Sunday, April 01, 2007

From rural Punjab to outback Australia —Guest Post by Razi Azmi

Nearly all the cameleers were from the western parts of British India (present-day Pakistan), most being Punjabis, the rest Pathan (Afghans), Baloch and others. However, the appellation Afghan was stuck to them and has stayed ever since
One of the great train journeys of the world is the famous ‘Ghan’, which runs from Adelaide in the south of the Australian continent to Darwin in the north. It is a journey of 2979 kilometers across some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world.
The word Ghan is derived from Afghan, and is a tribute to the camel drivers who helped with the transportation of goods and the development of the overland telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin in the 19th century.

The first cameleers arrived in the 1860s and remained a part of the Australian rural landscape for over 60 years, until the railway track to Alice Springs was laid in 1929 (it was extended to Darwin in 2004). Their numbers are estimated to have been three thousand. Most were unmarried; others had left their wives and families behind. Some married aboriginal women. They lived in settlements called ‘ghantowns’, complete with halal butcher, imam and mosque.

Nearly all the cameleers were from the western parts of British India (present-day Pakistan), most being Punjabis, the rest Pathan (Afghans), Baloch and others. However, the appellation Afghan was stuck to them and has stayed ever since, although it is a misnomer insofar as it attributes the cameleers’ origin to Afghanistan.
The fate of one white woman of extraordinary grit, Winifred Steger, became intertwined with that of the cameleers, first as the wife of Ali Ackba Nuby (Ali Akbar Nabi) and then of Karum Bux (Karam Bakhsh), both Punjabi Muslims from near Lahore.
Winifred was a prolific writer. Her best-known is a fascinating book titled Life with Ali (first published in 1969 as Always Bells). Here the author mixed fact and fiction and embellished her account. Fascinated by Winifred’s life and writings, Hilarie Lindsay wrote The Washerwoman’s Dream; The Extraordinary Life of Winfired Stegar 1882-1981 (Simon & Schuster, 2002). After meticulous research, including interviews with Winifred and some of her children, Lindsay was able to sift fact from fiction. Here’s the life of Winifred as it emerges from the two books.
Born in 1882, Winifred Stegar (nee Oaten) had migrated with her father to Australia when she was not quite ten, leaving behind her mother. Virtually abandoned by her father, who suffered from depression, Winifred fell in love with a German immigrant, Charles Steger, married him, and had four children over nine years. But he was rough, rude, drunken and violent. When Winifred left him, she was forced to leave her children behind.
For seven years Winifred worked in a hotel-cum-bar run by a kind English lady. After the latter returned to England, she found work in a hotel in Mungallala in Queensland. On 10 March 1915, she noted in her diary: “There’s a hawker who calls Indian. His name is Ali. He comes into the kitchen and I make him a cup of tea. He’s one of three brothers...His older brother came here in 1884 and stayed for 18 years and then he went back to India and Ali came to take his place. He’s been here for thirteen years. He drives a horse and cart and hawks things around”.
The next day she wrote: “Ali came in again today. He has the most beautiful brown eyes and white teeth. He calls me mem-sahib and treats me with respect.... He speaks English but with an a tilting tone. He talked about his home in India and his little mother and his brothers and sisters. I had tears in my eyes listening to him. He doesn’t go into the bar with the other men. I watch him sometimes from my bedroom window. He is a Moslem. He prays, kneeling and prostrating himself on the ground. He always comes to the tap in the yard to wash himself first. Sometimes he wears a turban and baggy pants and a waistcoat. He looks different from the drovers... Some of them don’t like him and call him ‘that bloody Afghan’”.
Six months went by. One day Ali walked into the kitchen. “Come,” he said, holding out his hand. “Come with me and be my wife”. He took her to a room he called home, where they had a wedding with only Allah as witness. “First we must bathe and then ask Allah to bless our union.” He stood beside her and with his arms raised above his head called, “Allahu Akbar”. Ali then thanked Allah “for giving me this woman”.
Lindsay notes that “for the first time in her life [Winifred] felt herself truly loved. ...Suddenly, she was afraid. She knew that if she ever lost him it would be more than she could bear. ‘Allah,’ she whispered. ‘Keep my Ali safe’”.
Soon they had a son, Yousef Deen, followed by another, Rhamat (Rahmat), and a daughter, Pansy. Ali decided to go where the real money lay, in the camel caravans. He settled in Oodnadatta in South Australia, the terminus for the railway and the starting point of the camel trains, which set off when the fortnightly train arrived from Adelaide. For a start, Ali became a cameleer’s “companion driver”. “Some days later,” Winifred recounts, “the camel train moved out, and I went too. Ali was in charge of twenty loaded camels with a native or two [aborigines] to help.”
“We never traveled on a Friday, the camel men had five sessions of prayer that day.... The rule prescribed prayer five times a day for other days as well, but when on trek it was reduced to three — at sunrise, sunset, and noon. Ali never stinted when asked for any charitable purpose, he spoke ill of no one, tolerant to all other religions and strong in his own.”
“It was a rough life, walking in the sun, heat, and blinding dust, but I did not let it worry me”, Winifred recalls. “We were young, happy and in love, each morning was a new, happy day. I was overjoyed to be with him; I had eaten my fill of lonely years before I met him, so I thrived on this rough, romantic life”.

One day a letter arrived from India. Ali’s parents wanted him home to settle a land dispute. He had lucrative contracts to fulfill but, he told Winifred, “it is my duty as a son. I must go to my mother”. Ali left, promising to return soon, “before our camels return.” With a heavy heart, Winifred bid him goodbye.

Weeks turned into months and there was no news of Ali. Worried, Winifred caught a train to Adelaide, a thousand kilometers away, hoping to get some news at the mosque there. Ali, the imam told her, had died with many others when cholera struck his village. Her happy life had been cut short.

Later she asked the imam about inheritance. “You are not one of us,” he replied. “You do not know the Islamic code. You have no claim on your husband’s estate because there is no record of your marriage.” “How will we live?” Winifred asked. “I will find you another husband’” the imam assured her.

With Ali no more, Winifred mustered the courage to return to Oodnadatta to carry on the trade as before, only to find that all their camels had been stolen by the other cameleers. Ali’s wife and children had been left in the lurch by his erstwhile friends.
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Article first appeared on Daily Times, 08/03/2007