Vol. 25 No. 6 · 20 March 2003

Out of the Hadhramaut

Michael Gilsenan traces the Arab diaspora in South-East Asia

4793 words

Arabs have been travelling east for centuries. They settled chiefly in what are now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, though ‘settled’ hardly describes the movements from town to town, island to island as connections, markets, goods, the main chance or a father’s instruction dictated. The majority of these Arabs are from the Hadhramaut region of south-eastern Yemen, which was ruled until 1967 by the British as part of the East Aden Protectorates. Many moved first to India, staying in the south-west or in Gujarat, for example. ‘All our family look Indian,’ the father of an ‘Arab’ Singaporean friend of mine said last year, showing me his old photographs. Others or their progeny journeyed on to the hundreds of islands of the Malay Archipelago, bringing their capital, dress, cuisine and manners with them.

They came as sailors, pedlars, traders of all sorts, cloth merchants, spice dealers, preachers, teachers and sometimes all of the above in a single lifetime. A few married into the families of local sultans and other notables, especially if they could claim the distinction of being a seyyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. (The current King of Malaysia is of the seyyid Jamalullail family.) A few families tell dramatic tales of shipwreck, slavery, recognition and marriage to the princess. Most married at less exalted levels, sometimes wives of different ethnic origin, in different places of business and travel: in the states of Kedah, Terengganu, Pahang, Johore, Riau and Singapore; the towns of Palembang, Aceh, Medan, Deli, Lampung in Sumatra or on the north Java coast where Arabs clustered in what was Batavia (now Jakarta), Cirebon, Pekalongan, Semarang, Surabaya and right out to Sulawesi, the Maluku islands, East Timor. In such a diaspora, family is an even more than usually diverse and multi-stranded set of relations. The inverted commas I place around ‘Arab’ express this shape-changing quality, its use situationally shifting and variously stressed, if stressed at all.

Marriages, social networks and the accidents of demography did their work. Families began to trace descent as much on the mother’s as on the father’s side – the one privileged in Arab genealogy. ‘We’re al-Attas-es,’ a friend told me, ‘but really we’re much more al-Sagoffs because we grew up with my mother’s family.’ Bridegrooms not uncommonly moved in with the girl’s family after marriage – another break with tradition. Some chose Javanese or Malay names, say, rather than the Muhammad bin (son of) Ahmad bin Hussein kind common in Arab reckoning, and which seem so odd to South-East Asians, who tend to use a single name with no ‘family name’ attached. Hamid could become Wito; half a group of siblings might choose to change their names while the others kept to the Arab pattern. Nicknames and pet names flourished, too, the originals hardly used and forgotten by most. Children grew up speaking one or more of the many languages of the region: Madurese, Sundanese, Minangkabau, Javanese (even a dialect of Chinese when the mother was from China) and, in the 20th century, the new national languages of Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. Many assimilated completely.

Colonial racial classification of subaltern groups, together with restrictions on dress and residence and the clustering together of migrant populations, helped to create as well as maintain an apartness as ‘Arab’, although intermarriage was the norm. Bodies changed, idioms of ‘blood’ became naturalised, to the point that on one occasion a proud Indonesian aunt took me through the ‘eleven bloods’ of her shyly patient ten-year-old nephew, each blood indicated quite clearly in her account by a bodily feature, skin colour, hair texture, eye shape, bone structure and so on. Who does and does not ‘look Arab’ is a source of much conversation, often highly amused though occasionally charged.

The migrants got along under the colonial regimes, dealing with powers as they found them. Later, during the struggles for independence and after, this sometimes cost them dearly. Nationalists inveighed against those who worked with the British and the Dutch, were friends of the colonials and not true Indonesians or Singaporeans or Malays. Arabs were popularly associated with moneylending, land and property ownership and close relations with the Dutch in Indonesia. But some Arabs were distinguished nationalists themselves, Communist in a few cases, anti-imperial Islamist reformers in others. If the elite had to learn Indonesian, having been brought up speaking Dutch, that simply put them on a par with Sukarno, the hero of Indonesian nationalism. In Malaysia and Singapore, where Arabs were a tiny minority, histories were different and the stereotypes far less negative or significant.

