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Author: Public Record Office Victoria
Once upon a time ‘research’ was a word that intimidated the uninitiated because it was confined to universities, lecture halls and meant thick books bearing impossibly long titles stuck on library shelves in places where you were not allowed to talk – even smiling was suspect. Today the word has a populist meaning; the gates have opened wide and all may enter. For some people, reading a recipe is undertaking research, tracking down your family genealogy requires definite research skills, we talk about ‘doing our research’ before buying a lawnmower, washing machine or four wheel drive. At long last research has come to the people; and rightfully so.
Australians, however, are still wary of approaching some research institutions – our state and national archives for instance. Public records are often seen as inert piles of dusty papers. But the wonderful world of the archive links the time traveller to a metaphorical YouTube: a place to discover, view, upload and share – almost like a blog where you speak to the past and the past answers back.
When I first visited the National Archives of Australia in 2006 I understood that I’d be stepping into new terrain but I underestimated the archival holdings. Australian Muslims had left behind a paper trail and underneath all the paperwork lay a hidden history. I walked into an unknown world of documents: reports, correspondence, forms, briefing papers and memos; some never meant to see the light of day when first penned and perhaps, on their own, not the most exciting of materials. A tapestry waited to be stitched together. Patience, imagination – and stamina – were the threads; forensic skills a sharp needle. All I needed was the right password and, like an Aladdin’s cave, the entrance would swing open to reveal its treasures and its secrets…When I realised that these papers were all ‘mine’ for the taking – figuratively speaking, that is – I felt a rush of adrenalin. Documents spanning more than seven decades lay before me in disarray: Afghans, Indians, Malays, Albanians, Yugo-Slavs, Turks, Arabic-speakers from Egypt and elsewhere, and the Lebanese in the mid 1970s. As a first step I completed a survey from the 1890s to 1975. Finally, for the purposes of this book, I decided to focus on the men and watershed events from the 1890s to the 1940s. My own identity formed a piece of the tapestry: stories I’d heard as a child, faces remembered and taken for granted, arguments I’d listened to – the archival material stirred memories. Then came the difficult part – hundreds of incredibly handsome faces stared back at me from official photos. Who would I take with me? Who’d be left behind? I needed to be ‘discriminating’ – and disciplined. I was morphing into a wise King Solomon of the archives! Abandoning the notion of using a set of criteria to help me decide who to ‘marry’ and who to leave at the altar, I decided to select my men on the basis of ‘a writer’s intuition’, that inner voice that many writers swear by. I gravitated towards the ‘troublemakers’ of this period: the Afghans, the cameleers, hawkers, and pearl divers who, according to popular opinion and government policy, didn’t belong in a white man’s country. These men with dark skins and turbans didn’t look foreign to me at all. We were connected; they were a part of my heritage. Childhood memories, family stories, and a revisionist history of British India my parents spoke about at the kitchen table meant they were no strangers to me. The immigration laws and attitudes of the time helped shape me as I grew up in search of an identity. There were few reflections of myself in the small world around me; I lacked a feeling of ‘community’. The White Australia Policy was a household word in my family – we’d butted heads with its rules and regulations, on and off, over the years. By the time I was eight or nine I knew that some people were discriminated against: skin colour, religion, and ethnicity were markers that fashioned other people’s attitudes towards us. Furthermore, when I gazed at the men in the archives, many of them looked like my dad or my uncles and I knew that in a smaller way I shared an empathy borne of experience with these men; the important difference being that I was born here and knew no other home; I was an Australian citizen protected by the law. I wasn’t a problem like ‘my men’ from the archives.
Looking for connections to the past that never appeared in history books, before long, I found them a lot closer to home than I’d anticipated. My investigation took me from the past to the present, for now and then I couldn’t stop myself from joining in as part of the cast – not a Greek chorus exactly, but a Punjabi-Kashmiri-Welsh choir. I also met others affected by that early generation: men and women who claimed a kinship with the early cameleers and a new breed of researchers fascinated by these old links. At times I stepped into the world of fiction: drifting into the romantic imperialism of Rudyard Kipling who knew all about Queen, Country and the British Empire. I also revisited Henry Lawson as I looked for traces of ‘my men’ in his bush stories. Through these side excursions, I came to a better understanding of the grand Oz mythology we’ve invented over the years and of why some people were overlooked – or ignored.
You may find a favourite from among my characters as they face an establishment unsympathetic towards them by law or inclination – sometimes both: immigration officials, crown prosecutors, doctors, pastoralists, politicians, unionists, journalists, professional agitators, teamsters, pearling bosses. Some antagonists were genuinely fearful of losing out – others represented more cynical interests. Yet on every occasion there were people capable of seeing past the façade of skin colour, accent and difference: a small minority of Anglo and European Australians willing to speak up for the ‘strangers’ when they might have walked away and pretended that nothing was wrong. I hope by the end of the book ‘my’ men will have emerged as individuals and have lost that anonymity that helped to marginalise them: no longer the ‘Ghans’, the ‘sepoys’ or the cameleers, the hawkers and herbalists, the pearl divers, the shop keepers and ‘Mohammedans’, but individuals with stories to tell. These stories that may even help explain some of the moral ambiguities and strange ironies that still trouble us today. Next we feature the prologue from Ali Adbul v The King: Muslim Stories from the Dark Days of White Australia.