KARACHI They've befriended the Arabian Sea and its choppy waters. They depend on it for their livelihood. They are fishers that you can see fixing their cast nets, boats and rods along the Karachi shoreline in the Ibrahim Hyderi area... a bit wheatish in complexion, bright-eyed and hard-working. By the way, that's not their only identity. They're the Rohingyas, a Burmese Muslim community that many know as 'one of the most persecuted groups of people in the world'. Don't make the mistake of confusing or mistaking them for fishermen of Bengali descent. They're not. Since they resemble their Bengali counterparts in build and facial features (and belong to Arakan State of Burma — now Myanmar — bordering Bangladesh), often they're thought of as Pakistanis of Bengali origin. They're Pakistanis, rest assured, but of Burmese ancestry.
Ibrahim Hyderi is a dense locality. Moving a little away from the Bengali jetty (the place from where these fishermen set sail to catch fish in their seemingly wobbly boats called Dhoonda) there is Arakanabad. It's the neighbourhood where these fish-catchers have been residing for long. It falls in the jurisdiction of the Kornangi area.
Arakanabad is one bustling little scene teenagers dressed in qameez-shalwar playing foosball, or table football, and snooker in shaded corners; motorcycles zigzagging the narrow roads; and the elderly chin-wagging at a chai ke dhaba, perched on wooden benches, discussing everything under the sun.
Abul Kalam is an old man who wants to tell this writer about his community, but he seems a little overwhelmed, so a relatively younger, middle-aged nonetheless, Abdul Khaliq chimes in. “Our leaving Burma is no new story. It started happening in the 1940s when Britain and Japan fought a war and we were under British rule. We (Muslims) have always been subjugated because the Buddhist majority there didn't like us. So we started fleeing our land, Arakan, into the neighbouring East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and some other countries. Actually things in Burma worsened when the military took charge in the '60s. We were persecuted.”
So are they the Rohingyas? Adbdul Khaliq doesn't seem to know much about it or doesn't want to share information on the subject. He appears to be aware of his Arakani origins though.
“The language we speak is Arakani. Our children are also well-versed in it. We know Bengali and Urdu too. When we were in Burma we used to learn Arabi, Arakani and Urdu in school. It continued till 1962. Even today you can find Sindhi Muslims in Burma.
“We're satisfied here in Pakistan. But when we were in East Pakistan there were issues that bothered us,” says Abdul Khalid. This infuriates S. M. Zafar, a Bengali whose forefathers hail from Chittagong, and he rebukes Abdul Khaliq for not getting his facts right. “We're the same. They're like us. We have the same culture.” This creates a bit of an uneasy situation between the two and many other voices join to create a rather prolonged verbal dingdong. Then peace prevails.
It has been reported in the past that when thousands of Rohingyas fled their homeland to get away from the 1978 census of their community (Operation Dragon), they were ill-treated at Bangladeshi refugee camps.
So what is their culture? Abdul Khaliq says, “We adhere to Muslim customs and traditions. If you come to any of our weddings, you'll see it's a simple affair as it happens in any other Muslim community. As for our dresses, we wear dhoti and kurta.”
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum chief Mohammad Ali Shah is familiar with the Burmese of Arakanabad. He says, “They had no right in their country and were leading a difficult life. Since they're Muslims they migrated to other Muslim countries. They've been working hard to earn a decent living.”
Kareem is 21 years old. He is a fisherman to his fingertips. “Yes, I'm Burmese, what do you want to know about? I've never been there but I know Arakan.”
Responding to the question how good at catching fish he is, he enthuses, “I catch mashka, siwa and paplet on a regular basis. You want some?”
In the same lane there's a small house where Salma, a 22-year-old Bengali girl, is threading moti (beads) onto a piece of unstitched cloth that is known as adda that women in Arakanabad make. She has four children. Last year round about the same time her husband Ayub was arrested by the Indian authorities. He is yet to come back.