The degree to which Arabs were responsible for the long and uneven period of Islamisation of the region since the later 13th century is much disputed. (Islamisation is a tricky term, to put it mildly, not least if it is taken to imply an irresistible wave of conversion to a homogeneous Islam.) South India is the source favoured by scholars. But Arabs are perceived as the carriers of the language of the Koran and as vehicles of religious truths and texts. They come from the heartlands of Islam and what Indonesians, for instance, will on occasion call the centre of the faith, as distinct from their own periphery. On other occasions, however, when contact with Saudi officials on the pilgrimage to the holy cities of the Hijaz becomes abrasive, the periphery seems a place of greater civilisation than the centre.

Many Arabs in South-East Asia have preached and taught. Many still do, though they are very much a minority among the wider Indonesian population of religious specialists. They bear some authenticating stamp of origin, especially if they have trained in Cairo at al-Aqsa or in Mecca or Medina. Certain religious boarding schools, usually identified as being more conservative, are still run by a karismatik kyai (‘religious teacher’) of Arab origin. Pupils come from all over the archipelago to be taught by a celebrated teacher. Travelling to the source of education is an important part of that period of life and networks formed at the pesantren often last for years, as does reverence for the kyai.

The holy men’s tombs scattered across the islands also suggest other, more interestingly complex relations. The shrine of Luar Batang, for example, dating from the 1730s, has its yearly pilgrimage and a daily stream of visitors seeking baraka, or ‘favour’, ‘help from God’. On the coast at Jakarta, the shrine is easily flooded, recalling the story that after the holy man’s death an island of sand rose from the sea and the bearers of the saint’s bier were compelled to inter him there, where the elements miraculously met and merged. A place of shifting elements and boundaries, Luar Batang also marks another meeting. It contains two holy tombs, those of the seyyid Hussein al-Attas and his companion Abd al-Qadir, a Chinese convert who is buried beside him. He who does not pay a ritual visit to the tomb of Abd al-Qadir, the seyyid said, his pilgrimage to me is void. Many Chinese business people sacrifice there for good fortune, the guardian told me. (Another worshipper alluded to disputes about the administration of the mosque, the distribution of funds, the architecture of an extension – all the classic parochial issues.) Arab-Chinese relations often seem to have been, and are still, personally, even professionally collaborative, though the standard argument for the economic decline of many Arab families is that Chinese competition, in batik for example, drove them out of business.

This complicated tangle of histories and cultures had superficially impinged on me when a year’s VSO teaching in the then Crown Colony of Aden and the Protectorates brought me to Hadhramaut in 1959 as a 19-year-old instrument of the declining Empire. I was naively astonished by the fact that students at Aden College who were from the Hadhramaut routinely spoke Indonesian or Malay or other South-East Asian languages; that they would lament being stuck in Arabia when they could be enjoying themselves in Jakarta or Singapore; that they ate highly spiced food, nasi goreng and a range of rice dishes, wore the long sarong and ‘looked Malay’, or whatever description they or their friends gave themselves.

Forty years later I decided to make a return to the source of that once colonial society, but this time in Asia. What did and does ‘being Arab’ or ‘being of Arab descent’ mean in the pluricultural world of the archipelago? How had such meanings, histories, families changed over four, five or more generations?

In 1999 I spent a year between Java and Singapore, engaged in a kind of pre-research – travelling, meeting people, mostly creatively, but completely out of my depth. Scholars in Jakarta and Singapore generously introduced me to a wide range of people, the majority of whom seemed happy, even eager, to answer my questions. Some academics were surprised that I found the topic fascinating. Some whose Arab connections dated from way back, in what was to them the uninteresting past, found the issue entirely irrelevant. They wondered, very politely, why anyone would spend their time on it when there were so many other things to research. The very limited index references to Arabs in academic writings on South-East Asia seemed to confirm their judgment. Others, especially those with a seyyid ancestor, were busy working out their genealogies.

