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Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East
by Natalie Mobini-Kesheh
SEAP, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1999. Pp. 174.
Illus. Notes. Glossary. Bibliog. Pb. £17. ISBN 0 87727 727 3.
From the late eighteenth century Hadhramis started to migrate in
significant numbers to Southeast Asia, adding a new dimension to
their existing diaspora along the Red Sea and East African coast.
During the following century Hadhrami settlements emerged throughout
the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, especially in the major trading
centres along the north coast ofJava. By 1900 there were some 27,000
Arabs (mostly Hadhrami) in the Dutch East Indies, and by 1942, on
the eve of Japanese occupation, the Arab population of the colony is
thought to have numbered about 80,000.
Migration to the East Indies involved a transition from a largely
barren land, bedevilled by tribal warfare, to a flourishing
plantation economy Hadhramis were ever resilient, but several
factors facilitated their integration with local society: almost all
migrants were men, so there was a high rate of intermarriage with
indigenous women; they professed the same religion as the local
population, and not a few of them were say yids claiming
descent from the Prophet.
This study examines the issues of identity and community which
confronted Hadhramis in the Indies during the first half of the 20th
century. The onset of modernity raised urgent and complex questions.
Did traditional social status matter? How could the religion of
Islam be made relevant to the modern world? What kind of education
would best equip Hadhrami children to succeed in that world? Were
Hadhramis to identify themselves as Muslims or Arabs; with their
homeland or with their host country? Hadhrami responses to these
questions during the period known to contemporary writers as al-nahdhah
al-hadhramiyyah, or the Hadhrami ‘awakening’, form the
substance of this work. Hadhrami identity helped to shape and was
itself shaped by shifting patterns of identification in the host
society: the emergence, for example, of an ethnically defined
nationalism among Indonesians from the mid-1910s meant that
Hadhramis were now seen more as ‘foreigners’ than as fellow
Muslims. This sharpened Hadhramis’ sense of separateness (already
institutionalised by the Dutch colonial policy of segregating and
imposing travel restrictions on Arabs and Chinese) and was a
decisive factor in compelling them to turn to their homeland as a
source of identity. This pattern was reversed in the 1930s, when a
group of young Hadhrami muwalladin (locally-born and usually
of mixed parentage) chose to proclaim Indonesia as their homeland,
thus winning acceptance by Indonesian nationalists.
The nahdhah, led by the newly emergent elite, embodied
newspapers, journals, and a rapidly expanding network of voluntary
associations and modern schools. But it also gave rise to a
protracted ideological dispute - the ‘Alawi-Irshadi conflict -
centred on the social status and religious authority claimed by the
‘Alawis (sayyids) but disputed by the Irshadis as a
perverse anomaly (their view being influenced by the Egyptian-led
movement of Islamic Reformism with its emphasis on Muslim equality).
Despite this dispute, the core achievement of the nahdhah was
the establishment of an educational system aimed at turning a new
generation of Hadhramis into devout, self-reliant Muslims with a
knowledge of both Arabic and European languages, and with the basic
vocational skills that they would need as traders and businessmen.
The system (modelled closely on the example of the pace-setting
Chinese) also inculcated a territorial patriotism (wataniyyah) focused
on the Hadhrami homeland, whose welfare and development it was the
community’s moral duty to support; and the wealth remitted from
South-east Asia between the wars is still manifest in the mud-brick
palaces and tower houses of Wadi Hadhramaut. When Indonesia achieved
independence most people of Hadhrami descent accepted Indonesian
nationality, and Hadliramaut was relegated to the ‘land of the
This thoughtful, richly informed study is the fruit of wide
reading and painstaking research. It is written with assurance and
refreshing lucidity, and is a valuable addition to existing studies
on the Hadhrami diaspora. It incorporates the author’s paper in Hadrami
Scholars. Traders and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean 1 750s- 1960s (edited
by U. Freitag and W G. Clarence-Smith, Brill, 1997) but not, alas, a
map of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago which would have been
helpful to readers less familiar with this region. Lastly, two minor
points: the first European to enter Tarim since Leo Hirsch in 1893
was Lieut. -Colonel the Hon. M. T. Boscawen (who visited Shibam and
Tarim in 1929) not Van der Meulen as stated on p. 108; and Salih Bin
‘Abdat’s son who ruled al-Ghurfah from 1939 was Ubayd, not Salih
as stated in note 55, p. 118.