October 28, 2008

Nyimbo Nzuri

Lakini kwa nini huyu amevalia nguo kama danguro? I guess thats a marketing trick. It worked on me, I can't even front.


Sikukuu ya Kuzaliwa

Some pics from her birthday party this week. Also some family pictures from Jamila's birthday a few weeks back.


Oman and Zanzibar: Al-Jazeera Special


October 27, 2008

Swahili Proverb of the Day

Ukikaanga bisa, tuko chini ya ghai.

Which basically means: "if you are frying popcorn, we are down in the pot." In other words, whatever you try to keep secret from someone will be found out by them.


October 24, 2008

From Wakkan to Hadash and back

Another weekend camping on the mountain. Saw a lot of grapevines, goats, lemon trees, date palms, stars, cedar trees, and little children calling 'hello' from their windows.


October 23, 2008

Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar

Finished Ali Muhsin Al Barwani's memoirs today--Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar Sheikh Ali translated the Holy Quran into Swahili, a copy of which I have somewhere in my collection. But he's also famous as one of the founders of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. He comes from a long line of very distinguished Swahili from the Barwani family, including Rumaliza, who led coastal anti-colonial resistance against the British. His father was a famous sheikh. The book is a fascinating dive into some of the issues of the Zanzibar Revolution. Basically, Sheikh Ali was put in prison likely on orders from Nyerere, after Zanzibar and Tanganyika joined into the federation of Tanzania. The book is a scathing critique of Nyerere, an exploration of the aims and goals of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, and a chronicle of Ali's life events, including the chaotic 'time of politics' before the 1964 Revolution, and his ten-year sojourn in various Tanzanian prisons.

The way Ali tells it, the British supported and nurtured the Afro-Shirazi Party against the ZNP because the ZNP accepted aid in the form of scholarships from Nasserite Egypt. Frankly, Ali's little known story of events seems highly plausible. The 1964 revolution had a variety of causes, some of which were the ZNP's ignorance of the changing dynamics that labor migration had created in Zanzibar. If you don't exactly agree with Ali's interpretation at every turn, you can appreciate his progressive drive, his tremendous knowledge of the Omani-Zanzibar connection, and his having been a participant in attempting to liberate Zanzibar from British colonial rule.

Yet although Ali is a breath of (occasionally cranky) fresh air, its hard to see exactly why ANYONE would have been against the ZNP the way he tells the story. At times, Ali glosses over the quite brutal aspects of the Arab slave trade and plantation slavery and the subtle racial and civilizational dynamic which the ZNP employed and which alienated many mainland Africans. For a thought provoking look into the complicated links between race, colonialism, and intellectual discourse in Zanzibar, I can do no better than to recommend Jonathon Glassman's excellent article: "Slower Than a Massacre: The Multiple Sources of Racial Thought in Colonial Africa." Also Jesse Benjamin explored this and suggested that the dialectic of race on the East Coast of Africa needs more attention with regard to Omani-African relationships.

Sheikh Ali died in March of 2006 at the age of eighty-six. Much respect to this freedom fighter and Islamic scholar. May we learn from his example, but also continue to clarify and understand the subtle ways in which schisms can creep in unnoticed into any progressive nationalist movement, and subsequently be exploited. I hope we also remain aware that just because there is a name attached to something: "Socialist" "Revolutionary" "Islamic" "Nationalist" "Christian" doesn't mean it represents what it claims to represent. And that goes for the word "Change" too, all due respect to Barack Obama.


October 22, 2008

The Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Qaboos and it truly lives up to its name. It is enormous, finely crafted down to the last detail, and an interesting mix of the ancient and ultra-modern. Also, according to the 'mohandis' (engineer) who took me around, there are a lot of steel hooks involved. At virtually every stop, he showed me exactly where the steel hooks fit into the grand scheme of things. You gotta love engineers.


The Aesthetics of Hospitality

Since my friend and comrade Dr. Pitts has yet to write his eagerly anticipated treatise on Arab hospitality, allow me to make the first foray.

A lesson last night with an Omani professor in the language center brought to the forefront this topic in a way I have been pondering for some time: the aesthetics of hospitality and how it is 'performed' in different cultures. She said something interesting which I also heard from another, much older teacher of Swahili in Arusha: "the hospitality is embedded in the language." She was explaining why there is no need to say thank you some times; gratefulness is in the tone you adopt as you communicate with another person.

