Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2012


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Muslims a part of Australian pioneer history? What would Pauline Hanson say?

As a school child I visited my share of museums. I recall that there were no reflections of  ‘my tribe’ in the pioneer exhibitions that were very popular at the time, unless you count a few camels and maybe, somewhere ‘lurking’ in the background (next to the Aboriginal tracker and the Irish cook), you might spot an obscure figure wearing a turban. I knew that something was missing, because, as I child, when I visited the Perth Mosque I often saw two or three very old men sitting in the sun in the courtyard, nodding gently while they pulled on their hookahs, kind men who gave me lollies and money at Eid. I thought they were the oldest men in the world but my parents told me they were real Australian pioneers who’d helped open up the country. Nobody else seemed to know this…

In later years I visited Chinese museums in Sydney, Melbourne and Bendigo. I noticed that there were Jewish and Holocaust museums in Sydney and Melbourne, and also an Hellenic Museum celebrating the ancient glories of Greece and the contribution of Greek immigrants to Australia.

But where were the Muslims? Were Muslims too ethnically diverse? We were good at building mosques and schools, why didn’t we have a museum? Change, however, was not far away. Recognition of the early Muslim presence in Australia first came in a number of books published over the last fifteen years or so. Non-Muslim historians, in the main, were discovering the pioneer connection. This in turn led to a major exhibition of cameleers and their descendants today, a project concept initiated by an Alice Springs anthropologist and the curator of the South Australian Museum. The exhibition travelled around Australia and fascinated visitors at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum and many other venues. Some Melbourne people became convinced that it was time for an Islamic city museum that would showcase the rich artistic heritage and historical contributions of Muslims in Australia and overseas.

And so, at long last, in about twelve months the Islamic Museum of Australia will open its doors in Thornbury, 10 kms away from Melbourne’s CBD. But although ‘we’ may have been slow out of the blocks, the IMA’s founders and board members are not holding back and have already published a book together with a documentary about the Australian Muslim connection. Boundless Plains, a book of photographs and essays, as well as a documentary of the same name were launched in late May by Yusuf Islam, of Cat Stevens fame. Masaay Fahour’s account, ‘Opening Night Jitters’, describes the event in this issue.

Certainly the spirit of the IMA is already alive although its doors are not yet open to the public. When it does open we can look forward to fascinating stories, interactive displays and exquisite art exhibits that will provide an insight into the Australian Muslim experience for tourists, school groups and other visitors.

Many Australian Muslims are also unaware of the significant role played by that first generation in opening up the remote, dry areas of our country. One of the Muslim real-life ‘characters’ in the IMA documentary, in a moment of absolute candour, reveals that, once-upon-a-time, he too knew nothing about the early men. ‘I thought Muslim history began when I arrived, in the 1970s,’ he said.

Oh, I do hope Ms Hanson receives an invitation to the Islamic Museum of Australia when it’s officially opened.

Hanifa Deen
May 2012