Monday, May 9, 2016

The intimate on the other shore

Early last month I had the opportunity to spend some days in Doha. Even though I had never been to Qatar before, while transitioning from the airport to the city, and subsequently when in Doha itself, I did not feel like I was a stranger in a foreign land. There was something very familiar in the environment and the urban form that made me feel that I was in fact returning to Doha.

This sensation should not of course surprise many Goans. A number of us have spent years in the Persian Gulf states, either as children to migrant labour, or as migrant labour in our own right, to ensure that this region of the world is in fact also home. One has to merely look at the chronicles of R. Benedito Ferrão in this newspaper to realize the complex relationships that so many Goans have with ‘the Gulf’. Indeed, for many ‘Gulfies', especially those who were raised in the region, the various Gulf states were more home than Goa. This was true for the many Kuwaitcars, those Goans who lived and worked in Kuwait, who returned to Goa in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of that country in 1990.

Despite being the son of a Gulfie, my own relationship with the Gulf was in fact very short, as I spent only the first five years of my life in the Sultanate of Oman. I subsequently returned to the Gulf for a holiday only in my late teens, shepherded by family members from one tourist location to another, and the home of one cousin to another. And despite this short time, or perhaps because of it, the Gulf has always been a place that I have identified as a home of sorts. Indeed, on my return to Oman, whether it was my imagination or not, I felt that the air that rushed into my nostrils as I deplaned was not unfamiliar. I had encountered this smell before. The first memory of the seashore that I have is not of that in Goa, but of the other side of the Arabian Sea. Often with a small sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was that other shore that I wanted to return to; to home.

Lenny Gomes and H. H. Sheikh Rashid bin Maktoum, c. 1965. Courtesy Selma Carvalho.
It is because of this engagement with the Gulf that, for many Goans Islam is not an alien religion. This engagement with Islam may not be an intimate one, nor indeed may this encounter with Islam necessarily lead to a challenge to the Islamophobia that so dominates contemporary mindsets. On the contrary, it appears that Islamophobia may be engendered thanks to the power differentials between local Arabs and migrant labour, where migrant labour is reported to feel that the locals are lording it over them.

Given that as a child I was not privy to these strained relations at the time that I lived in the Gulf, my own appreciation of the Arab world and Islam has not been tainted by the Islamophobia that is rampant in many parts of the world, whether in India, or among various social groups, especially in Europe and North America. I recollect, of course with the aid of photographs, that my parents’ home received a number of Omani guests, guests into whose laps I felt free to crawl, and whose turbans, in the course of play, I would take off and place on my own head. Growing up I was surrounded by relatives, especially those who held white-collar positions, who would speak of earlier times when the distinctions between Arabs and migrants had not been so strong, where Arabs were part of one’s friend circle.

Perhaps it is this intimacy, prior to the explosion of the Gulf economies, that ensured that so many old time Gulfies also spoke Arabic.  It was this familiarity with the language that eventually passed on to me, such that using words, like Inshallah or Alhamdulillah is not uncommon in our speech. Contrast this familiarity, and indeed intimacy with such words, with the cultural illiteracy prevalent in the United such that recently ensured that a university student who was taken off a United States flight after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic.

At the time of his campaign to be elected President, Barak Obama received a lot of flak for his African and Muslim heritage. Such was the phobic reaction that Obama’s statement: “The sweetest sound I know is the Muslim call to prayer” was used to generate anti-Obama sentiment. Given that my earliest memories involve the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, and given that I had the privilege of a secure childhood, I too share Obama’s sentiment. There is NO sound that is in fact sweeter, more reassuring of the order of the world, than the azaan.

There are tons of memories that I associate with the azaan. The most amusing perhaps, but also explicative of my intimate identification with Islam, is that as a child of five I had managed to claim a little hand towel with Arabic lettering on it as my own. When I heard the azaan I’d scamper off to retrieve my towel, and then proceed to use it as a prayer mat on which I would mimic the movements of namaz.

As emotional as my return to the Gulf was, however, I was unable to spend much time engaging with local residents, and this was a pity. But who knows when there may be another more fulfilling journey to the other shore?

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 8 May 2016)

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