This speaks to several things. First it confirms my belief that tone is inherently a carrier of meaning, regardless of the content. Thus, the way we say something is as important, if not more, then what we say. Secondly, those languages where tone influences meaning have the greatest potential for 'welcoming expressiveness', ie. hospitality. Secondly, it confirms something I have observed from Mississippi to Mombasa: the aesthetic of hospitality.

I choose the word aesthetic deliberately, from the Latin to perceive. Literally this word means 'the sense of what is beautiful'. It is usually used in an artistic sense to convey that the work in question has a certain style.

What I have noticed about (primarily) non-American cultures (although my original experience of this was through Americans of African descent) is the value placed on hospitality not merely as an obligation but as a 'style' if you will, a work of art. I recall going to a dinner party thrown by some high school friends of mine several years ago. I went with a woman from Columbia. The conversation was rather dry and boring, and at several points it stagnated completely. Afterwards she and I discussed the differences between such a gathering in Columbia and here, which she expressed a a certain 'spice' in conversation that was lacking among the diners gathered that evening. That 'spice' is none other than the aesthetic of hospitality.

There is a formalized quality to Omani hospitality, for example, that surpasses the Biblical and Quranic injunctions to 'welcome the stranger'. In fact, it becomes a field of creative endeavor, even of friendly competition to show your generosity and display your ability to host.
This 'aesthetic' encompasses food, conversation, greetings, indeed every aspect of a guest's visit. There are rules of engagement: for example, there is a particular way to serve coffee, another way to drink it, and a certain way to decline having your cup filled. (shaking it back and forth between thumb and forefinger.)

My Swahili host family gave another good example of this practice. They had some friends over for dinner last Friday. After the meal everyone sat around talking in the sitting room. When the guests got up to leave, we all bid our goodbyes, but then my host parents followed their guests out the door, down the driveway, and to their cars, continuing the conversation. I've encountered this idea of accompanying a guest out of your house in East Africa as well. In fact, I first became consciously aware of this as a cultural practice at Howard University, in Dr. Carr's lectures.

I guess what I am trying to say is that hospitality is not only a moral obligation that brings great blessing, but a field for creative conversation, stylistic flourish, and innovation within the formally established rules, just like any other art form. And one of the things I pursue, in seeking alternatives to the 'spiritual poverty' of the West, is to concretely identify practices that are non-normative to mainstream American culture, and seek to understand and embody them in my own practice. Of course, I will put my own spin on it. I doubt I will suddenly begin serving coffee the Omani way. Rather, because I see hospitality as an aesthetic, I will continue to try to innovate ways to be expansive and welcoming, using what I have observed as a foundation.

Your thoughts?


October 21, 2008

A Marriage Proposal (Calm Down Everyone)

Received this by email from a friend in Oman. Not to say I will be jumping to accept, but Allah anajua usoni. :)

السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته

اتمنى ان تصلك رسالتي وانت في صحة جيدة إن شاء الله

أردت أن اسألك هل ترغب الزواج من عمانية - زنجبارية فأنا قد حصلت لك

على زوجة للإستفادة منها أكثر عن الإسلام

انتظر الرد باسرع وقت ممكنا

أختك في الإسلام


Hapo Vipi? Hapo Sawa! Bongo FLAAAVAAA! Piga kelele!!

I can't get enough of TZ music. You really need to hear Dar mpaka Moro in the club! Here are some of the best songs from TZ giants like Professor Jay, TMK Wanaume, Dully Sykes, Lady Jay Dee, TID, and Kassim. The last video is a must see for any hiphop heads...hiphop didn't die, it just went on permanent vacation to the continent. Much respect to these artists and others representing Tanzanian music.
Dar Mpaka Moro TMK Wanaume

Zeze TID

Haiwezekani Kassim

Dhababu Dully Sykes

Hapo Vipi? Hapo Sawa Professor Jay

Usiusemee Moyo Lady Jay Dee

Anita Matonya ft. Lady Jay Dee

Nikusaidiaje? Professor Jay

And finally, Professor Jay rips it in Swahili..this track is bananas. He's telling a real story and his cadence is...remarkable. He's definitely taking it to another level artistically.


