April 27, 2013

Some Passing Thoughts on The Dead-End Notion of "Islamic Slavery"

Regarding Western distortions of slavery in Zanzibar, a frequent line of defense I encounter in my research in Oman is that slavery in Zanzibar was of more benevolent variety because Islam mediated the brutality of the master-slave relationship. I am skeptical of such a defense for the following reasons:

The solution to Western distortions of the "Arab" slave trade is not to produce Orientalized set pieces drawn from Quranic texts, in which "Arab" and "Muslim" slaveholders practice a benevolent and more exalted form of slavery. This is an intellectual dead end, and amounts to an indirect apology for something which requires a much deeper critical response. First of all the slave trade itself ought to be distinguished from the practice of slavery. Historians have an important role to play in showing how the trade rose and fell in interaction with economic systems and the demand for labor. The same rule applies to slavery itself--how slaves and slavemasters actually interacted in various times and places either in agreement or contradiction to the text.

Additonally, a true historian will not absolve anyone simply because they "abided by the Quran" in their dealings with slaves. Rather a historian will ask critical questions about how and why slavery was justified in the first place, what it meant to be a slave in particular societies in Africa and Southern Arabia, from the perspective (inasmuch as this is possible) from former slaves. Statements like, "all African societies practice slavery" obscure important differences in systems of enslavement to the point of rendering the word without any meaning. In other words, when Arab intellectuals employ this argument, they fall into the same trap that stymied an earlier generation of colonial historians, essentializing African societies and making them complicit in their own enslavement. Needless to say, this is a repeat of a racist colonial argument that was repeatedly used to justify European involvement in the trans-Atlantic trade.

None of what I am saying here is new. Eminent historians like Abdul Sherrif, Jon Glassman and Fred Cooper have been making such arguments for years. The problem is that a great many of those who defend (for instance) slavery in Zanzibar, do not seem to be aware of their work or their arguments, instead relying mostly on British colonial writers for their interpretation. This produces in many ways a distorted sense of the most urgent historical problem surrounding slavery. Books like Kinyanginyiro na Utumwa by Issa bin Nasser al-Ismaily succeed in dispelling many of the myths surrounding the "Arab" slave trade, but miss a chance to take the conversation further, to an actual substantial discussion of slavery and the various parties involved--Europeans, Arabs, Indians and Africans--and their various interests and understandings.

One way to approach the troubling issue of slavery in Zanzibar is to consider the following quote from Talal Asad:

"One trouble with their consensus argument is that it fuses the distinction between deceiver and deceived with the opposition between dominator and dominated. There is no a priori reason to suppose that social categories that define relations between dominators and dominated must involve credulity on the part of the latter and cynicism on that of the former. In any case, such suppositions are irrelevant to the problem. What is shared in such situations is not "belief" as an interior state of mind but cultural discourses that constitute objective social conditions and thus define forms of behaviour appropriate to them. Such conditions do not rule out the possibility of conflict--by which I mean not merely that conflicts may erupt to upset them but that conflicts, including the use of force, are entirely compatible with them."

The language of slavery in Zanzibar is often cloaked in paternalism, and historians would do well to analyze the role of this paternalism, and how the relationships of paternalism (including the squatter-landowner relationship) was gradually undone in the decades after abolition.

Historians of slavery in Zanzibar cannot accept at face value the anti-Arab canards of partisans of the Zanzibar Revolution; they will be skeptical of the idea that slavery was a driving force behind the Revolution, and attendant to the way this discourse justified racist violence against Arabs. At the same time, they must be critical of the discourse of the exiled Arab diaspora, insofar as that discourse tends to avoid substantive analysis of slavery and its function and role in 19th century Zanzibar.


Richard Iton, Inna Allahi wa Allah rajiuun

Today I would like to post a small tribute to a brilliant intellectual, writer and philosopher whose life was untimely cut short by leukemia this past week. I remember fondly his course on diaspora which I was able to sit in on. I had some great conversations with him on the concept of "alternative modernities." Here he presents on the black diaspora, post-racialism, and black politics for the 21st century.


