Our Ancestors Were Cameleers

Morning. The sky is overcast, the sun concealed by a sheet of wispy grey clouds, diluting the Earth below as if it were a world without shadow. A deep, melodious voice rides the cold winter air, scaling white walls and forest-green doors, and echoing throughout the streets of Northbridge. This is the call to prayer, but to me it’s more like a song, drowning the sounds of traffic and construction – the working lungs and heartbeat of a labyrinthine urban landscape – through little more than cupped hands. A few months ago I didn’t even know this place existed, let alone the history that lay within its walls and in its song; a history which I now feel has been near-forgotten or overlooked. 

Inside the main prayer hall lies a pair of twin plaques, separated by nothing but language and space. These plaques represent the history of the Muslim camel drivers – the ‘cameleers’ – who funded and built this Mosque in 1905. Having come to Australia as early as the 1860s from all corners of the Earth, the cameleers brought life to rural and remote towns at a time when modern transportation could not reach them, traversing the harsh red landscape which had been all but a mystery to anyone but the Aboriginal people who had lived and hunted there for centuries. They led the camel trains which carried food, water and other valuable resources across the horizon, across where horses and bullock could not fare, their voices echoing across the vast emptiness of the outback where few others could hear their solitary, but never lonely, prayers. Early Australia had no place for these voices to go, and so the cameleers – and the hawkers who came in their wake – set out to build a place of their own.

With the Adelaide Mosque their muse, fundraisers toured around Western Australia to places where cameleers and hawkers lived and worked in order to raise the funds necessary to build a Mosque of their own when the government failed to provide. Their determination and devotion was rewarded, and on 13 November 1905 the foundation stone for the Perth Mosque was laid. Though it is now much larger than it once was, cloaked in new brick and mortar, the original building still stands in the form of a small room where people come from their homes and from their jobs to partake in their daily prayers, giving form to their faith and a home for the voices of Australia’s Muslims past, present and future.

When walking down William Street in Northbridge, it is very easy to walk past the Perth Mosque without even realising what it is. Prior to this project, it is something I did multiple times because, despite its history, and despite a narrative of Muslim influence being invasive that I so often see, nothing about the Perth Mosque makes it seem out of place. Even inside there is something humble about the building, yet something that resonates so much with the Muslim community in Perth. There is a microwave, a fridge and a kettle which people from all walks of life – Muslim or not – use to make tea and heat up meals, many of which are shared. When the day is overcast, nothing casts a shadow and there is a softness about the edge and corner and every colour is muted. But when the light shines through the windows of the prayer room, even the unreligious can look upon a place which holds such a connection with people and find it beautiful. It is both an embodiment of Muslim history and Australian history, so simply intertwined and coexistent.

It is important to remember that Australia has never been linguistically, culturally or religiously homogeneous, and the Australia we know today was not solely built by European settlers. However, I feel that the histories of non-European Australians – such as that of the Perth Mosque and cameleers who helped build this country – are too often overlooked when they should be acknowledged and taught just as widely as stories of James Cook and the First Fleet. Perhaps then we wouldn’t so quickly ascribe a colour to a nation. Perhaps this is just a pipedream. But then again, so was the Perth Mosque to the Muslim settlers of Western Australia. So I write this with the hope that the more voices that speak, the more people that will be willing to listen and to hear the call to prayer, like song, through the streets of Northbridge.

This story was written by Maia Sharrock Churchill. Maia interned with the Centre for Stories during her Master of Media and Communication/Master of Art at Curtin University in 2017. During her placement at the Centre, she explored how stories may become 'buried' or otherwise overlooked in discussions about a nation's history. This shaped her research on the history of Muslims in Australia and how vital their efforts were in the exploration and development of Australia in the early days of settlement. 

Perth Mohammedan Mosque, 1933.

Perth Mohammedan Mosque, 1933.

Camels in the Murchison and Coolgardie, 1900.

Camels in the Murchison and Coolgardie, 1900.

Loading camels for new rush, Coolgardie, 1894.     All images sourced from the collections of the State Library of Western Australia and reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia.

Loading camels for new rush, Coolgardie, 1894. 

All images sourced from the collections of the State Library of Western Australia and reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia.

Centre for Stories