October 20, 2008

Austrian Anthropologists Work on Arabic and Swahili Dialects

A set of books I would like to own, but probably never will...they cost over $1600.

Description: Volume I, " Die Somali-Sprache, Texte" , viii, 287 pp.; double column / Volume II: "Die Somali-Sprache", vii, 126 pp./ Volume III: "Der Mehri- und Soqotri-Sprache", ix, 168 pp./ Volume VII: "Die Mehri-Und Soqotri-Sprache" ix, 168 pp., index/ Volume VIII: "Der Vulgarabische Dialekt Im Dofar (Zfar)" ix, 144 pp., index/ Volume IX: "Mehri- Und Hadrami-Texte, Gesammelt Im Jahre 1902 In Gischin", xxviii, 200 pp., index, contemporary hard boards, titles printed on front cover. Set published between 1900 & 1911. Volumes in Very good condition. Over a period of eleven years these volumes were published by the Austrian Royal Academy. The work is a series of field studies by leading Austrian scholars of the local Arabic and Swahili dialects in Oman, Yemen and Somalia. Leo Reinisch (1832-1919), investigated the languages of the peoples of northeast Africa. This work here is a complete set of his investigation of the Somali language which is spoken by the people of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Professor David Heinr Muller (1846-1912), studied Semitic languages at Sachau, and taught Semitic languages at the University of Vienna. He published and edited several Arabic manuscripts including Al-Hamadhani "Sifat Jazeerat Al-Arab". In this work he discusses the Mehri language of Southern Arabia. Wilhelm Hein (1861-1903), was educated as an orientalist - he was fluent in Arabic - he was not only interested in languages but also in ethnology. In 1901, he finished his postdoctoral thesis at Vienna University. He was forty years old when he was finally able to fulfill his childhood dream: to take part in the exploration of southern Arabia. On the suggestion of his mentor, David H. Müller, he and his wife, Marie Hein (1853-1943), spent 1901 and 1902 in Al Mukallah and Aden on an expedition organised under the auspices of the Imperial Academy of Sciences and the Imperial Museums. There, he undertook geographical and linguistic research and assembled zoological, botanical and ethnographical collections. Today, the zoological and botanical collections are still in the Natural History Museum, 142 prints from now-lost glass-negatives have survived in the photographic archive of the Ethnological Museum Vienna and the phonograme archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences still houses recordings of Yemeny-Arab songs by Wilhelm Hein‘s informant, Ali bin Amer (1902). Nikolaus Rhodokanakis (1876-1945), an Austrian orientalist who contributed several studies on Arabic poetry including translations into German of al-Khansa diwan, and Ibn Qutaiba poems. This work is a study of the Arabic local dialect of Dhofar. Bookseller Inventory # 006587


October 18, 2008

Mandela, Obama, and the Post-racial Age

Interesting take from a giant in the field of African Studies. Post racial? I think the Swahili word, 'bado' captures my response succinctly. That is, in English, "Not yet." Because there are enough Americans out there not searching for a postracial age, and indeed quite nervous about the possibility. Interesting idea about 'low-hate retention' cultures, though.

by Prof. Ali A. Mazrui
The Daily Monitor
Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are potential icons of a post-racial age which is unfolding before our eyes. Mandela has become the most respected Black man by all races in world history.

Obama stands a chance of becoming the most trusted Black man in US history. No African-American has ever come so close to winning the US presidency. But no African-American could have approached so close to winning the US presidency without an unprecedented level of trust from a sizable part of the white electorate.

A major cause of the Mandela-Obama respective successes lies in their embodying a short memory of racial hatred, and their impressive readiness to forgive historical adversaries. They have both illustrated a remarkable capacity to transcend historical racial divides.

Cultures differ in hate retention. Some nurse their grievances for generations. Others are intensely hostile in the midst of a conflict, but as soon thereafter, they display a readiness to forgive, even if not always to forget. The Armenians, Irish and Jews fall in this category.

Armenians were butchered in large numbers by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 – 1916. This story of the Armenian martyrdom of World War I has been transmitted with passion from generation to generation.

Armenians are still demanding justice from Turkey nearly a hundred years after the massacres. Similarly, the Irish have long memories of grievance. Clashes occur in Northern Ireland virtually every year concerning marches that commemorate ‘Orange Conflicts’ in the seventeenth century. Jews also have strong collective memories of the Holocaust and other outbursts of European anti-Semitism.

