.

‘Yes, Santa used to come up on a railcar with presents for the kids – yo-yos and lollies – it was so good back then,’ she says.

The mixing of faiths was quite common back in the old days. Marie Williams, daughter of Abdul Bejah, overhears us and says that when she was growing up here she went to every sort of church service. ‘Mum and Dad were Muslim but they never expected us to be. Even so, I went to the Adelaide mosque as a kid. I learned Arabic too,’ she says. Marie confirms what Rick said earlier, that as the camels went and their grandparents and later her parents died, the links to Islam were eroded.

‘My great grandfather, Dervish Bejah, married an Australian and that’s the only reason we’re still here tonight,’ she says. ‘Otherwise we’d have been sent back to Baluchistan.’ It still seems like a bit of a sore point. Dervish was a skilled cameleer and after many expeditions in Central Australia he settled in Marree and married the widow Amelia Shaw in 1902.

There is something special about this night and the bonds of the people here. It is a connection born through struggle and persecution, of being both Afghan and Aboriginal and being seen as outsiders from all sides. The moon continues to rise, more fence posts are thrown on the fire and more beers are passed along the line. It’s a strange and inspiring thing, this reunion in the desert.

‘It’s the next generation who will keep this going when I’m gone,’ Larl tells me as we watch the crowd. He kicks a glowing ember back on the flames and says, ‘I guess it’ll keep going as long as the Cup does,’ highlighting the importance of the Cup and the desert to the families who came with their camels, more than a hundred and thirty years ago, to the outback town of Marree.

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