Oman has always been home to a variety of nomadic peoples through its large interior regions, along with traders and seafaring people in the population centers of the coast. Over the years, it has maintained a very tribal culture passed down from the original nomadic Arab tribes. Your kballa or blood lineage in some ways defines who you are in Oman and controls many aspects of your life. In my experience, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is what is my family name. At first glance this seems very trivial, but for Omanis this can determine everything from the social values you were brought up with to the sect of Islam you follow. Though this attitude of distinct lineage is derived in part from generalizations and not everyone follows this logic, these cultural divisions are a kind of defense mechanism that has evolved with the way of the land itself. The tribal divisions, often signified by last name, denote who is from an original tribe and who might be a keeper of Omani culture and tradition. In future blog posts, I plan to do a series discussing these various tribes of Oman, to give my readers a better sense of the cultural diversity here. To start us off, however, I thought it would be a good idea to cover the tribe of my own host family, the Swahili people.
Because of the its seafaring history, Oman has historically been very involved in trade routes along the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa to the coasts of Iran and Pakistan. For centuries Oman has interacted with all the great port cities of this area. Although Omanis have had ties to many countries in the region, they have always maintained a strong affinity toward the island nation of Zanzibar, now a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania.
The Sultanate of Oman under the Yaruba dynasty took control of Zanzibar in 1698. Zanzibar had previously endured its share of colonial abuse by the like of the Persians and the Portuguese, so they were more or less indifferent at the time this new reign began. For Oman, Zanzibar became a source of great wealth. It was during this time that the Sultans of the Yaruba dynasty built Oman’s great forts, such as the Nizwa fort I described in a prior post and the aflaj system of water distribution.
From the late 18th century, Oman came under the rule of the Al Said ruling dynasty, a branch of the Al Busaid family and the same royal lineage of current day Sultan Qaboos. Omanis settled in other areas of east Africa including Kenya, but Zanzibar remained the focus. In the early 19th century, Said bin Sultan even moved his capital from Muscat to Stone Town, Zanzibar! When he died, there was a great rift in his family and one son became the Sultan of Oman while the other the Sultan of Zanzibar. It is fair to say the Zanzibari capital of Stone Town in the 1800s was much better off than Muscat. They had well-established erudite traditions of learning and literature. Zanzibar was actually the second nation in the continent of Africa, after Egypt, to obtain a printing press. Islamic scholars, many of whom received sponsorship from the Omani government, began to publish their own literature and newspapers in Zanzibar.
The Omani Arabs took advantage of the geography to develop spice plantations on the green grasslands and developed a strong spice and ivory trade across the entire Middle East. Unfortunately the primary driving force of trade at the time revolved around the lucrative, inhumane, and evil business of selling people. Many of the local Zanzibari leaders turned a blind eye to the exploitation and illicit business proceedings that followed over the ensuing years. Until the late 19th century, Oman controlled a large part of the east coast of Africa, including trade routes traveling inland.
The island of Zanzibar was already predominately Muslim before the Omani Arabs came; however, the Omanis definitely institutionalized the religion by promoting their values and religious laws from the government. This is why all Omani Swahilis are Ibadhi Muslims, the main sect of Islam in Oman. Many distinctly Arab legacies still remain in Zanzibar today as demonstrated by the occasional oud used in their music, the arched widows in their architecture, and even a few Arabic words sprinkled in the Swahili language.
The Omani Swahili people also had their own distinct impact on the Arab world as well. With the growing British influence in east Africa at the turn of the century, many advocated what could be the beginning of Arab nationalism, for uniting the Arab front from East Africa up through Egypt and into the Levant to counter the growing influence of the west.
By early 1964 African nationalists had become fed up with the sub-current of racial and ethnic tensions and staged a revolt against the ruling Arab elite. Thousands of Zanzibari Arabs were killed and those who survived were forced to flee and abandon property. Later that year Zanzibar joined with Taganyika to form the nation of Tanzania.
Though many Arabs did return to Oman at that time, back to the villages they had established in their desert nation long ago all the way from Nizwa, to Shaquille and even Bureimi, others wished to stay. Believe it or not, at that point the education in Oman was so under-developed, many Swahili Omanis preferred to stay in Tanzania or relocate to other nearby nations such as Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.
It took Sultan Qaboos coming to power in 1970 and creating what is known as the Omani Renaissance for the large migration stream of Swahilis to begin flowing back to Oman.
Though the Swahili people might be culturally distinct from other gulf Arabs, they are just as much Omani as anyone else living in Oman. Some of the older generation continue to speak Swahili as their primary language, but they still identify themselves as Arab. This is a unique blend of East African and Arab cultures only found in the gulf state of Oman. The East African influence can be seen in Oman from the African scarves women wear to the food they prepare.
The island of Zanzibar is still majority Muslim. Though it has a history of peaceful coexistence of its majority population with Christians, Sikhs, and other religions, it is also unfortunately experiencing some of the religious tensions and violence seen around the world right now.
Though many defining features and characterics of a community often seem quite superficial, from my experience they are a very joyous and welcoming group of people. Most Swahilis you will meet are quite observant Muslims, however they are very open about explaining their customs and traditions to others. Swahilis have roots all over Oman from Muscat all the way to the interior, but my specific family is from the sharquia region. Many swahilis today are very involved in the variety of local business industries or hold prestigious positions at the ministries. They are very well represented in local politics as well.
Swahilis are also known for their good sense of humor along with the bright printed house scarves worn by women under their abayas. Even today, I can still hear my two young host parents mumble a little swahili here and there at the dinner table.
According to my host mom, one of the most defining things about a swahili is the way they peel an orange. As you all know, hospitality is a pretty big thing here so usually people will have big basket of fruit waiting to cut for you, upon your arrival. Whereas an omani will just slice their orange in quick segments, our family has to peel all the way around the waxy layer of skin so just the white flesh is remaining. They do another quick cut down the middle before it is served to you in half. This way it is easy just to squeeze the juice out and enjoy an orange’s less fibrous attributes.
Last thing I will touch on here is the food, because let’s face it food is one of the most important parts of a cultural exchange. My family is forever importing food back from Africa as according to them, it is the ONLY way to get good authentic guava juice or sugar cane. Another local delicacy from the mother land is cassava, something you don’t see so often here in Oman. Swahili food is generally pretty spicy. Most families will have their own secret hot sauce recipe that they will douse on everything. Usually this will consist of African chiles, tomatoes, garlic, lemon, and salt. It is quite delicious! Bread is a big deal here and though rice always has a place at the table, traditional flatbread like Chappati holds a special place in people’s hearts. This Chappati is quite different from its Indian counter part you were probably thinking of. Firstly it is purely white flour, and layered with slicks of oil to make the bread more tender. After it is rolled, it is pan fried in a substantial amount of ghee. However un-heart friendly that sounds it is a bit better than the other swahili bread classic mendazzi which is essentially just a triangle donut.
My host family maintains very close ties with their family in East Africa, and in fact, my host mom will be attending a cousin’s wedding in Zanzibar next week. I was planning on making trip with them, but because of school responsibilities I was unable to attend. This explains my lack of original pictures.
All these beautiful pictures of Zanzibar are courtesy of Getty Images
Living with a swahili familily has provided me a good insight the the inner workings of Swahili life and culture! Thanks to my host family for sharing their knowledge with me!