His first reporting assignment in the desert cost Muzafer Ahamed a few teeth. He had travelled to Sakakka in Al Jouf on the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border with a friend, an Arab national named Abdurahiman Akheel. They were at Akheel’s small date-palm estate where Ahamed took photographs of a well that irrigated the farm. It was the well that triggered the attack, Ahamed was to learn later from the police. A dispute had been simmering over the well for nearly a century and half, and Ahamed had been mistaken for the Sudanese aide of one of the litigating parties. It was harbul ma’a or water war, Abdul Aziz Khatifi, a journalist with Al Arabiya, an Arabic newspaper, educated Ahamed, who had just arrived in Jeddah from watery Kerala to work as a journalist.
The year was 1999. Ahamed wrote one of his early essays about life in Arabia on the Sakakka incident. In the next 13 years that he spent in Saudi Arabia, Ahamed would venture out numerous times into the great expanses of sand that made up most of the land, which provided a living to him, and many others from his home. He wrote extensively about the desert, its flora and fauna, the Bedouins who had made it their home, water, and the civilisational character of the land. These essays published in Malayalam periodicals from Kerala established his name as a writer: A compilation of these essays, Marubhoomiyude Atmakatha (The Autobiography of the Desert), won him the 2010 Kerala Sahitya Akademi prize. Now, a translation of a selection of Ahamed’s writings on the Arabian desert is out in English, titled Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia (translated by PJ Mathew, OUP).
Ahamed’s snapshots about people, culture and the landscape of the desert is unique because rarely have writers from the Indian diaspora in the Gulf written about the non-diasporic life in the region, and, that too, like an insider. This is intriguing for the Malayali’s tryst with West Asia, particularly the Arab peninsula, dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. For centuries, people from both regions crossed the sea and traded in spices, ships, textiles and so on.
Islam is said to have come to the Malabar coast at the time of the Prophet itself and Arabic enriched Malayalam, even leading to the development of an argot called Arabi Malayalam. In the mid-1960s, the Malabar Coast’s ties with the Arabian peninsula were revived when the oil economy started to attract migrant labour. The first recorded migration of labour from Kerala is from this period though people were known to cross the sea in launches and dhows. By the 1970s, particularly after the first oil shock in 1973, West Asia, popularly referred to as “Gulf” in Malayalam, migration from Kerala peaked and the remittances from migrants, to a large extent, helped finance and sustain the welfare state back home. The Gulf migration transformed Kerala society, economy, landscape and cultural choices including cuisine, consumer choices and so on. The Gulf Malayali has been present in Kerala’s popular culture since the 1980s, mostly as a caricature and as a symbol of the neo-rich. But the Gulf experience, particularly the society and landscape outside the Malayali diaspora, is hard to find in Malayalam cinema and fiction. Ahamed’s work was one of the first attempts to engage with the “Gulf” without being burdened by diasporic nostalgia.
This certainly seems to be changing. At least two novels in recent times have turned to the Gulf experience of the Malayali diaspora to reflect upon the political economy of the region. Temporary People (2017) by Deepak Unnikrishnan, who grew up in the UAE, is a fine debut novel that shuns nostalgia to capture the diasporic experience in its own terms. Deepak has crafted a unique language — a pidgin English with Malayalam and Arabic words — to situate the largely working-class diaspora and its unequal relations with the Arab ruling class. Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (2018, Mullapponiramulla Pakalukal) is a worthy attempt to explore the tremors of the Arab Spring. His Goat Days (Aadujeevitham, 2008) had captured the trauma of a poor Malayali migrant, who is promised a job in a construction firm but is forced to spent over three years as a bonded labourer in a goat farm.
Goat Days, of course, is very much a novel of the Malayali diaspora in the Gulf, but it transcends its Malayaliness to become a searing account of migration, exile and exploitation and opens a window into the working class lives that have financed Kerala’s growth story since the 1980s. Jasmine Days and its prequel, Al-Arabian Novel Factory (2014), traverse the sensitive terrain of politics and have a cosmopolitan cast at the heart of a trans-regional political churn. If Goat Days was testimonial, the Jasmine Days and Al-Arabian Novel Factory keep pace with contemporary history and discuss the role of diasporic communities in the politics of nation-states.
Why has it taken so long for the Gulf Malayali fiction writer to transcend the pull of home and see himself also as a writer of the Arab land? Numerous writers had in the 1980s and thereafter, worked for long years in the Arab countries, but they preferred to write about “home”. There were, of course, works like Babu Bharadwaj’s Pravasiyude Kurippukal (Notes of an Immigrant) and Sageer’s fascinating cartoon novel, Gulfumpadi PO, that are precious documents of the Malayali Gulf experience and its impact back home. Ahamed pins it on fear — writing about life in the Arab countries could cost him job, land him in prison or force him to return.
Shajahan Madampat, a UAE-based writer, argues that acute awareness of the temporariness of his existence as a worker left him with no sense of belonging to the Gulf. Very few among the Malayali diaspora have organic relations with the Gulf society or even other diasporas in the region. There are no links to the cultures of the region as well, he says. MH Ilias, a migration studies scholar and professor at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, too, sees the Gulf Malayali’s diasporic existence as a continuation of his life experience in Kerala. Ilias also says there are multiple sites of expression for the Gulf Malayali — politics, theatre, film society, popular culture — but these are only extensions of social life in Kerala. Even the Islam of Gulf Malayali is linked to practices in Kerala, he says.
The Centre for Development Studies’ Kerala Migration Survey 2018 indicates that Kerala is witnessing a reverse migration from the Gulf — over the last decade, the number of people migrating to the Gulf has fallen (it stands at 1.89 million in 2018) whereas the number of reverse migrants has gone up in the same period. That, however, may not be an impediment to the flowering of a new diaspora fiction. In an interview to Andre Naffis-Sahely, Deepak Unnikrishnan says: “When I was writing it (Temporary People), (the idea) was that it would be a kind of document where I could test the narratives I was hearing from the West, test the stories my parents weren’t talking about, test the stories that my generation actually wanted to investigate or examine, and actually look at it and open up a conversation. Whatever impermanence is there, it grows within you, it’s a part of you. There are certain things that I do because of Abu Dhabi — attachments/detachments, the way I am with people. Relationships frighten me. There is still a suitcase somewhere that hasn’t been unpacked.” There are, indeed, suitcases that haven’t been unpacked.
Ahamed talks about the letters that the migrant families used to exchange — the Gulf migration was mostly about men, who left behind their families in Kerala. He believes these constitute the most authentic and intimate experiences of the Malayali’s Gulf episode — these are different from what has appeared in genres like Gulf kathu pattu. There could, however, be a new generation, who like Deepak argues, has English as their language of preferance and sees Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc., as their home.
Suma L, who taught junior school students in Abu Dhabi, mentions that the most authentic expressions she had found among students, in compositions, magazine writings, etc., are their narratives of living in the megapolises of the Gulf. A new Malayali diasporic writing about the Gulf may emerge from this generation of Gulf Malayalis. Temporary People, perhaps, marks the beginning of a temporary people writing about life as global citizens.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘At Home in the World’