The most enduring legacies are born of the most colourful lives. – Fabergé
It was 1882. The young traveller paused to watch as the familiar land of the Mughal empire receded into the distance. He was on a steamship bound for the remote and rugged shores of Australia in search of his fortune. Alighting at the port of Fremantle with only his sharp business acumen and a few rupees in hand, he quickly rose to prominence as an accomplished entrepreneur. By the end of the century, he was a renowned property mogul and international merchant integral in charting out early trade routes between Australia and Asia.
This remarkable young man, Khawaja Mohammad Bux, was my great-grandfather.
More than ninety years later, I traced the return journey from Terra Australis back to the land of my forefathers on a family holiday with my mother Salma and older siblings Aalia and Adil. We landed in Karachi on a hazy summer’s afternoon. Upon alighting from the aircraft all my senses were under siege. My eyes squinted against the streaming solar rays and a sharp smell of manure invaded my nostrils. As we marched towards the dilapidated arrival hall, I felt a searing heat rising from the tarmac and couldn’t avoid swallowing the vaporous jet fumes that surrounded us. And yet none of that mattered. During the car ride home from the airport I was completely mesmerised with the exotic sights and sounds I encountered along the way. I had finally arrived in the place to which I had so often travelled in my imagination and it felt like home.
My childhood in Australia was filled with fascinating tales of my great grandfather’s many escapades. His autobiography is one of the few documented accounts of early Muslim settlers in Western Australia and provides a unique and often whimsical memoir of his adventurous and charmed life. He hailed from a Kashmiri family in the silk weaving trade who had settled in pre-partition Lahore. Describing himself as the “Musafir” (the Sojourner) he had run away from home at the age of 16, driven by an unbridled urge to explore the world around him. A born risk taker, his wanderlust led him to travel extensively across the former British India and Europe before he realised his dream to go to Australia – the country with gold mines – the Lucky Country. He arrived with negligible financial resources to his name. By 1898, through sheer will and tenacity he was described in The West Australian newspaper as a “leading man among the Asiatic residents of the city”.
Ahead of his time in many ways, he was one of only a handful of Pakistani entrepreneurs who had successful business interests across the globe, traversing two very different worlds with ease. In Lahore, the family residence was aptly-named Australia Building and the clan were fondly known as the ‘Australia-wallas’. Remaining loyal to his faith, he took great pride in financing the construction of the Australia Masjid in the early 1900s, which is still standing in Lahore today. He was also the co-founder of the Perth Mosque. Prior to its construction, he would pray on the shores of the Swan River, facing west towards his beloved Indian Ocean.
My sister Aalia and I have spent many years researching the history of our ancestors with the support of Professor Samina Yasmeen from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Our heritage has spanned several continents, an enormous and varied extended family and remained deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of our Islamic culture.
My life has been a series of homecomings and I feel fortunate to have cultivated strong roots in several places. It’s a privilege to call two different worlds home…
Property holdings in Perth and Pakistan allowed successive generations of my family to move back and forth between the two destinations. My grandfather, Khawaja Amir Bux, was born in Perth in 1903 and continued the family’s business links travelling frequently between both countries. My granduncle, Khawaja Bashir Bux, chose to settle in Lahore and true to his father’s legacy he saw an opportunity to begin a business venture and opened Australasia Bank in 1942. It was the only fully functional bank at the time of Pakistan’s creation in August 1947 and has since been acquired by Allied Bank.
My father, Khawaja Sadiq Amir Bux was born in Lahore in 1930 and went back to Perth as a student to study at UWA. He was one of the earliest pioneers in the halal meat industry, and had a thriving export business servicing South East Asia and the Middle East. Before he passed away in 2010, he received an award from the Australian Meat Industry Council “in recognition of his unwavering contribution, leadership and understanding in support of the Halal red meat industry in Australia over five decades.”
My father was a larger than life character with a kind and generous heart. He was also an active patron of the arts sponsoring major Pakistani artists such as the maestro Mehdi Hasan and the legendary painter Sadeqain on their visits to Australia. He was passionate about ghazals along with Urdu and Punjabi poetry and when the music started he was the first one to get up and dance. Remembered by his many friends as a gregarious soul, he had the gift of the gab in several languages. I am proud that I have a lot of my father in me. I love to dance, am multilingual and am an extrovert ready to strike up a conversation with anyone I meet.
My life has been a series of homecomings and I feel fortunate to have cultivated strong roots in several places. It’s a privilege to call two different worlds home and be comfortable in both. I am an Aussie born and bred, and at the same time I have a palpable sense of the Pakistani blood coursing through my veins. I revel in all the various facets of my identity as a French-speaking Pakistani-Australian Muslim.