Mandela came from a culture illustrative of Africa’s short memory of hate. That culture is far from being pacifist. Wars and inter-ethnic conflicts have been part of Africa’s experience before European colonization and decades after independence.

What is different about African cultures is relatively low level of hate retention. Obama’s tolerance may be due to personal multi-culturalism. He had a white American mother, a Black Kenyan father, and an Indonesian step-father.

His cultural ancestry includes Luo culture, Islam and Black American Christianity. Mandela’s life passed through stages. His early days as a nationalist were characterized by a belief in non-violent resistance. In a sense, he carried the torch of South Africa’s Albert Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi. Sharpeville was a major blow to his belief in passive resistance.

By the time that Mandela was having afternoon tea with the unrepentant widow of the founder of apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, he had tough acts to follow in African magnanimity. There were precedents of forgiveness that he followed and improved upon.

Post-colonial Africa had produced other instances of short memory of hate. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, once condemned by a British colonialist as a “leader of darkness and death” was unjustly imprisoned in a remote part of the country.

When he finally emerged from prison on the eve of independence, he proclaimed “suffering without bitterness.” He proceeded to transform Kenya into a staunchly pro-Western country.

In November 1965, colonial Southern Rhodesia’s Ian Smith launched his Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, unleashing a bitter Zimbabwe civil war. Yet, he lived to sit in a parliament of Black-ruled Zimbabwe and was not subjected to postwar vendetta. Again, Africa’s short memory of hate at work. In the late 1960s, Nigeria waged a highly publicized civil war that cost nearly a million lives. The Federal side won that war but was uniquely magnanimous towards the defeated Biafrans. Yet, another manifestation of Africa’s short memory of hatred.

For his part, when Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, this most illustrious of all Africa’s liberation fighters embarked on a mission of healing and forgiving. This former hero of mobilization leadership became a paragon of the reconciliation style of leadership. He became the greatest of all African examples of prolonged reconciliation, an exemplar of African short memory of hate.

Obama illustrated his post-racial tolerance by denouncing his firebrand pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and leaving his own radicalized church. Obama is more of an ideological liberal than a moral Gandhian. Indeed, Obama is less of a Gandhian than Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But in their different ways, Mandela, Obama and King have all been part of the search for a post-racial age.


Western media is deceptive; it can make or destroy you

by Timothy Kalyegira
The Daily Monitor (Kampala, Uganda)

It is the media, more than any other field, that has helped give the Western world its ubiquitous presence and instant name and visual recognition on earth. If America is a superpower, much more than a military, political, and industrial, it is above all a media and news superpower.

The United States is the world’s leading producer of new book titles per year, and has the world’s largest readership. It has more than 4,000 FM radio stations and 4,800 AM stations; is the home of the Internet and has the largest presence on the Internet of any nation on earth.

Through its television comedies, films, news magazines and newspapers, Internet websites, 24-hour television news channels, Rock, Hip-Hop, Country, and Pop music, America has become the most recognisable and best-known nation in the world.

One of the best-selling authors in recent years in America has been John Grisham. The best-selling novels in America of 1994 (The Chamber), 1995 (The Rainmaker), 1996 (The Runway), 1997 (The Partner), 1998 (The Street Lawyer), 1999 (The Testament), 2000 (The Brethren), 2002 (The Summons), and 2005 (The Broker) were by Grisham.

Typically, they centre on the upper-middle class and delve into white-collar crimes, mysterious murders and fraud, courtrooms and law offices, and in sum portray the dark interior and double-dealing to be found in respectable, mostly White America.

The popularity of these Grisham novels (well more than 200 million books sold to date) should show us that Americans are thoughtful, skeptical people, intrigued by twists and turns, the unexpected and the improbable.

So how come these same sophisticated Americans are so easily deceived and so gullible? I’ve observed a handful of tendencies that have persuaded me that the much-vaunted US media is far from the elite establishment it claims to be --- the embarrassingly one-sided coverage of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe; the blind, uncritical adoration of former South African President Nelson Mandela; the emphasis on a playful on-air, on screen playfulness and giggling by television presenters; and a plain inability to read the international scene, understand the motives of foreign heads of state and governments.

