In the first of a three-part series on Barkas, we look at how tribes from Yemen migrated to Hyderabad over the past two centuries and made it their home.
Hyderabad: ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’.
With the first signs of daybreak and the call of the muezzin from the tall minarets of mosques, people in traditional Arab attire - abayas (flowing robes), and colourful ghutras and amamas - start streaming out of their homes to offer Fajr prayers.
Shops and markets around the mosques are still shut, lanes and by-lanes sleepy, and homes with Arabic nameplates hung on iron gates are wrapped in silence.
Workers at the ‘Harees Al-Hadhrami Restaurant’ famous for its typical Arabic breakfast dish ‘harees’ are busy at their kiln preparing to welcome customers.
Nearby, tea stalls serving Qahwa or typical Arabic tea sans milk have started doing business as the people on their way back from mosques gather for their morning cuppa and gossip. “Shai”, (Chai or tea in Arabic), beckons a customer, as the young man at the counter Omer Al-Yafai greets him with a smile.
As the morning gets warmer, a group of women clad in black burqas with their faces covered in the hijab heads towards the sprawling playground for their daily walk. “Only ladies allowed till 8 am,” proclaims a board at the entrance.
A short distance away a neon sign of ‘Dubai Souq’ shines outside a shop.
Welcome to Barkas, a bustling township where every sight and scent makes you feel like you are in an Arab country. Welcome to a place that Arabs from numerous tribes and countries made their home more than a couple of centuries ago - far away from their original homes.
The road heading south from the historic Charminar – the four-century-old icon of Hyderabad - takes you to the Barkas, an Arab oasis surrounded by the unique Deccan rocks.
The community mostly migrated to this part of India in the 17th and 18th century from Hadarmaut in Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Still, the distinct stamp of Arab culture, civilisation and lifestyle is visible all around.
Of the nearly 150 Yemeni and other tribes who made this region their home centuries ago, the Lahmadi tribe was among the first to come.
Barkas is now a part of the lexicon of everyday Hyderabadi lingo, although essentially it was a corruption of Barracks or the settlement of Arab soldiers brought during the reign of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan.
The migration of Arab tribes, especially the Hadrami tribes, was part of a plan of the Muslim ruler of the Deccan to raise organised army units comprising of soldiers from different backgrounds, including Pathans from Afghanistan and Habshis or Siddis from Africa. So, in addition to the Arab and Pathan Regiments, the Asaf Jahi dynasty, as the Nizams were called, also had an African Cavalry. Their descendants, too, are still around.
According to historical records, Yemeni tribesmen started reaching the rich and prosperous state of Hyderabad as early as the 17th century, but their organised migration with the encouragement from the Nizams gained momentum around 1875.
Origin of Barkas
Obaid Saleh Abulail Al-Salmi, the first commander of the Arab Regiment of the 6th Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, is revered by the community as the founder of Barkas.
Abulail had the respect and trust of the 6th Nizam as the Arab commander had saved his life in an assassination attempt. The Nizam gave him the title Janisar Yar Jung (a noble ready to lay down his life).
It was on his request that Barkas was established for the Arab army men.
When the Arab Regiment was created it was initially based at Maisaram or Maheshwaram, 19km away from Hyderabad. But as the Arabs were deployed for the security of the Palace of the Nizam, they had to travel a long distance those days.
To solve the problem, in 1880 a sprawling area was identified to settle the Arab regiment by building barracks for the soldiers and houses for their families.
This was the origin of the Barkas. Initially, a few hundred soldiers and families settled there. But today it is home to about 200,000 Arab-descendants of about 150 different tribes, mostly from Yemen.
Our forefathers had come from Yemen but now we have a fifth generation living here. Though we are from Arab and Yemeni origin, India is our country. We were born here and it is our home for which we have laid down our lives and will do so again if necessary. There is no question about it.
The Arab tradition and custom of preserving the family tree (Shajra) and sticking steadfastly to the tribal surnames like Al-Qureshi, Al-Amoodi, Al-Qarmooshi and Al-Hashmi have gone a long way in keeping the identity and culture of the people alive.
Continuity with change is visible in Barkas at every step.
Till 1948, when the curtain fell on the Asaf Jahi dynasty after Hyderabad state merged into the Indian union through military action, the Arabs were mainly employed in the Hyderabadi army. But there were many others who had started exploring other avenues like agriculture and business.
As every home had fruit orchards, horticulture and fruit business had also become a major source of income. “It was like Man wa Salwa (Manna) or heavenly food,” says Habeeb Abdul Azeez Bin Abdurrahman Baghdadi with a smile, recalling the days when every household used to grow fruits like papaya, mulberry and guava.
When the Nizam’s army was disbanded throwing Arab soldiers, like thousands of others, out on the streets without any job, the future suddenly became bleak. While a few chose to return to the lands from where they had come, a vast majority decided to stay back and start their lives afresh with meagre resources.
