There’s a line from an old Tom Waits song – ‘the merging nexus back and forth’ – that often runs through my head as I chase Hadramis across the Indian Ocean. A cynic may say that I’m just suffering travel fatigue, but there are groups of Hadramis who are both particularly mobile, individually and collectively, and well-connected, who could easily be described as nexuses.
In Abu Dhabi recently, I met up with a member of an Hadrami family whose house I had lived opposite when doing my doctoral fieldwork in the Comoro Islands, during which time I came to know several of them quite well. They are descendants of one of East Africa’s great religious leaders, and I meet them in places all over the world: in the Comoros, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Hadramawt, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Paris and London. This sounds more like divergence than convergence, but the fact that they themselves (and there are others like them) have more than one place of attachment, or ‘home’, if you like, suggests that things are a little more complicated than that. Indeed, the last time I wrote about them I called them ‘Comorians’; but I was working on a different project then.
Shifting political economies, as well as religion, marriage and sentiment, prompt people to move; they find themselves in different places at different times, and in different political and cultural contexts. The Hadrami diaspora is scattered across the Indian Ocean, principally in three regions – East Africa, Southeast Asia and the Arabian peninsula (there are Hadramis in India too, but they seem to have dropped out of the networks, and other Hadramis call them ‘the lost people’) – and although links between East Africa and Southeast Asia are limited, many Hadramis in both regions have strong links with those in the Arabian peninsula. Here there are two types of Hadrami: the ‘old’ families, most of whom are citizens, and whose presence predates the oil era, and the ‘new’ Hadramis, who have come both from Hadramawt and other parts of the diaspora, drawn by the economic opportunities offered by these prosperous, oil-fuelled economies. Most of the former are in Saudi Arabia; the latter are also in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Wherever they are, Hadramis maintain their culture. This is widely recognised: it is part of the skill of being Hadrami, and time and time again I hear the refrain, ‘we integrate, but we keep our culture’. Hadramis – and we are talking about men here, as the women rarely move in this way – emigrate and take local wives; they send their sons back to Hadramawt for education, but the girls stay behind to absorb more of the host culture. The next generation then intermarries: Hadrami Zanzibari men (for example) marry Zanzibari Hadrami women. Transmission of cultural practices therefore occurs both in the male (Hadrami) and female (Zanzibari) lines and are woven into a culture that sits astride home and host, belonging in both when all is well, but sometimes belonging to neither when cleavages occur. Indeed, if the cohesive character of Hadrami social structures and cultural practices both encourages integration and hinders assimilation, this is as true at ‘home’ as it is in diaspora. The latter seems intuitive: Hadramis, well integrated but still slightly different, always seem to be identifiable as a group, even if only on rather unrefined criteria such as family name or skin colour. But returning to Hadramawt, the foreign-born always remain slightly apart.
In the Arabian peninsula, Hadramis converge. However, since these Hadramis are products of diasporic sites and practices, and although they believe themselves to be Hadrami, Hadramis from Indonesia are not Hadrami in quite the same way that Hadramis from East Africa, or from Saudi Arabia or, of course, from Hadramawt might be. This places certain constraints on interaction, as Saudis of Hadrami origin, despite claims of kinship and shared cultural practice, find that they may not have as much to share with Kenyan Hadramis as they might have thought, while Kenyan Hadramis are more at ease with Somali Hadramis than with kin from Hadramawt. Some members of the community – often those who are more mobile, or whose families have been less ‘localised’, such as my Comorian friend – serve as mediators between different groups, usually belonging (even if only partially) to more than one group.
The weaving metaphor seems apt here: dispersal from a homeland produces divergences, but subsequent mobilities produce convergences, as diasporic groups meet and reinvent themselves elsewhere, and so the process continues. But if it seems intuitive that divergence is a prerequisite for convergence, what I suggest here is that the inverse is also true: divergence requires convergence. The convergence of diasporic groups who believe they have a single identity is a prerequisite for recognising that this singular identity is (and must be) illusory: the cultures therefore diverge. In Saudi Arabia, ‘Hadramis’ from Saudi Arabia, Kenya or Java become (revealed as) Saudi, Kenyan and Javanese Hadramis, negotiating both their commonalities and their differences – constituting a merging nexus.