September 23, 2008

The African Presence in Oman: Research Questions

My research looks at the influence of Swahili culture on Oman. This research is extremely relevant at the present time. The Arab/African dichotomy has been the subject of extensive media coverage due to the conflict in Darfur. Unsurprisingly, the media focuses only on conflict, reducing a complex historically-negotiated relationship to an ugly racial divide. The history of Oman offers another example of extensive cultural interchange between Arabs and Africans and may help shed light on questions of how intermarriage and migration complicate the simplistic Arab/African dichotomy. It also may shed light on questions of power vis-à-vis family identity.
There are various groups of people who all could be considered African, in one way or another, but who may identify as Arab, Swahili, or simply Omani. Africans in Oman have diverse origins: some come directly from East Africa for employment, while others have someone (usually a mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother) from East Africa. Still others are the descendants of Africans brought by Omani slave traders until the late nineteenth century.

My research starts from the premise that the culture that became Omani—primarily coastal Arabs of the southeast peninsula—had its origins in maritime pursuits and connections with the larger Indian Ocean world. For example, Oman in the nineteenth century encompassed diverse groups of people-- Indian traders who made up the core of Muscat’s overseas financial empire, Baluchi mercenaries, Swahili Arabs like Tippu Tip, and indigenous Zanzibaris.
Those I refer to as Swahili Arabs migrated to the Swahili coast in large numbers beginning in the early 18th century and continued until the end of the nineteenth century. There were two major waves of migration—early 18th century, after the overthrow of the Portuguese, and mid-nineteenth century, with Sultan Seyyid Said’s move to Zanzibar.

This migration gave rise to a distinct Omani influence on the coastal culture of East Africa. Tippu Tip’s family was one example of the Swahilized Arabs who traded and intermarried in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Tanga, Bagamoyo, and other city-states of the mrima.

I am most interested in contrasting the community of Swahili Arabs with their fellow Omanis. This means tracing the history of each community, their mother tongues (Arabic vs. Swahili) and the ways in which they constitute themselves as individuals and social groups. Do all now consider themselves ‘just’ Omani? What religious and cultural differences separated Zanzibari/Swahili Omanis from other Arab Omanis? Is there a social stigma in Oman in being from Zanzibar? What kind of economic differences are there between the two groups What aspects of culture in Oman can be said to have an African origin? Which nisbas are most associated with migration to East Africa?

One way I hope to answer these questions is through an individual who in many ways straddles these divides. Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi, the most famous of the nineteenth century Swahili ivory-traders, was the great grandson of an African woman and an Arab migrant trader from Oman. The first part of my research is directed towards finding relatives of Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi (Tippu Tip) and interviewing them, as well as tracing any documents related to Hamed bin Muhammed’s life and family.
Arab/African Intermarriage

3 comments:

Anonymous,  October 5, 2008 at 2:27 PM  

ASA John (lol)
Your research sounds quite interesting. InshaAllah you'll find the answers you seek. You know it kinda sounds more PhD ish than master work, but I'm excited to hear more about your findings. Take care akhi.

P.S. Your pictures are really great MashaAllah. The art gallery photo, the one with the covering transition... it's striking.. kinda disheartening in a way... but lovely nonetheless. Oh and belated Eid Mubarak :)

John Brown October 7, 2008 at 5:46 AM  

mashkhour for stopping through and sharing. Who is this leaving the comment?

Kleaver December 19, 2009 at 12:56 PM  

Hello,

I was just in Oman for the past three months. I was there as a student and part of the purpose of my studies was to do research. I actually did research very similar to yours, where I looked through a sociolinguistic lens to see how language (particularly Swahili) plays a role in the development of the identity of Swahili speaking Omanis. I wanted to see how they identify themselves and if speaking Swahili plays a part in that process.

I am really interested to see how your research turns out. If I had more time, I would have done a more extensive project like yours. Good luck and please keep posted about the information that you gather.

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