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KARACHI: The city of Karachi is like a multi-coloured quilt, with various ethnic, linguistic and religious communities forming a patchwork that comes together in a diverse whole. However, when certain elements exploit these differences, the same quilt transforms into a rather coarse fabric.

Though each community shares the common problems that affect the city’s teeming millions, they also have their own specific issues and grievances.

Perhaps one of the city’s most under-researched communities is the Sheedi community – descendants of African slaves – the first of whom were brought to the subcontinent nearly a thousand years ago. Dawn talked to Yaqub Qambrani, one of the current organizers and a former president of the All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at, a community organization that seeks to uplift the lot of the Sheedis, to learn more about the community and the issues it faces in Karachi.

Mr Qambrani, a driver by profession in his forties, studied up till the intermediate level. However, his grip on history and the affairs of his community is indicative of wisdom way beyond his scholastic education.

“The Sheedi community has been in Karachi ever since it was called Kolachi. The first arrival of Sheedis in Sindh was probably with Mohammad bin Qasim. When the British came to the subcontinent, they also brought some artisans with them. Lyari’s Sheedi Village Road traces its history back to this as there was a Sheedi village there,” he says, adding that the largest concentration of Sheedis in Karachi can be found in Lyari and Malir, with communities in Saeedabad’s Mohajir Camp, Baldia Town and Keamari as well.

“Even today we have a community house called Kharadar Makan. The community in Karachi is quite different from the community in other parts of Sindh. Sheedi artisans also worked on the Kotri Barrage. Even today there are Sheedi families in Kotri who trace their ancestry to these artisans,” he observes.

“Ours is mostly an oral history. Some people have held on to it, while others are totally unaware,” Yaqub Qambrani says.

The importance of culture

He says that it is the community’s cultural events, such as the famous annual dhammal at the shrine of Sakhi Sultan at Manghopir in Karachi, have been essential in keeping alive the Sheedis’ traditions.

“On every fourteenth night of the lunar month there used to be a get-together of the community. Nobody needed to be told as everybody knew about it. These meetings were the only way our community communicated and shared its culture with each other.” Mr Qambrani was asked what the mother tongue of the Sheedis is. “In Sindh we speak Sindhi. Those in Balochistan speak Balochi while Sheedis in India speak Gujarati. Our actual mother tongue was probably Swahili. Most of the community here traces its roots to Zanzibar (Tanzania). We have only retained a few words of Swahili, such as ‘Jambo.’ Even these we have picked up recently from films.

“It was difficult for the community to hold on to its traditions and culture due to slavery and the wadera shahi (feudalism) that was en vogue. We weren’t the only ones that were oppressed. Countless people were oppressed. But because of our physical appearance we were the ones that stuck out. That’s why we were particularly picked on. It is largely the same today, but it is less obvious.”

As for the Sheedis’ economic situation, Qambrani says that “the community faces great economic hardships. There is great poverty. There is now a small educated class in the Sheedi community. In the past, the professions we usually opted for were carpenters, washer-men, drivers and artisans.”

In his opinion, it is the lack of education within the community that is retarding growth.

“Even if I say one or two per cent of the Sheedi community is educated, it might be an exaggeration. Interestingly, the number of educated Sheedis is more in the interior of Sindh. For instance in Tando Bagho, around 75 per cent of the people are matriculates. This is largely due to the efforts of Mohammad Siddiq Musafir, who started a campaign to awaken the community. He was a teacher at the Hyderabad Training College. He also contributed to shaping the modern Sindhi syllabus. He was also a poet. He propagated the idea of forming a jam’aat, and that is how the All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at was formed.”

As for the community’s religious preferences, Yaqub Qambrani says that in Sindh, most Sheedis are Sunni, with a few followers of the Shia school of thought. “Our concept of dhammal is free from any sectarian bias,” he adds.

‘No political leanings’

However, when it comes to describing the Sheedi community’s political leanings, he is quite matter of fact.

“We have no political leanings. Some Sheedis became councillors when the new local government system was introduced. There might have even been one or two nazims. As for party affiliations, to be quite honest, we flow with the tide. In the past there was great support for the Pakistan People’s Party, but as people’s awareness grows, even that is decreasing. We have faced a lot of difficulties, but no one is sincere about solving our problems. Now there is a feeling in the community that we have to help ourselves.”

He says Sheedis are basically divided into the Qambrani and Bilali clans. “The Sheedis in Pakistan have come from various tribes. Sindhi Sheedis call themselves Qambrani, out of reverence for Hazrat Qambar, a servant of Hazrat Ali (AS). As for Hazrat Bilal, the companion of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), we know that he did not have children, so the Bilalis attach their nisbat with him. That is an honour for us.”

As for the origin of the word Sheedi, Qambrani believes it is a corruption of the Arabic word Sayyidi (sir).

On a lighter note, he was asked if the community had any specific traditional foods.

“The food is influenced by where the community members live. We eat anything, we’re not that picky! I must say that Sheedi cooks make quite delicious meals. But there is one dish beloved by the community: it is a dish made from rice sweetened with gur called payri. It is also called Baba Ghor’s payri. It is served at all special events.”

Concluding the conversation, Yaqub Qambrani says that despite the odds, the Sheedi community is trying its best to change its fortunes for the benefit of future generations.

“I don’t want to blame anyone, as the problems we face are largely due to our community’s complacency. If we work hard, we shall receive the fruit of our labours. We have just awoken. I feel things will get better for the next generation. During my generation’s time, our biggest problem was overcoming a sense of deprivation. We have been hurt most by attitudes. When people consider you worthless, that hurts the most. We are not complaining about not getting jobs. We realize everybody is facing a tough time economically. Our problem is with people’s attitudes. Why don’t people practice Islam’s message of equality?

“Even today, in the interior we are trying very hard to liberate our people from the grip of waderas and pirs. We have the attached stigma of slavery. People still tell us we are slaves. We say, yes, we were salves, but who hasn’t been a slave? Take a look at history. Nearly every race has been enslaved at one point or another.

“But we are working hard. You’ll see very few Sheedis begging for money. This is a point of pride for us. We would rather do hard labour then beg. We are trying our level best to educate our community.”—QAM