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’.


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