On a new Instagram account, Indians and Pakistanis share memories of living in the Gulf

With photographs old and new, Gulf South Asia highlights the connections between South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Published April 29, 2019

In today’s world, when migrants are increasingly being viewed with fear and suspicion, one story that successfully endures is that of the migration of South Asians to the Persian Gulf.

Several centuries after the exchange of cultures and commerce began between the regions, around 300,000 Indians still travel to the Gulf nations every year for work, adding to the range and complexity of the diasporic experience.

These varied experiences are what a new Instagram account, called Gulf ⇄ South Asia, has set out to capture, with photographs connecting the Persian Gulf and South Asia in the 20th century.

One post on it, for instance, features a group portrait of five Kuwaiti men, who travelled to the Bombay zoo in 1954 to buy animals for Kuwait’s first zoo.

Among these travellers, one man stands out — while his compatriots are dressed in dishdashas, he is wearing a shalwar kameez.

Another post recounts a Pakistani expatriate’s arrival in Oman in 1975, accompanied by a photograph of the Muscat neighbourhood Wadi Al Kabir.

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Bab Al Kabir, Muscat, 1973/4. One of the city gates which until 1970 were closed from dusk until dawn. (Photo by Brian Harrington Spier) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ When Mansoor Ahmed Cheeda landed in Oman from his native Pakistan in 1975, he only expected to be staying a short while. Forty years later, however, and he is still here. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ “I was hardly 20 when I came to Oman,” he remembers. The new Muscat airport at Seeb had only been fully operational a short time. “It had only one conveyor belt and about six different counters.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Driving from the airport to his accommodation was a bit of an adventure, there were no street lights until they saw one of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’ palaces. Initially, Mansoor lived in Barka with a cousin who was a doctor. “My only pastime then was going to the beach for walks,” he says. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Soon after, Mansoor managed to get a job with one of the banks in Oman. “Bank Dhofar used to be a French bank with the name ‘Banque de Paris’ and I was lucky enough to get a clerical job there with a salary of RO100, which was very good money back then.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Soon after he got the bank job, Mansoor moved to live closer to his office in Muttrah. “We lived right behind Al Rahma Hospital, we were four guys in a flat. Most houses around ours were mud brick houses. The shops in the souq were also mud brick with thick walls to ensure insulation in the summers.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Power cuts were a regular occurrence, meaning the flat’s air conditioning rarely worked. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Mansoor used to write letters to his mother every month. A letter used to take about 15 days to reach its destination and then a reply would come after another 15 days. “Once I wrote to my mother that I would be calling her during the Eid holidays and so after prayers I went to Omantel and tried calling her, but for three consecutive days I wasn’t able to get a line.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The journey from Ruwi to Muttrah also took significantly longer than it does these days. “It was about 40 minutes to an hour from Muttrah to Ruwi and vice versa because it was a single road and the traffic moved very slowly.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Text: y-oman.com

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Gulf ⇄ South Asia has been set up by Ayesha, a writer and Arabic translator, who was born in India and grew up in the United Kingdom.

Through her early life, she heard relatives — including her grandfather — recounting experiences of living in the Gulf, but she only started thinking about them after moving to Bahrain in 2001.

“I then became very interested in the history of the Gulf and of the Western Indian Ocean, particularly the connections between the Gulf and South Asia,” said Ayesha, who asked to be identified only by her first name.

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The crew of Emirates' inaugural flight on October 25, 1985, from Dubai to Karachi. (Gulf News Archive) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Emirates airline was conceived in 1985 after Gulf Air began to cut back its services to Dubai. Pakistan International Airlines played a large role in the establishment of the new carrier by providing technical and administrative assistance as well as leasing two planes. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Captain Fazle Ghani Mian was part of the team involved in the launch of Emirates’ inaugural services, and was the pilot at the controls of flight EK600 to Karachi on 25th October 1985: "I came to Dubai [from Pakistan] on the 1st of October 1985 and met with HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum and then Emirates Airline Managing Director Maurice Flanagan and their teams. We discussed the tasks ahead and how we wanted to proceed. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ On the 18th of October a group of 100 pilots, flight and aircraft engineers, maintenance staff, among others all came to Dubai to initiate the planning stages, and we began test flights from then on to ensure everything would operate to plan. I was also tasked to train UAE National pilots. They were trained in Dubai and got their commercial licenses from the Civil Aviation Authority in Pakistan. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We had some great memories from the first flight. Some of the flight caps were oversized for some of our pilots and they looked quite funny with them on their heads. However, that was a minor detail. We pushed back and took off on time, and this signaled a great achievement for the airline in such a short period of time." ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Sources: Emirates Media centre, Wikipedia ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ***** If you have a photo/story you would like to share, please DM or email: gulfsouthasia@zoho.com

