Despite its location at the southern end of the Indian archipelago, Australia is rarely understood as part of South Asia. Even when discussed critically as a settler colony, Australian history is overwhelmingly told through English language sources: British “discovery” in 1770, penal settlement from 1788, federation and the White Australia Policy in 1901, the nation’s slow and reluctant acknowledgement of the lie of terra nullius, and its post-World War II foreign policy shift in allegiance from Britain to the United States. Samia Khatun’s Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia offers a radically different telling of Australian history. Khatun not only uses non-English-language sources to write neglected aspects of Australian history, she also strives to use anti-colonial epistemological methods through which to read them. The result is an engaging account of Australia as an island in the Indian Ocean, one which has long been home and host to Aboriginal and Asian-language stories, knowledge and people. In Khatun’s account, white British settlement is rightly relegated to the margins of this island-continent’s long brown and black history.
Australianama is an odyssey revolving around an old book mislabelled as a Qur’an and placed on the shelves of a mosque in Broken Hill, central Australia. For most readers, the first surprise is that there is a mosque in Broken Hill, let alone one that dates back to 1887. Broken Hill is a mining town founded on the country of Wiljakali people in the late 1800s, where the then nascent Broken Hill Proprietary Limited (BHP) grew its fortunes mining iron ore and silver (Khatun 2019: 1). Like most regional Australian towns, Broken Hill is firmly white and Christian in the national imaginary. When the regional town of Bendigo, some seven hundred kilometers from Broken Hill, approved plans to build a mosque in 2014, police were called in to protect the mayor from violent white nationalists who stormed a council meeting shouting “no mosque.” Yet as Khatun demonstrates, non-European cultures have a much longer history on the Australian continent than dominant discourse or political rhetoric on immigration tends to acknowledge. “Arriving each year with sailing craft propelled by monsoon winds,” Khatun writes, “stories about the prophets of Islam travelled to the Australian mainland long before European colonisers did” (20).
The book mislabelled "The Holy Koran" in Broken Hill was actually a nineteenth-century copy of Kasasol Ambia, a collection of Bengali Sufi poetry, printed in Calcutta. It contained eight stories, each written as songs to be performed for audiences (2). Khatun sets out to follow the stories of the book, both in the sense of asking how this particular copy of Kasasol Ambia had made its way to be mislabelled in a central Australian mosque, and in taking seriously the knowledge contained in its pages. This knowledge is expressed in stories which thread together events spanning thousands of years of history up until the sixth year of the Muslim Hijri calendar (or 628AD) (27).
Before she begins her quest following Kasasol Ambia, Khatun explains to readers–in the preface–a personal realisation which becomes key to her research method and writing style. Desperately trying to advocate for her mother in a south-west Sydney hospital, it suddenly became clear, Khatun writes, that “Western states cannot bomb, exploit, drone, invade and kill South Asians and have us as part of their citizenry at the same time” (xvii). Her understanding of what Australia is and her place in it collapsed as she abandoned her commitment to a “Destination: West” migrant narrative that she had been told and in turn told herself about her movement from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Sydney, Australia, as a child (xvi-xvii). This collapsing left space for new stories to be told and new commonalities to be realised. In particular, Khatun sees that although non-white migrants and indigenous people arrive at the institutions of Anglo-European nation-states by different trajectories, “all their lives veer from scripts of progress from East to West, from the Third World to the First, Aboriginal country to settler nation. What they have in common is that they no longer have narratives to inhabit: no tales that can hold together their experiences of the world, carrying them smoothly from yesterday to today to tomorrow” (xviii).
Australianama re-enlivens some of these narratives. Khatun offers an understanding of Australian history based on a different order of things, one that emerges through narrative motifs found by reading the stories of the Kasasol Ambia through interpretive strategies that reject the notion that European epistemic traditions are superior to those of colonised people (14). In compiling this history, Khatun approaches the Indian Ocean as “a site of epistemic struggle… as something akin to an immense reservoir of knowledges” (21). The result, Australianama, is a book which offers anti-colonial knowledge about this region of the world, which is not disciplined into European epistemology and its linear track of “progress” destined for White Australia (101). Weaving together Aboriginal and South Asian knowledge as constitutive parts of the long and continuing history of the Indian Ocean, Australianama offers its readers a different way of understanding these areas of land and the water that connects them. Khatun writes this history in new and refreshing ways, arguing for example that the richest and most detailed accounts of South Asians in nineteenth-century Australia are to be found in Aboriginal languages spoken in the Australian desert (3); that striking South Asian lascars met Aboriginal workers at docksides and from there built some of the strongest anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century (39); that Beltana, a pastoral property in South Australia built on Kuyani people’s land, was the site of the first Australian camel depot in 1866 and also a site where the trajectories of different people from across the British Empire intersected in politically diverse and unpredictable ways (90); that some Aboriginal women envisioned marriage to South Asian men as a way to escape settler regimes (158).
Khatun’s interwoven stories of Aboriginal and South Asian Australia offer a mode of thinking that fosters a solidarity between people of colour in Australia–whether Aboriginal, Islander or non-white immigrant–that moves beyond a liberal mode of identity politics that retains whiteness at its centre and tends to pit “minorities” against each other. Khatun instead offers an understanding of the world through shared histories of colonial violence and dispossession, but also of resistance, creativity and knowledge. With an acute awareness of the role Australia plays as a strategic base for Anglo-empires to surveill and launch military attacks on its Muslim neighbours, Khatun demonstrates that the stories long circulating the Indian Ocean according to the logics of non-Anglo-European philosophies offer powerful tools with which to rethink the problem of knowledge and power (21). Re-storying Australia in this way not only fosters new solidarities between racially marginalised people, it also documents the historical and present reality of such solidarities. Some of the most powerful expressions of solidarity with the mainly Muslim refugees detained by Australia in Pacific island prisons in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, for example, have come from Aboriginal activists. In a video made by the refugee-run group Rise in response to the Australian Immigration Minister’s statement that many of the detained refugees cannot speak English, founding member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Gary Foley states: “I am a professor of history, and I can tell you that English has only been spoken on this continent for a fraction of its history. And the most dangerous ‘boat people’ to come here were the ones that spoke English.” Foley’s historicization of English as the language brought to the Australian continent on colonial ships engaged in a violent imperial project premised on racist fiction delegitimises white Australian assertions of cultural ownership and political authority over the land that today constitutes Australia and its surrounding waters. Australianama adds to this crucial project of delegitimization, translating the Kasasol Ambia such that the knowledge within its pages is freed from decades of being silenced through English mis-labelling, and allowed to sing.