An Exotic Tale of Afghan Islam in Australia
Details or Transcript:
When Afghan cameleers cross-crossed the desert and Lutheran missionaries evangelised to the Aboriginal inhabitants of Central Australia, a rare meeting of religions and cultures was played out n the 19th century. And it’s the subject of a new film called Serenades.
Hello and welcome to An Exotic Tale of Islam in Australia. I’m Rachael Kohn and you’re listening to The Spirit of Things on Radio National.
Serenades takes place in the dry brown desert landscape, flat desert landscape in the north of South Australia between the Ghan town, the Afghan town of Maree which is the northernmost railhead, and a Lutheran mission station about 80-odd kilometres to the north, in an isolated part of the, well it’s actually desert dunes around Killalpaninna Mission Station.
Rachael Kohn: Later in the program we’ll be speaking to historian Christine Stevens, who has worked on the film for some years and has written two books which provided background for the story. The film is about religious conflict, a search for identity, and the triumph of love. And although it is set in the 19th century, it’s a film that is like a parable, which speaks to all times and all places, where religious intolerance and misunderstanding have prevailed. And where haven’t they flourished?
The screenplay of Serenades was written by Mojgan Kadhem. She is a member of the Baha'i faith, which has endured its own share of oppression in its native Iran, where Baha'is are persecuted and regarded as a deviant outgrowth of 19th century Islam.
Her aim in this film is to convey something about the religious oppression which women in particular have endured, but more generally about the way in which people of different religious traditions are often captive to bigotry and intolerance. And weaving through the film is the scarlet thread of love.
Mojgan Kadhem speaks to me from Adelaide.
Mojgan Kadhem, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Mojgan Khadem: Thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Mojgan, first congratulations on a very beautiful film. It’s not easy bringing a story to the cinema that’s about religious oppression, but it is something that you would be familiar with as a Baha'i.
Mojgan Khadem: Yes, indeed. I felt that it was a story that I really wanted to research and delve into, that involved different religions and different races, and I guess being a Baha'i I have experienced that first-hand and it played a very important role in my personal journey, and I couldn’t help but want to express that in a story.
Rachael Kohn: You were in fact a refugee in Australia, is that right?
Mojgan Khadem: Well we were refugees when we were in Spain, but we applied for Australian permanent residency and it took three years to obtain that visa, and then when we arrived in Australia we had permanent residency, and so our status was not one of being a refugee at that time.
Rachael Kohn: Your homeland is actually Iran, is that right?
Mojgan Khadem: That’s right, that’s where I was born, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Can you briefly tell the story about Serenades?
Mojgan Khadem: Well Serenades is set in the 1890s and it tells the story of a young girl called Jila and her conception takes place as a result of the liaison between an Afghan cameleer and an Aboriginal woman. Once she is born she is very much a hybrid character in the middle of the Australian outback and a third culture kind of plays a big role in her make-up and her development and that is the Lutheran German missionaries where she grows up for the first seven years of her life, or nearby that mission. So she becomes more and more kind of complex in her affinities and her allegiances. Really she’s very confused on a spiritual level and on a cultural level.
Rachael Kohn: Is that what attracted you to the character in a way, or propelled you to write about a character like this? Did you draw on your own experiences, being a Baha'i in Australia, and the sort of confusion that that might have aroused in you?
Mojgan Khadem: Well definitely I’m inspired by the principle of unity which is a principle of the Baha'i faith, which really wants to promote a harmonious kind of an existence no matter what cultural religion we happen to be a part of.
But to tell you the truth I think very much on a storytelling kind of a level, and I’m an avid reader of Joseph Campbell who is a world authority on myths and the mythical dimension that is often included in the stories that we tell. And I believe that the most important myth of our time is that of religious and ethnic or cultural conflicts. I think it’s a subject that is very much all around the world, one that has brought about a great deal of conflict and a great deal of bloodshed. The whole concept of ethnic cleansing, the religious wars that we have been witnessing around the world.
Rachael Kohn: I guess that’s one of the reason why I thought your film Serenades was so timely, because we are seeing a lot of religious oppression and religious struggles against modernity, and yet in the midst of all this, there are these very singular human stories of individuals who are trying to find their way, like Jila in the film. And that makes them sort of universal; is that what you’re getting at?
