Victoria University history expert Associate Professor Kate Hunter, reminds New Zealanders of our rich connections with the Middle East.

There is a photograph on the wall of my mother-in-law’s house of two men in uniform. Rather incongruously, they are sitting astride bespangled camels, pyramids in the background.

The photo will be familiar to many New Zealanders, except the men (and probably the camels) will be different. Perhaps, in your family, the men are standing beside kneeling camels or the people in uniform are women. I have another friend whose relatives are posed in civilian clothes: my friend’s uncle had worn his uniform in 1918, but this picture was taken on his honeymoon in the early 1930s. He’d returned to the Middle East, as many ex-servicemen and women did, as a tourist and had taken his new wife with him.

These photographs are a hint of the rich connections New Zealanders had with the Middle East a hundred years ago. In January 1915, over half the 84,000 Allied troops in Egypt were Australians or New Zealanders, and thousands more were to pass through, train and work in the region over the next four years.

The region wasn’t a total mystery to them. Raised in Christian households, attending church or Sunday school, New Zealanders’ knowledge of the Holy Land was quite extensive by the outbreak of World War I. Sources of knowledge about the ‘near East’ also included school lessons about the Nile, racy plays and novels about harems, ballet and literature, as well as the explosion of publishing for children in which imperial adventuring in the deserts was staple fare.

None of these sources was particularly ethnographically reliable—far from it in many cases—but for the generations of New Zealanders who travelled to the Middle East in large numbers during two world wars this knowledge shaped their expectations of the region and its peoples.

While travel to the Middle East became easier and quicker in the early twentieth century and the Suez Canal was the portal through which all New Zealanders passed en route to Britain, war sharpened the nation’s focus on the region. Aden, Port Said, Alexandria, Cairo and, of course, the Dardanelles were all names well known to relatives and friends of soldiers and nurses, and to anyone who read a newspaper.

The region became a place of work, battle, life, love and death. Letters and cards poured home describing the people and sights. Some writers hated the sand and the dirt; others were struck by the beauty of the light, the majesty of the Nile, and the way the Bible seemed to come to life before them. They bought souvenirs—Egyptian cotton was famous even in 1915—and postcards in an attempt to describe and share their experiences of the cities and antiquities.

The Middle East came home to New Zealand in other ways too. In 1919, the blockbuster novel The Sheik was released and spawned a revival of ‘desert romance’ as well as ‘the sensation of the year’, the film starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres. In late 1922, Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was an international sensation. ‘Egyptomania’ gripped the world of fashion, architecture and interior design. By the time New Zealand soldiers returned to the Middle East during World War II, pop culture had created a whole range of ‘Arab’ stereotypes to add to their common knowledge of the Bible.

If the ‘near East’ was presented largely as a romanticised place of adventure, palms and veiled women, many immigrants from the region, especially Lebanon, had also come to make New Zealand their home. They were winemakers and merchants, importers of olive oil and store-owners. The Corban family and the Farrys became virtually household names. People, as well as souvenirs and postcards, brought aspects of the Middle East to even the smallest of New Zealand country towns.

At a time when the Middle East is presented to us in the media as alien, politically unstable and threatening, it is useful to remember New Zealanders have had a long and rich relationship with the region.

It hasn’t necessarily been a clear-eyed vision, nor an equal relationship; and, as vivid images of Anzacs in Cairo brothels and bars remind us, we haven’t always acted honourably or without prejudice.

But research into the rich history of those who travelled to the region for war, work and leisure in the first half of the twentieth century can show us the range of responses to the peoples, landscapes and cultures of the Middle East, as can looking at the ideas and fashions that were inspired by the discoveries in Egypt especially and infiltrated department stores, women’s magazines, home interiors and the new cinema palaces of the inter-war period.  

It’s easy to assume our key relationships of the twentieth century were with Britain and then with the United States, and much ink has been spilled explaining those entanglements, but is isn’t a picture of her great-uncle outside Buckingham Palace that my mother-in-law has on her wall.

Kate Hunter, Director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, is an Associate Professor in Victoria' School of History, Philosophy, Political Science...

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