The Broken Hill Mosque featured recently in the Sydney Morning Herald Traveller. When I read the story I decided that I must visit the historic building when visiting the outback town. The caretaker and curator, called Bobby in the article, made time to meet me outside of the usual Friday opening times.
Arriving at Broken Hill Mosque on Foot
Approaching the mosque on foot, I can see the tops of palm trees above the corrugated iron roofs of suburban homes. I guess that that’s where I’m heading. Bobby is in the garden. He explains that the palm trees are a newish addition. They were planted in 1965 by the Broken Hill Historical Society which manages the Mosque Museum.
Then he gives me the bad news. There’s no toilet at the Broken Hill Mosque. I’ve walked for almost an hour in the hot sun to get here and now, I’ll have to wait. But I soon forget my need for the bathroom. Bobby is most engaging, sharing stories about his life, his family and the mosque.
Ammin Nullah “Bobby” Shamroze Khan
He begins by telling me that he was named Ammin Nullah Shamroze Khan, but like his cameleer father before him, he is known as “Bobby”. I’ll call him by his correct name, Ammin. Dressed in a black T Shirt and black jeans, his thick short grey hair framing his swarthy face, he leads me into the small two roomed red corrugated iron-clad mosque.
A large table, some blue chairs and a couple of display cases fill the small first room, more like a museum than a mosque. Ammin points to a cameleer vest in a glass display case. It was owned “by a mate of my dad” he tells me. Next to the vest are shoes and headgear.
Framed photographs of cameleers rest on another display case which houses more artefacts.
Ammin puts on a couple of videos for me to watch. One explains the how the mosque was restored. The other deals with some of the history behind the mosque.
The Prayer Room
I look into the prayer room where visiting Muslims still come to pray. Prayer mats of various designs, some quite worn, lay in rows on the wooden floor. I remove my shoes before entering through the narrow doorway. The pressed metal walls are a pale mint green. In an alcove opposite the entrance hangs a lamp. It was presented to mosque by the High Commissioner of Pakistan in 1971. A Koran rests on a low stand to the side of the alcove.
Ammin Shares Stories of his Life
Sitting on a wooden bench behind a table, Ammin happily shares stories from his youth. He has fitted a lot into his 80 plus years. Opening a yellow plastic folder, he pulls out a pile of old family photographs. They are well thumbed and depict cameleers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives. As he sifts through the photos, he reminisces, telling stories prompted by the photographs.
One is a black and white class photo. Boys in white shirts and dark pants and girls wearing neat white dresses sit on benches smiling at the camera. Ammin wonders if any of them are still alive. He is the only dark-skinned child amongst them. He tells me he never had any problems with the other kids. If they did bother him, he says, he soon put them right.
Ammin’s father used to go to South Australia to buy camels off the boats. He then drove them up to Broken Hill to sell. I hear about how Ammin’s mother left the family home when he was very young. She went to Adelaide. He ran away to Adelaide to find her. He did find her, but ended up in a boy’s home.
He is not religious. At the home, the boys went to a different church every Sunday. One day, he found himself seated in a small ‘cupboard’ with a heavy velvet curtain to one side of him. A deep male voice from the other side of the curtain asked him if he had sinned. This was a new situation for him and he grunted something like “what?” The voice repeated the question. Ammin replied “No, I haven’t and even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you!” That was the end of his Catholic experience.
Looking at a photo of his cameleer father, Ammin describes how the camel train would pull up outside the mosque which, in those days, was on the outskirts of Broken Hill. The cameleers rested there after their long journey. They prayed before setting off again. The “first removalists”, they were instrumental in opening up Australia’s interior. Although they are described today as Afghan Cameleers, they were from many different countries including Pakistan, India and even Egypt and Turkey.
Ammin spent time on the boxing circuit. The pay wasn’t very good and he only stayed five or six months. Pay as a roustabout on the mines was better. He also worked on a sheep station. On his first day working on a sheep station, he killed the wrong sheep, much to his boss’s displeasure. Fortunately, the boss’s wife stood up for him, saying that the instructions hadn’t been clear.
While we are sitting chatting other visitors have driven past, seen that the gate is open and come to have a look. They don’t linger. I, on the other hand, spend close to two hours at the mosque.
Volunteering at the Broken Hill Mosque
A dedicated volunteer with the Broken Hill Historical Society, Ammin has spent many years researching his family history, the history of the cameleers and the history of the mosque. Now, he is training someone to take his place.
Resting on the bench next to Ammin is a yellow shoulder bag embroidered with a brightly coloured camel. He proudly tells me that his wife Janet made the bag. They have been married over 60 years.
Ammin gives me a ride home
Ammin is a kind hearted man, with a lovely dry sense of humour. He offers to drive me back to my hotel, and I gratefully accept. He tells me that he has a camel at his place. I’m confused, but he doesn’t elaborate.
We drive past where his grandfather, the last Mullah of the mosque, and father both had houses. His grandfather’s house was behind the mosque. He directed water from his home to the mosque so that the cameleers could wash before praying.
Ammin points out his house, painted yellow with a green trim. It’s over 100 years old but looks new. There’s a weathervane in the front yard. Taking pride of place at the top is a camel.
- Read more about the Broken Hill Mosque Museum here
- The mosque is at 703 Williams St, Broken Hill
- The Mosque Museum is usually open on a Friday from 11 to 1 pm. It is also open by appointment at other times. Phone 0400 184 260
- Entry is by gold coin donation