I’ve noticed the same gullibility among Western election observers and diplomats in Africa. It does not take much to create a story at a US or British embassy for them to be convinced that one’s life is in danger and therefore one requires political asylum in their lands.

At polling centres, right under their noses, we regularly rig elections, stuff ballot boxes and vote several times and these Western observers, diplomats, and journalists are totally clueless about what’s going on.

It is not surprising that Americans are so fed up with outgoing President George W. Bush, forgetting who it was that twice elected him; they entered two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose consequences, even with the aid of the fabled CIA intelligence reports they were unable to foresee.

If the current trend in the public opinion surveys remains as it is, these same Americans are about to elect a man called Barack Obama that, amid their mania and enthusiasm for him, they scarcely know or have sufficiently scrutinised and asked penetrating questions.

As the Houston Business Journal commented on August 22, “[President] John Kennedy had a strikingly beautiful wife adored by the entire county. The press today is charmed by Michelle Obama and the couple’s children in the same way.”
Style, image, unchallenging and empty platitudes is about all you require these days to win the hearts and gullible minds of the American voting public.

These days before airing footage from war zones and the scenes of accidents, the major Western TV networks like CNN and the BBC first warn that some of what we are about to watch “contains scenes that might distress viewers.”

I always wonder what it is about a burning army tank, a terrorist victim covered in blood, a destroyed building is too much for Americans or Europeans to stomach.

The leading newsmagazines like The Economist, Time, and Newsweek have become watered down into informal, first-person, all-things-to-all-people low-brow publications, barely above the level of high school newspapers.

The BBC, once the magisterial, sober voice that set the standard for objective and impartial news broadcasting and analysis, now is a shadow of what it was right up to the early 1990s, its decline having come about so suddenly.

Most amazing of all is the inability to see that, be it John McCain or Barack Obama to win the presidency, America’s final year as a formidable world superpower is 2008.


A Gem from Ibn Khaldun

The 'father' of sociology (sorry, it wasn't Emile Durkheim) wrote this about the nature of knowledge:
"Consider then the relative levels of the different societies and do not deny the truth of a recorded even merely because you have not come across its counterpart in your own age and field of experience. You would be merely constricting your gullet when pecking at the grains of truth!"

Also, some ancient advice for those who engage in the sort of crude and vicious nationalism that passes for patriotism in America:
"One who knows only an inferior or medium form of society should not think it comprises all possible forms and potentialities."

Biographical Information


October 15, 2008

Love poem to G-d

Do I have enough soul to flow and mesmerize the crowd with my knowing?
Am I a fisher for pens or do I vainly sow the seeds of another pointless poem?
Do I need a mic to amplify the intricacies of my voice speaking?
Or can I feed this crowd with the simple delicacies of my time keeping?
Master flow: smoothing verbs like pebbles in a stream
From backyard barbeques, I watched the freestyle my dream
I never thought one minute, I would take it this far
Made the journey through the desert saw the ocean on a star
Thirsty for your love, desperate to say whats on my heart
Elliptical illumination of a crescent moon that’s how it starts
I think of how I started to fast the first time
To impress this girl, but I couldn’t hold the line
And I can’t write about my romance tingling the pants of female audience viewers
And I can’t play the horn, but I would like to be Coltrane making your blood bluer.
Because this thing is oxygen to my lonely heart:
Now instead of fake smiling all the time
When I bleed badly from my pen I stain the paper with my rhyme.

Snow in the desert and palm trees in winter
I tried to be into You because outside There is No Other giving
But every time I bow to pray, I'm distracted by my past living
The vanity of existence is what gives love the edge of bittersweet desire,
I was torn up inside from muffling my secret fire.
Truth is the motion of coming closer and closer to the roots of a palm tree rooted a thousand miles deep in the axis of a burning flame.
And I would flicker faithfully forever G-d, just help me to forget Her name.

My shame is too much to bear
My thoughts are impure, my mind is filled with fear.
I can say what I want so well my metaphors be sculpting sound
But I cried when She left because I knew she realized deep down
I couldn’t be the king if I was afraid to wear the crown.
Because I couldn’t even show the truth inside of me,
I changed clothes, changed flows, adapted an identity to please,
yet every night i had to bury it deep beneath my insecurity.
And then I came broken, faithless, pathless, faceless.
The promise of salvation brought me joy but I felt baseless
I clutched desperately to my heart tissue.

