Barkas in Hyderabad is home to a large population of Arabs, mainly from Yemen. Following years of migration that began in the 17th century, they have assimilated into the local population, yet retained their distinctive culture.
In the second of a three-part series, we look at how charity has remained a hallmark of life in Barkas, the role played by education and how the community has made its presence felt in football and politics.
Hyderabad: As their population grew and space in Barkas came under pressure, the Arabs staying there moved to new areas, including Salala. They also settled down in clusters in other parts of Hyderabad, like King Kothi area where their ancestors were responsible for security at the Nizam’s residential palace, as well as the AC Guards, Golconda Fort Area.
The Fruit Auction Market, where growers would sell their produce to retailers, has been the heart of Barkas. Once, the economy of the Arab community used to revolve around this business and buyers would come from all over the city for high quality fruits. But today the market is past its prime.
Abdul Azeez Bin Hasan Al Masri Al Amoodi from Hadarmaut continues the tradition of his forefathers by conducting the auction every morning as the other elders observe keenly. But today the markets have few sellers and buyers as the number of orchards in the area has shrunk.
“This is a result of pressure on the land because of growing population. Trees have been replaced by houses and buildings,” says Habeeb Abdul Azeez Baghdadi.
Young Abdullah Bin Khalifa vows that there was nothing better than the fruits grown in the area. “We have many unique fruits and herbs, which are not available anywhere else”.
Salam Bin Abdullah Al Aseeri, a real estate developer and businessman, however, regrets the decline of traditional business of Barkas. His great grandfather, Salam Bin Abdullah Bin Salam, came to Hyderabad from Al-Aseer in Saudi Arabia, bordering Yemen. His grandfather Salam Bin Abdullah Aseeri was Subedar Major in the Nizam’s army, and his father was an engineer.
He rues the loss of traditional businesses of Barkas over the decades. “Our forefathers built the fruit and dairy businesses with honesty and integrity. But the young generation gave these principles up and the businesses moved to other areas and into the hands of other people. Today Barkas has lost the unique nature of its traditional business. Very few people bring their produce to the Barkas market for auction.”
We still love our traditions and culture. Most of the people have retained their cultural identity.
On the other hand, there has been an educational revolution. It was rare to see a college going student from the area about three decades ago. But not any more.
“We still love our traditions and culture. Most of the people have retained their cultural identity. People wear lungi and amama (Arab traditional headscarf), especially on Fridays,” says Aseeri. “Every Friday our people visit the graveyard to pray for their departed loved ones. This is followed by a family get-together where Arabic dishes like Mandi, Qabas, Majboos and Muzbih are savoured,” he says.
Keeping the cultural identity alive through the centuries is a story in itself.
Leif Manger sums up the struggle in the book The Hadrami Diaspora: Community Building of the Indian Ocean Rim.
“The maintenance of everyday Hadrami identities in Barkas in Hyderabad happens through many processes. One such process is through the staging of different traditional practices on the occasion of birth, marriage and death, as well as an adherence to culinary varieties, tastes, and preferences in dress, music, dance and so on. All of these cultural traits or practices differentiate Hadramis from other groups”.
Charity remains a hallmark of life of the Arab community as reflected in the work of numerous organisations such as Majlis-e-Sabeel Al Khair, Baitul Maal, Barkas Welfare Association.
While conducting a funeral in other parts of Hyderabad is a costly affair as one has to pay a hefty price for the piece of land, in Barkas everything is free, thanks to Majlis-e-Sabeel Al Khair.
“As soon as we receive information about the demise of a person, our volunteers take over all the arrangements of the funeral and the family members don’t have to worry about anything,” said Aseeri. “We even have Qabrastan Party (graveyard party) or volunteer group which digs graves free of cost. This has been the tradition for many decades.”
Founded by Shaikh Saleh Ba Khattab and once headed by the likes of Sayeed Ba Oum, Majlis also provides pension to the poor, widows and destitute so they don’t have to beg in public. They issue scholarships to the students and take care of other needs. They also run schools and colleges.
Another major cultural difference between the Arab community of Barkas and other local Muslims is in the way marriages are solemnised.
While marriages of local Muslims are extravagant and expensive affairs where the cost runs into millions of rupees, Arab families of Barkas are known to keep weddings simple and low key. Dowry has become a social curse among the locals as it puts a huge burden on the families of the bride. But it is abhorred among the Arabs and the girl’s family is not burdened with unnecessary rituals and customs. “There is no custom of demanding dowry from the bride’s family,” says Yunus Bin Abdullah Bin Haid.
Traditional medicine for jaundice, a concoction of herbs, is distributed free. It was started by Hussain Qureshi and is now being done by his son Mohsin Qureshi. Thousands of people throng their house on fixed days in a week for the medicine.
“We feel so happy and honoured to serve the humanity this way,” said Mohsin Qureshi.
Al-Aseeri says that gradually Arabic was replaced by Urdu and later by English as the medium of education. Arabic was confined to learning and reading the Holy Quran.
“Earlier there was a lot of stress on children learning and speaking in Arabic. That is why we are still able to speak in Arabic so well.”
“There was an institution called Mahad Al-Lughat Al-Arabia to teach Arabic but it is not there anymore and the younger generation has also lost interest. Their knowledge of Arabic language is now mostly confined to learn and read the Holy Quran,” he says.
"This is the cradle of communal harmony and unity. Many Hindu families live here. Even at the worst of times, we did not allow any Hindu family to move out of this area. They also don’t want to leave this area as they feel safe and secure,” says Saud Bin Sayeed Ba Oum.
“We have no history or instance of any communal trouble”.