Mojgan Khadem: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. I’m telling the story of an individual character who is very much connected to three very different ways of thought and belief. And yet there is an essential love that she has for the Aboriginal culture, for the Afghan culture, and for the Lutheran Christian culture, and she can’t deny that love for any one of them, so whether she likes it or not, she is part of all these religions and all these cultures, and she cannot choose one above the other, and that’s what makes her existence incredibly difficult.
Rachael Kohn: And yet I did feel in the film that she suffered most under the traditional Islamic attitudes to women, that men ruled the household, that they buy and sell their brides to the highest bidder and which she was caught up in that. Did you yourself bring some of your own attitudes or experiences in traditional Islamic culture and explore the way women have tried to free themselves from some of the extreme aspects of it?
Mojgan Khadem: Well I didn’t want to show any one culture as the baddies you know, but I can’t help but observe the way that women are treated in the Middle East and within Islamic kind of traditions. And they are not very much given an opportunity to have a voice or have their own choices. They’re very much under the control of a very male oriented kind of a culture, and yet I’m not blaming anyone for this way that things are, I’m just saying perhaps we need to question and we need to review the situation, and we need to help the women in these cultures to have enough self esteem and enough education and enough choice so that they can be the authors of their own destiny.
Rachael Kohn: Yes well I actually thought that your film really captured a certain poignancy about the Afghan cameleers who came here, because on the one hand they were proud tribesmen, but on the other hand they did meet up with suspicion and trust of the local Europeans, and even the Aboriginals who also feared them.
Mojgan Khadem: Yes, I think that every character that is seen as an authoritative character, as a dictatorial character or one that brings about the oppression of others, if you really delve into the make-up of that character you will probably find that they have their own history of oppression, their own history of struggle, their own vulnerabilities and they are perhaps victims of a certain prejudice in their own life, and then they, in return, make others victims of a certain kind of control that they expect in their own family members, or people that they can control. That’s really the character of Shir Mohammed, the father of Jila. He has his own vulnerabilities but he also expects his immediate family to live the way he wants them to live.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, very much so. Your film is really very good at depicting how these different groups in 19th century South Australia were both strengthened by their beliefs, but often in a way which left little room for basic human compassion.
Mojgan Khadem: Exactly.
Rachael Kohn: Was that really the story behind Jila’s fate?
Mojgan Khadem: Yes. At the end of the day I am depicting characters who are one thing or another as far as the categories of religion and culture are concerned, and yet they are all people, and I think that the irony of the story is that they place their categories or their tags of what religion they are, or what culture they are, above the basic human necessities of love and compassion, and I think when that happens you’ve got a tragedy on your hands, and that’s what it is.
Father: How many times do I have to repeat myself in this house? I was offered for 100-pounds for your bride price. How much do you think that it’ll pay to keep up that sort of behaviour?
Rachael Kohn: From the film Serenades, where the Afghan father tells his daughter Jila, born of an Aboriginal woman, what’s in store for her.
Your main character, Jila, who we’ve been talking about, was probably like so many Aboriginal people who were brought to Lutheran missions; they were fascinated by the hymns and the Christmas carols, the pretty dresses, and indeed the church piano. But as children they were unwittingly caught between two worlds. Mojgan, for this film did you speak to Aboriginal people who’d experienced this kind of life between two cultures?
Mojgan Khadem: I did speak to Aboriginal people, but you know, often they are incredibly shy and it takes time before they open up and trust you enough to actually let you know a little about the reality of their thoughts and their emotions. And with a handful of them I was able to have a relationship where they would tell me things and in between those little stories that they would tell me, I would find characteristics that I could introduce into my story.
But before talking to anyone, I also had to do a lot of reading of my own, and I had to equip myself with basic research of what went on and what’s actually written about what happened in the 1890s in the middle of the Australian outback. And I also watched a lot of documentaries. One of the documentaries that I watched was one called Lousy Little Sixpence, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but I found it was very, very moving and it told me a great deal about the way that the Aboriginal girls particularly were treated and the way they felt in these missions that they lived in, and there is a song that one of the characters sings in a women’s scene in the film, and that song I included because one of the women in Lousy Little Sixpence tells of the way they would sing that song around the mission. And it talks about how they would do chores and how they would learn to wash and iron and cook and clean, and they were taught all of this at the mission in the name of Jesus, because they would have to do all of this for Jesus because Jesus does so much for them. It’s directly from the words of one of the ladies in that documentary, and I think if it’s meaningful, it’s because it’s true.
