The Hadramis of the Indian Ocean: a diaspora and its networks

Iain Walker

In his book In An Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh unravels the story of a twelfth century Jewish merchant from Cairo, exploring the complexities of transnational networks in the Indian Ocean. He might as easily have chosen a Hadrami merchant.

Hadramis have been present in the Indian Ocean, both on the western littoral, in the Red Sea region and eastern Africa, and further east, in India, Singapore and Indonesia, for centuries. Hadramis have made their mark in more ways than one. It is unfortunate that Osama bin Laden, whose family emigrated from Wadi Duan in western Hadramawt to Jeddah in the early 20th century, is probably the best known. Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual leader of the Indonesian radical Islamic organisation Jemaa Islamia (and currently languishing in an Indonesian jail) is also a Hadrami. But so too are successful merchant families such as the Alsagoffs, original owners of Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel, the Bugshans of Saudi Arabia, and Tanzania’s Bakhresa family.

Politicians and rulers such as Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei and Mari Alkatiri, first prime minister of independent East Timor also trace their roots back to Hadramawt, as do religious leaders such as Ahmed bin Sumayt, chief cadi of Zanzibar in the early 20th century, and his distant cousin, Syed Isa Semait, recently deceased mufti of Singapore. Indeed, from northern Borneo to Lake Victoria, Kozhikode to Maputo, Islamic religious leadership has almost invariably been the preserve of Hadramis and their descendants.

Omar bin Sumeit, former grand mufti of the Comoro Islands, on a Comorian banknote.

What is remarkable about this diaspora is not so much the geographical spread – Chinese, Lebanese, Indians can all claim networks with a similar global reach – but the temporal depth of these networks. Hadramis have probably been present in East Africa for 2000 years, and they have been in South and Southeast Asia for several hundred. As a result Hadramis have exerted profound influences on the communities that have welcomed them and, reciprocally, Hadramawt has been subjected to equally profound influences as emigrants return.

As part of the Leverhulme-funded Oxford Diasporas Programme (ODP), for the next two years I will be working with members of this diaspora, tracing relationships within and between the networks in two regions of Hadrami emigration – eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula – and, political conditions permitting, in Hadramawt itself.

But where is it?
Where, then, is Hadramawt? For many who have heard of it, Hadramawt is one of those places that, like Timbuktu, Samarkand or Zanzibar, is somewhat legendary, slightly mysterious. Deep in southern Arabia, home to ancient civilisations (Hadramawt gets a name-check in the Book of Genesis), fragrant spices (Hadramawt was an important trading centre for frankincense and myrrh), camel caravans carrying dates to market in towns of centuries-old mud skyscrapers, protected from the outside world by sheer sided valleys, inhospitable deserts and hostile tribes. Before 1945 only a small handful of intrepid Europeans had ever managed to penetrate this remote valley.

Yet, at the same time, Hadramawt is a deeply cosmopolitan place. The trade routes that criss-crossed Hadramawt brought traders overland from Phoenicia, the Hejaz and the Yemeni highlands to the caravanserais of the valley, and brought ships from all corners of the Indian Ocean to the ports of Mukalla and Shihr on the Gulf of Aden.

The old port of Mukalla. Photo: Iain Walker

Modern Hadramawt
Hadramawt today is the fifth governorate of the Republic of Yemen, and although the warring tribes have mostly put down their arms, the region still sees few Western visitors. But the narrow coastal strip remains cosmopolitan in character: the oil and fishing industries attract labourers from other parts of Yemen and from East Africa, and a large Somali population, mostly refugees, also lives in Mukalla, the governorate’s busy capital city. But inland, 200 kilometres from the coast lies the valley of Wadi Hadramawt where foreign influences are more discreet.

A fertile and productive land if the rains fall, the wadi was never an easy place to live. Too much rain, and whole villages could be washed away, as happened in the great floods of 2008; no rain, and famine struck. Death by starvation or a trek to the coast – ten days by camel over a barren and waterless plain known as the Jol – to take one’s chances on a cramped, weather-beaten dhow, destination unknown: it was Hobson’s choice. In 1943 famine and disease struck together, and it is said that while one third of the population of the wadi died, another third fled to places like Zanzibar and Java.

It is clear that conditions have changed little over the centuries, and Hadramis have always moved outwards from their landlocked valley, either through choice or for survival. While the poor sought work as manual labourers in the docks of Jakarta or Mombasa, the wealthy upper classes traded and preached. The influence exercised by the Hadrami religious leadership is clearly discernible on a map of the Islamic world: almost without exception, the Muslim communities of the Indian Ocean follow the Shafi’i school of Islam, whose great centres of learning are in Tarim, Wadi Hadramawt.

The extend of the Shafi’i madhhab, dark blue. Photo:

Together they have constituted diasporic communities that have generally constructed a distinct identity in their places of emigration as well as maintaining links with the homeland, remitting money, but also returning with influences – food, clothing, architecture, and the trappings of the modern world: cars, electricity and, now, the internet. Wadi Hadramawt is therefore, somewhat paradoxically, both a repository of Hadrami tradition and authenticity and a cosmopolitan melting pot of practices and ideas.

The Oxford Diasporas project
My ODP project will trace the links between different parts of the diaspora, following trajectories as individuals develop strategies based on their Hadrami identities.

At the moment I am recording the life history of my friend Ahmed: born in Tanganyika of a father who emigrated from Hadramawt to East Africa in the early 20th century and became successful in the meat processing industry, the family’s business was nationalised by the socialist government of independent Tanzania in the 1970s. Ahmed decided to leave, and drawing on his Hadrami family networks, ended up in Abu Dhabi, where he had a successful career in banking. Now retired from banking, he has returned to Mukalla, where he lives with his Swahili-speaking family, offering advice to young Hadramis from East Africa who arrive looking for work in the oilfields, giving English lessons to young Hadramis who long to emigrate themselves, and putting anthropologists in touch with his Hadrami friends in the UAE. And if these were not sufficient connections, not long ago he received a letter from a distant cousin in Hyderabad who was discovering his roots.

The house of a migrant returned from Indonesia. Photo: Iain Walker

Ahmed’s life story is a common one and I will pursue his and other connections though eastern Africa and the Gulf to describe and analyse dense networks of relationships that allow Hadramis to follow economic possibilities through the region but at the same time be vectors of social change in Hadramawt, the homeland to which all roads lead. I will talk to the poor and the wealthy, the labourers and the religious leaders, the migrants and those who stayed at home, revealing the diversity of activities and identities in the Hadrami diaspora that sustains it while also providing it with flexibility.