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!