December 2, 2008

Writing Global History: Hadramawt and Its Diaspora (A Review of Graves of Tarim)

by Roger Owen

Few people in the world can deny that, since the 1990s at least, we have been living through a period of rapid globalization in which people's lives are more intensely interconnected than at any time up to now. But how to write the history of this period? And how to relate it with earlier periods, not just to the first great wave of modern globalization at the end of the nineteenth century, but also to previous centuries when smaller, but still extensive, networks of interconnectedness were created across the world's oceans by trading empires like the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch, as well as by influential diasporas communities emanating from outward-looking societies without powerful navies to protect their interests located in strategic places along a sea-coast like south China, south India, or, in the Arab world, Syria/Lebanon or parts of Yemen

This enormous challenge has been taken up with a considerable degree of success by Professor Enseng Ho, a Harvard social-anthropologist, whose new book, The Graves of Tarim (University of California Press, 2006), based on many years of research on Hadramawt and its Indian, South-East Asian and African Diaspora, contains a wonderfully sophisticated analysis, not just of the creation, and then the maintenance, of a system of networks which outlasted the great sea empires in which it was partially embedded, but also of the methodological problems connected with such a vast intellectual enterprise. Though not always an easy read, there is no doubt in my mind that, over the years, it will be seen as one of those few foreign books about the Arab world which richly deserve the name of classic.

Hadramawt itself consists of a thin, well-watered wadi (valley), stretching some eighty miles from east to west between the arid wastes of Saudi Arabia's 'empty quarter' and the Arabian Sea, long settled by a people with an intimate connection with the rise of Islam in the land to its north. And yet, rich though it is in agricultural and commercial potential, for over eight centuries it has been exporting a significant part of its male population, first as (Sayyids) along paths of Islamic missionary enterprise, then as civic and religious figures at the various Indian courts, finally, as adventurers, sultans, merchants, diplomats and landlords further east into Malaysia and Indonesia.

Everywhere they went these individual Hadramis, without power or protection, had to elbow themselves into their host region's local social and political arrangements. Everywhere they did this in part by marrying local women to create families linked to their homeland by genealogical lines of descent, as well as by a culture and a learning based on notions of outward movement and return, of religious and moral education, to create a trans-oceanic society of people who understand themselves as linked by bonds of kinship maintained by singing, writing, reading and narration, or, in Professor Ho's arresting phrase, by the stories they shared about themselves.

All this is well known in its bare outlines. But how to tell its story, to
understand its particular dynamic, to indicate the emotional density of its largely familial inter-connections and to explain the changed relationships between Diaspora and homeland over long stretches of time? The key to Professor Ho's approach is the way he has combined a huge array of historical evidence - textual, historical, sociological and material based on his own personal experience - from sites across the world to create a larger picture based on notions of cycles of outward movement and return centred on the small wadi town of Tarim with its mosques, its graves, and, more recently its eastern-looking palaces, bungalows and villas, where, in his argument, the various flows which first pushed the Hadramis abroad came together in the early centuries of Islam in a burst of religiously-inspired, outward-looking activism.

To this he adds a wonderful analysis of the global context in which these cycles took place, produced first by the shift in maritime trading patterns west from the Gulf to the Red Sea after the land-routes to China were interrupted by the Mongol conquest, then by the various European sea empires which, in their last, British phase, created an Indian Ocean world dominated at sea by the various London ministries and departments which ran its maritime activities, and on land by the increasingly competitive and bureaucratically controlling territorial possessions of Britain and Holland. These latter, in his argument, while both encouraging and then restricting Hadrami movement abroad, also began to have more and more impact in Hadramawt itself as developments and divisions affecting the diasporas abroad increasingly found their way back to the homeland resulting, finally, in Britain's extraordinarily belated decision to incorporate it into its empire as part of its last imperial possession, the so-called East Aden Protectorate, just before World War Two.

But this is only the half of it. The methodology employed to write the story, while appearing deceptively simple, is, in fact, novel in the extreme in its largely successful attempt to find answers to the complex challenges which the writing of global history poses for conventional historical narrative, for the imposition of coherence, and for giving meaning to a pattern of interconnectedness based on a dense network of personal, social and ideological ties sustained over long distances by travel, written messages and shared histories, all subject to the opportunities provided and the demands imposed by such technical developments as the change from sail to steam, the imposition of the passport, the arrival of the postage stamp and the international telegraph cable.

To understand Professor Ho's response to such methodological challenges we have to note the following two points. First, he became a global person himself, with the good fortune, the languages, the academic confidence, not just to travel freely around the Indian Ocean but also, partly through his Hadrami connections, to feel at home wherever he went. This, in turn, allowed him to practice a type of imaginative historical sociology in which an intimate knowledge of the Hadrami homeland and its present diasporas informs and interacts with his analysis of related aspects of the Hadrami past. Hence an ability to present a self-contained world both from inside and outside, as well as to understand its own world view as a community of people who, in his own succinct phrase, were and are, at once deeply engaged in other worlds and yet deeply distrustful of them.

Finally, he is able to give meaning to the intensity of the rather arid notion of networks through his observation of the central significance of the ubiquitous family connections which give these global relationships their particular feel, their particular flexibility, and also their particular poignancy, as the individual stories, not just of personal success but also of difficulty and dislocation, begin to mount up, particularly in the modern world of nation states and tighter and tighter national jurisdictions.

The Graves of Tarim promises to be one of those great books best read, thought about, and then read again. Let us hope that it can soon reach an Arabic-speaking audience as well. It is a remarkable achievement. (Al Hayat Newspaper).


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