Woman: We loved, it was very romantic. I left a note at the brothel for the madam to say I’m so sick of this life; I am marrying a man who has a black face but a white heart. Farewell, I go!
Rachael Kohn: I think one of the most poignant moments in the film, perhaps the most profound moment, is when Jila yells out in frustration that she hates all gods; she’s prayed to them and they hate her, or they don’t care for her.
Mojgan Khadem: I remember writing and rewriting that scene and the words that Jila speaks in that scene, and just refining it here and there, and every time I would get to it, I would find myself crying.
Now I know that this is really silly because you’re writing something and you’re sitting there in this room and just crying, but I did that. And a lot of people have told me that that is a moment that they find incredibly meaningful, and I guess it was a moment that came out of the flow of the story and the journey of the character, and I couldn’t see any other way but for her to explode, and for once move away from here passive kind of character, into a character that has to express the way she feels. It’s like a fire, that’s it, it’s ignited and it’s wild and it cannot be contained no more. And she speaks words that come from a sense of feeling oppressed.
I think the word ‘oppression’ is what I wrote very big, and I put it right in front of my desk when I was writing, because my main character of Jila was feeling oppressed as a result of not knowing who to turn and which god to believe in, because all of them were telling her a different thing, were expecting different things from her, and yet she had an essential link to all of them. She had an Aboriginal mother that she loved, and she felt a part of, and she lost and mourned over; she has an Afghan father that provided for her and developed her character, and the woman that she becomes, and she has the love of a little boy that she grew up with who happens to be a Christian.
She is very much linked to three different opinions, and three different gods. And of course she prays to all of them because she has a love for all of them. And yet because there is no harmony between them, she cannot find a harmony within herself. And so finally she explodes.
Father: Look at yourself, a wretched black who is neither a Christian nor a Muslim, maybe even guilty of murder, no place to go.
Rachael Kohn: But isn’t this also a story of failed gods, an indictment of religion, the Afghan men who were bigoted and vengeful, and the Christian missionaries who are weak and ultimately racist?
Mojgan Khadem: And that is the myth of our time. That is the myth of our time, the failure of cultures and religions if they cannot bring an essential sense of peace to the world that we live in. If they continuously are warlike and bring about the bloodshed of masses of people and the oppression of individuals, then what are they doing, what are they for, and perhaps it’s best to do without them if they’re going to do no more than oppress us.
I believe that is the myth of our time, and every time I turn on the television it just does not change. I still hear stories from around the world on the news that tell me that masses of people run in the streets in England recently because there is race conflicts, and I hear that a Pakistani man who is a taxi driver cannot get any fares because he is basically scared that anyone who enters his taxi may actually be violent towards him.
And you hear that in Afghanistan, people have to wear badges because they’re Hindu or of another minority that is not Muslim, and you hear in the Balkans the Christians and the Muslims cannot find a way of keeping a peaceful kind of relation. I mean it is going on around the world on a very real basis, then what myth is bigger that, than us having to really look into that, that aspect of our life. The race and the religious conflicts of our time, and perhaps enough is enough, perhaps we need to on an individual level, stand up and say I have had enough of this, I don’t want to know about any of it if it’s going to bring me in the short span of life that I’ve got on this earth, nothing but trouble and oppression and misery.
Mojgan Khadem: Mojgan, hearing you now, this passion that you have, makes it obvious why the film Serenades, is so powerful even though it is slow and elegant and rather beautiful, very sensitive. It is actually quite a powerful film. And in the end it celebrates the renewal of Jila’s Aboriginal identity, and in that there’s a strong kind of contemporary feeling or message. It’s a moment of redemption and also possible love, as her childhood sweetheart or friend is seen coming towards her over the ridge. Is your message about the importance ultimately of being yourself?