After completing a degree in French language and literature at UWA, I spent an unforgettable year on scholarship in the picture-perfect Loire Valley town of Tours. I was teaching conversational English to a group of high school students only a few years my junior and made some close friendships during my stay. I did however get homesick, especially faced with the unending grey, snow-filled winter days. It was then that I decided to spread my wings even further and go live and work in Pakistan.
When I arrived in Karachi in January 1992, I was greeted with the same sights and sounds to which I had become accustomed, having spent every Christmas holiday in Pakistan since I was a child. However, when I started working at the customer service desk at American Express nothing seemed familiar to me. Pakistani office culture took some getting used to and although I could understand Urdu, my spoken ability was abysmal. I would stumble and make mistakes and felt completely out of my depth. In a short space of time however, my confidence grew and I realised Urdu grammar followed many of the same rules as French.
My love of all things French was the deciding factor when I switched over to work at Société Générale Bank a year later. I was taken under the wing of my mentor and friend Mrs Ishrat Abid who had been instrumental in the French bank’s establishment in Pakistan.
So what is living in Pakistan really like? The media erroneously portray it as a country of bearded men in turbans lining up to join the Taliban, and women walking around in burqas. Let me paint a picture of Karachi at that time. I was the events manager at the bank and was out almost every night. I’d attend art exhibitions and jazz concerts at the Alliance Francaise with my colleagues Mohsin and Kashif. I frequently went out dancing with my friends Maleeha and Farhi. We were invited to Bollywood-style weddings, glamorous fashion shows, charity balls and late-night soirees that lasted till six in the morning. The social life was so intense that I often flitted between three to four events each weekend night. Karachi seemed like the Pakistani equivalent of Beverly Hills in the throes of awards season. And it was a lot of fun.
I had made so many friends and was surrounded by a large and loving extended family, I had been living there for more than 10 years, so eventually Karachi had started to feel like home. Then one day my charmed life came crashing down in an instant.
It was a Friday morning and I was on the phone with a client when all of a sudden I hear a thunderous boom. The phone falls out of my hand and my gut instinct tells me to duck for cover under my desk. The sound was so loud it reverberated throughout my entire body then it was followed by a dull, deafening silence. Never before and never again have I heard a sound so eerie.
Under the desk I could see blood on the floor. It was my blood. I look more closely and I see the cut on my ankle but thankfully it was only the size of a five cent piece. At this point I am still cowering under my desk paralysed with fear. I look out from behind me and see that the glass wall between my office and the road has completely shattered. I am exposed to the elements. A dust cloud of debris has enveloped the street outside, looming large like a deadly tsunami heading straight towards me. I scramble out from under my desk, crawl over the rubble and rush into the main office.
I start to hear people and chaos. Shards of glass have broken off and flown around the main office wreaking havoc in their wake. I see Mohsin and I am horrified. Pieces of glass have sliced his forehead and the back of his neck and he is bleeding profusely. I take one look at him and without thinking, I rush him to my car so I can drive him to the nearest hospital. At this point we have no idea what caused the explosion and what awaits us outside on the street.
We reach the emergency department and I hand him over to the medical team. I am told I need a tetanus shot. It took all of 10 minutes and then I was free to go. I am still in shock but I manage to drive home and collapse on my bed and fall asleep within minutes. Sixteen hours later I wake up, dazed and confused thinking it had all been a bad dream. I turn on the TV and then I see the news. A suicide bomber had driven an explosive laden truck into the US Consulate that was only a few hundred metres from my office. It was a huge shock. Terrorist attacks were not common in Pakistan in those days. Then it sunk in – the nightmare had been all too real.
On Monday morning I went back to work. My office had been boarded up on all sides like a coffin. It was so claustrophobic I couldn’t breathe. I just had to get out of there. It was then I decided to come back home to the safety, sanity and slower pace of Perth. My Pakistan experiment was over for the foreseeable future.
Despite the traumatic incident, the most lasting memory of my time in Pakistan is that of the boundless love and affection I received from my extended family and friends. Whether it was the warm embrace of the matriarchs who would scold and spoil in equal measure, or the multitude of cousins and friends with whom I would spend every waking moment, it was a homecoming like no other. These people were so much like me and yet different. It was as though my heart were reflected in a myriad of multi-faceted gemstones, each one shining more brilliantly than the next. These were my people, this was my tribe, I had arrived in the truest sense of the word and my life would never be the same again.
Knowing who you are is inextricably linked to knowing where you came from. It is important to hear and retell the stories of the past, of one’s ancestors and the amazing times in which they lived. We must cherish our family narratives and the nuggets of wisdom passed down for the benefit of the generations to follow. We must pledge to keep telling those stories so that the lives and loves of our forebears continue to endure beyond the physical constraints of time and space, never to be forgotten.
Images courtesy of Tammy Bux.