The uncertainties of diaspora research

Published 26 February 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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Whiling away an idle moment in my hotel room in Jeddah recently, I reflected on the character of diasporas and particularly the ways networks are constructed in diaspora. More specifically, I wondered if I was doing this—my fieldwork—correctly: I was slightly uneasy about the fact that I seemed to be moving in very restricted circles. Let me explain.

My points of entry into the Hadrami diaspora in Saudi Arabia were varied. I had come armed with a number of contacts from different sources in the belief that if my contacts were all unrelated then this would guarantee not only that some (at least) would pan out but that I would get a good cross-section of the Hadrami community who would also, hopefully, have links to one another. I had professional contacts with the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. I had the phone number of a Zanzibari of Hadrami origin, Abubakar, who lived in Jeddah and who I had met while he was on holiday in Zanzibar last year. And I had the phone number of the brother of a close friend from the Comoro Islands, let’s call him Salim, who has lived in Jeddah for 25 years. I had a few others, too, but let’s look at these.

I saw Salim a number of times during my stay: he was both welcoming and helpful and gave me a list of contacts to see. I followed most of them up.

The director of the King Faisal Centre gave me the name of a retired professor of anthropology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, who I met, and who in turn gave me the number of a young Comorian of Hadrami origin, Mahmoud, who was in Jeddah on a temporary contract. I met Mahmoud for coffee and found out, not surprisingly, that he knew Salim.

I called Abubakar, too, and met him for coffee. We talked about mutual friends in Zanzibar and things Hadrami; then he gave me a lift back to town. On the road we passed Salim’s house. “Wait,” I said, “why don’t you drop me here, I have a friend who lives over there, I haven’t seen him for a couple of days.”

“Ah,” said Abubakar, “You know Salim? Let’s go see him together.”

My three, different, and on the face of it, unconnected contacts had all led me to the same place. And it continued: Salim and Mahmoud both knew Othman; Abubakar knew Ali who also knew Salim. The professor gave me another contact. “I already know him,” I said, “Salim gave me his number”.

On the one hand this suggests that diasporic communities are indeed well integrated and solidly constituted: my different points of entry had linked up just as I had hoped. But on the other hand, in a city of three million, where there must be thousands of people of Hadrami origin, I was circulating within a network of a dozen individuals, each one recommending me to the other, and I was slightly uneasy about this. I didn’t appear to be researching Hadramis in Saudi Arabia; I seemed to be researching Friends of Salim.

Salim is indeed a key person here. Personally, he is extremely hospitable: his door is always open, and his apartment is always full of friends and family. His wife is from Mombasa, and so part of a Kenyan network. His links with other Comorians—inveterate peripatetics—also draws in Tanzanians, particularly Zanzibaris, who often have close relationships with Comorians, and his network extends to others of African origin in Jeddah: Ugandans, Somalis, Ethiopians. Many of these are of Hadrami origin. In his own way, Salim resembles Sheikh Abdullah Bugshan, who I wrote about in my last blog: a disaporic facilitator, whose interest in members of a disaporic community, underpinned by extensive personal relationships, serves to consolidate diasporic relationships and identities.

Looking more closely at Salim’s friends, I realise that they all have something in common. They all seem to have arrived in Jeddah by drawing on contacts. They are not migrant workers (although they are migrants and they work) in the way that a Filipina who signs up with an agency recruiting domestic servants for wealthy Saudis might be. They may not all be Hadramis, but (with the exception of Mahmoud) they do have a certain way of being in Saudi Arabia that accords them an identity and a sense of belonging somewhere between Saudi citizens and the migrant worker who has a wife and family back in Bangladesh and who is here temporarily (although for many “temporary” can mean thirty years).

Most of Salim’s contacts live here in an embedded way.  Most obviously, they all speak Arabic: many of the migrant workers do not. Many are married here, and have family, and although they do not (and probably never will) have citizenship, this is their home as much as or even more so than Tanzania or Somalia might be. This is exactly what I am seeking of course: people who belong; but it still leaves me slightly uneasy. Does Salim know every member of the African Hadrami diaspora in Jeddah? Possibly (I haven’t worked my way through his whole address book yet), but I’m not convinced, and feel I should be seeking out other “diasporic facilitators” who have their own networks that, presumably, will intersect with Salim’s networks.

This also leads me to wonder if there is anything particularly unusual about the Hadrami diaspora. My hypothesis is that Hadramis are deeply linked, by kin relations, by the obligations and sentiments grounded in genealogies, through time and space, and that Hadramis from East Africa, from Indonesia and from Hadramawt would all socialise together; but although sometimes they do, more often they do not: there are cleavages within the Hadrami community. Although Hadramis of a Saudi background are well aware that they have kin in Asia and Africa, and express affinities with them, the two networks do not seem to intersect in any sustained fashion.

This worries me. I’ll have to go back and have a chat with Salim.