Transnational Khaleeji Hyderabadi Labour Mobilities: Thinking from Long Durée Tarikh

Hyderabad or the Deccan, has been a fluid imaginary with its distinctive Dakhani Tehzeeb (culture) which has had ripples across the Islamic Ummah. The formation of the Indian State, and the violent invasion of the Indian State, to integrate it in September 1948, is a watershed moment as a Muslim polity was brought into a Hindu majority state by the sheer dent of force. However, the long durée of Indian Ocean and Islamic Tarikh or History casts a long shadow over its people. The Hyderabadi Nizam was spread over many states of the south till Nanded in Maharashtra. The people of Hyderabad have a creole past with Hadhrami’s in present day Yemen to Habshi’s from Ethiopia serving in the army of the Nizam. The Nizam had close family ties with Ottoman Istanbul, as the political heart of the Muslim World and inter-married with the royals there. Traders from Ispahan and Tabez plied their goods in the region. The contemporary post-colonial history in our textbooks mask these long-term relationships throughout the Muslim World. Hyderabadi pilgrims have had a place in Hijaz for many centuries. The place of the Hyderabadi Muslim in the Indian popular imagination is one of the razakar, the anti-national who sought independence as Pakistan, and hence must be reduced to a stereotype to snatch away any valency of worth and perennially refracted through the Owaisi lens, the predominant political family in Hyderabad and one of the few articulate Muslim voices in contemporary Indian politics beyond the mould of the Sarkari Musselman.

As the place of the Hyderabadi Muslim has been neglected in Indian internal labour markets including the IT revolution within the very city of Hyderabad. However, the working-class Urdu speaking Hyderabadi Muslim rode on long durée social and familial networks to the Gulf, from Jeddah to Muscat to Kuwait City, to create employment options which were foreclosed to them through a particular configuration of Indian labour markets. The Hyderabadi Muslim sought work in the oil boom of the 1970’s and 80’s in all kinds of clerical and manpower jobs. Manpower recruitment job adverts were mainstream in Urdu language newspapers published from Hyderabad, which was the source of information for the community. These adverts were not unusual rather the routine as my parents found work in Muscat by applying to one of these adverts a few years later as teachers. The context of the time is important, as jobs in pre-liberalisation India were hard to find and a career in the Gulf was a ticket to middle class modernity with Tangs and Toblerone to find company with. Conservative Arab Islam with its characteristics were imported along with the remittances. The best Hyderabadi biryani is found in the Gulf with the best of chefs exported to restaurant there. Deccan is a common restaurant name in the Gulf. The comforting biryani after Jumma Namaz is something I grew up with. I studied with scions of many Hyderabad families with intergenerational linkages to Oman.

The transnational Hyderabad is forged through its migrants and intermarriages with the Arabs. A lot of local Khaleeji citizens have mothers from Hyderabad, the fact of which they hide because of the politics of nasab or tribal genealogy in the Gulf. The racialised nature of Khaleeji hierarchies can be seen in Hyderabad as people who work in the Gulf are considered wealthier, however in the gulf they are clubbed as Indians despite their Muslim upbringing. Many Arabs and Arab speaking Africans in universities in Hyderabad to the present day.

The Indian Ocean History and connections with the Global Ummah (via the Khaleej) from Hyderabad yield jobs and financial returns home, even though the Indian Muslim is fighting for a legitimate voice in the pan national polity of the country.

(This blog is thanks to Vanshika Singh and the writing forum for graduate students at NUS Geography)

The Changi Airport Worker as a ‘Frontline Professional’

The pandemic has created variegated geographies of travel, and Changi Airport as the face on the counter, represents Singaporean excellence in every interaction. My experience in January this year, at the heart of the pandemic had demonstrated clockwork efficiency with a smile, as passengers were brought in on travel bubble flights from India every once in a fortnight.

The airport is a ‘non-place’ in the words of French Anthropologist Marc Auge, which theorises the airport or the metro station as place between places, the destination, and the site of travel. The airport is a shopping mall and a flying bus terminal, which is void of meaning. However, this analysis views the destination and the point of origin as important or essential, and the airport a mere blip on the radar, trivial for the academic analytical gaze. The airport worker in the pandemic, catapults the non-place back to an ‘essential’ frame, where sans the airport worker in the pandemic, global flows of the critical sort, of healthcare workers would be gravely stuttered.

The Changi Airport worker has sacrificed by putting his or her ‘body’ (includes the physical and mental dimensions) on the line by supporting the ease of travel. The airport gets transformed into a literal border post with areas segregated for high-risk countries (read South Asia) and the emancipated West, with privileged travel lanes without quarantine such as Germany. The airport thus is transformed and mapped into vaccine geographies of risk, which informs its very own micro geographies of resilience. The airport worker during the pandemic has been aided by specific measures including transparent screens and breath analyser tests to keep them safe. The airport has become a biomedical space with PCR tests for passengers administered at the airport prior to passport control to assess the virus status. Thus, the interesting and apt categorisation of the ‘essential worker’ on the Changi Airport staff.

The airport is also the site of the shifting sands of labour geography, with the airline industry being adversely prevented from ‘taking-off’. The airport worker has faced challenges in terms of pay cuts and a severe pivot to their careers. Pilots have been grounded and have been taking flights to nowhere. The service staff in the port has been moved to cargo, with people retraining to operate the forklift. The flight attendants have been to vaccination centres outside the airport. There have been news of flight attendants retooling to become financial advisors to moving to the hospitality sector.

