May 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Hardships of the desert

By Azhar Abidi
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On a Saturday morning in Marree, south of Lake Eyre and on the fringe of central Australian desert country, four generations of cameleers are waiting for the town’s annual camel race to begin. Aysha, 94, scrutinises the animals with a professional eye. She is a delicate woman with a thin long face, criss-crossed with wrinkles, and as a little girl she used to watch the camel trains go past her house, ghostly silent except for the tinkling of their bells. In those days the camel trains took three weeks to travel the Birdsville Track to Queensland. Camels might not have been indigenous to Australia but they were well-suited to crossing arid dunes and gibber plains without water, and they could go where horses and bullocks couldn’t. But by the 1930s mail trucks and rail were fast making them redundant. Local authorities rounded up the camels and shot them in large numbers. This wanton destruction of their beloved animals horrified the cameleers. Fearing the wrath of Allah upon their heads, they set the camels free in the outback, where they run wild to this day.

Aysha speaks with a broad Australian accent and wears western clothes. Dressed in proper mufti, though, she could pass muster in a Peshawar bazaar. Her descendants arrived from Afghanistan and parts of what are now Pakistan and India more than a century ago. Her mother was white but, as the child of a mixed marriage, she was sneered at by the Europeans in town and so cast her lot with the cameleers. Marree’s rail track was the dividing line, says Aysha; whites lived on the west side, blacks on the east. The Europeans used to smear the turnpikes with pigs’ fat to stop the cameleers entering their half of town. The turnpikes were gone by the time Aysha was born, but she remembers that when she went to play with her white friends their parents would close the door in her face.

Marree was once one of the largest depots on the camel road from Port Augusta, in South Australia, to Alice Springs. Fifty trains a week breezed through town and the population neared 400 – mostly rail workers, many of them descendants of the cameleers. Living in the “ghantown”, on the east, the children had their own playground – complete with a wooden camel and palm trees – and the men went to the mosque, one of Australia’s first, built in the 1880s. Eventually the train was re-routed west, through the goldfields of Tarcoola, and the last train pulled out of Marree on November 25, 1980. The final entry in its log book reads: “So long, old friend.”

The last of the original cameleers died long ago too. They are buried just out of town in a graveyard fenced with barbed wire, to keep out kangaroos, and divided into three sections: Muslims, Christians, Aborigines. The Muslim graves are laid north-south, as required by Islamic tradition. Most are unmarked, the graves of single men, but a few have proud marble tombstones bearing epitaphs in Persian, verses from the Koran and names of the deceased – Khan, Zada, Dadleh.

Today Marree’s population is about 100. The ghantown is a ramshackle collection of houses made from galvanised iron sheets and bits of old train carriages. Abandoned locomotives lie on their sides, sprayed with graffiti, barely rusted; painted a dun red, the dry desert air will preserve them for centuries. The roof of the old mosque fell in and its mud embankments were washed away. A replica mosque was built but is no longer used. There is nobody left who can even remember the Muslim prayer. The day is not far when the outback will reclaim this land and Marree will shrivel to a petrol station and a roadhouse for tourists.

Marree’s racial anxieties were rooted in professional rivalry. The cameleers, who were Afghan, competed for work with the bullockies and drovers, who were white. In 1892 one agitator, under the pseudonym ‘Unionist’, wrote: “There is no earthly reason why the Afghan and the camel should go together. The Australian has at least as much intelligence as that imported Asiatic, and he knows enough to make use of that ‘ship of the desert’ without hiring any cheap Mohammedan to help him.”

Even before then, Afghans had earned themselves a notorious reputation during three Anglo–Afghan wars. In the late 19th century a journalist told the West Australian parliament that Afghans were traitorous by nature and could threaten Australian lives if there was a jihad somewhere in the Muslim world. When the Posts and Telegraph Act of 1901 decreed that “only white labour shall be employed ... [in] the carriage of mail”, the law passed through both houses without comment. Slowly, an entire people was transformed into the bogeyman.

Jabbar Bejah says things took another turn for the worse after the events of September 11, 2001. A fruit vendor by trade, with thinning hair and a slight hook in his nose, people at the local Marree market started taunting Jabbar because of his name. Suddenly, he says, people thought every Muslim was a pathological terrorist.

Jabbar’s stepbrother fought with Australian troops in World War II and was wounded and captured by Turks. His father, Abdul ‘Jack’ Bejah, accompanied Cecil Madigan on his 1939 expedition across the Simpson Desert and was one of the last active cameleers. His grandfather, Bejah Dervish, was one of the most celebrated. In 1896 he joined the explorer Lawrence Wells on the Calvert expedition to survey the Northern Territory–Queensland border, later saving Wells’s life, first by tending to the worn-out camels and then by discovering a waterhole. To this day a landmark in the Sandy Desert is named Bejah Hill. Tall and powerful – “he could wrap his hand around my neck as if it were a piece of rope” – it was only when Bejah Dervish died, aged 107, that his family found out he was actually a sergeant in the Indian army and had served with distinction under Lord Kitchener during the Second Afghan War in 1878. He had never mentioned it, never shown them his medals. “We only discovered his past,” says Jabbar, “when people started sending us newspaper clippings from England.”

Despite this long and distinguished family history, Jabbar has mixed feelings about the country of his birth. He laments the lack of tolerance that persuaded many Afghan descendants to anglicise their names. Jaleel became Jack and Muneer became Martin because they sounded more acceptable. After the old cameleers passed away, many of their children and grandchildren gave up the traditional pork and alcohol taboos.

“It hasn’t been easy for us,” he says. “We have had to live in two cultures. I have had to pray in English and Arabic. I went to the church and to the mosque. I did not have a choice. I could not say that I belonged to this culture or that because I belonged to both.”

“Where was your grandfather originally from?” I ask.

“Kabul.”

“Have you been back?”

“Funny you ask,” he sighs. “The Afghan ambassador has promised me a bodyguard if I’d like to go.”

“And would you?”

“The Taliban destroyed everything. What’s there now?”

I ask him if he remembers his ancestral language. He says he has no recollection of ever speaking anything other than English. But once, after an operation, he was lying in the ward, groaning with pain, when a young Afghan refugee standing nearby came up and told him that he had been babbling in Pushtu. “I can’t speak it and I can’t understand it,” says Jabbar, “but somewhere deep inside my head I must know it.”

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