My dear Home Folk,
So begins Tressie Madden's first letter home to her family in Melbourne in January 1904. Tressie had been sent to Egypt, and to her doctor-brother Frank, by her family who were concerned about her poor health, and her letters describe a social whirl in a bustling, exciting, cosmopolitan city.
For over a year, we have been 'visiting' early-20th-century Cairo, and other cities, villages, camps and farms, through our research. Through the letters, photographs, diaries and souvenirs sent home, we've been able to glimpse the experiences of Australians and New Zealanders who travelled to the region we call the Middle East. Josh has focussed on the writings and photos of New Zealand soldiers and nurses who served in the Middle East during the Second World War. He has discovered a rich range of views influenced by soldiers' fears and homesickness, sense of adventure, knowledge of the Bible and education in Classics. Soldiers and nurses photographed scenery, sites, and local peoples; they shopped and ate at stalls and cafes, as well as in the homes of locals. There will be more from Josh in the coming weeks...
For my part, I have been surprised at how many versions and reflections of the Middle East appeared at home in Australia and New Zealand. The souvenirs and presents bought by those who were overseas were worn - and worn out - and displayed, and decoration, new architecture, cinema, novels and fashions were all influenced by 'Eastern' glamour. (White) Australians 'discovered' the outback and became much more aware of the desert in their own country, drawing comparisons with other 'desert peoples'. And immigration, from Lebanon in particular, meant that even small-town Australians and New Zealanders had contact with Middle Eastern peoples. All of these versions of Middle Eastern cultures, no matter how partial or filtered through other lenses, shaped Australasians' ideas of what the region was, and who lived there.
In the coming months we'll be posting snippets from our research for you to enjoy. Feel free to get in contact with us, or to leave a comment on one of our posts.
It is Monday 18 March 2019 and New Zealand's communities are reeling from the atrocity committed in Christchurch last Friday. We are not quite ready to launch this website, but it seems suddenly urgent to make public the research that our team has been carrying out for more than a year into the deep, multi-faceted and century-long relationships between New Zealanders, Australians and the people, places and faiths of the region we call the 'Middle East'.
Over the last 48 hours, there has been an outpouring of aroha/love towards New Zealand's Muslim communities. Their places of worship have been sought out, in many cases for the first time, by those who wish to pay their respects. School children have discovered that some of their classmates are Muslim. Colleagues have acknowledged openly their workmates' faith and culture. Listening to the radio and watching television, many New Zealanders will have learned for the first time about Islamic rituals around death, funerals and bereavement.
None of us wanted to learn any of this in these circumstances. But we are learning.
Exactly 100 years ago, Australian soldier and artist David Barker drew the mosque (above) at Aleppo, Syria; and New Zealand war artist William Gummer painted the mosque in a village outside Cairo in creams and golds against the blue cloudless sky (below). They were among many professional and amateur Australasian artists and photographers who found the forms, shapes and colours of such places of worship beautiful, sacred and a relief from war. Australian photographer Frank Hurley was entranced by Middle Eastern cities and took hundreds of photographs in Cairo and Jerusalem during both World Wars. Some of his Second World War photographs are being exhibited at the National Library of Australia until August.
Thousands of New Zealand and Australian troops, nurses, and civilians had their first encounters with Islam during wartime. Visiting mosques was a common activity, but these men and women were also encamped with Muslim troops, shopped alongside local peoples, and nursed the wounded - an activity that was essential, yet was fraught with risks of religious and cultural offence. Relationships were not always harmonious; sometimes they were hostile and violent. But Australasians in the first half of the twentieth century gained a great deal of knowledge about the place they thought of as the 'Middle East'. Travelling to the region in their hundreds of thousands, then writing home about it, was central to such knowledge.
As historians, we strive to more deeply understand the past. That is not always easy or pleasant. The past can be painful, complex and contradictory. Investigating the many ways that generations of Australians and New Zealanders understood the Middle East, its peoples and cultures across the 20th century will take us to some uncomfortable places, to stereotypes, prejudice and insensitivity. But this history also contains stories of friendship, migration, marriage, appreciation, inter-faith understanding, food, drink, a shared cigarette and laughter. Such jewels are worth mining.
Kate Hunter & Josh King
Image credits: top -David Crothers Barker, Mosque at Aleppo, 1919. ART00074, Australian War Memorial Collection. bottom - William Gummer, A village mosque near Cairo, 1919. AAAC 898 NCWA Q580, Archives New Zealand.