Slavery in the Swahili City-States

I've been reading through some old notes from my  general field exams on slavery and the slave trade in Africa. The question of Swahili and Arab complicity in the slave trade is a sensitive issue that continues to rankle Arab and Swahili intellectuals, who feel that Western attacks on "Arab slavery" unfairly essentialize and racialize Arabs as slave traders. They point out, often correctly, that abolitionist attacks on the "Arab slave trade" in the 19th century were closely linked to the establishment of colonial rule in East Africa. The issue is rather more complicated than I can address here, but suffice to say that Arabs were not the only participants in the trade. Nevertheless the charge that "coastal people" or "the Swahili" were active participants in the trade is a line one still finds quite frequently in scholarly articles. Such charges are often little substantiated with data. When the volume of the East African trade are tabulated, as in Ralph Austen's work the results are less than satisfactory, and at any rate do not address slavery and the slave trade in the more distant past of the "Swahili Golden Age." Recent scholarship by Thomas Vernet has the potential to change the paradigm of how we view the Swahili city-states and their relationship to slavery and the slave trade. Butch Ware, summarizing Vernet's work, writes:

"Though they were deeply involved in trading, the Swahili seem to have done little slaving. Vernet argues that between 1500 and 1750 Swahili city-states were militarily fragile; mainland groups attacked the coastal polities more frequently than the coast attacked the mainland. Moreover, even these conflicts were exceptional as the Swahili city-states had strong patron-client ties with mainland societies, including arrangements for military defense. Only at the southern end of the Swahili world, in Kilwa and its southern hinterland, were continental Africans traded in substantial numbers. Vernet concludes that on the Swahili coast north of Cape Delgado, there was little mainland slave-trading at all between 1500 and 1800 with the exception of a trade in Somali and Oromo women destined for use as concubines. At the same time, Portuguese documents make reference to a voluminous mainland trade in ivory, foodstuffs, and, at least in the south, gold."

The volume of the slave trade would of course grow exponentially in the 18th and 19th century; this is in part attributable to the intensification of plantation agriculture in Omani-ruled Zanzibar and along the coast (as well as the French plantation sector in Reunion) But the myth of the Swahili as inveterate slave traders needs to be seriously revised and historicized.

 Here is a brief bibliography of Thomas Vernet's published work, most of it in French:
  • 2006 “Slave trade and slavery on the Swahili coast (1500-1750)”, in Paul Lovejoy, Behnaz A. Mirzai and Ismael M. Montana (ed.), Slavery, Islam and Diaspora, Trenton, Africa World Press. Revised and expanded version of 2003 article.
  • 2004 “Le territoire hors les murs des cités-Etats swahili de l’archipel de Lamu, 1600-1800,” Journal des Africanistes, 74 (1-2), pp. 381-411.
  • 2004 “La splendeur des cités Swahili,” L’Histoire, 284, pp. 62-67.
  • 2003 “Le commerce des esclaves sur la côte swahili, 1500-1750,” Azania, 38, pp. 69-97.
  • 2002 “Les cités-Etats swahili et la puissance omanaise (1650-1720),” Journal des Africanistes, 72 (2), pp. 89-110.


April 6, 2013

Filling Station in Oman Back in the Day

Shell is everywhere. It is hard from this photo to see if the road to the station is even paved....


April 1, 2013

Kofia in Zanzibar (by Mohamed Ameir Muombwa)

KOFIA IN ZANZIBAR (AAP 42 (1995) 132-137)

There are many different traditional costumes in the world. In Zanzibar, a Swahili man is said to be fully attired when he puts on an embroidered cap, locally known as kofia ya viua or just kofia, robe (kanzu) with a coat, and sandals taking a Swahili name of makubadhi.

The Kofia is round-shaped with a flat top, adorned with embroidered designs all over. For convenience of simplicity in classification kofia are divided into two main groups, simple- designed and complex-designed caps.

Traditionally kofia are given names according to what the design types appearing on them look like. However it should be noted that the design types are not carbon copies of objects an artist has represented. A fundi (a craftsman who specializes in drawing of kofia designs) normally takes a small part of that object or thing and then changes it in conformity with cap- designing art, which, to a great extent, puts much emphasis on producing criss-cross patterns. Worth pointing out is that this art is not done for the sake of art as many people think. Almost all designs ar·e drawn from the environment in which the fundi live, making the art itself a true representation of the life of the people.
The common names of Zanzibar caps are kikuti, kidema, lozi, and besela. There are so many names as more new designs ofcaps are coming up daily.

To begin with, the kofia called kikuti (palm leaf), for example, represents availability of countless coconut trees in the isles. Life without coconut trees in Zanzibar is nearly impossible to imagine. Fishing, a bread earning activity to many Islanders, is represented by a design of
kidema, a locally made fishing trap. Fishing by using dema is one of the traditional fishing methods practiced in many parts in the Isles.

Besela is the name of the Zanzibar wooden bedstead, which is a treasured household item. Made from expensive timber, besela's peculiar designs may please many. The cap artists have come out to preserve the name as the possibility is high for this type of beadstead to disappear in the future.
Unlike other kofia, lozi designs do not have any representation from the environment. Lozi is a corruption of the English word 'rose', a flower loved by many for its pleasant smell. Because the rose is regarded as the best flower, so lozi is taken to be the king of all kofia.