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For several years, Ayesha nurtured her interest by sharing stories about history, culture and language. On her blog and then Twitter and Facebook accounts — all created under the Ibn Battuta-inspired online moniker Bintbattuta — she would post links connected to the Middle East and South Asia. But she wanted to be do more.

“I had been thinking for a long time about sharing the Gulf-South Asian connections [found] in books, academic papers and archives in an accessible, non-academic format,” said Ayesha.

Another desire she had was to present personal stories, the same way visual archives, such as the Indian Memory Project, do. Instagram, she decided, would be the best platform for this.

“It also allows me to translate and repost from Arabic accounts, which are sharing photos and documents, often from family archives,” she said.

One such account belongs to Hussain Albadi, who has been researching the history of the Khaleeji community in Mumbai.

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Picking cockles in the area where the Doha Sheraton stands today. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Priya DSouza on growing up in Qatar in the 1970s: "In the 1970s the Matar Qadeem area was a predominantly middle-class Qatari (Irani-Qatari) neighbourhood and we were one of the few Indian families living there. What I remember most about this area is its sense of community. When Qatari grandmothers went shopping to the souq, they came back with boxes of goodies for children in every family in the neighbourhood. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ When our dog would go missing, all the children would get together to look for her – she got lost a lot. When it was watermelon season however, the kids would try to steal my dad’s watermelons and we’d stand guard, snitching to their grandmas if they picked our fruit. Weddings in the community (almost always Qatari) were especially fun because we got to run in and out of tents and eat as many sweets as we liked as everybody was too busy taking care of something or the other to bother with what the children did. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My childhood is filled with tons of incredible memories – every day was an adventure like it should be for any curious child growing up surrounded by a community that nurtures them. I did not know I was Indian or that my family was Catholic till I moved to India when I was seven – not once was I made to feel different from the others, and I didn’t know I was. When we went over to a Qatari house for the occasional weekend family lunch or dinner, we all sat together. The women were never veiled – they treated my father like their brother or son. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Until about 2010, after my father started spending more time in India and I would spend Fridays at my uncle’s, one Friday a month was lunch at a Qatari friend’s house. Not much had changed except that I was now a woman in my late 30s. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Mainly western colleagues at work talked about how little they knew about Qatari families or what a privilege it was to have visited one. Qataris had become exotic in their own land. None of these colleagues experienced the sense of community I did as a child or as an adult though I was a migrant too, like they were." ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Source: priyadsouza.com

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Gulf ⇄ South Asia has so far posted images and stories that either have been published online or feature in books. A few are translations of Arabic posts. “I will continue to share that kind of material but I certainly hope this becomes a crowdsourced archive too,” she said.

While Ayesha is aware that it will take time for word to spread, some stories have started coming in.

In one post, Ismail Noor spoke about his inextricable bond with the region: “...since I was born in Dubai and lived there for a few years in the beginning, I thought of this place as a home always, even when I was living in Karachi [afterward].”

Another post is Priya D’Souza’s tale of growing up in Qatar in the 1970s.

Ayesha was struck by the palpable sense of community that D’Souza described in her account. “My hope is that through sharing stories like hers, the account will create a fuller picture of the South Asian experience in the Gulf.”

Ayesha hopes that the account will also interest Khaleejis who have lived in South Asia.

Her own interest in their history grew out of the research she did into the life of Ebrahim Al-Arrayedh, one of Bahrain’s greatest poets, who was born in Bombay.

“I learnt about the Khaleeji community in Bombay and then about those in Calicut and Karachi — histories that I think a lot of people would like to hear about, so I am looking forward to sharing them,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.