Most of my recent borrowings from Surry Hills and Wollongong Libraries have been fiction, but I thought I would begin this catch-up series with the non-fiction.
1. Jim Hagen and Andrew Wells (eds), A History of Wollongong, UOW Press 1997.
While there had been much published about local history over the years, this book is the first full-scale scholarly treatment of the subject ranging from the long Aboriginal past to close to the present day. The Illawarra is a region that has witnessed much change, a fact the then Governor-General Michael Jeffrey alluded to in a speech on 11 November 2005:
Ladies and gentlemen. I understand that from the first small nucleus of European settlement along the shores of Lake Illawarra and the Macquarie Rivulet in the 1820s, land grants brought people south towards Kiama, north towards Bulli and inland to Kangaroo Valley. According to the history of Wollongong commissioned by the City Council, the names of those early grantees reads like a “Who’s Who” of colonial society – including D’Arcy Wentworth, Mary Reiby and Gregory Blaxland.
By 1828, most employment in the Wollongong region was timber getting and land clearing for farming – it’s a story repeated by pioneers throughout Australia.
Yet few centres could recognise the impact and magnitude of the coal industry that developed here, and with it the magnificent harbour which began shipping coal in 1849. No surprise then that in the six decades from 1840, Wollongong’s population rose to more than 17,000, an increase exceeding 2000 per cent in that period.
It’s often said that Australia has become the great nation it is – a cooperative, friendly one – because Australians have not lost their ability to face adversity square on, they are adaptable, they are innovative (prepared to “have a go”), and they believe in a “fair go”, that is justice.
However, few communities have been without their share of significant hardships.
Wollongong itself has endured its share of challenges and learned to deal with them. From 1928 onwards the steelworks had dominated Wollongong’s economic life, and by its nature also connected the region with the outside world. Like most Australians, I recall the era when your local economy was virtually reliant on BHP, in the days when it employed in excess of 22,000 people.
In 2005 however the workforce number in that industry is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000…
Ladies and gentlemen. What attracts people to Wollongong and the Illawarra region? Surely it’s not just the beautiful landscape and ocean – as magnificent as these are?
I believe there are other factors, and I include here, the community’s desire and ability to look after itself – to remain close knit yes – but also to look beyond its boundaries.
The Hagan Wells history of Wollongong opens its chapter entitled “The Garden of Illawarra” with this honest assessment: “From the beginnings of European settlement, Illawarra’s natural environment has attracted both developers and spoilers, and there has been tension between those who appreciated the intrinsic value of this environmental garden and those who saw in it only resources to be exploited. In time the exploiters created significant environmental damage; in turn, that damage provoked an environmental consciousness.
The point here is that there will be disagreements and frank exchanges of view from time to time in our communities, but none that cannot be worked through sensibly.
It seems to me that communities such as Wollongong have the capacity to manage the challenges – which this region has done, for well over 150 years.
Your contributions underpin the theme I have been repeating across Australia, urging Australians to aspire to become what I call a “Nation of Excellence – the Global Example”.
A nation whose people – both individually and collectively – strive to be the very best at everything to which they turn their minds and hands. A nation that boasts the strongest families, the best institutions, the best economy, the best professions, the best environment; an admired national ethos…
I have found the book, the work of fourteen authors over a period of more than two years, extremely informative.
2. Zachary Karabell, The People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West, John Murray 2007.
In their preface to A History of Wollongong Hagen and Wells make some sensible observations about the science and art of history, which is not the simple recounting of what sources, appropriately weighed for authenticity and context, tell us. Rather, historians make their accounts cohere by framing questions. If your question is “Why is Islam so violent?” that’s what you will tend to find, while if your question depends on the presupposition that Islam is a religion of peace, that is what you will tend to find. Now my account there is a gross oversimplification but nonetheless serves to explain the excellence of Karabell’s excellent history. In The Atlantic Monthly recently Karabell enunciated his approach in the context of the NY “mosque” controversy:
Over the past two months, the planned construction of a Muslim cultural center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site has become the fulcrum of an acrimonious debate about religion, freedom of expression, and the place of Islam in the United States. You would have had to be living off-the-grid somewhere not to have noticed the hundreds of opinion pieces, thousands of blogs, and considerable airtime on television and radio. As characterized by Newt Gingrich, the planned center is no less than the latest chapter in a war of civilizations: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
By now, defenders of the plan have made clear that the proposed “Cordoba House” (also known as Park51) isn’t a mosque per se; it is a cultural center that would include a prayer room. It is modeled after the YMCA or various Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States, complete with a theater, recreational facilities, and day care. It is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who have been active in numerous interfaith initiatives for many years, both of whom live and work in New York City. Rauf – who during much of the controversy was touring the Persian Gulf sponsored by the U.S. government to promote cooperation – said of his initiative “I can assure that whatever we do will increase harmony and peace and well being, both within our city, our community, our nation and the world.”
Yet in spite of these soothing words and Rauf’s own history of moderation, many remain hostile and are unlikely to be swayed. You would think from the tenor of the opposition that Park51 was being sponsored by al-Qaeda and is slated to include a weapons lab along with a radical madrassa. Describing it as a “beach head,” as many opponents have, casts the center as the vanguard of a new wave of Muslim armies that used to assail the Western (aka Christian) world at regular intervals over the course of a thousand years from the death of Muhammad in 622 through the last failed Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. Perhaps most striking about the vehement opposition to the center is the degree to which history is used as proof of ill-intent. It’s often – and correctly – said about American culture that historical memory is scant, but in the case of Islam, it is surprisingly robust.
But it is also distressingly selective. Yes, there is a thousand year history of Muslim conquests of Christian lands. There is also a more recent history of conflict between Arab countries and the state of Israel, and the acts of terror perpetuated by those who claim the mantle of Islam to justify their deeds. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 seared American consciousness and are the immediate source of the emotional outrage that has greeted the planned center so close to the site of those brutal attacks. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only augmented the intensity of these feelings.
Defenders of the project have called on American traditions of live-and-let-live, religious freedom, and diversity. They have also warned that the backlash against Park51 risks becoming a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda et al and used as proof that Americans really do hate Muslims. But in truth, the intense opposition draws from a deeper well than American history or 9/11. It taps into a Western meme familiar in Europe and woven through American culture, a visceral memory of war and conflict reified by cultural echoes of crusades and scimitars that we all seem to share.
But the history of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the centuries is more than a litany of violence, discrimination and atrocities. To remember that history isn’t to invalidate the very real episodes of violence and hatred but a history composed only of those is like reading every other page of a book. It so distorts and loses context that it becomes a false reading of the past, even if the particulars are quite true…
Read the rest of that, and better yet, read the book.