The June issue of the Journal of New Zealand Studies features an article by Josh, entitled '"Certainly getting about the world": New Zealanders' Experience of the Middle East as a Place during the Second World War'.
The article uses diaries, letters and soldier publications, and focuses on how New Zealanders saw the Middle East as a place, through the lenses of the desert, the city, the Holy Land and the ancient world. When New Zealand’s Middle Eastern war is discussed, the focus is usually on combat and the lives of New Zealanders on the battlefield. The limited discussion of life behind the lines is dominated by a picture of racism, drunkenness and debauchery with its focal point in Cairo. Josh argues that this is an entirely inadequate representation of New Zealanders' engagement with the Middle East during the war. Instead, his article reveals a complex and rich picture of respect and loathing, delight and disgust, wonder and disillusionment.
The article is available to read and download for free here: https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/jnzs/article/view/6501
Australians in the Middle East - musings on a complex relationship
In December 1942, shortly before the last Australian soldiers finished their time in the Middle East, a private who had served through tough campaigns in Libya and Egypt wrote home: 'Am just about sick of the Middle East and the dirty wogs not forgetting the robbing Jews. I know where these dirty robbing b____ would have been only for the New Zealanders and Australians'. His notion that the inhabitants of the Middle East were ignorant and unworthy of the protection that British Commonwealth forces had given them was a common one. A prominent part of this worldview was apparent when another Australian who had just visited Cairo's bazaars and brothels nominated the latter one of the lowest places on earth and declared 'proves just how fortunate we are to be British'.
There are many more quotations that reflect attitudes that are now considered shockingly racist. Yet Australian attitudes to the local people of the Middle East were complex and, in many cases, included considerable compassion. For example, Eric Lambert, an Australian machine-gunner who would after the war become a respected novelist, wrote in late 1941, 'A Gypo kid begged food I had to give. There was all his soul in that begging'. One of the battalion histories said of a time in 1942 when the 9th Australian Division was in Syria: 'How they loved to visit us from whatever village we happened to be near, all these bright little Arab children and, though we were strong rough he-men, who would not have admitted how we loved all of those kids'.
Dr Mark Johnston, Scotch College, Melbourne.
Author of Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian soldiers, their allies and the local people in the Middle East in World War II, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 2013.
All photos from Mark Johnston's collection.
One of the questions we are working on in Imagining Arabia is: what ideas of ‘Arabs’ did New Zealanders and Australians have before they travelled to the Middle East?
This question arose because it is clear that large numbers of Australian and New Zealand soldiers had derogatory, negative and blatantly racist attitudes towards many of the peoples they met when they were deployed to the Middle East. Historians’ explanations for this racism are not very robust: most commonly historians suggest that racist attitudes towards Middle Eastern peoples were a result of racist attitudes that proliferated in late-19th century Australasia towards the Chinese. The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ and of Chinese immigration led New Zealand and Australian governments to pass restrictive and racially-based legislation against the Chinese (and other non-European groups), and to exclude them from all benefits of citizenship. This treatment of Asians, and other groups, in Australasia is commonly and collectively known as the ‘White Australia’ policy (although all of the same policies existed in New Zealand). While racist attitudes towards some groups might be able to be generalized to some extent to explain negative attitudes towards anyone who was ‘foreign’, this explanation of Australasians’ attitudes towards Middle Eastern peoples seemed to us to warrant further investigation.
So what did European Australians and New Zealanders know of the Arab world, and how did they know it? It’s clear that literature such as Arabian Nights had some influence, but other forms of popular culture existed alongside these famous stories.
Prompted by American historian Susan Nance’s wonderful book How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), we decided to research Arab entertainers, especially acrobats. Nance argues that ‘Arab’ performers appeared to American audiences as muscular, athletic and daring. Their acrobatic prowess was a major draw-card, and they thrilled audiences. Our volunteer researcher Maggie Lindsay used digital newspapers to look at the appearance of ‘Arab' acrobatic troupes in New Zealand and Australia between 1890 and 1945.
Maggie discovered similar reception of ‘Arab’ performers in Australia and New Zealand. Acrobats and performers were described as ‘fine stalwart fellows, well-grown and sinewy’ and ‘fine looking men’, as well as with romantic Orientalist language. When ‘Abdullah’s Arabs’ appeared at the Melbourne Opera House in 1908, they were ‘novel and fantastic’.
There are a dozen of them, of all ages, from smooth-faced boys to bearded elders. One feature they have in common – surprising muscular strength and agility. They storm yelling on to the stage, clad in flowing white robes slashed with red, bringing with them a whiff of desert air and weird memories of the mystic East. For half an hour they give an exhibition of quaint feats that would astonish many a stalwart Western champion… Strange to say they do not look like men of large muscular development, yet they must have sinews as firm as steel and as flexible as silk… The subtle fascination of Eastern dances is felt as the spectator watches the marvelous displays of muscular power.
(‘Theatrical and Musical Notes, Otago Witness, 5 August 1908)
We’ll be looking more into the ways ‘Arab’ performers fashioned images of the Middle East for Australasian audiences in later posts. In the meantime, thanks to Maggie for her terrific work on this topic!
That’s right – I visited Bagdag (not Baghdad). Sheer curiosity drove me to take a road trip through a little part of the Tasmanian Midlands where Bagdad and Jericho sit on the banks of a trickling, marshy creek called the Jordan. It’s a pretty modest road trip: think Sunday drive with your grandparents rather than Route 66 in Easy Rider. Bagdad is about half an hour’s drive north of Hobart with a modern primary school, combined petrol station, general store and post office, and a community centre with a Remembrance Wall mural (out the back under the air-conditioning units) of a slouch-hatted bugler playing the last post as the sun sets behind him. There’s a footy oval, which is also home to the Bagdad Cricket Club.
The settlement exists on paper in ways that it no longer exists in bricks and mortar: the Tasmanian Archives hold plans for a Bagdag courthouse and police watch house, but there is no evidence now that they were ever built. In survey maps from the mid-1800s the Bagdad Rivulet was lined with small farms of between 40 and 80 acres established under the closer settlement act, and surveys from 1921 show that soldier settlement blocks were offered in the area after the First World War.
The incongruous names of the area have a romantic origin: Quaker missionary James Backhouse wrote in his 1843 book A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies that he had stayed with Hugh Germain and his wife in their ‘neat cottage’ while in Tasmania. Germain had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land as a Royal Marine and had been a kangaroo and emu hunter, before being discharged with a land grant and taking up farming. As a marine, Germain had ‘penetrated into several parts of the colony’ and had named ‘Jericho, Bagdad, Abyssinia &c. Only one of the party could read; and his only books were a Bible, and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment; out of which books the places were successively named’ (212-213).
What are we to make of this set of cartographic references? The Tasmanian settlements were named by men who lived imperial lives, moving with regiments around the British Empire. Bagdad is surrounded by English names - Oatlands, Kempton, Pontville, Richmond and Brighton - and also by those such as Mangalore, reminders of the many places from which Royal Marines travelled to Van Diemen's Land.
If Germain's story (as recounted by Backhouse) is true, that the Arabian Nights was the inspiration for the naming of Bagdad, then the settlement's name reminds us of the enormous popularity and longevity of Scheherazade's tales as literature. Indeed, even if the story is apocryphal, the importance of Arabian Nights and the Bible as staples of colonial reading is undeniable. Bagdad was the home of Sinbad, one of the most popular characters of the Arabian Nights. His many voyages might have been especially resonant for soldiers whose lives were also spent on the seas, travelling to far-off and strange places filled with extraordinary animals and bizarre flowers.