The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean

The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean 

by Engseng Ho

University of California Press, November 2006. Pp.xxvi + 357. 4 Maps. 2 tables. 25 b/w photographs. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £35.95. ISBN 0-520-24453-2. Pb.£13.95. ISBN 0- 520-24454-0.

For centuries Hadhramis were obliged to leave their poor and arid homeland to seek their fortunes in the wider Indian Ocean region, with its networks of trade and migration stretching from the East African coast to the Indonesian archipelago. Emigrants usually travelled abroad without wives and often married indigenous women. Their progeny were known as muwalladin (a term which also applied to any Hadhrami born abroad). Hadhrami emigrants included sayyids, descendants of the Prophet, who enjoyed a degree of religious prestige within Muslim communities wherever they settled; many became merchants; some religious teachers and jurists; others became mercenaries; several even founded local dynasties through intermarriage.

A remarkable feature of the Hadhrami diaspora was the ability of Hadhrami expatriates to maintain a sense of identity with their homeland, while adapting to and flourishing in their countries of adoption. They remitted money to their families in Hadhramaut, often sent their foreign-born sons there to absorb intrinsic Hadhrami values and to experience the local way of life; and more often than not they aspired to retire there.

The graves of pious ancestors played an important symbolic role in the religious and social lives of Hadhramis, particularly in Tarim, commonly referred to in Hadhramaut as the country’s ‘Vatican’. It was at al-Hisaysah, not far distant from Tarim that Ahmad bin ‘Isa al-Muhajir, forefather of the sayyids, had chosen to settle after migrating to Hadhramaut from Iraq in ad 932. The burial places of renowned ancestors became a focus for pilgrimage, which helped to nurture a Hadhrami’s sense of affinity with the homeland. The recording of family genealogies also played its part in maintaining and developing ties of kinship within and between Hadhrami communities in the Indian Ocean diaspora.

Before 1995, when an international workshop on the Hadhrami diaspora was convened at SOAS, the history of the diaspora had been largely neglected by modern scholars. The workshop proved a turning point, and the papers presented at it were published in Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean 1750s–1960s (Leiden: Brill, 1997). These included a notable one by Engseng Ho entitled Hadhramis abroad in Hadhramaut: the Muwalladin. A slightly expanded version of this paper is included in Chapter 8 (‘Repatriation’) of his book (pp.224–239). Other scholars who participated in the 1995 workshop have since published important contributions to the study of the Hadhrami diaspora. These include Natalie Mobini-Kesheh’s The Hadhrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900–1942 (1999); Linda Boxberger’s On the Edge of Empire: Hadhramawt, Emigration, and the Indian Ocean, 1880s–1930s (2002); and Ulrike Freitag’s Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut: Reforming the Homeland (2003).

Hadhramaut’s culture of emigration and return, and the interaction between the diaspora and the homeland in a changing world are the broad focus of Engseng Ho’s work. His text is divided into ten chapters under three sections: ‘Burial’, ‘Genealogical Travel’, and ‘Returns’. His Preface introduces and encapsulates the rationale and thesis of his book, and on p.28 he cites ‘the interweaving of genealogy, theology and history’ as a defining feature of his interpretation of the region’s past.

The theoretical framework of the book is elastic, allowing the author latitude to roam freely through time and space within and between chapters, and to include in his study a good deal of extraneous matter. This places considerable demands on the reader’s ability to keep abreast of the author’s train of thought, especially when confronted with dense, sometimes impenetrable, thickets of anthropological jargon. For example:

‘The reciprocal motion that was set up within a textual medium was a process of schismogenesis, in which home and the world, in their interaction, came to be dichotomized as source and satellite, relic and replica...’ (p.117).

‘The grave is a semiotic complex that enacts a passage from silence to vocalization. This initial motion begins a dynamic of signification that launches the dead and silent person within the earth into discourse.’ (p.190).

‘At stake in this duality of closedness and openness was not a static tension but a dynamic of signification, which maintained discursive control over an expanding sphere of exchange rather than reject or throttle it’. (p.198).

The author seems to enjoy playing with words, and he evidently enjoys coining new ones (‘exilic’, ‘imaginal’, ‘annalistic’, ‘interdigitation’, ‘uxorilocal’, ‘rhizomic’, ‘syntagmatic’), and also investing words with new meanings (e.g. ‘ascendant’ to mean ‘ancestor’ on p.197). Perhaps he simply enjoys challenging or teasing the reader’s intellect!

The author claims that ‘Hadrami migrations were self-consciously linked with the propagation of Islam’. This is an untenable view since most migrants would have been unqualified to play a missionary role and would have had more worldly priorities, while those sayyids who were qualified had no monopoly of religious teaching. Indeed, some sayyids with famous Sufi lineages actually donned military uniform, when it suited them, in direct contravention of the advice of their famous Sufi patriarch, al-Faqih al-Muqaddam (d.1161) ‘to break the sword’ and pursue a peace-promoting religious life.

