In recent weeks, I have been up at Auckland War Memorial Museum doing some research for the project. In doing so, I realised (as I have so many times over the past year and a half) what a rich treasure-trove of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern history is out there, once you start looking for it. Here are some highlights from my recent visit.
Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-ALB-495-1
The AWMM houses the five souvenir photo albums that Sergeant John Starr collected during the Second World War. Each of the albums was unique in its material and design, but this album of ‘Views of Jerusalem’ stood out. It is a small album, each page only big enough for one photo, but the front and back were embellished with decorated wooden blocks, that appear to have been glued over top of the original leather covers. These blocks have been hand painted with the words ‘Souvenir of the Holy Land’, ‘Jerusalem’, and a scene of 'Rachel’s Tomb'. Souvenir albums were popular with New Zealand soldiers in the Middle East, but I have never seen one like this before, with such a high level of customisation done to the cover.
Sometimes I read a book that reminds me sharply why I’m doing this project.
On the advice of a colleague, I took a very plain and unassuming book out of the library by literary scholar Paul Fussell. Written in 1980, Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars is, in part, an explanation for why so many well-known British authors wrote from warm and exotic places in the 1920s and 30s – think Lawrence Durrell in Corfu, or DH Lawrence in Australia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh in Brazil.
Beyond writers, Fussell describes the British discovery of the Mediterranean and of holidays in ‘the south’ for those who could afford them. He details the transformation from 19th century ideals of ‘quiet inland waters, wildflowers, sheep-filled meadows…’ to noisier, sunnier idylls involving beaches, outdoor dining, and ‘colorful street markets’, all providing ‘a reassurance of life and gaiety’. Even though a great many of this British sun-seeking party generation were too young to have fought in the Great War, its freezing mud, bitter winters, deprivations and fear had nonetheless re-oriented their gaze.
One of the striking aspects of Fussell’s arguments and descriptions is that from the first page of Abroad the differences between Australasia and Britain are plain. He begins:
“In 1916 oranges, like other exotic things that had to travel by sea, were excessively rare in England.”
In 1917, from the western front, a British officer wrote that two oranges had frozen “hard as cricket balls”, and Fussell continues:
“Those frozen oranges stick in the memory as an emblem not just of the terrible winter of 1917 but of the compensatory appeal of the sun-warmed, free, lively world elsewhere, mockingly out of reach of those entrenched and immobile, apparently forever, in the smelly mud of Picardy and Flanders.”
British soldiers dreamed of hot locations: they read books on Central Asia, planned their post-war travel across the Sahara, to Persia, Guatemala and, tellingly, Australia and New Zealand.
And this is why Fussell’s book is about British writers: Australians and New Zealanders simply wanted to go home where the sun was a part of life, beaches plentiful and oranges grew in backyards.
A collection of coins and banknotes, stored for years inside a Kauri Tobacco tin, gives us a striking visual insight into the mobility of New Zealanders in the Middle East during the Second World War. The tobacco tin belonged to Gunner Edward ‘Ted’ Frost from Tuakau in the Waikato, who served in the 7th Anti Tank Regiment, New Zealand Artillery. As Ted travelled around the Middle East (and further afield in Greece and Italy) during World War II, he collected local coins and banknotes and stored them together in this tobacco tin. Contained in the tin are notes and coins from Egypt (5 and 10 milliemes, and 5 guerches), Tunisia (6 aspers and 5 francs), Palestine (2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 mils), Lebanon (5 and 25 piastres) and Syria (5 piastres).
While we don’t know what Ted spent his money on, his coin collection reminds us of the geographical scope of New Zealanders’ Second World War, in which many Kiwis visited more countries in a few short years than they might otherwise have done in a lifetime. Ted’s tin is now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, along with his papers, photographs and a number of other souvenirs he collected during the war.
What do we mean when we use the term ‘Middle East’? It is a difficult term, for while it has been in common usage for a little over a century, the region encompassed by it has taken several different forms over that time. Certainly the region that Australians and New Zealanders define as the Middle East today is very different from the Middle East of the early twentieth century. The term also has its roots in military and strategic concerns, and has never reflected the diversity of the region's cultures, languages, religions and peoples.
It is important to note that all of these terms – Near East, Middle East and Far East – are European constructs. For there to be a Middle or Near East, they had to be east of somewhere, and that meant east of Europe. For centuries the region had simply been ‘the East’, but as Europe became increasingly involved in the region in the nineteenth century, more detailed definitions were required. The result of this closer involvement were the Eurocentric terms Near East, Far East and Middle East.
With the Near East linked to the Ottoman Empire, it is logical that the term fell out of favour after the First World War and the Empire’s dissolution. Yapp notes that “the Near East became gradually engulfed in the Middle East as the latter term began to be used to include the Arab states which emerged from the Ottoman Empire.” By the time of the Second World War, the Near East had faded from use, its territories subsumed by the Middle East, which was then only defined against the Far East – usually meaning such places as China and Japan.
During the Second World War, British Middle East Command (under which the New Zealand Division served) had a broad view of what was included in the Middle East. Military definitions of the region encompassed everything from Tunisia in the west to Transjordan in the east; from Greece in the north to Sudan in the south. During the war, New Zealanders and Australians ranged far and wide, across Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They experienced (and reported back to their families) the diverse landscapes, languages, customs, foods and clothing of these countries, despite the homogenisation of the term 'Middle East'.
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.