More interestingly, some middle-aged businessmen from Jakarta told me how they had rediscovered their Arab roots over the past ten years or so. That they had done so was linked to the rise of a ‘new Muslim middle class’ in Indonesia during the 1980s, as prejudice against anyone thought to be Arab became fainter. As Islamic modernism or conservatism of various kinds became more evident and the public presentation of oneself as a pious middle-class Muslim more widespread, being Arab no longer seemed such a stigma. The businessmen recalled, word for word, the derogatory phrases about Arabs in the Dutch textbooks they had read at school. They recalled, too, hiding or disclaiming their Arab identity where at all possible. It was only in the past decade that they had met up again, recreating a group that had not socialised for over thirty years. That socialising led to their helping with and donating to orphanages, educational institutions, mosques and charities. Meanwhile, their children were mostly professionals. The son of my closest friend in the group was off to Germany to work for Siemens. His father had spent years in Japan and cooked excellent Japanese food. The son’s best friend was a Chinese Christian. My friend’s daughter, also a professional, was as interested as her father in the genealogy he was exhaustively preparing, rather to her brother’s amusement.

As the past was being recuperated and reshaped, I heard many nostalgic family narratives of lost properties, eroded status, demolished great houses, vanished ways of living, of descent into insignificance and poverty. I also met well-to-do owners of construction firms, real estate agents, property and store owners and entrepreneurs of all kinds – publishers, bookshop proprietors, journalists and academics, small traders and religious teachers, people who’d done well and as many who just got by. In short, a mixture.

In March 2002 I returned to the region for five months, this time staying in Singapore and Malaysia. In between these two visits the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place. Islamic and Arab terror became an omnipresent theme discussed by states and media alike. South-East Asian Muslims of Arab descent were suddenly faced once again with a public emphasis on their ethnicity, and now there was an additional identification of that ethnicity with violence.

The war in Afghanistan, al-Qaida, the second Palestinian intifada in the Occupied Territories, the Bali bombing on 12 October last year and the mobilisation for war in and on Iraq meant that the subject of ‘Arab’ violence was everywhere. Newspapers picked up on the Yemeni Arab origins of certain leaders of radical groups, especially in Indonesia, and speculated about time spent by some Arabs in Yemen receiving a religious education of a sort alleged to have produced fanatics. Those videos and snapshots of visits back to the cousins that I had been shown so often weren’t innocent any more. In the eyes of Western media, the Hadhramaut is now and for the foreseeable future bin Laden country (his family migrated from there to the Hijaz, not to Singapore or Indonesia). Now we all know about the ‘Arabs’ of South-East Asia.

But that isn’t what being of Arab descent in South-East Asia means to me.

April, 2000. I am visiting Malang, an important town, second only to the port of Surabaya in the manufacturing, industrial and agricultural zone of East Java. I’ve been to Surabaya several times and have now driven an hour and a half south into the mountains to this Dutch-designed colonial town that has a population of over a million. The 1970s and 1980s saw a lot of growth here. Since then, political and economic crises have fractured people’s lives. There is no Arab quarter in Malang, no kampung Arab. Not like Surabaya, for instance, where the Ampel district surrounds the tomb of a powerful saint said to be Arab, whose baraka is cited as one reason for high house prices in the vicinity. But people say there’s a small Arab community of a few thousand people in Malang, and that I might find it interesting.

I have an introduction to Ahmad, a leading real estate-agent from a family of Arab origin. His father, around ninety years old and a formidable personality, speaks impeccable Arabic – he was taught by his immigrant father who came from the Hadhramaut and started in the textile trade in a neighbouring town. He explains to me that there is a small group of descendants, with only a few families bearing the same name in other East Javanese cities – Tegal, Pekalongan, Solo, Surabaya and Malang itself. All the wives in his branch were Javanese. There used to be many Arabs, but they’ve disappeared, he says, matter-of-factly. Discipline and routine, he repeats again and again, discipline and routine, those are what make a life. Things aren’t what they were. Now an ‘Arab real-estate agent’ tends to be someone who only has a couple of houses he renovates and sells, then buys a couple more, and sells them, too. Is that business? His sons, in their fifties, shuffle their feet and wait for his instructions.

