Sunday, 15 February 2009

The 'Ajamis' of the Emirates: a celebrated history

In January 2006, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum ascended as the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed immediately revolutionised some of the less active ministerial positions by pumping much needed new blood into these entities. Before this event, each ministerial change meant more of the same, reminding me of the film, Groundhog Day.

Among the appointees was Dr Anwar Gargash, the composed Cambridge educated university professor and Emirati businessman who would bring some practical knowledge and experience to the cabinet, Mohammed al Gergawi, the eloquent workaholic, and Dr Hanif Hassan Al Qassemi, the man in charge of reforming what is possibly the most challenging ministry, that of Education.

These fine gentlemen complimented their colleagues in forming a cabinet of Emirati technocrats by adding a missing dimension – for the first time Emirati ethnic minorities known as Ajam or Ajmis were finally represented. In the Gulf Arab monarchies the term Ajam is used as a reference to Persians who emmigrated to the southern shores of the Gulf in the turn of the last century, and others who had done so decades and even centuries earlier. The Ajam have been instrumental in advancing commerce, culture and even architecture where they have settled.

The modern history of the Ajam emigration to the Trucial States, as the UAE was known, extends from the mid 19th century to 1971. At the peak of the Al Qassemi empire in 1819, the family rule extended to the southern shores of Qajari Persia, mainly to the Bandars or ports of Charak, Mughu, and Lingah as well as the islands of Kish and Qeshm. The port of Lingah had developed into a trade and commerce hub due to its nominal taxation.

When Sheikh Khalifa Bin Said Al Qassemi died unexpectedly in 1874, internal fighting ensued within the family, and the Persian government saw it as an opportunity to extend their influence and to appoint their own director of customs in Lingah. According to the book, Father of Dubai, a biography of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum by Graeme Wilson, the Persian authorities repeatedly raised taxes and new charges were levied for basic services, resulting in a once thriving port falling into disarray. The Trucial Emirates and especially Dubai were in prime position to lure these merchants and offered them a zero-tax environment, free land and personal protection.

When I visited the various museums in Sharjah's heritage area, in Dubai's Bastakiya neighbourhood and the traditional homes in other emirates with my mother and late father a decade ago I learnt of the various contributions of these merchants. Herbs and spices that they imported added flavour to the Arab cuisine that before consisted of a grilled fish on a good day. The Barjeel, or traditional wind-tower that created a system of natural ventilation in houses, a name that I adopted in 2001 when I founded my brokerage firm in Dubai, is an example of an architectural heritage whose roots were found in southern Persia. Such advances became more prevalent with the arrival of the Ajami merchants at the end of the 19th century. I still remember my father emphasising the "a", "Sultan," he'd say, "it's pronounced Baarjeel". I later learnt that the name was an Arabic version of the Persian word Badgeer, which loosely means "wind trap".

These immigrants consisted of Shia and Sunna, Persian and Arab peoples and yet since they arrived from the northern shores of the Gulf, the term Ajami was used to refer to them all. Some of these families had previously emmigrated to the northern shores of the Gulf from the Arab coast only to return a century or so later but yet some continue to regard them with suspicion.

I was prompted to write this article because of a text message that I received upon the accession of Sheikh Mohammed who had taken the brave step, albeit one full century after the arrival of many of these merchant families, and appointed a number of Ajami ministers to the UAE cabinet. The text message I received stated that: "the Iranian government thanks the UAE for the gesture of goodwill in appointing the ministers." I was offended to say the least and my only solace was that unlike other invasive text messages that I am constantly bombarded with especially on Islamic holidays, this one was only sent a couple of times to me. Did Algeria thank France for appointing the footballer Zinedine Zidane as captain of the French football team? These ministers have worked diligently and hand in hand with their colleagues to advance the interests of the UAE in the international arena.

This country is only made whole through such bold steps; it is high time that we recognise the contributions of the mosaic that forms this young nation. The Emiratis of Asian, Baluch, Zanzibari, Arab and Persian origin make this country what it is today. The appointments and success of these ministers is proof that the UAE is in fact a meritocracy in which the most deserving and capable candidates are promoted to key positions, irrespective of their origins. This makes the UAE the country that it is; the country that I love; and the ones who are thankful to Sheikh Mohammed should be the citizens of the UAE.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday, February 15th 2009.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article. I was under the impression that the term "Huwala" rather than Ajami was used to describe Sunni Arabs from Iran.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links Muhammed. Lively discussion on the Silverbahrain site, particularly interesting points by Mohammed Bastaki.

My limited knowledge of the history of the Gulf suggests that the Huwala were recognised as a distinct community going back a long time, for instance the Al-Madhkurs ruling Bushire and Bahrain were termed Huwala by western travellers in the 18th C. And today it's not just Bahrain where Huwalas are considered a distinct group, but Qatar and KSA as well.

This raises the question: why's the Emirates different? Is there any particular social or historic reason for the Huwala to be grouped with Ajams in the UAE?

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