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Melbourne in July

In the first week of July, I attended the Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference. It was my first time attending - and presenting! The theme for this year was Milestones, and for the past three years I’ve been writing a narrative non-fiction book on the history of Muslims in Australia through the life of Sheikh Fehmi Imam. So, I thought: this is my chance to see if there's interest in this book.

I took a plane from Sydney to Melbourne, brought along my husband and little girl, too, and we made a little holiday of it. We explored the cute little cafes Melbourne had to offer in between conference sessions, and frightfully learnt how to do a 'hook turn' - a road rule that does not exist in the streets of Sydney.

Melbourne was also a perfect opportunity for me to explore the streets I’d become so familiar with in the three years I’ve been writing this novel. It was surreal because up until this point, these roads and monuments and places were just dots on a map online. Pictures. Immersing myself within the spaces allowed me to get a feel of what these places once were in the post-war period of community development.

We explored the Islamic Museum of Australia where I’ve exhibited artworks before once upon a time where art truly defined my life. The Museum was spectacular and followed the historical development of Islam and its early Muslims across the world, the arrival of the first Macassan fishers from the South East along the Northern shores of Australia, the nineteenth century settlement of Muslim Cameleers that were central to the building of Australia's regional economies, the post-war arrival of Muslims, including Sheikh Fehmi Imam himself, and contemporary Muslims in Australia.

We also went to visit Preston Mosque - the very mosque organised and built by Sheikh Fehmi himself in 1974 - and the first large scale mosque in Melbourne's history.

And, of course, we went to visit the State Library of Victoria. I had been searching for a particular book on the legalities of burial rights across the country, and there was ONE copy available and it was in Melbourne. The timing was perfect! I think the last time I stepped foot into a library was back in ‘09 (I know, whaaaat?!) but it’s largely because I like to own my books and cherish the idea of having a library within the walls of my home. It felt good, though, to walk into such a beautiful institution, to be reminded of the power books and words and archives have and how they help us understand who we are and who we once were. I have a whole new newsletter post about this that you can read here!

Anyway, the AHA conference! The conference was hosted by the Australian Catholic University on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. The theme Milestones was chosen to mark the 50th anniversary of AHA and to reflect on Australia's historical profession and its overall historical developments. I presented a paper on Sheikh Fehmi Imam, an Australian Muslim pioneer who spearheaded the development and social integration of Muslims living in Victoria (another fitting theme of this conference!). My abstract read as follows:

It is 1951. The rhythmic chug of the Hellenic Prince slowly comes to life as the last of Lebanese and Syrian passengers embark. The waves pound forcefully against the Port of Beirut as the ship surges forward. In the distance, a gust of wind twirls across the water’s surface, as if guiding the ship on its long journey. The promise of a future in the far away land of Down Under awaits a young twenty-four-year-old man from the bustling streets of Tripoli, Lebanon, known by the name of Fehmi Naji El-Imam, as he disembarks at the Port of Melbourne. Little did he know, he would later become the Grand Mufti of Australia. Using a combination of storytelling, archive discoveries and oral histories, this chapter follows a concise recount of Fehmi El-Imam’s journey as a migrant in Australia. It is a historical discovery of the ways in which the Australian Muslim community gradually blossomed under his leadership. Told using qualitative research methods, the story adds nuance to our understanding of how the Muslim community came to successfully integrate into Australian society, and how Australia accommodated its development through its own historical circumstances, with a specific and unique focus on milestones.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. Later, my husband told me: ‘Great presentation, but you could have gone easy on the “ums”!’ Ah, well. Despite my nervousness, the audience were engaged and many asked to speak with me afterward to learn more about my topic, which was super heartening!

But what made me so nervous was that Sheila Fitzpatrick - a notable and well respected historian of Russian history - attended my presentation. I’d bumped into her a day before, and got to chatting. I casually invited her to my talk, but of course, didn’t think much of it. Then, there she was in the audience, nodding encouragingly.

Here’s a photo of the two of us!

Shiela Fitzpatrick is the person who inspired me to truly get into the field of history. Her book A Spy in the Archives transformed my life and made me fall in love with history in a while new way I never thought possible. I was 19 when I first met Sheila as a student during a lecture at the University of Sydney. And now, ten years later, we meet again. Just beautiful!

And that's all about Melbourne in July!

Until next time,

Mirela xx

1 Comment

That is so great!

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