Yet I realized my whole life has been alone
Out of place in every hiding place I tried to make my own
Surrounded with those who knew me, not one of them my friend
Never able to describe my fight within to them.
I partied and smoked and drank and tried to fuck my way to freedom
I became a revolutionary for the same set of reasons.
Casting about for the Way, I never liked to walk alone
Through the desert, through the classroom, through the water, through the storm.
And in its wild crashing raging the sea’s too deep for wading, I have to swim and kick and claw to get home
but home’s been washed away I wander lonely as a cloud
My mind is blind and at times I can’t see how
I could ever see or talk or think or make my heart allow
To believe with the pure intention of a child.
G-d is not a matter of reason; like poetry you have to live Him
And you can’t believe in G-d alone you have to find Him in the rhythm
of the congregation singing, bringing whispers from above
the old songs i can remember of She who Made Creation with Her love.


Europe and the People Without History

Of course the title of Eric Wolf's 1982 masterpiece is meant to be ironic, for the whole book is about the history of those 'people' who at one time or another have been alleged not to have it (history). Specifically, Wolf charts how internal changes within European economies reverberated in the form of the 'mode of production' (defined by Wolf as forces which, by changing how 'labor' relates to 'nature', guide the alignment of social groups) Wolf charts the spread of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism through a unique kind of economic anthropology which is rooted in structuralist thinking but does not succumb to the more teleologically crude varieties of that theory. In other words, Wolf is concerned with larger processes of economic change--specifically the spread of capitalism and its encounter with kin-ordered modes of production and tributary modes of production--and how they influenced what we would label as culture. Wolf sez that material conditions provide one of the main impetus for cultural change, a sort of stage that constrains the cultural choices open to a given society. He is strongly in debt to a certain interpretation of Marx, which I don't view as a bad thing, and he is trying to integrate Marx's ideas into the field of anthropology, which has frequently been criticized for studying cultures, tribes, and rituals as static entities, frozen in the eternal present due to the ancient unchanging nature of their traditions. Intuitively, we know this not to be true, but often anthropologists write as if each practice they observe has a lineage unaffected by the shock-therapy of 'invasion capitalism' (my term for Europe's conquest and integration of the world).

For me, this is a helpful insight. I have read an abundance of historical studies lately who, no doubt with the best of intentions, read into every action of the subaltern some rebellion against the established system, and tried to show how at every stage 'actors' resisted the 'hegemony' of (insert favored term here for invasive state policies).

Now, I am all for subaltern history, but let us be clear. As me and a friend once discoursed on this topic, she reminded me that the very definition of 'subaltern' involves the submersion of this history. There are some things, because of the nature of European erasure of pre-capitalist modes and traditions, that we will likely never know. Furthermore, I have noticed a tendency to overinvest moments in subaltern history with radical potential with the term 'resistance'. I have a problem with extending this term too far until resistance is virtually indistinguishable from accomodation. And often enough, the unstated goal behind these sorts of attempts is to 'rescue' a group from posterity by showing that they were not mere helpless victims of a given process.

Yet throughout the last 500 years, various social groups had a variety of strategies for dealing with the social and economic facts of their marginalization/ oppression--I would venture to say that most of them involve simply trying to cope and survive. This doesn't mean they were helpless or didn't try to shape the vast changes for their own benefit. Just because you attempt to make the best of a new, unfamiliar situation doesn't change the fundamental fact that most non-European societies were indeed victims of a relentlessly expansive European bourgeios. The changes this class set in motion were much more vast than anyone, including the boureious themselves, could comprehend at the time.

In short, just because people act in autonomous ways in an oppressive system does not mean they are resisting it. Indeed, what has often been neglected lately in the contemporary historical theory I read is a realization of the aforementioned point by Wolf about economic change and its impact on culture. Its no secret that questions of identity, autonomy, and more 'cultural' concerns have supplanted older questions of political economy, class, and labor. Now at this point, maybe you are asking: "so what, Nate? Why does it matter?"

