Capturing Oral Histories of the Gulf: Narratives of Development

Histories in the Gulf are hardly bottom up as state led/dominated discourses lead the landscapes of the past. My conversations series with cabbies and now with migrants attempts to recover these silences, about to be lost memories. Migrants in the Gulf are a practical lot, they are interested in earning their riyal and counting their days to the next trip home. The people who had built the cities of the region in the 1960’s and 1970’s are a lost tribe, currently in their 70’s and mostly retired back in their hometowns in South Asia. So to meet and chat about the development of Muscat with a Rajasthani man in his sixties still working for his Arbab, is rare. I meet him almost everyday in the Lahori Karak chai store in my building in Al Khuwair. But, today the conversation extended to more than the customary Salaams. We actually spoke for an hour on the History of the city from 1975, and the evolution that it has undergone in the past four decades of unprecedented transformation. Uncle as I call him, is from Pilani in India, and came to Muscat in 1975, via ship from Mumbai. He said that visa and labor card stamping used to be done offshore up to a kilometre in Mutrah where the ship was docked.

 

He said that Muscat was old Muscat and Mutrah, and the Lawati Quarter used to be shut after 7pm. Mutrah was is/still populated with old Lawati origin traders. The emphasis on education provided by community was salient in the conversation. He compared the Lawatis with Marwaris from his home state, calling them Bania’s in an affectionate manner. Uncle, a Marwari himself is a small time civil works contractor rising from worker grade picking up skills along the way.

 

The currently touristy Mutrah Corniche was residential and with a few concrete houses and full of shops where even the legendary Bahwan Brothers initially started with a cycle shop before venturing in to automobile retail. The mercantile communities of Mutrah, the Lawatis and the Banias had their focus on trade between Oman, India and East Africa. Shah Nagardas Manji arrived from Djibouti in 1908 for instance. He was keen to state that the Indian Rupee was legal tender until the 1960’s.

 

RC Cola was a prominent soft drinks brand in 1990’s when I was growing up. The RC Cola factory is in the contemporary heart of Muscat, in the same area where I was raised. Uncle’s Arbab was the General Manager of RC Cola in 1970’s when he returned from Bahrain as his Father used to work at the Manama Airport long before the oil boom. Uncle’s Arbab roots lie in the Makran Coast of Iranian Baluchistan. He spoke about various philanthropic initiatives carried out by various businesses in Oman including his owner traveling to Pakistan to help out his staff in the aftermath of an accident. He spoke of his employer’s humble origins as a driver behind its humanity.

 

Uncle also spoke about the various idiosyncrasies of various expat communities in Oman and he came down heavily on the Bangladeshis, saying that most of the blue collar jobs have shifted from Kerala to Bangladesh over the past decade.

 

An encyclopedia of memory regarding Oman, he dug in to various aspects of life here over the years as he has almost spent 43 years in Muscat. He thanks his employer to keep him in a job after all these years, as finding work would be a challenge at his age.

 

Although his Construction work is slow, he seems generous of his time to share stories of a past which no one is interested to find out, as most are invested in their smartphones rather than of the work previously invested to make space for current day migrants trying to make a living here. Some of the stories made me have a lump in my throat, as I too grew up here on Omani rials which my parents earned teaching two generations of students here. My father met his students peppered all across Muscat, where ever he went addressed as teacher, including my former intern’s partner who was probably the last batch taught by him before he retired. He was remembered as a tough teacher who was stingy with grades. We all have stories to share, more than the Mustafa Sultan remittances at the last of the month. Stories make us human.


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