Mojgan Khadem: Definitely it includes that, yes. I think that self-knowledge is essential to a fulfilling kind of a life, it’s just that there are barriers to that knowledge of self, and perhaps we will never really know who we are but we can at least be assisted in that search. The secret is love, OK. Let me tell you. At the end of the day, the secret is that no philosophy and no religion is going to give us a fulfilling experience of life unless it allows us to be loving towards ourself and towards others.
Rachael Kohn: So in fact the love of the young man for Jila is the thing which may indeed overcome the barriers and the racism?
Mojgan Khadem: Yes, the last speech that Johann gives in the church before he steps out of that church, a church that has been built by his father and it’s really a tradition that he is expected to follow and be the leader of in the years to come, he steps out of it after reading straight out of the Bible the words that say that even if I speak in the tongues of angels and yet I have no charity, I am like a cymbal.
That word ‘charity’ has recently in the Bible been changed to the word ‘love’, I guess 100 years ago charity was a word that meant something closer to love, and now that has been replaced. I chose to go with the word ‘charity’ because that was more authentic to the time that I was making the film. But basically I think the words of the Bible are telling us that if you stand up on a soapbox and tell the world in tongues of angels about very meaningful stuff and yet you have no charity for the people who live around you and you cannot extend a helping hand to somebody when they’re crying in front of you, then you’re really no more than a cymbal. You kind of are bereft of meaning; it means nothing; all the words in the world don’t add up to anything unless there is an action that speaks much louder than words, and that action has got to be filled with love.
And I chose to call the film Serenades because I think that beyond words, music has a very deep meaning and is filled with emotion, and it can tell us a lot more than words ever can, and when Johann as a little boy plays music for little Jila, or when he keeps a promise and plays music as an adult to Jila, what he’s doing is more than just filling the air with vibrations of sound, he’s actually telling her something that words cannot tell her. That’s the beauty of art, of music, and I think it can perhaps play a much bigger role in the make-up of our emotions.
Rachael Kohn: That sounds very much like a Baha'i perspective.
Mojgan Khadem: Well the Baha'i perspective tells me that if religion is going to be the cause of a nightmare in your life, then do without that religion. And I embrace that.
I am a Baha'i because that is the religion that makes the most sense to me, and if I find one that’s going to make more sense I will embrace that, but I haven’t found one yet. It is an all-embracing religion, and it says that I must give more respect to those who uphold a different religion to me than even I give to my own religion, being a Baha'i. I have to understand that every religion has been a part of an ongoing developing landscape of spirituality, and I respect every step of that advancement, be it called Buddhism or Hinduism or Zoroastrian or Muslim or Christian, or indeed Baha'i. It doesn’t matter what you call it. I think if you find time to live a kind of a moral standard of your own, be it on an individual basis or on a mass basis, it doesn’t matter; you finally are a judge of your own kind of beliefs, and it doesn’t matter what you call it, what name you go by.
Rachael Kohn: Mojgan Khadem, it’s been a delight talking to you and best of luck on your film, Serenades.
Mojgan Khadem: Thank you so much.
Rachael Kohn: Now for the other writer of the film, with whom Mojgan Khadem collaborated for some years. Christine Stevens is an historian whose books, White Man’s Dreaming and Tin Mosques and Ghantowns, provided her with the rich material on which she based her story for the film, Serenades.
Father: When I was your age my father sent me with his best camels to India. He wanted me to learn the ways of the world. Eight months later I returned to find that my village had been burnt to the ground, and both my parents were killed. I’ve never told this story, but I’m telling you because I want you to know that life isn’t about love, it’s about struggle. Love is for books and poetry, not real life. You marry the Mullah and you have a future without struggle, peaceful, peace of life with a man that can provide. You will never be hungry or without a roof over your head. You can’t ask for more than that.
Rachael Kohn: My sense is that people who go to see Serenades will be most intrigued by the Afghans. Who were they, how many of them came to Australia?
Christine Stevens: Well there were never any statistics kept on this particular emigration. These people came, largely contracted labour, generally for a three-year period. Originally they were brought in to accompany explorers like Burke and Wills for the prestigious Victorian exploration party, in the race the first across the continent. And the 24 camels were brought in with that consignment and three Afghans. And they were so successful in their endeavour to cross the country that it was noted by a man called Thomas Elder in the north of South Australia that these animals would be very good transport animals in the desert areas there where horses were in fact failing.
