Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Arabs Also Were Settlers and They Conquered

To the Editors:

In response to my article on the Sultanate of Oman [NYR, August 14], several scholars have pointed out that the descendants of slaves in Omani society have a distinct history that should be carefully distinguished from Omanis who have returned to the Arabian Peninsula from East Africa in recent decades.

Oman is believed to have ties to Africa going back to the early years of the Islamic era, and following the conquest of Portuguese trading posts in the late seventeenth century, large numbers of Omanis settled on the East African coast—especially after 1832, when the Omani sultan moved his court to Zanzibar. During this era, African slaves were dispersed among tribes across Oman, and their descendants constituted a separate social class. However, while many slaves would have been by origin Swahili speakers, they would have assimilated into Arabic-language culture within a generation or two.

By contrast, the so-called “Zanzibari” Omanis, of which there may now be 100,000, are the descendants of Arabs who emigrated to East Africa and whose families returned beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. These Zanzibaris are Swahili-speaking and have remained a distinct group in contemporary Oman; a number of them have served in high positions of the civil service and their Zanzibari heritage is a marker of elite status. Some scholars, including Marc Valeri, have further noted linguistic and class distinctions between Swahili-speaking Omanis who had lived in Zanzibar, Kenya, and what is now Tanzania, who are also English-speaking; and those who had lived in Central Africa, who are also French-speaking.

As J.E. Peterson observes, one of the paradoxes of this history of return is that while the descendants of African slaves are considered fully a part of Omani Arab society, the Omani-Zanzibari elite, who are at least in part ethnically Arab, tend to be regarded as “foreign” to a certain extent.

For the record, the great-grandfather of the current Omani sultan, who as I mentioned in my article is reported to have spoken Gujarati and Swahili better than Arabic, was Sultan Faisal bin Turki (ruled 1888–1913), not Taimur bin Faisal.

Hugh Eakin
New York City


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