The Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900-1942

The Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900-1942

by Natalie Mobini-Kesheh

SEAP, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1999. Pp. 174. Illus. Notes. Glossary. Bibliog. Pb. £17. ISBN 0 87727 727 3.

From the late eighteenth century Hadhramis started to migrate in significant numbers to Southeast Asia, adding a new dimension to their existing diaspora along the Red Sea and East African coast. During the following century Hadhrami settlements emerged throughout the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, especially in the major trading centres along the north coast ofJava. By 1900 there were some 27,000 Arabs (mostly Hadhrami) in the Dutch East Indies, and by 1942, on the eve of Japanese occupation, the Arab population of the colony is thought to have numbered about 80,000.

Migration to the East Indies involved a transition from a largely barren land, bedevilled by tribal warfare, to a flourishing plantation economy Hadhramis were ever resilient, but several factors facilitated their integration with local society: almost all migrants were men, so there was a high rate of intermarriage with indigenous women; they professed the same religion as the local population, and not a few of them were say yids claiming descent from the Prophet.

This study examines the issues of identity and community which confronted Hadhramis in the Indies during the first half of the 20th century. The onset of modernity raised urgent and complex questions. Did traditional social status matter? How could the religion of Islam be made relevant to the modern world? What kind of education would best equip Hadhrami children to succeed in that world? Were Hadhramis to identify themselves as Muslims or Arabs; with their homeland or with their host country? Hadhrami responses to these questions during the period known to contemporary writers as al-nahdhah al-hadhramiyyah, or the Hadhrami ‘awakening’, form the substance of this work. Hadhrami identity helped to shape and was itself shaped by shifting patterns of identification in the host society: the emergence, for example, of an ethnically defined nationalism among Indonesians from the mid-1910s meant that Hadhramis were now seen more as ‘foreigners’ than as fellow Muslims. This sharpened Hadhramis’ sense of separateness (already institutionalised by the Dutch colonial policy of segregating and imposing travel restrictions on Arabs and Chinese) and was a decisive factor in compelling them to turn to their homeland as a source of identity. This pattern was reversed in the 1930s, when a group of young Hadhrami muwalladin (locally-born and usually of mixed parentage) chose to proclaim Indonesia as their homeland, thus winning acceptance by Indonesian nationalists.

The nahdhah, led by the newly emergent elite, embodied newspapers, journals, and a rapidly expanding network of voluntary associations and modern schools. But it also gave rise to a protracted ideological dispute - the ‘Alawi-Irshadi conflict - centred on the social status and religious authority claimed by the ‘Alawis (sayyids) but disputed by the Irshadis as a perverse anomaly (their view being influenced by the Egyptian-led movement of Islamic Reformism with its emphasis on Muslim equality). Despite this dispute, the core achievement of the nahdhah was the establishment of an educational system aimed at turning a new generation of Hadhramis into devout, self-reliant Muslims with a knowledge of both Arabic and European languages, and with the basic vocational skills that they would need as traders and businessmen. The system (modelled closely on the example of the pace-setting Chinese) also inculcated a territorial patriotism (wataniyyah) focused on the Hadhrami homeland, whose welfare and development it was the community’s moral duty to support; and the wealth remitted from South-east Asia between the wars is still manifest in the mud-brick palaces and tower houses of Wadi Hadhramaut. When Indonesia achieved independence most people of Hadhrami descent accepted Indonesian nationality, and Hadliramaut was relegated to the ‘land of the ancestors’.

This thoughtful, richly informed study is the fruit of wide reading and painstaking research. It is written with assurance and refreshing lucidity, and is a valuable addition to existing studies on the Hadhrami diaspora. It incorporates the author’s paper in Hadrami Scholars. Traders and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean 1 750s- 1960s (edited by U. Freitag and W G. Clarence-Smith, Brill, 1997) but not, alas, a map of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago which would have been helpful to readers less familiar with this region. Lastly, two minor points: the first European to enter Tarim since Leo Hirsch in 1893 was Lieut. -Colonel the Hon. M. T. Boscawen (who visited Shibam and Tarim in 1929) not Van der Meulen as stated on p. 108; and Salih Bin ‘Abdat’s son who ruled al-Ghurfah from 1939 was Ubayd, not Salih as stated in note 55, p. 118.

John Shipman

Natalie Mobini-Kesheh