August 30, 2018

Book Summary Excerpt: by Nathaniel Mathews: An Afrabian Diaspora: Swahili-speaking Omanis recall their pasts in East Africa


Across Africa and Asia, governments are increasingly concerned with recruiting capital investment from overseas diasporas as a solution to domestic revenue troubles. From India’s overtures to ‘non-resident Indians’ (NRIs), to the Kenyan state recently declaring its Indian community a recognized ‘tribe’, states utilize their diasporas as a source of remittance and investment.1 Their appeals to the diaspora are often couched in the language of heritage, ancestry and ethnicity. But what happens when appeals to that heritage collide with memories of the violent ethnic trauma these diasporas experienced in leaving their country of origin? And how do those tensions influence how a diaspora produces its history and identity? My book manuscript, “Children of the Lost Colony: Memory, Empire and the Making of an Afro-Arab Diaspora”, excavates the forgotten journeys of a group of Afro-Arab refugees from a 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, historicizes their transformation into a Swahili-speaking ‘Zanzibari’ community in modern Oman, and analyzes the contemporary work they do remembering their displacement and migration.
Oman may seem rather distant geographically from East Africa, but the cultural highways of the Indian Ocean have long knit the two regions. Omanis have been traveling to East Africa and intermarrying with its inhabitants since the fourteenth century, and the island of Zanzibar was the capital of a nineteenth century Omani empire. In fact, nationality on the East coast of Africa dates to the establishment of this independent trans-oceanic empire by an Omani sultan. His successors were what the late Ali Mazrui called “genealogical Afrabians”, descended on one side from Omani Arabs who arrived in the eighteenth century, and on the other from various lineages of locally born Africans. Zanzibar and parts of modern Kenya and mainland Tanzania were once part of the domains of these sultans. They were eroded and then ‘protected’ in the age of the scramble for Africa by European powers, foremost among them the British. What is unique about the case of Zanzibar and Oman is that the Omanis, like the Tutsis in Rwanda, had been king and rulers, while many contemporary Zanzibaris are descendants of Africans brought as their slaves.
The revolution of 1964, despite having only a small socialist participation, led western powers to label Zanzibar ‘the Cuba of Africa.’ The revolution helped influence a pan-African union of Zanzibar in April 1964 with mainland Tanganyika, creating modern Tanzania. Since 1985, declining state revenues have shifted Tanzanian state policy towards a more pro-business and pro-corporate strategy of seeking overseas investment Zanzibar’s political leadership now have a vision of the island as Hong Kong, Dubai, or Singapore-- a wealthy city-state sitting at the center of the global economy. To accomplish this, Zanzibar’s government made and continues to make frequent and repeated overtures to the Afro-Arab exile community in Oman, a group it once feared as counter-revolutionary. Zanzibar’s leaders couched these appeals in terms of the permanent and unbroken ties of religious, cultural and ancestral heritage between Oman and Zanzibar.
In this twenty-one-year period from 1964-1985, thousands of Zanzibaris made refugees by the revolution negotiated a path to citizenship in modern Oman. At the eastern end of the Gulf, Oman in the 1960s was poor and isolated, ruled by a sultan who shunned the outside world. With the development of an economy based on oil and gas, and the ascendance to the throne of a new sultan in 1970, Oman entered a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. The one-time refugees from Zanzibar were one of the few population groups in Oman to have received a modern colonial education, thus they were appointed to lead key ministries and played a formative role in the making of modern Omani national institutions.


May 2, 2018

Monotheism, Secularity and Disenchantment

The 'disenchantment of the world' thesis, states that capitalist techno-modernity devalued older ways of knowing associated with religious belief, by asserting that there is no evidence that praying to an invisible God had any effect on reality, and that ordinary people were only fooling themselves and believing in an illusion.
This type of transformation is often considered new, but it has deeper roots in the iconoclastic monotheism of the Abrahamic variety. 'Monotheistic' or 'Abrahamic' faiths (both contested terms to be sure) devalued previous ways of knowing in virtually the same way, by asserting that there is no evidence that praying to God-embodied-thru objects (rocks, carved wood, trees, mountains) had any effect on reality, and that ordinary people were only fooling themselves and believing in an illusion. (look at the story of Abraham in Qisas Anbiya, for example).
Although both modes of thinking contain important and vital critiques of the arrogance of human conduct, they tend to reinforce a certain conceptual arrogance of their own in their approach to the mystery of reality. In a rough epistemological sense, the arrogance of much iconoclastic thinking is the ideological precursor to the arrogance of disenchanted secularity.


April 25, 2018

Violence, Racism and Dubois: the Relevance of Africana Studies

a short post I wrote for Binghamton University's ASO newsletter:

We live in an age of resurgent and wounded white supremacy. As a scholar of Africana Studies and History, I understand Donald Trump and his followers not as the aberration from the supposedly civil political norms of a previous age, but as the return to a mode of political discourse all too familiar in United States history, what the great scholar of Africana, Dr. W.E.B. Dubois called in his magnum opus Black Reconstruction, “the wages of whiteness.”

            We live in age where forms of toxic masculinity, alienation and white racism can combine to fuel destructive form of mass violence. I understand the ever increasing incidence of mass shootings not as the aberration from a previous age of peace, harmony and security, but as the result of our continued use of a mode of violent political action globally, and the inability to ‘wall off’ violence out there (Iraq, Afghanistan), from violence within US borders. 

            We live in an age where a resurgent xenophobic nationalism promises to deal with the ongoing economic catastrophes wrought by the 2008 financial crisis, by building a wall and keeping out Muslims, Mexicans and non-white people in general.   I understand this anti-immigrant sentiment not as the decline from a golden age of tolerance, but as the return to a time-honed mode of racist populism in our collective political discourse. While fascism and racism are common responses to economic anxiety, they only perpetuate the problem of violence, and eat deeply into the spiritual resolve of people who foolishly adopt them.

            In 1915, the great scholar W.E.B. Dubois published a prescient and prophetic piece in The Atlanticcalled “The African Roots of War.” In it, he located the roots of the destruction of Europe in World War One in the violence and genocide of European imperialism in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Dubois’s central contention, still relevant today, is that “We, then, who want peace, must remove the real causes of war.” Those causes, which Dubois identified as racism, greed, and despotic unjust rule, are still with us today; in fact they define our present global condition as clearly as they did in Dubois’s time.

            Under these conditions, scholars and students of the Africana experience have an opportunity to speak and raise up the truths of Dubois, as well as many others—from ancestor Winnie Mandela to the martyr Marielle Franco—to a new generation. Their writings and their lives are a powerful legacy bequeathed to us, and we speak and analyze and do the work of Africana studies as witnesses to and heirs of their vision. It is up to us, to use these tools to trenchantly analyze and critique the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, violence and general callousness of the powerful we see around us. The problems we face as a society, whether here on Binghamton’s campus, nationally or globally are not insurmountable. But their solutions require courage, careful analysis and a steely, clear-eyed determination about the kind of future we can sustainably build together. In that perpetual quest, Africana studies has much to offer to knowledge-seekers and builders of all kinds.


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