Rachael Kohn: So the Afghans kept coming, I imagine, because this was a successful form of transport?
Christine Stevens: Yes, it was very successful. In fact at the time that the rescue parties were out looking for the lost Burke and Wills, Thomas Elder was in McKinlay’s party, he was out in the north of South Australia with a party looking, and that’s when he first noticed some of these camels that were used, and at the time the north of South Australia in particular was experiencing a very bad drought. Also pastoralists had pushed further and further north into what they thought was productive country and Thomas Elder was one of the big entrepreneurs in the north of South Australia.
So he had this idea to bring camels in as transport animals to service the interior of the country, and his was the first experiment that introduced camels as a commercial industry into Australia.
Rachael Kohn: How wide was the spread of the Afghan cameleers?
Christine Stevens: It was very wide at its peak, in fact quite quickly Thomas Elder had a camel stud in the north of South Australia which was highly successful, and his cameleers and his camel string serviced across into the New South Wales mining centres and further north to Central Australia. But at one point he decided to move out of the camel business and he sold quite a few of his camels to his head cameleers, two brothers called Faiz and Taj Mahommed, and the railhead at that time had moved from Farina which was close to Beltana Station, Thomas Elder’s station, further north to Maree, and the two brothers took camels that they purchased from Thomas Elder up to the railhead, which is the furthermost point, and then serviced the pastoralist and mining industries from there. So that became the earliest and the most enduring Ghan town in the whole of Australia.
But from Maree, camels and cameleers spread out, they spread then to Western Australia to the Western Australian goldfields, Coolgardie, then later north into the Kimberley; they spread from there across into New South Wales towards Bourke, and then they spread into north-west Queensland towards Cloncurry and then later into Central Australia around Alice Springs. So they serviced the whole interior over a 50-year period, from about the 1860s to about 1910, ’20 really.
Rachael Kohn: Now the Afghans of course were Muslims and they would have been the first Muslims in Australia in any considerable number. That would have meant they had to establish their traditions here and build mosques. Are there many left on the landscape?
Christine Stevens: Yes, there are a few little galvanised iron mosques. The first mosques that were built were built in the same manner as mosques that were built in rural Afghanistan, bough and thatched roofed structures, and you can find this same structure in the desert in the rural parts of Afghanistan up until recently; I don’t know what’s happening now with the problems in Afghanistan. But then as Afghans began to carry sheets of galvanised iron which was a common and inexpensive building material for the stations that they were taking cartage, they soon began to use this material to build both their Ghan town houses and also their mosques.
Rachael Kohn: One of the most important aspects of Islam is of course the rituals around eating. Eating meat that is slaughtered according to halal and eating meat that is not prepared by infidels, or strangers. That would have made living a Muslim life quite difficult for them.
Christine Stevens: Well yes, it did, particularly in the early days. For example when the explorers were, there were very few Afghans in the exploration party and food was being supplied by the cook, and at those times they would never eat with infidels of course and they would also go and kill their own meat, which they would kill halal style. They would only eat this food because of their food taboos.
Rachael Kohn: Now of course the Afghans came here alone, without women; who were destined to become their wives in Australia?
Christine Stevens: Well they were single men, or they were sometimes married men, but they didn’t bring women with them, it was not part of the contractual arrangement, and I think at the time with the racial and religious intolerance within the country, they wouldn’t have been permitted to bring women with them. They came with the idea that they would earn a fortune in this new country and they would take the money back and they would be able to pay a bride price if they were single men, or they would be able to support their families very comfortably if they were married.
But the reality was that once in Australia, the money that they were earning, which was in fact lower than the Europeans were charging for cartage, really didn’t go very far, so they were not able to save much money, they barely got by on a rather poor lifestyle. And so the reality was many didn’t return to Afghanistan and buy themselves wives or provide for their families.
They stayed on in the desert here, and in fact they did find wives amongst marginalised women in Australia, and these women were mainly Aboriginal women who found themselves on the outskirts of these small towns in the outback, marginalised people themselves, because they had been moved from their own country by occupation, by Europeans, and also women who were deserted wives, prostitutes, women who had a husband outside of the confines of traditional spheres of society.