This is why it matters: in going too far to stress the 'autonomy' of actors, historians can potentially neglect important questions about how profoundly capitalism has shaped the way we see the world. It literally has reordered livelihoods, families, cultures, ethnicities, set in motion huge movements of money and people, and basically altered the very structure of human existence on a previously unprecedented global scale. So I think it is necessary to ask ourselves, to what degree has capitalism shaped the alleged 'resistance' of the subaltern; i.e. the very nature and questions put forth by their discourse? Put another way, we need to appreciate the profoundly dislocating influence of capitalism and European expansion before we can look at modes of resistance/accomodation and the character they assume. Peace to Nat P for some insights on this discussion.


October 10, 2008

Makazi mpya

Nimehama eneo tofauti. Sasa nipo al-Ghubra. Basi, Niongee Kiarabu lakini wazazi wangu wapya wanaongea Kiswahili. Wanatoka Kenya, mjini Mombasa. Ijapokuwa wao ni 'Omani', wao ni Swahili pia. Wana bendera ya Kenya iko sebule. Ninashangaa kuongea Kiswahili zaidi kuliko kilometa elfu tatu kutoka Afrika Mashariki. Baba na mama wanakaa na mwanao nyumba moja imeyokatwa. Upande ni Wazazi, halafu upande nyingine ni mwanao na familia yake. Mke wake anatoka Kenya. Hawaongei Kiarabu. Wao wako mwema sana. Wamenipokea kabisa. Nimefurahi sana.
Picha hii ipo daraja juu ya barabara karibu na nyumba yao.
Ah, Kuna mambo muhimu sana niliyosahau kuwaambia: The father is the great-grandson of Tippu Tip!! That is, his father's mother was Tippu Tip's daughter! If you were in my Middle East Research Seminar, or know about my Masters paper topic, I know you will understand how crucial that is!


October 7, 2008

The 'Swahili' Omani

Nation-building and communities in Oman since 1970: The Swahili-speaking Omani in search of identity

by Marc Valeri
full text article
In 1964, the revolution in Zanzibar put an end to the local al-Busa‘idi dynasty. The Omani Arabs were summoned by the newly independent state to ‘go back home’, because of their supposed foreignness. Yet no collective repatriation process was organized by the sultan of Muscat. It is alleged that around 17,000 Arabs died during the events. Oman received 3,700 refugees only and many other families were forced to settle in Dubai, Kuwait or Cairo.

A second wave of return followed the call launched in 1970 by Sultan Qaboos to the Omani elite abroad, inviting them to contribute to the ‘awakening’ of the country. Around 10,000 Omani from Zanzibar are thought to have moved back to Oman by 1975. Despite the fact that most of the expatriate Omani did not speak Arabic fluently, Qaboos had no option but to grant them Omani citizenship, as soon as they returned, without any consideration of the time their family had spent abroad. First, the Omani abroad were relatively more educated than those at home. Many of them spoke English fluently and had been trained in technical fields in Europe, East Africa or other Gulf countries, so they made a significant workforce for the ruler's planned modernization. Besides, given his political isolation when he came to the throne, the Sultan understood that since the Omani abroad had neither been involved in the internal political and tribal issues in Oman nor on the best of terms with his father's regime, they could be an asset to him.

All these factors account for the fact that the returnees soon filled many positions in key fields such as intelligence, police and security. Their Arabic language handicap was outweighed by their skills in administrative organization and political control. An example of the Sultan's dependency on these Omani during the first years of his rule is given by the Interim Planning Council, established in March 1972 to shape development achievements. Of its 10 members, six had been educated in eastern European countries, while two had been born in Zanzibar and had never been in Oman prior to the 1970 coup.

Yet, in a society like Oman where personal relationships play such a role, the fact that marriage patterns of most Manga Arabs had been limited to their kin in Africa, and that they had been kept out of the political affairs of the sultanate in Zanzibar, dramatically narrowed the networks on which they could rely when they returned. The cumulative effect of this lack of social intermediation (wasta) with their lower level of education was a tremendous handicap. If the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani in general were unquestionably advantaged compared with the nationals who had stayed at home, nobody was better positioned to benefit from the opportunities offered by the developing Oman than the descendents of the aristocracy of Zanzibar.

