The mystery of the Bengali book in country NSW


A mysterious book found at the Broken Hill mosque had for decades been considered a Koran, brought to the desert town by Afghan cameleers, Bill Code reports. 

A mysterious book found at the Broken Hill mosque had for decades been considered a Koran, brought to the desert town by Afghan cameleers.

But a chance sighting of the text by a Sydney student has added a twist to the tale of the town's Muslim history. Now the story is set to be told to a wider audience, via a forthcoming book.

Bobby Shamrose is everything an ignorant cityslicker might expect from a Broken Hill man of his older generation.

A thick Aussie accent, an open, friendly demeanour, a love for cars, and a bit of a 'no-nonsense' attitude. But his looks give the game away – his dark skin, the shape his face.

His father came from Peshawar, in modern day Pakistan, his mother was the daughter of an Afghan man and an Irish mother.

Bobby knows Broken Hill like the back of his hand.

"They used to walk straight through here" he says, referring to camels.

He's taking me through a working-class suburb bordered by the scrub which stretches for miles, and the edge is just starting to come off the 40C day.

This is where the South Asian men who arrived in Broken Hill in the late 19th century settled, bringing with them their valued stock.

His grandfather was also the last mullah of the Broken Hill mosque until his death in 1960, and Bobby remembers the visitors to the red corrugated iron building well.

"I can still seem 'em in here now, there used to be dozens of 'em in here", he says.

Nowadays most of the people coming through its doors are tourists, But Bobby still keeps the key for the odd visiting Muslim professional seeking a place to pray.

Bobby doesn't know what his parents' native tongue was -- he doesn't know too much of their story. But for his money, the cameleers and their families are underrated in the annals of Australian history.

"They've done a lot of good things for this country, especially in the outback and that - how else would they get their mail and their stores and all that out to 'em?"

Compared to some others, though, the presence of the 'Ghans', a term which to this day encompasses Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians, is reasonably well-documented.

So when a large, foreign book was found at the mosque in the 1960s, a label classifying it as a 'Koran' was attached - and it stuck for 50 years.

"Everybody had assumed it was a Koran", says Margaret Price , a local amateur historian.

Bobby and the other descendants of the town's Muslims didn't know otherwise, and the label stuck.

Margaret removes the large, yellowing work from its cupboard home at the Broken Hill Historical Society when we met up.

We're inside a former synagogue which has recently been restored, and I'm starting to get a hold of how diverse the early days of this sun-baked mining town really were.

Muslims and Jews, Yugoslavs and Italians found their way to a town far from any water supply, far from any tree of notable height – but well-endowed in a range of precious metals.

"It said on it in English 'The Holy Koran' and I was like 'Ooh, this is the thing I read about" explains Samia Khatun when we meet in the quadrangle at Sydney University, on the distant far side of NSW.

She saw the book in a history textbook a few years ago and had instantly recognised the Bengali script.

The mystery of who brought the book was everything Samia had been looking for in a PHD subject.

"There aren't really Bengalis who are cameleers because Bengal's got no camels; it's full of rivers, Bengalis have never seen camels! It just doesn't make sense; why are Bengalis there?," Samia says.

And so she began work on her doctorate, engaging in a range of non-English sources, from South Asian documents to Aboriginal oral histories; sources, she says, that never usually get much of a look in at university history departments.

Some of her findings even suggest there could have been a whole community of Bengalis, their presence forgotten, until now. She's a picture of enthusiasm when she describes her ideas, her arms weaving a visual narrative to go with this fascinating yarn.

"It's a song book, it's performance poetry, so the kind of way these books were read is that people would gather -- often illiterate people", she says after explaining the book was a traditional 'puthi.'

"The one person who could read would sit there and sing it out."

Back at the mosque, Bobby is munching on a fig he's picked from a tree in the forecourt.He's not sure when it was planted. He says it's been there for as long as he can remember. "Tastes pretty good too", he says, chomping along.

Just like other early migrants, the South Asians who came to Australia brought little pieces of home with them. Whether it was their favourite fruit, or their favourite poetry, little pieces remain; reminders of a multicultural mining town in the middle of the desert, a century or more ago.

Samia's doctorate is being adapted for publication as a book next year.

Source SBS

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