Islam, the religion of which most Swahili are followers, has been given a central place in kofia design. There is a kofia called msikiti (mosque) which depicts a dome-like pattern and two minarets. Some craftsmen have gone further to produce the name of God, Allah, in Arabic writing. 

A butterfly-like design is still the sole cap which represents flying creatures This type of kofia is called kipepeo (butterfly).

The first modern stadium in Zanzibar, built by the Chinese government in the 1970s, attracted the attention of the late Mzee Shaka, a well-known craftsman from Makunduchi in the southern part of Zanzibar. He produced a cap design named after the stadium, Uwanja wa Amaan.

The more elaborate a kofia is designed, the higher a price it will fetch in the market. Such kofia will normally be worn during special occasions like wedding ceremonies. The lozi design is preferred by many as a bridegroom's attire because ofthe complexity of designs and its beauty. This cap also enjoys popularity among the pilgrims to the Muslims' holy city of Makkah.

The fact that wearing a headgear is sunnah (a commendable deed in Islam, but not absolutely binding) has lead to the popularization of the kofia in the Isles, where more than 95% of the population are Muslims. In fact, wherever populations of Muslims are found in East Afiica the kofia has became a popular clothing. It is no surprise, therefore, that the kofia stands today for both Muslim and Swahili identity. The close association of kofia and Islam is again demonstrated in one of the Swahili sayings used frequently by sheikhs to warn Muslims against committing sins. The saying reads: Uislam si kuvaa kanzu au kofia (Islam is not just to wear· robe or cap, Islam means following good deeds).
Swahili social activities, notably the burial ceremony is characterized by wearing kofia A person for whom a kofia is not the regular clothing, if seen with it one day, may be asked a question like: Nani amekufa, mbona kofia kichwani? (Who has died? I see you have put on a cap.)

Different people have different motives for putting on a kofia. There are those who feel uneasy going out bareheaded. They regard themselves to have not fully dressed without kofia. Some feel shy to expose their bald heads or grey hair. Others feel that old age binds them to wearing kofia or else they might be accused of clinging to youthfulness, if they do not wear the cap. Likewise, some young people object wearing the caps on pretext of looking like old people Nevertheless, the majority of people wear· the caps because they are regarded as decent clothing with the addition of religious significance.

In the past the kofia played a certain role in communication, particularly on matters related to sexuality. Because the liason between a woman and a man was always kept away from the public gaze, kofia-related communication was used to date women. The meeting in public of a man and a woman who are not related, was normally received with suspicion. It is, therefore, said that women were sent messages by their lovers through the particular way of wearing the kofia and their intended meanings. It is said that a Swahili man used to wear a kofia in a certain style to transmit a message to his lover. There were styles showing that a wearer of kofia wants to meet his lover at a particular place.

The simple designed kofia have other functions apart from being clothing. On a Friday prayer attended by hundreds ofMuslims, the cap can be used for collecting donations fiom the worshippers. A person with a cap in his hands passes along the rows to let the people put money in it. On a wedding day, after completion of exchange of marriage vows (nikah), the bridegroom is supposed to meet his wife at her parents house. Before he enters her room, the bride's female relatives joke with him. Such jokes may be implemented in different ways. The women may, for example prevent the bridegroom from going to meet his wife. Then the bridegroom's best friend takes off his kofia, puts in some money, and hands it over to one of the women. Then the door is opened to allow the bridegroom and his friends to say hello to the bride. In this situation handing over money by using the kofia is considered as more respectable than by using a hand.
Both young and old people respectively have invented their own wearing styles of kofia. The former tend to wrinkle the cap while the latter wear the cap as it is. One of the wearing styles that indicates that a Swahili man is comfortable and relaxed is one in which a cap's top flat is made to appear pointed. And, if you slant your kofia on the head in a certain way (kutega or kutengua) it means you look down on people. People may perceive you as a self-important person. To take off someone's kofia is an act of bad habit.

Among the special gifts bestowed to a state guest visiting the Isles is a kofia. During his state visit in Zanzibar in 1990, the South African president, Nelson Mandela, was bestowed the kofia called lozi
The former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, was a great lover of the kofia In the 1960s and 70s he was hardly seen bareheaded in public meetings or other state functions held in Swahili areas. It is said that Nyerere's love of the kofia helped him politically. The Swahili regarded him as one among them because of the great value attached to the kofia. Whether this is true or not, it is undisputable that a non-Swahili who frequently wears a kofia has a greater chance to be easily integrated into the Swahili community.


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