Engseng Ho, currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Studies at Harvard University, is perhaps at his best and most fluent when discussing his fieldwork. His personal impressions of people and places (pp.63–71; pp.249–255) are vivid and pleasing; his case histories of muwalladin, young men and women, are one of the highlights of this book. His biographical notes on personalities of the past – religious leaders, writers, poets, historians – and his comparative analysis of their product and influence constitute another highlight. In this context he singles out two historians for special mention: Abdul Qader bin Shaikh al-Aydarus, son of an emigrant Hadhrami father and Indian mother, whose Revealing Light recorded details of the Muslim world of the Western Indian Ocean in the 16th century; and Muhammad Abubakr al-Shilli, who was born in Tarim in the following century and, after a spell in India, settled in Mecca where he wrote The Irrigating Fount: Biographical virtues of the ‘Alawi Sayyids. The author uses these references as a peg on which to hang a discussion of Sufi metaphysics which even the stout-hearted may at times find trying and hard to digest. It is difficult to fathom why an Arabist of the author’s experience has chosen to compromise his treatment of the Aydarus work by mis-translating its Arabic title as The Travelling Light Unveiled. The title should, in fact, read The Unveiling (or Revealing) Light, for the Arabic contains no reference to ‘travelling’. There are other aberrations or caprices, in fact too numerous to list. One must ask why he refers to ‘Ahmad Abad’ and ‘Ahmad Nagar’ in that form instead of using the standard ‘Ahmadabad’ and ‘Ahmadnagar’, and then fails to maintain the consistency of his self-chosen style by referring to ‘Hyderabad’ instead of ‘Haidar Abad’.

The author, for mystifying reasons, has also chosen the term ‘creole’ as a synonym for muwallad (a Hadhrami born abroad); ‘creole’ normally refers to a person of negro or European descent in, or connected with, the West Indies and has no relevance to the Hadhrami diaspora. His insistence on using the term is a recurrent irritant and source of confusion.

Much of Chapters 9 and 10 are devoted to a tendentious and digressive commentary on Britain’s relations with South West Arabia (historical ground which in relation to Hadhramaut has been usefully and unpolemically covered by Freitag and Boxberger). The relevance of this commentary to the avowed purpose of the author’s study is far from clear, and the same applies to his discussion in Chapters 1 and 10 of Yemeni politics before and after the civil war of 1994. The author describes Hadhramaut, following the Advisory Treaty of 1937, as a ‘colony’ and, more apocalyptically, as Britain’s ‘last colony’. In actual terms it was neither (although Aden itself was designated a Crown Colony in 1937), and this doubtless explains the general lack of public reaction to the Treaty which so puzzles the author. Hadhramaut was no more a colony, by the standard definition of that word, than, for example, were the sultanates of Trengannu or Perlis or indeed much of the Arab and Islamic world. Britain’s last colony was, in fact, Sarawak (1946); and perhaps her last act of Imperial adventurism in Arabia was the penetration of the Mahra mainland in October 1963, although Britain had entered into treaty relations with its Sultan since as early as 1876. The Qu’aiti sultanate was not set up with British loans and arms, as the author claims (p.257). There were no funds available for loans and the territory’s budget was heavily subsidised by Qu’aiti assets in India. Besides, Qu’aiti paramountcy in Hadhramaut was well established long before 1881 when the British intervened to help the Qu’aitis take control of Mukalla in part settlement of a loan which its ruler, the Kasadi, had failed to repay. A Treaty of Friendship with the British followed in 1882, and one of Protection in 1888. For an authoritative survey of the origin and development of the Qu’aiti sultanate, amongst other contemporary issues, the reader should refer, for example, to Boxberger.

Meanwhile, the reference on p.82 to ‘foreign Yafa’i occupation’, echoing Ahmad al-Junayd’s feelings on the subject, surely calls for a corrective footnote that the Yafa’i presence in Hadhramaut, along with a number of other tribal groups of similar Himyaritic origin like the Seiban, Nowwah, Humoom and Awabitha, dated from pre-Islamic times (although many, wrongly, date it to Badr Bu Tuweiraq’s era or to the Yafa’i expedition of 1705). It is also incorrect to suggest that the Kathiris first arrived in Hadhramaut from Dhufar with Badr Bu Tuweiraq (d.1570); they had come in the train of Salim al-Habudhi (d.1276) and the Kathiri ruling family originally traced their lineage from Ali bin Omar (d.1422) rather than from Badr Bu Tuweiraq. Moreover, Seiyun, the latter’s capital, was founded long before Bu Tuweiraq’s era and was named after one of the four sons of Hazramaveth of the Book of Genesis, the other three being Shibam, Tarim and Taris.

The whimsicality permeating elements of this book is likely to provoke mixed reactions; but there can be no doubt about the author’s passionate engagement with his subject; nor, indeed, about the insights which his fieldwork in the early 1990s equips him to offer. At the same time the author’s focal concentration on the works and opinions of the sayyids has naturally been at the expense of other social groups with a manifest claim to scholarly attention. This inevitably raises questions about the validity of certain of the author’s conclusions. It is regrettable, for example, that he did not find the space to discuss the longstanding rivalry between the sayyids and other eminent groups such as the ‘Amudi shaykhs of Daw’an, to which he refers in a footnote on p.202 as being beyond the scope of his study! One must hope that such imbalances will be redressed, and that in future studies of the region the voices of Salah al-Bakri, Muhammad Abdulqadir Ba Matraf, Sa’id Awadh Ba Wazir, Abdulqadir al-Sabban and other Hadhramis of non-sayyid origins will also be seriously considered in the interest of accuracy, without which no truly comprehensive accounts, so essential to cultural bridge-building, can be presented.

The author has assembled an interesting array of photographs, some of which aroused nostalgic memories. However, I wish he had felt disposed to share with the reader more of the diasporic and ‘hybridized’ literature which he claims to have unearthed, thereby opening fresh vistas for further study and historical research. A glossary of terms would also have been useful.

Ghalib bin Awadh Al-Qu’aiti

Engseng Ho