He taught them about Islam and about business and sent all 11 children to state universities after, unusually, they all attended a Malang Catholic school. His Muslim friends had been scandalised, but knowledge can be acquired anywhere, and if a Catholic school was best then a Catholic school it would be. He said his daughters were better organised than their brothers, a forthright pronouncement that caused more foot shuffling.

For Ahmad, as for the vast majority of locals, these are tough years. Business is going badly. He has more time than he really wants to devote to his directorship of the local football team, Malang United Soccer. He’s attempting to organise the fans into about 260 groups of a hundred or so, each with a ‘co-ordinator’: roughly 26,000 Malang youth, quite a number. I sit in on a regular pre-match meeting at the chairman’s house. He, too, is of Arab descent, and is chief of the local education and culture office, though he says he spends more time on soccer than in his office. God knows why, he exclaims with a grin. Two young co-ordinators, street lads who look as tough as hell, flip through the membership cards of their group and nod seriously at Ahmad’s instructions. The old pattern of local football clubs everywhere: businessmen and shopkeepers on one side, working classes and ‘the youth’ on the other; sometimes delicate, tacit negotiations about life on the streets reworked into discussions of 4-4-2 and new shirts for the team.

At the stadium, I stand in what’s called the VIP area, crammed together with other directors’ guests at the top of a steep staircase that comes out halfway up the narrow terraces of the shallow arena. The stadium is packed with men, none of whom looks older than 25. There are banners all around the fence, one of them a large Union Jack. Thousands are wearing either Italian blue or Chelsea, Man Utd or Liverpool colours – the colours dominate the coverage on TV. After the final whistle, I’m seized by four or five enthusiastic lads in the seething crowd: ‘Inggris?’ they yell happily, ‘Inggris? Hooligan, Hooligan! Yeeess!’ in obvious delight at our shared culture.

We drive gingerly through the supporters and Ahmad has plenty of time to talk about Malang Arabs. Of the local men who migrated from the Hadhramaut, only three survive, all in their nineties. Everyone else is at least second and often fourth generation. We were going to see one of the three. He came in 1928, running, he said, when we finally arrived at his small house, from poverty in the desert. He settled initially in a village near Malang but moved into the town, where he opened a small shop before joining the furniture trade. Things went well and he married a Malang woman. Unlike some members of his generation, he never went back. Now all his friends are dead. His children all speak Javanese as well as Indonesian and work in shops. No one speaks Arabic. They don’t see any point.

Some in Malang have capital from years spent in trade in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. A few have visited the Hadhramaut, usually after making the Pilgrimage. They have small albums of photographs of three, four, five and six-storey adobe, and make shocked comments about low economic development, poor hygiene and the living conditions of the cousins who still live in the ancestral village. Some have sent a son back to the Hadhramaut to be raised there and taught in a prestigious religious school, an old practice that has picked up again since the Marxist government of South Yemen was displaced in 1990. Others think this is all very pious and fine, but a waste of money. They are not at all sure they approve of the legalistic and moralistic Islam that their sons or cousins may preach on their return. Many I met were more interested in the business skills that could be learned in Australia or elsewhere. I often heard the lament that their Arab grandfathers and fathers had not thought enough about education, and had simply pushed their sons into the family business.

On another day, we have a tour of the region and lunch at a café in the small town of Batu, higher in the mountains. The Café Mecir (from Misr, the Arabic word for Egypt; in Indonesia pronounced Mechir) belongs to an ‘Arab’ friend. So, I’m told, do the various cafés called Kairo that I’ve noticed en route. The owner won’t let us pay. Ahmad has helped him out and is always a welcome guest. There’s a lot of teasing. ‘The only thing left that’s Arab about you is your long beard; you don’t speak a word of Arabic,’ Ahmad says to the owner, grinning conspiratorially at us. ‘Speak Arabic with Pak Michael, go on! He speaks Arabic. Go on! With a beard like that in Yemen you’d perfume it; here you mothball it to get rid of the cockroaches!’