Today, the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani population is thought to number about 100,000, out of a total of more than two million Omani citizens. Locally they are called ‘Swahili’ (referring to their vernacular language) or ‘Zanzibari’ (Zinjibâriyyin; ‘Umâniyyin min Zinjibâr). Most of the tribes and ethno-linguistic groups contain within them so-called ‘Swahili’ individuals or clans—including among the royal tribe, the Shia communities and the Omani groups native to Baluchistan—but in varying proportions. The greatest numbers are found within tribes from Inner Oman, like Habus, Hirth, Bani Kharus, Kinud, Mahariq, Masakira, Bani Riyam or Bani Ruwaha. Families, or even individuals, descended from the same clans can be considered ‘Swahili’ (or not) whether they are tied (or not) to Africa.

The Omani who came back from East Africa thus constitute a highly heterogeneous group, which cannot be defined solely on genealogical or geographical criteria. The most important dividing line is the one inherited from the hierarchization in East Africa. This combination of social, cultural and economic divides was a determining factor of the position these returnees found in Oman.

In addition, every member has remained closely linked to his native tribe. Sheikhs who had stayed in Oman played a key role in validating the genealogies of members who came back after three or four generations. The vivacity of the tribal affiliation is highlighted by the huge amounts of financial transfers made by expatriates both to their native villages in Oman before 1970 and to the poorest clans of the tribe in Africa itself.

Another major dividing line is the African place of settlement. Here, there is a division between the ‘anglophone Swahili-speaking Omani’ who had lived in Zanzibar, Kenya or former Tanganyika on the one hand, and the francophones who had travelled to Central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo) on the other. The latter, who are estimated to be about 10 percent of the whole Swahili-speaking Omani population, were usually Manga Arabs. Most of them only came back to Oman at the beginning of the 1990s, when Rwanda and Burundi exploded into crisis.

Finally it is necessary to keep in mind that a strict and well-known distinction is established between the back-from-Africa Omani, who can lay claim to a patriarchal genealogy in southeast Arabia and are the proper subject of this paper, and the Omani citizens who are descended from slaves brought forcibly from Africa (khadim) and who are considered not to be of Arab blood. As Mandana Limbert has put it, ‘Through the paternalizing care of the Arab-Omanis, [they] could become brothers, however, who would never be allowed to forget that they had been slaves, that they had known nothing and that they had had to be cultured’. Hence, many families with noble (qabîli) Arab lineages, who lived in Africa and are nowadays viewed as ‘Swahili’ in Oman, have always taken care to keep their Arab lineage ‘pure’.


October 6, 2008

Jebel Shams

Climbed up this tallest peak in Oman with a friend from the Language Center at Sultan Qaboos University. It was a few days before the Eid, and I spent the night awake, looking at the shooting stars and Centaurs in the sky. It was a time for reflection, for just emptying the mind of all the bullshit, distractions, guilt, fear, and regret that piles up in the dark recesses of my consciousness. Can't say I was entirely successful. I was a bit distracted, especially after my fire went out and a freezing cold wind came burrowing down the mountain, raising every single hair on my neck straight into the air.


October 3, 2008

Eid in al-Hail

Eid preparations started with an all day trip with a local guy and his nephew. We went to their farm in Sharqiyah to buy some goats and wrestle them into a truck. The goats were not happy. Various souqs along our way back to Muscat supplied us with fruit, mats for sitting, fresh halwa, and other odds and ends. This was the last day of fasting and (with the exception of my first day in Dubai) the most difficult.
Took the Eid in al-Hail. I decided not to go to the village so as to keep my options open. Thought I might have more flexibility here. First Eid morning I went to a special 7:00am service at the Friday mosque. Everyone gathered and chanted: (English translation)

God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest
God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest
There is No God but God
God is the Greatest
and to God be the Praise.

After twenty minutes or so of this, the Imam came out and delivered a special khutba. These are typically sent by a governmental ministry to the local imams to be read. (hmmmm....)
After the prayer, we all filed out for a special meal, followed by family visits. The next few days were more meals, a special traditional preparation of beef cooked all night in an underground oven (see the pictures), and lots of invitations to visit and drink coffee and eat halwa.
I took the down time to watch a lot of movies (the selection is surprisingly good since I have cable) and delve deeper into Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History. Also met a Tunisian guy who is teaching sports out in a school in the desert, some 700 kilometers south of Muscat. We palled around during the Eid because basically we were the only two guys without family.
Now looking forward to next weeks move to stay with a Omani-Swahili family, and starting classes (FINALLY!).


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