The Broken Hill Mosque Museum, marking the site of a former camel camp, is officially open two hours a week. At other times, you just need to call co-ordinator Bobby Shamroze on the prompter and he’ll come open the high warp-wire door, show you around, and tell a hell of a story.
Its history is just as interesting as that of the simple wooden and tin mosque in North Broken Hill where Afghan and Indian drivers once loaded their camels, which carried anything from bales of straw and wool to pipes and pianolas. Shamroze is much more than a guardian of the building which is shaded by date palms and painted a deep desert red. He is a living link to the cameleers who in 1891 built what is now the last mosque in outback Australia. His father, Shamroze Khan, and his maternal grandfather, Ziadulla Fazulla, were both cameleers who transported goods to railway stations in the region. Fazulla was the last mullah (religious leader) of the mosque.
Shamroze, 82, doesn’t know much about his father, a camel trader and driver who managed to gain and lose a fortune before his death in 1952. “My old man was 62 when I arrived,” Shamroze said. “I haven’t found anything about him and I still can’t find out anything about him.”
His mother, Miriam, decades younger than her husband, abandoned the family when Shamroze was four. “After Mom left, it was hard,” he says of his childhood. When he was little, “I jumped on the train and ran away to Adelaide to look for my mother”.
“I just found my way around the place because I had been there with my dad,” he says. “He used to go down to the Adelaide Mosque.” It was the time, he says, when “you could disappear for a month and nobody would worry about you”.
The last time he ran away he found his mother working in a pub. He started going to school in Adelaide but was soon placed in a series of boys’ homes. Shamroze returned to Broken Hill to live briefly with his grandfather before becoming a shearer, wool presser and mine worker. At 17, he met his future wife. He and Janet remain married 65 years later.
It’s a story as colorful as the mosque, which faces Mecca. The non-religious Shamroze – ‘When I was in the boys’ house I went to a different church every week’ – never had much to do with the mosque in his younger years, other than death of his grandfather in 1960. Shamroze and his uncle washed his body there before burial.
With Fazulla’s death, the mosque fell into disrepair. After the Broken Hill Historical Society restored the building, it was repurposed as a place of worship in 1968. Today, the antechamber displays photographs, books, and artifacts, and Muslim visitors sometimes come to kneel on prayer rugs in the adjacent mint green prayer hall. made from stamped sheet metal.
Sheltered in the courtyard is a weathered cart, once pulled by no less than 16 camels. These wagons were just as important as camel trains when it came to hauling heavy supplies into the backcountry. In the 1920s, motorized transport supplanted camel transport.
Although Shamroze Khan remains an enigma, another trace of him can be found in Broken Hill. The camel driver’s gold-embroidered emerald green silk velvet jacket, once on display at the mosque, is now in the collection of the Sulphide Street Railway and Historical Museum. Fantasy threads tell of Khan’s unique wealth, but no one knows for sure where or when it came into his possession.
His son never gave much thought to the family’s incredible history, but that all changed when Shamroze joined the historical society and then started tending the mosque museum about 12 years ago. “I’m here to keep the history and the name – and try to give a little name to the former cameleers who worked in the country,” he says.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Broken Hill three times a week. See qantas.com
The Broken Hill Mosque Museum is at 703 Williams Street; entrance by donation of gold coins. The museum is open on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment. See Brokenhillhistoricalsociety.com
The writer was a guest of Qantas and Destination NSW.