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Smokers’ corner: Sindh's African roots

Updated August 26, 2018

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On August 13, during the Sindh Assembly’s inauguration session in Karachi, Tanzeela Qambrani — who is associated with the left-liberal PPP — became the first-ever Sindhi Sheedi woman to become a lawmaker in a Pakistani legislature. Sheedis belong to a community that has its ancestry entrenched in Africa.

According to a 2003 feature by S. Jayasuriya and R. Pankhurst in Africa World Press, the word Sheedi is derived from the Arabic word ‘sahibi’ which was used by the ancient Arabs for ‘respectable men’ of North Africa. Other etymologies trace it to the word ‘Syedi’. Yatin Pandya and Trupti Rawal in their book Imprints of a Millennium write that the Sheedis first arrived in South Asia with the armies of Arab commander Muhammad Bin Qasim in 712 CE. They had joined Arab armies when the Arabs first conquered parts of Africa.

Even though today this community can be found in India and Sri Lanka as well, the largest concentrations of the Sheedi population is located in Sindh and Balochistan’s coastal areas in Pakistan. In his August 23, 2012 article, “Blacks of Pakistan” (on the website Down Memory Lane), K. Kwekudee wrote that there are approximately 250,000 Sheedis living in Pakistan’s southern coastal areas, especially in Makran, Karachi and Badin.

The Sheedis of Sindh and Balochistan have an intriguing history tracing back to East Africa

It is not known how many Sheedis accompanied Bin Qasim in the 8th century. But their population in the region greatly increased when, in the 16th century, Portuguese traders and explorers began bringing in slaves from Africa to be sold here to rich Muslims and Hindus of India.

Jeanette Pinto, in her 1992 book Slavery in Portuguese India, writes that most of the early African slaves brought here by the Portuguese were from the Central African region and belonged to a large group of tribes called the Bantu.

Pinto adds that slaves who managed to escape slavery settled in various parts of India and a sizeable number travelled to Balochistan’s Makran coast, Karachi and other parts of southern Sindh. Here they converted to Islam and became fishing folk or labourers. Some also joined the armies of Sindh’s 18th and early 19th century Talpur dynasty.

Even though slavery was abolished by the British when they took the reins of power in India, 19th-century British officer and author Sir Richard Burton, in his travelogues on Sindh, wrote that slaves in India were being brought in and sold even in the 19th century.

According to Kwekudee, these batches of slaves were brought here from East African regions, especially Madagascar. In Makran, Karachi and other coastal towns of Sindh, these Sheedis too became fishing folk. Many also became dock workers at the Karachi harbour that was being expanded by the British.

One of the largest concentrations of the Sheedis emerged in Lyari, one of Karachi’s oldest localities. They spoke Balochi but the language was tinged with many Swahili words. The Islam that they converted to was the indigenous strand of the faith found in the subcontinent. It is a populist fusion of South Asian Sufism and rituals and beliefs adopted over the centuries from the region’s pre-Islamic faiths.

For example, in Karachi, the Sheedis became devotees of Pir Mangu. He is supposed to be a 12th-century Sufi saint who settled in an area of Karachi that had a sulphur spring and a large deep pond full of crocodiles.

There are many folklores connecting the crocodiles to the pir who passed away in the 13th century. Some ancient texts do hint about a holy man here who fed crocodiles. Burton, in the 19th century, wrote in detail about this legend and also witnessed a boisterous festival at the saint’s shrine here, participated by the ‘black people of Karachi’.

The crocodiles, Burton wrote, were fed animal meat and sweetmeats. The area by then had begun to be known as Manghopir. It is still called that and the crocodiles there are still fed meat and sweetmeats by the devotees.

Over the years, archaeologists have found crocodile bones at the site of the shrine which are said to be thousands of years old. They believe that the reptiles were swept here by an ancient flood. The pond here, too, was created by the flood. Some historians believe that the ritual of feeding the crocodiles was probably introduced by the Sheedis hundreds of years ago.

They base this on what Marty Crump and Dante B. Fenolio wrote in their 2015 book Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles. They write that, for centuries, people of Madagascar have believed that crocodiles have supernatural powers. Thus, slaves brought here from the 16th century onward may have retained this belief when they came across the crocodiles of Manghopir.

The Sheedis are mainly decendants of slaves brought to the subcontinent by Europeans from West and East African regions, mainly from the so-called ‘big lake area’ which is surrounded by countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Republic of Congo and Kenya. Many claim to have relatives in these countries who are either Christian or have continued to adhere to their ancient animist beliefs.

Historically, the Sheedis in Sindh and Makran have remained a working-class people and the areas they are concentrated in, such as Lyari, have suffered long bouts of violence, drug/alcohol addiction, poverty and crime. In the 19th century, Burton had described Sheedi men to be hard-working but aggressive and their women as “loud” but “loving to wear colourful dresses.” Politically, the community has been progressive. In Makran, the Sheedis have been voting for various left-leaning Baloch nationalist parties and in Sindh mainly for the PPP.

However, due to deadly gang wars in Lyari that the PPP’s provincial government in Sindh failed to tackle, the area’s many residents began their gradual shift towards various Islamic evangelical outfits that began to enter the area during the gang violence here from the early 2000s onward.

Even though the radical Barelvi Islamic party, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik, managed to win two provincial assembly seats in Lyari during the recently concluded election, there is every likelihood that the area will continue to face the many economic, political and social problems that it has been facing for almost 200 years now.

But ever since the 1970s, many men from the Sheedi community (especially from Makran) have continued to find employment in the police department of the Kingdom of Oman. For decades, the police force of that country’s capital city, Muscat, has had large numbers of Sheedis from Pakistan. This has helped many men from this community to better their lot. They have managed to move to more expensive residential areas of Sindh and Makran and provide their children better education.

However, about two decades ago, even those Sheedis who did not travel to the Middle East began sending their children to schools and then to colleges and universities. Consequently, they managed to transcend the many problems faced by the community and enter the country’s more prosperous and stable social and economic avenues. Tanzeela Qambrani is a stark example of this.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 26th, 2018