So much for the sacred beard, a sign of piety with the Prophet’s beard the exemplar. It is distinctively Arab because, as a Javanese friend tells me, fingering his wispy moustache, ‘we can’t grow beards like that. They’re hairy, the Arabs.’ And he went into the common repertoire of dirty jokes that feature Arab sexual appetites and bodily attributes.

Ahmad’s teasing of the café-owner makes me think of the more serious consequences that ‘looking Arab’ might have, and the background to the question I was often asked in Indonesia because I had worked in the Middle East: do I look Arab? The consequences were once explained to me in Jakarta by a 27-year-old professional woman, daughter of an oil executive who cultivates his Arab roots. Her brother looks Arab, she said, but she, fortunately, does not. ‘I look Chinese. From my mother, who is Chinese.’ She recalled how she had been particularly cruel in bullying an ‘Arab’ classmate, all the crueller because she was so afraid of being identified as Arab herself. The girl had had a nervous breakdown, she added, expressing shame and regret at her adolescent cowardice. To look Chinese while not actually being Chinese was also to have a beautiful and ‘white’ complexion and straight hair, much admired. Arabs are ‘dark’ and frizzy headed, a low status marker.

She knew, on the other hand, that ‘looking Chinese’ could also be deeply precarious, as in the terrifying riots of 1998 in Jakarta, when being identified as Chinese had led in some instances to lynching and rape. The ‘Chinese’ were stereotypically rich, the predominant economic force in the country, bloodsuckers. For two elderly ‘Arab’ sisters in Bandung it was a huge joke that a nephew of theirs had been pursued down the street during the riot by a crowd thirsty for Chinese blood while he shrieked ‘I’m an Arab! I’m an Arab!’ over his shoulder. ‘His mother is Chinese,’ they explained with delight now that the event was simply a delicious story rather than a family horror.

According to the stereotype, ‘Arabs’ are voracious, lustful, hard, greedy and rough – quite unlike the image of the harmoniously reserved, controlled and aestheticising ‘authentic Javanese’. And the Javanese, in turn, are mocked by other Indonesians or themselves, depending on the situation, as deceptive, cunning and untrustworthy, not to mention afflicted with a cultural superiority complex and an overdeveloped sense of hierarchy. In another field of reference, ‘Arabs’ are the channels of Islam, pious, upright, representing learning and a pure, ‘unmixed’ religion.

So Ahmad’s teasing is very pointed. But the beleaguered café-owner has other things on his mind and wants my advice. He plans to visit the Hadhramaut but everyone tells him the people there will expect ruinously expensive presents. I don’t get a chance to act the adviser. Ahmad is on him in a flash: ‘It’s easy. You’ve got a Kijang and a Landcruiser and another car, so why not just take the Landcruiser to Yemen and give it to them?’ The owner looks infinitely gloomy. Ahmad continues: ‘Make a point of going when it isn’t the end of Ramadan or another festival: that way you can sneak out without even mentioning presents.’ More laughter, more gloom. But the mung bean and red curries are wonderful, the lamb satay, yellow soup and white rice quite as good, the table laden. ‘Arab food’ here is very different from the nasi kabuli (mutton with rice) of a Surabaya wedding, taken to be the definitive Arab dish, much to the disdain of a Javanese friend who claimed to be astonished that something so basic would do for a feast. In Batu, with no need to mark some specifically Arab social form, the Café Mecir is free to be authentically ‘mixed’.

