I was in al-Batinah region of Oman last winter, collecting oral history and archival materials from the elders of different coastal communities that constitute the social world of the Omani Sea between the Arabian Peninsula and the rest of the Indian Ocean World. In one of my encounters, I met, not far from the shores, a nonagenarian Omani-Baloch sailor, Diláwar. He enthusiastically shared his early memories of transoceanic crossings of the Indian Ocean between Arabia, Indo-Iranian Borderlands, and East Africa. He spoke in three languages: Balochi, Arabic, and Swahili. Knowing the former two languages, being a native speaker from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I did not understand the Swahili sea chanties that he recalled from his sailing days working on the deck of many dhows. Although I left Oman to join Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. Program, I kept humming Diláwar’s songs. What were they about to be engraved so vividly in his memories? What is the sociohistorical trajectory that enabled Diláwar to embody a history that spanned three cultural zones across the Indian Ocean?
While at Princeton, I found a way forward to translate Diláwar’s songs, The Princeton in Dar es Salaam Summer Program directed by Mahiri Mwita. I realized—with the encouragement of my mentors and the generous funding of the Near Eastern Studies Department, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and Program for African Studies—that going to Tanzania is an imperative adventure to undertake in Summer 2018. I boarded a fourteen-hour flight to Dubai to meet my family on my way to East Africa. After telling my grandmother that I am going to Zanzibar, she began recalling her memories of long-lost relatives that left for Zanzibar when she was a child and asked me to find her relative Nádil.
Not knowing Nádil’s address or any of his contacts, my grandmother insisted that I ask around like an investigator, and I shall find him! I left the UAE in early June for Dar es Salaam, where I enrolled in an intensive Swahili course taught in the afternoons by Elither Kindole and Mohamedi Ngunguti. During the morning hours, I was conducting archival research around Dar es Salaam’s collections and documenting oral history using Balochi, Arabic, Hindi, and some Swahili towards the end of the program in July. I continued the research during July-August in Zanzibar, where I was fortunate to follow the threads that I had from mainland Tanzania to the Zanzibari archives and then to the field to find my grandmother’s lost relatives, which was wonderful news for her and a breakthrough that I was not expecting in my doctoral research.
The ethnographic data, the colonial and native archival materials both speak of many individuals like Diláwar, Nádil, and others whom their life trajectories span many regions, seas, and empires. Thinking about the social, economic, ideological, environmental, legal, and political natures of these ties and the mobilities that these ocean-wide nodes enabled has been my stimulus to conduct my doctoral research on the making of the Omani maritime empire. By tracing the historical waraqas told in legal, commercial, and political terms about trade, debt, land, kinship, and other domains, I aim to weave together these diverse threads to illustrate these historical experiences and elucidate the social entanglements that gave life to the Omani transoceanic passage. My summer language studies and research are a step further in my doctoral journey. Examining the processes of diaspora-making in Balochistan, Arabia, and East Africa within the Indian Ocean World is ongoing, and I hope to share with you more about it as the story unfolds.