Rachael Kohn: The film Serenades depicts quite a tense relationship between the Afghans and the Christians, and I wonder whether in the history of their being here in that period, were there any really violent stoushes between Afghans and the European settlers?
Christine Stevens: The violent stoushes were mainly over contracts, because the Afghan cameleers were carting consignment at much cheaper rates than the horse and bullock teamsters, and this caused a lot of conflict between the two cultures. Some of that was violent, some of it was resulted in murder.
Rachael Kohn: Well if there was conflict between the Afghans and the teamsters, what sort of relationship was there between them and the missionaries? Because the film, Serenades certainly shows fierce religious tension there. I mean there was mutual animosity.
Christine Stevens: Interestingly I think at the time there was a lot of, certainly between European cultures there was a lot of animosity over the wars that were waged between the first Anglo-Afghan war, and the second Anglo-Afghan war which were very much in the memory of people at the time, and also the Indian Mutiny, and these were very vicious conflicts outside of Australia, and some men who had fought in the army had in fact emigrated to Australia from these particular wars, so there was that kind of remembrance.
Rachael Kohn: So the Afghans actually had fought against the British.
Christine Stevens: Yes, in two major wars in Afghanistan, in 1840 and then again in, I think, about the 1870s, and these were very vicious wars, and in fact they won these wars, they actually managed to toss the British out of Afghanistan. The British never occupied Afghanistan even though they tried. Of course that was a sore point for the Empire, and also the fact that the manner in which the Afghans fought was rather pervert and also very vicious.
Also the Indian Mutiny of 1857 in the north of India was still in the memory of people, and that provided a lot of ground for racial and religious intolerance in Australia. But amongst the Lutherans themselves, the Lutherans were quite xenophobic, in fact they were very much against the British settlers outside as well as Afghans, you know, they saw them all as interfering in their process of conversion of the Aborigines on the mission station. And also as sources of seduction for Aboriginal women, I guess they were very much against.
Rachael Kohn: The kind of religious conflict and tension is really at the centre of the film Serenades, and I wondered whether that is an issue that interests you in particular.
Christine Stevens: Yes it does interest me in particular; I think I wrote both Tin Mosques and White Man’s Dreaming with the intention of quietly and covertly trying to uncover a basic unity of all humanity within these cultures, and I think that the intention of the film was also to strip away the cultural clothing and somehow reach in to the university seed that’s within everybody. And Jila was used as a symbol, as a tool, to take that journey through these cultures and to arrive back at a place which was right back inside herself, to express her own special essence, which is common to all.
Rachael Kohn: Christine Stevens, thank you for being on The Spirit of Things.
Christine Stevens: Thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Historian Christine Stevens is author of White Man’s Dreaming and Tin Mosques and Ghantowns, and is the author of the story, Serenades, which is now a major film released in Australia, starring Alice Haines and Aden Young.
The music in today’s program was from the soundtrack of the movie, and was composed by Davood Tabrizi.
The Spirit of Things is produced by me and Geoff Wood, with technical production by Angus Kingston.
Next week, the central Christian symbol of faith, the Eucharist. Is it just another ritual that excludes some Christians, or is it the indispensable essence of the Christian message?
Till then, so long from me, Rachael Kohn.
Guests on this program:
is an Australian writer and director. She was born in Iran but escaped her homeland at the age of ten when her mother was in danger of execution by Islamic authorities.
is an historian and writer. Her books have charted the lives the Afghan cameleers and Lutheran missionaries in Central Australia.
White Man's Dreaming: Killalpaninna Mission 1866-1915
Author: Christine Stevens
Publisher: Oxford University press, 1994
Tin Mosques and Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia
Author: Christine Stevens
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1989
CD Title: Serenades: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Artist: Davood A. Tabrizi
Composer: Davood A. Tabrizi
Label/CD No: Move MD 3237
Copyright: Move Records
Presenter & Executive Producer:
Geoff Wood The Spirit of Things is broadcast on Sundays at 6.10pm, repeated on Thursdays at 7.10pm and Fridays at 4.05am, on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network of ideas.
©Copyright 2001, Australian Broadcasting Corporation