Sayeed Bin Ali Qureshi, who runs a flour business, says: “Changes are inevitable with passing generations and changing times. The earlier generation was not so well educated because of lack of resources and facilities. But now more and more children are getting higher education. Now there is no family in Barkas without a graduate or a professional degree holder, including doctors, engineers, dentists and chartered accountants. Our elders were against the education of girls, but now they are studying in colleges and getting good jobs in the private sector. People have understood that education is a must.”
For Arabs the significance of the family lineage and identity can never be underestimated. They proudly preserve it and maintain a written record of the same. In fact, an institution by Jamiatul-Yemenia Bil Hind started by Ba Osman used to issue the certificate of family lineage to Yemeni descendants. Ba Osman’s sons Khalid Ba Osman and Ahmad Ba Osman are continuing to do this.”
Love for football
Like tradition, culture and language, another common link among the people of Arab countries and the people of Barkas is the love for football.
Sprawling playgrounds in the area produced many top-notch footballers who played at the national level as part of well-known teams like Mohammedan Sporting and Indian Railways.
Habeeb Khan was a prominent footballer for Mohammedan Sporting. “We have produced so many big sportspersons, including Hind-Kesari, Andhra Kesari and Telangana Kesari pehelwans (wrestlers). Our players played for Mohammadan Sporting, East Bengal and many other national football teams and earned laurels,” points out Abdul Azeez Al-Baghdadi.
Initially there was an aversion to marriages between the Arabs and non-Arab local communities. “But gradually the taboos ended and we now marry girls from local communities and also give our girls to them in marriage. I also married off my daughter into a Pathan family of Barkas,” said Salam Hussain Bin Hajab, a businessman.
Barkas Arabs relish anecdotes that the Nizam had full trust in the Arab and Pathan soldiers. “Pathans were the guards of the Haram-e-Nizam and Arabs guarded the treasure of the Nizam”, recalled an old timer.
“Such was the liking and emotional bond of the ruling family and the Arabs that the entire arrangement of the funeral of the last Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan were made by Arabs. His Namaz-e-Janazah (last prayers) was led by Habeeb Al-Eidroos,” recalled Ali.
Friends and guests
Like their kin in Arab countries, the Barkas Arabs also love the company of their friends and guests.
One such traditional get-together was at the Ba Oum family home deep inside Barkas where a group of friends going back almost five generations gathered to enjoy post-Friday-prayer food. Over the warm lunch, hosted by the Ba Oum brothers - Saud and Faisal - there was animated discussion over how Barkas was always shown in a negative light by a section of the media. “Even a minor incident is exaggerated to raise a controversy and show us in a bad light. We feel very unhappy about it. The fact is that the crime rate in the area is far, far less than other parts of Hyderabad,” says Faisal. “We are a peace-loving community”.
“You will not find any youngster of our community loitering around or smoking, leave alone other bad habits. There is a special emphasis on proper upbringing of children. A child in the locality is looked after by the entire neighbourhood. This social pressure works very well even today,” says Yunus Bin Abdullah Bin Haid.
“Our culture is alive even today. We have the blood of our ancestors in us. Arab culture and traditions are alive in our lifestyle and conduct,” said Habeeb Abdurrahman.
The Arab community has also made its presence felt in politics. Ahmad Bin Abdullah Balala is a member of the Telangana state Legislative Council from Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Fahad Bin Samad Abdat is a member of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.
Ahmad Bin Abdul Quader Kasadi, an elected member of Municipal Council of Jalpally near Barkas, sees a big transformation in the young generation of Barkas as far as education is concerned.
Our culture is alive even today. We have the blood of our ancestors in us. Arab culture and traditions are alive in our lifestyle and conduct.
“Our people have always been interested in education and our elders emphasised it. But earlier the stress was on Islamic religious education and they established many educational institutions and madrassas like Shoba-e-Deeniyat. At the same time, we produced many highly educated personalities. One of us, Ahmad Bin Abdullah Osman Ba Osman became a professor in America,” says Kasadi.
“Today our new generation is more into modern education and building their careers in the field of medicine, law, engineering and information technology, and pursuing their careers in the Gulf and other developed countries. They are respected for their work ethic,” he adds.
Emphasis on girls’ education has begun to bear fruit. Many women have become graduates and post graduates, and are pursuing professional careers. An interesting example is of the Ba Hamied family where one sister Ayesha is an Aalimah (religious scholar), while the other is a medical doctor.
In fact, Barkas had very few educational institutions in the beginning. Today the area has a large number of schools, junior and degree colleges and other professional institutions.
Abbe Bakoban started a private hospital in the area and today it is an example of the changing face of Barkas.
Abdullah Bin Ahmad Al Qarmooshi, a revered elderly figure of Barkas, started a business management college in the area and it is running successfully even after his death.
Arab migrants showed their enterprising traits from the beginning. Sabir Jameel Ba Haziq was the first importer and exporter of textiles. “He used to bring his wares from Singapore and other countries to sell in the local market. They were very popular and he expanded his business to other Indian cities,” his son Ali Sher Barziq recalls.
While some of the Arabs entered the real estate and construction business, the increasing love and demand for Arab cuisine has spawned new and exciting opportunities for the Generation Z Arab entrepreneurs of Hyderabad.
As Arabic cuisine caught the attention of food lovers, Arab, Yemeni and other similar restaurants have sprung up not only in and around Barkas but all over Hyderabad, especially serving the traditional Mandi dish. Today, Barkas is the destination of food lovers not only from around Hyderabad but also from other states too.
Tomorrow: The Mandi Revolution and the fast-growing food business in Barkas.