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.


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