There was no objection from any quarter as they were accepted wholeheartedly by the local communities. “Our forefathers had come from Yemen but now we have a fifth generation living here. Though we are from Arab and Yemeni origin, India is our country. We were born here and it is our home for which we have laid down our lives and will do so again if necessary. There is no question about it,” asserted Mahmood Bin Ali Bilhawal of Salalah and Barkas Welfare Association.
After the Nizam
With the Nizam’s era coming to an end more than seven decades ago and without any formal higher education and degrees, finding employment for the younger generation of Arabs in Hyderabad was a struggle.
Despite all the challenges and difficulties one thing was clear for them: India was their home and they were here to stay.
Their struggle for education and jobs continued until the oil boom in the Gulf threw open new doors of opportunity. This brought prosperity and revived the long-forgotten links with their kin in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other places.
Saleh Ahmad bin Abdat of Jamiatul Yemeniyya bil Hind Association of Yemenis in India underlines the importance of reviving contacts, thanks to migration for jobs as well as the internet and social media.
“Most of us had lost contact with our relatives in Yemen. Finding work in the Gulf not only helped us get back on our feet, it also gave our community better access to education. We also reconnected with our roots. Members of the Yemeni diaspora live in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries. We traced them through our tribe names. The internet played its part as we found many relatives online”.
On how the contacts and relations between the Arab clans settled in Barkas and their kin in Yemen and other places were restored after a long gap, Salam Bin Abdullah Al Aseeri, a real estate developer and businessman shared a very interesting anecdote. “It is all about the tribal surname and identity,” he said.
“When we went for the Haj in December 2007, a gold jewellery shop manager refused to accept money from us saying he was also an Al Aseeri and wanted us to be his guest. He invited me and my family to visit Saudi Arabia as his personal guest,” said Salam Al-Aseeri. “A major general in the Saudi Arabia army is also an Al-Aseeri,” he proudly proclaims.
We used to earn pocket money by just plucking the fruits hanging from trees outside homes. This harees, which now costs Rs70 per plate, costed just a few pennies in those days.
The new generation of Barkasians value these renewed contacts and the opportunities they brought.
“I am very grateful to the Gulf countries for providing good opportunities for me and countless other youth of Barkas,” says Mohammed Bin Wahlan, who works in a Pharmacy in Qatar.
“Despite lots of changes, our traditional culture back home has been preserved 50 per cent, as even the new generation continues to abide by it,” said Mohammed, in his late 20s.
Ahmad Ba Wazeer, enjoying his daily morning harees at the Hadrami Restaurant, was nostalgic about the old times.
“Earlier there was more love, affection and friendliness and many more people used to be seen in Arab and traditional attire like the lungi and shirt, a rumaal (towel) on the shoulder. This was so different from other local cultures giving a distinct touch to the Barkas,” said Ba Wazeer.
Recalling his childhood days, Ba Wazeer, in his early 60s, said: “We used to earn pocket money by just plucking the fruits hanging from trees outside homes. This harees, which now costs Rs70 per plate, costed just a few pennies in those days.”
The Hadrami Restaurant, started almost a century ago by the grandfather of Qaiser Haftoor, is a popular destination for its unique variety of Arabic harees - sweet and salty. “It is like a symbol of Barkas. No visit to Barkas will be complete without tasting our dish,” he says.
In the nearby tea stall serving Qahwa, Sulaimani tea and other varieties of the warm brew, Omar Bin Askari Al Yafai was all smiles as his customer sat chatting about the day to day affairs.
Mohammed Abdullah Hussain Al Hamid Al Hashmi, now in his 70s, remains a die-hard optimist. His great grandfather, Mohammed Bin Hussain Al Hamdi Al Hashmi, migrated to Hyderabad from Hadarmaut more than century ago. During the time of his father, Abdullah Bin Hussain Alhamdi Al Hashmi, the family roots spread further. His family was witness to the ups and downs the Yemeni community encountered. He is closely related to General Habeeb Ahmad bin Mahdar Al Eidroos, the last chief of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and experienced both prosperity and hardship.
As the family was from Aden in Yemen, which was under the British at the time, Mohammed Abdullah Hussain was issued a British passport and moved to the UAE in 1965.
“Yes, there is a lot of change in the lifestyle ever since our people started going to the Gulf for employment and it has brought plenty of prosperity. While our community progressed economically, regrettably our traditional fraternal ties and love for each other have waned. Earlier, people used to stop by to enquire about the wellbeing of their neighbours who were treated like relatives. But today nobody has time for others. Sometimes, people don’t even know who is in the neighbourhood,” said Al-Hamid who is on an annual visit to spend time with his relatives.
- Tomorrow: Charity, marriage and football: How Hyderabad’s Arab community kept its culture alive