I heard Abdul Majied Dean and Zarb-un-Nisa Dean tell their story in their own words long before I heard and met their daughter Hanifa Deen for the first time on Saturday 19 October. It was clear from the audio interviews conducted with her parents in 1986, that Hanifa comes from a family of articulate and captivating storytellers who can bring the past to life without images and the trappings of modern technology.
Listening to a pioneer who was born the same year the Perth Mosque was founded can only be described as a historian’s dream. The tones, the expression, the little snippets of information not found in articles or books adds another dimension to our understanding of the past.
Hanifa’s mother Neisha’s (Zarb-un-Nisa Dean) detailed account of their two weddings in 1933, was far more delightful than the colourful articles published in contemporary newspapers, that described the bride ‘with her face, excepting her dark lustrous eyes, completely concealed by a heavy veil’ (The Sun, June 1934).
Neisha’s voice projected an image of a confident, well-read and sophisticated woman. Her descriptions of her Welsh mother, the Muslim communities in Perth and Melbourne as well as the friendships with members of the broader community account for a life spent enriching both. If only I had found these recordings twenty years ago.
Though she didn’t know it, Hanifa led me to question the Australian Muslim historical narrative at a time when studies in this area were few and far between.
It was the late 1990s and I had been asked to review her first book, ‘Caravanserai: Journey Among Australian Muslims’ in which Hanifa challenged stereotypes and depicted the human face of Australian Muslims. In time, her stories would prove vital for connecting Australian Muslims to a critical part of their history.
Only a decade earlier in 1987, an Australian Muslim magazine published a piece that explored contemporary challenges facing Australian Muslim youth. It spoke of the gap between the generations, the need to the hear the voices of young Muslims and ended with an ominous warning that if a compromise cannot be attained, ‘then we may as well become the “past camel traders of the future”’ (Insight, 1987).
One of the greatest myths woven around Australia’s early Muslim pioneers is the idea that those who did not return to their homelands in the early twentieth century, left behind a generation that assimilated into mainstream Australian society. It’s a myth that appears to have surfaced when post-war migrants feared ‘losing’ their children to a new homeland and a foreign culture. The old mosques in Marree, Broken Hill, Adelaide and Perth were perceived as remnants of the pioneering cameleers, hawkers, businessmen and their legacy which was buried in a distant past. A past that saw the erosion of their Islamic identity.
It’s a myth that was also perpetuated by the Australian print media that spoke of disappearing and ‘sad’ Muslims during the years of the White Australia Policy and a whitewashed national narrative (Nebhan, AJIS, 2019). The recent visit by Hanifa Deen to Sydney revealed another reason, a lack of story-sharing.
The legacy and history of the early Muslim pioneers are well-known in the regions where their descendants remain. Deen captured some of their stories in her book ‘Ali Abdul v The King: Muslims stories from the dark days of White Australia’ (2011).
During her talk in Sydney on Saturday 19 October titled ‘Confessions of an “Accidental Author”: how I became a storyteller’, she also reflected on her own upbringing during this period. Some members of the audience could relate to her experiences, and all were fascinated by the historical images and stories she presented.
I’m not sure how many reflected on the continuity and the legacy carried by Hanifa Deen and the many other descendants who chose to continue practising or identifying with the faith of their ancestors (a few of whom were present in the audience).
Both her Australian-born parents spoke in detail about the challenges as well as the joys of raising their children as practising Muslims in Australia. Both played a vital role in maintaining the legacy of their fathers, as did Hanifa’s Welsh grandmother, who Neisha believes converted to Islam before her marriage.
In telling her story, Hanifa Deen opened the door once again to much needed communication between the diverse members who make up Australia’s Muslim population.
Story-sharing gives us a voice. It identifies shared experiences and helps address challenges through meaningful engagement with others. Story-sharing unravels connections that can help us understand our place and our legacy.
Our history in this country precedes British colonisation, and whilst the majority of Australia’s Muslims arrived much later, there are still many connections and continuities that we’ve yet to uncover. It’s high time we ditch the myth and rewrite the narrative.