Hadhrami Arabs Across the Indian Ocean: contributions to Southeast Asian economy and society

Hadhrami Arabs Across the Indian Ocean: contributions to Southeast Asian economy and society

by Syed Farid Alatas (ed.), National Library Board, 100 Victoria Street, Singapore, 2010. (Email: ref@nlb. gov. sg). Pp. 96. Foreword. Introduction. References. Illus. Notes. Index. Pb. ISBN 978-981-08-4695-4. 

This publication was produced to accompany an exhibition, sponsored by the National Library of Singapore in early 2010, entitled Rihlah - Arabs in Southeast Asia. By displaying photographs, personal and offical documents, and a variety of artefacts (including musical instruments), the National Library aimed to draw public attention to the history and culture of the Arabs in Southeast Asia. From the late eighteenth century, Hadhramis started to migrate in significant numbers to the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, especially Java, adding a new dimension to their existing diaspora along the Red Sea and East African coasts. 

The volume edited by Professor Farid Alatas, Head of the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore, explores aspects of the impact of Hadhrami migration on host countries as well as on the Hadhrami homeland. 

Leila Ingrams writes about the conditions experienced by her parents in Hadhramaut in the 1930s and early 1940s, and has illustrated her text with several of their photographs. She includes mention of their historic tour of Hadhrami communities in Singapore and Java in 1939 (cited mistakenly as 1935 in Dr Varaprasad's Foreword). 

Kauhiro Aral, who made the history of the al-Attas family the subject of his doctoral thesis from the University of Michigan, considers the role of this renowned sayyid family in the social and religious life of the East Indies, the strong ties of kinship which influenced patterns of migration, and the importance of family genealogies in maintaining a collective sense of identity among scattered groups of migrants sharing a common ancestry. A branch of the same family founded the Ba Alawi mosque in Singapore which is the subject of a chapter by Dr Mona Abaza (of the American University, Cairo). 

In recent times the al-Attas clan achieved high distinction in the person of the late Ali Alatas (1932-2008). He served Indonesia in a series of senior diplomatic roles before being appointed Foreign Minister by President Suharto, and making his name as an international statesman. 

Bouchaib Silm analyses the substantial Hadhrami involvement in the print media in Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century, and the influence of diaspora publications on public opinion in the homeland. 

In the nineteenth century Singapore became a staging post for pilgrims wishing to make the hajj. Their transportation was undertaken by Hadhrami-owned shipping companies such as those established by the al-Saqqaf (Alsagoff), al-Kaff, and al-Jifri families. Anthony Green's chapter on the subject discusses the primitive and often hazardous conditions under which pilgrims travelled from Southeast Asia to the Red Sea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Erik Holmberg's chapter on Shaikh Salim bin Mohamed bin Talib (c. 1850-1937) introduces the reader to a Hadhrami entrepreneur who was to become one of the richest men in Singapore in the 1920s and 1930s. His descendants, who include Singapore's current ambassador to Yemen, continue to receive income from real estate in Singapore owned by Shaikh Salim. This is a fascinating case study of a young Hadhrami from a village near Shibam who emigrated to make, lose and recoup his fortune in the Malay world. 

Remittances from overseas Hadhramis were crucial to the economy of Hadhramaut but the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya during the second world war put an abrupt end to them. This caused immense hardship and contributed to the famine conditions which the Dutch traveller and diplomat, Van der Meulen, witnessed during his visit to Hadhramaut in 1944. Huub de Jonge's chapter, which reproduces several of Van der Meulen's photographs, examines the attitudes of Dutch and British officialdom to this economic and humanitarian disaster. 

Hadhrami migrants brought the Arabic zafin music and dance form to the Malay-Indonesian world. Dr Farid Alatas discusses the role which this imported tradition was to play in local culture and the predominantly Sufi forms of worship which migrants introduced. Complementing this is a chapter by Dr L. Hilarian, an ethnomusicologist, on the transmission and impact of Hadhrami and Persian Lute-type (qanbus) instruments. He rebuts the belief strongly held by some Malays that indigenous variants of these instruments existed before the latter were imported. 

The references appended to each chapter combine to form a valuable bibliography of the growing body of scholarly material which studies of the Hadhrami diaspora have produced. Readers with an interest in the past and present lives of Hadhramis in Southeast Asia, and in their interaction with their host societies and ancestral homeland, will warmly welcome this publication.

John Shipman

Author: 
Syed Farid Alatas (ed.)