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Cricket news - The original Pakistani connection to Adelaide and South Australia
Bejah Dervish was not an Afghan. Even if he did come to be immortalised in Douglas Stewart's poem as the "Afghan". Even if he did play a cameo as the "the most renowned of all Afghan cameleers" in the 1954 film, "The Back of Beyond". Even if he did, like the poem reads, 'fight the desert with the compass and the Quran'. Bejah, the last of the Afghan cameleers, hailed instead from what is now the Pakistani region of Baluchistan.
In fact, according to Dr Asaad Hamid, the president of the Adelaide Mosque Islamic Society of South Australia (AMISSA), only 3 of the 31 cameleers who left for South Australia from the Karachi port along with 120 camels back in 1866 were from what is now Afghanistan. The rest, like Bejah, belonged to either Baluchistan or the regions of Sind, Peshawar and Punjab, in what was north-west India then and is now all Pakistan. And it is this historical "compartmentalisation" and resultant discrepancy that AMISSA and the Pakistani Australian Association of South Australia (PAASA) are keen on addressing in a research document they plan to submit to the state government soon. It is their attempt to not quite rewrite history but to clarify it and get some things straight along the way.
Hamid believes it's in a way a long-pending need for the Pakistani community of Australia to make sure their lengthy history in this country is spoken about. To establish that while there's a Pakistan Test team in Adelaide for the first time in 29 years, the Pakistani presence has been deep-rooted around South Australia for nearly 155 years. And unlike Azhar Ali & Co who've failed to leave any impact during their visit this time, the originals who came here with their turbans and their long-flowing robes in the 19th century ended up leaving an indelible mark in Australia's fascinating history. To the extent that it's unlikely that the endless expanse of the Australian interior could have ever been explored the way it was back then without these hardened cameleers and their trusted camel trains. But Hamid's among a majority of modern-day Pakistanis here who get "frustrated" by their original ancestors not getting their just due.
"I want our history to be spoken about more because the Australians themselves are mainly in the dark. The Pakistani connection has been there since Day One. The cameleers weren't only from Afghanistan. But there were more from Baluchistan, from the north-west parts of India which is now Pakistan," he says while adding that the Australian interior was "built by the Pakistani input".
AMISSA is based out of Central Adelaide Mosque, which is considered the first grand mosque built in Australia in the late 1880s and is located centrally on Little Gilbert Street. The oldest mosque in terms of chronology though was erected in the tiny town of Marree in northern South Australia, which came to be known as Little India back in the day-and even now hosts the most traditional camel race in the southern hemisphere. It's here that the so-labelled Afghan cameleers set up their base before expanding to different parts of the country and aiding in gold rush expeditions in Western Australia to helping in the building of the overland telegraph line-that helped connect this faraway land to the rest of the world. They also helped lay the trackwork for the aptly named Ghan railway line, which runs between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs. According to folklore, the Ghan name comes from a solitary Afghan traveller on the first-ever overnight ride between the south and the north in Australia, who got off at Quorn station and started praying while being knelt towards the direction of Mecca. And as Hamid puts it, those men didn't just bring to Islam to Australia but also provided the first exposure to those here to the Muslim way of line. It was only a matter of time they would need a mosque.
"You can pray five times in a day but when it comes to the Friday congregation, you'd want to pray with a congregation. The workers were put in Port Augusta. And their task was to move from there to the Northern Territory. They found this the best spot. At one point, the mosque was surrounded by Muslim people. Eventually they left, and the whole demographics changed," he explains.
The Adelaide Mosque did go see a period of strife during World War II when a number of the descendants left these shores and the place came to disrepair. At one point, it's believed there were only two people even praying at the mosque. The mosque was then restored by some Bosnian Muslims in the years following the war. But over the last 40 years, it's had a strong Pakistani influence, and is also unique in that it's the only mosque in town where all the prayers and sermons are delivered in English and not Arabic.
"It's a basic structure that can hold up to 100 people. It has four minarets, the first two built by a guy who was returning home and the other two by another Pakistani who decided to build his minarets slightly higher. But it attracts people from a non-Arabic background. People from the subcontinent or the south eastern countries, especially students from Malaysia and Indonesia, come here. Being close to the city, the mosque is visited by anyone who arrives with a Muslim background. Over the years, every touring Pakistan cricket party has come here," he says. Hamid though isn't chuffed about how the Central Mosque is also referred to as the Afghan Chapel, and it says so even on the plaque next to the main gate.
"How can they call this the Afghan Chapel? Being a Muslim here, they just equate you to an Arab. And I tell them I have my own language, my own culture. It's a kind of compartmentalising that is frustrating for us," he says adding how the mosque helps the Pakistanis in particular to highlight their identity.
South Australian cricket has had its own Pakistani influence at times over the years with the likes of Duncan Sharpe - one of four Christians to play Tests for Pakistan - Younis Ahmed and more recently Younis Khan having represented the state in the Sheffield Shield. Ahmed was recommended for the team, who're now known as the Redbacks, by Don Bradman and Sharpe is believed to have been recommended for a job assisting the curator at the Adelaide Oval by the Don.
Adelaide though also plays home to the Pakistani who's had the most significant influence on Australian sport, former wrestler turned coach, Ashraf Choudhry who moved here in 1972 and was naturalised almost immediately. Choudhry had won medals for his country during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. And he single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the sport Down Under when roped to coach the wrestling team for the 1974 Commonwealth Games, where Australia won four gold medals. There's a bit of irony in Choudhry's decision to settle down in Australia.
There was a time at the turn of the 20th century where the 600 or so cameleers from the subcontinent were looked at as excess to the country's needs by many and in some cases applications for naturalisation turned down repeatedly on the basis of the infamous Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which didn't allow them to qualify as persons of "Asiatic" origins. Even if the cameleers were at times granted temporary citizenships to stay back, their wives and children weren't. Ironic then that nearly 70s later, the states around Australia were clamouring to make Choudhry, from Lahore, their own. And also, how in later interviews, the wrestler would reveal how he'd had to convince his reluctant "begum" (wife) to join him in Adelaide.
Though the mosque and AMISSA have run youth sports camps for young Pakistanis in the past, there don't have a team of their own at any level. Incidentally, while they want to be more vocal about promoting the real stories and backgrounds of their ancestors and their role in shaping modern-day Australia, they aren't so keen on talking about the very well-publicised history of the Pakistan cricket team on these shores. As Hamid says, "Not much excitement around the Pakistani community when they play Australia these days because of the poor record. They prefer to stay mum and hope for the best as compared to when India and Pakistan played each other in the World Cup in 2015."
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