Batu has about two thousand people of Arab descent, originally refugees from two major clans who fled to the mountains of East Java following the Japanese invasion of south Kalimantan. Now they mostly work in small shops and restaurants like this one, serving locals and the Indonesian tourists who come to this beauty spot for relief from the heat of the coast. We visit a small new school with kindergarten and elementary pupils, established by a group partly made up of men of Arab descent who characterise themselves as modern, progressive Muslims. They’re also trying to raise money for a new school in Malang. I wonder about competition with the celebrated Hadith Boarding School, pesantren al-Hadits (‘Hadith’ refers to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) in Malang, now run, in a typical pattern, by the seyyid son-in-law of the seyyid founder’s son. He had talked to me about his school on two occasions, but hadn’t mentioned other approaches to Islamic education. I heard later that his father-in-law had in fact had very good relations with some of the ‘modernists’. In some towns the opposition between the two camps runs deep, but in this region rivalry appears to be more muted.

We move on with the director of the Batu kindergarten and friends to a house Ahmad has built for his brother, where we are serenaded by birds whose cages hang from the ceiling. They have won prizes, the proud owner tells me. He is something of a connoisseur of this popular Javanese pastime. A few framed Koranic verses or phrases in ornate gilt calligraphy ornament the walls, but there is none of the iconography of Arabness, such as the framed rows of photographs of bearded ancestral holy men that decorate seyyid homes; there is no ‘Arab’ space marked out in the corner of the sitting-room with cushions and rugs on the floor; no religious books in Arabic in glass-fronted bookcases; no wearing of the check-patterned sarongs often thought of as typically Arab; no tea in small glasses.

No genealogies either. At least, not on the walls. But the conversation moves quickly to family. A friend named in the Arab way, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Hadrami, who is only second generation Indonesian, starts telling me about his father, who came here with his brother and without money. They had received no help from the wealthy Singapore Hadhrami families who in the past often gave new migrants money and assisted their passage to Indonesia. The two brothers had worked with locals in Pekalongan, a famous batik centre that had its own kampung Arab. (It has its shrine to an Arab seyyid, too, and an Islamic school, run, as in Malang, by a seyyid family.) They’d saved and put the money into the batik business, despite tough Chinese competition. His father bought buses for the Pekalongan to Semarang route, despite tough Chinese competition and ‘conflict’. Now Muhammad, who married a Javanese woman from Malang – unlike his father, who married into an Arab family – has several small restaurants and a real estate business. ‘In Arabia,’ he said, grimacing, ‘those tribal types with their guns and knives, my God they’re tough.’ Another Indonesian Arab image of Arabs. I doubt he’s planning a nostalgic trip to the homeland.

‘Being of Arab origin’ often involves such narratives and a command over the minutiae of migration histories, one’s own and others. Geographies, trajectories, itineraries, genealogies and histories are argued over, refined, claimed and denied to others who share the interest and the origin. To some it all matters intensely, to others hardly at all, or only in limited situations.

We leave Batu for Malang and stop on the way at a large bonsai garden centre. Another of Ahmad’s Arab friends from East Java owns it. He’s the son of a retired police general from another town and has been working on bonsai for eight years since the collapse of the family business made him ‘depressed’. For three years it’s been his profession, learned from the American and Japanese books scattered around on a table in the gazebo. Now he enters national and regional Asian competitions. The buyers come from Japan, South Korea and Holland, as well as from all over Java. I look admiringly at the strangely-worked beauty of his art while the two men talk intimately together.

Under the violent rain whose splashes make them almost invisible, the ornamental fish of auspicious omen turn slowly in their pools. Buyers will come from the city, representing big hotels and office buildings that have a vested interest in harmonious spatial orientation, the paths of dangerous forces finessed by curving lines and flowing waters. International and local capital seeks aesthetic Asian form from the ‘Arab’ bonsai artist. The clouds have come down around us, the valley has vanished. The three of us stand quietly for a moment in the tropical rain surrounded by the elegant torsions of the miniature black trees.

Reflecting on that moment, I think of the often elusive shapes and colours, some barely glimpsed, of being Arab in South-East Asia: of the ambiguities, the polyvalent culture, the range of economic, political, social and religious interests, the very different histories. All that risks being lost in the rhetorics of the present moment. Somehow, even if only in writing about the everyday worlds of places such as Malang, such falsifications have to be contested.

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