Visiting Australia's Oldest Mosque in an Isolated Outback Town

The story of how Afghan cameleers helped settle rural Australia in the 19th century.

|
Oct 13 2015, 12:00am

The sun sets on the mosque (a replica of the original) in center of town. Photos by the author.

No one admits it much, but Islam helped build Marree. Locals say the town has never had a church, but it did once have two active mosques, with the first built as early as 1861 making it the first mosque ever built in Australia.

Marree is an outback crossroads town about eight hours north of Adelaide connecting the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks. The men who built the mosques came from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. They come out to make money from their camels and whatever differences there were between then back home, they all became "Afghans." At one point there were so many of them gathered in Marree, the place was known as "Little Asia."

One of two roads into town

At that time, over a century ago, the town was segregated along racial lines, with the Afghans and the local Aboriginal people living in the north side of the town while the Europeans lived in the south. For the Aboriginal people, the situation was a direct product of classic, old-world racism. There was an element of this for the Afghans as well, but it was also born out of necessity, as their camels were restricted to the outskirts of the settlement. This is how Marree developed two sides, each with very different cultures. Even the town cemetery is divided, with most Afghan graves marked only with a wooden pole.

Kuranda Seyit spent seven years researching a documentary on the Afghan cameleers and says that while there was racism, South Australia was "softer" than New South Wales and Western Australia. When racism did strike, it came from outside in the form of the White Australia Policy and fears among white Europeans that brown-skinned cameleers were stealing white jobs.

Not that this stopped the Afghans from starting families with local European and Aboriginal women. The descendants of these unions are still around today, having spread through the outback as far north as Alice Springs and as far south as Port Augusta, though there are no practicing Muslims among them.

Marree is flat and hot; a caricature of an outback town.

"When [the Afghans] went away, they were away for six months and the kids were brought up by their mothers, some of whom were European and some Indigenous," Seyit says. "Lots of the kids were brought up Christian and a lot of the cameleers didn't mind their kids being Christian, because they're all religions of the book. Jews, Christians, Muslims.

"Then in Marree, by 1930, segregation had ended. They started going to school there. Once that boundary was broken the kids assimilated very quickly."

Today the town feels almost empty with an old, unused rail line dividing the town in half, a relic from the 60s and 70s when the place was home to 800 people. That was the golden age of Marree, when 50 trains would pass through in a week. Then one day in the 80s the lines closed and now only 60 souls call Marree home, with another 600 scattered through the district.

Phil Walsh, owner of the Marree Hotel

As for the mosques, the first two have since been lost to the desert, but a third stands today in the center of town, a replica of one of the originals. Not that the mosque has gone unused. According to Phil Walsh, owner of the local pub, about two years ago, two Muslim clerics rolled into to town and checked into his hotel.

"They were certainly out of place," Walsh says. "You could spot them a mile off. Long robes and slippers, they just were not dressed for the outback. And you could tell they'd never been out into the outback before. So that was a double whammy. They certainly had an impact on the residents of Marree, just by their presence."

The men had come north to visit the site of Islam's entry into Australia and for the first time in a generation, Islamic prayer could be heard in Marree.

The descendants of the cameleers have a complicated relationship with the faith of their grandfathers. I met a handful of these decedents, including 70-year-old Ken Dadleh, who had actually moved to Port Augusta to find work when the railway closed but was back in town over the weekend.

"I've got no religion," explains Ken Dadleh, grandson of an Afghan pioneer.

Ken says cameleers like his grandfather, Nemit Remit Khan, "never got the recognition they deserved." He's quietly proud of his ancestry, but like a lot of the locals is reluctant to delve into anything controversial. Or maybe like a lot of the guys in this town, he just doesn't say much. "I've got no religion," he explains. "I didn't get into that sort of thing, even if sometimes you wonder if there is a God, you know?"

He doesn't say much else except that he's suspicious of religion in general and Islam in particular. It's a common feeling among some of the descendants. Even if their parents carried on some Muslim traditions, like abstaining from pork, most were never raised in the faith and many don't care for it. Islam is now as foreign to them now as the adhan.

The town's very old, very quiet cemetery

Even so, most still want to be buried alongside their Afghan grandfathers in their unmarked graves clustered at the back corner of the windswept cemetery behind the town. Just last week an Afghan woman named Rosanne Cummings passed away and her body had been driven four hours up from Port Augusta for the funeral on Saturday morning.

It was Marree's second funeral in four years and at least three generations of Afghans turned out for the wake under the palm trees in the center of town where the beer flowed and the rock music lasted well into the night.

"The Afghans here, I don't look at them as being Muslim," says Phil Walsh, back at the pub. "In fact one of them looked at me and says we're not Muslim when we come to the hotel. That's their humor, they've got a great sense of humor."

Asked about his own attitudes to Islam, he says he doesn't pretend to be an expert and doesn't really care about who you are or where you come from. Still, the stuff he hears on the news at night about "fruitcakes" like ISIS or Al Qaeda frightens him. "They need to be terminated," he says.

"May you enjoy its peace and tranquility."

The next morning though, Walsh has had time to think on the subject. The Friday before a young boy had shot police accountant Curtis Cheung outside a police station in and media coverage had been ongoing.

"I was watching the TV about that 15-year-old shooter, and you know, you immediately think 'Muslim,'" he says. "But these guys are so far removed from that. That's not who they are. And the Afghans, what they did was just incredible. No Australian would take a train of 70 camels into the desert."

"This town is better off for having them here."

Follow Royce on Twitter.