Airports are places of work for thousands of people, and Changi Airport is the feeder sector for the MICE and Tourism space which is the life blood of a Global Hub. The airport worker has been made to understand new processes and procedures for letting mobilities function, such as evolving travel requirements for PCR Tests and Quarantine for each destination. Welfare is a key measure for keeping the motivation up for airport workers, which include free meals. Changi Airport is a key global airport for vaccine logistics regionally and keeping the travel open is imperative for Singapore’s economy and the region, however the airport worker’s safety is imperative as well. The airport is a transnational space for care, and certainly not a ‘non-place’.

This blog post is in response to writing prompt given by Vanshika Singh, the catalyst behind the weekly writing initiative for graduate students at NUS Geography:

‘No Time to Die’: A Pandemic Era Reading/Review from Singapore

‘No Time to Die’ is Daniel Craig’s swan song (a pun on his on screen partners name, with whom he has a complicated relationship and a blue eyed daughter). The Bond film is the final film in the series where Bond dies (sorry for the spoilers) as this is Craig’s final film. So the end, has to come. The death is impending, lingering in the air. Therefore, the haste to die is apparent in the 2 hour 45 minute odd film, is stretched and crafted in each frame.

Casino Royale to Skyfall to Spectre to Quantum of Solace is a smooth narrative train of a decade. The cinematography seems to captivate attention with even better sound design. It gives the viewer the ring side experience. I watched two previous Bond films in Singapore and had reviewed the movie on the blog. The past decade has been of tumult, and a roll coaster ride, on a personal note reflective of a bond film scape. The first movie in a theatre after 18 months, being a Bond film adds the zing back in an era where the present and future is sometimes a matter of survival. The energy levels felt right, taking me back to my pre pandemic era, in Singapore, Dubai and Pune where my last movie in a theatre was the Oscar winning Korean film ‘The Parasite’. Unlike the Parasite, or even The Skyfall ( there was not much to theoretically unpack here. The bioweapon, is in sync with the Zeitgeist cuts close in a pandemic.

The movie has bollywood-esque dialogue scenes and is chatty, with an English wit. The gizmos on the Aston Martin cars, were a throw back to Roger Moore films such as Octopussy.

The progressive politics of this woke paradigm makes its acute presence felt as a black woman is designated 007 (although as Bond says upon coming to know the fact as he was in retirement, that ‘Its only a number’ albeit with a lump in the throat). The non state actor hijacking the state state’s capacity to protect the citizen has been the theme of the past few Bond films, which is a post 9/11 development. I wondered in the midst of all the churning of the past two years, what does a Bond film speak to us especially from Asia, from Singapore. That some things such as the Bond film franchise is served as it is- with a cold war hangover, macho and non decolonialised. The final scene is from a fictional Russian missile and submarine base next to Japan that serves as the non state actor’s bioweapon manufacturing facility. The visuals from Italy, Norway and London are stunning.

Vodka Martini’s are best served shaken and not stirred. The line made me smirk again. Thank you very much for the entertainment, Mr. Craig.

Writing a movie review after eons is a privilege in the midst of a pandemic where only the vaccinated elite are allowed to enter a movie hall and only with one other person. Makes one think of geographies of risk and exclusion, in accessing geographies of leisure. Looking forward to learn about the new Bond actor.

Must watch for Bond and Daniel Craig fans.

Presenting on Subaltern Migrant Food Scapes as Alternative Archives

Will be presenting on ‘subaltern migrant food scapes’ as alternative archives in the three port cities of the Indian Ocean – Dubai, Muscat and Singapore in an esteemed Indian Ocean and South Asian Studies Workshop later this month organised by Sunway University, Malaysia.

It is always nice to speak and write about the spaces of life as fieldwork in academic settings, considering i am an alt academic at best.

#desikhaleeji#tarikh # #singapore#gulf#dubai

A letter to Victor in the ‘Terminal’ (2004) in a contemporary reading

Dear Victor

I know it is an insufficient greeting to ask you, how are you doing as in a crisis- as the only good news would be to resolve your issue. However, I would ask you how you are, as it is the sincerest greeting to begin this conversation (and I hope one of your friends at the burger joint or the duty-free store can read this letter out to you). If you are wondering, why am I writing to you in the first place being a stranger, let me introduce myself- I am Moni and I study airport work. I am writing in to understand what ways I can help you, by asking my friends. I hope you can have a conversation via this letter.

As you have been stuck in an ‘non place’, where the only purpose of the airport terminal is to facilitate movement, I would like to ask you about your routine? And your friends who make your life bearable (at least that is what I would guess). What has been the best burger you have had so far. The quarter pounder must be sumptuous.

What is the hardest aspect of living in a terminal building where the rhythm of movement is a constant? As a trolley handler, where have you found the most trolleys stacked up. What are the kinds of people who leave the trolleys vagabond, for you to collect?

I hope you find the toilets clean and have found a place to shower. And that you find joy in the brief moments of banter with your airline attendant friend. I wonder who the people are who find a connection with you. How is the conversation with the friend at the cashier at the burger place?

Finally, is the airport, truly a non-place? In what ways can this airport terminal be made more humanitarian and supportive. I know these are too many questions, however I hope you get to answer them, or read them. There was another case of a Syrian refugee being stuck in Kuala Lumpur airport for months, while awaiting rehabilitation in a third country as Syria has been in tatters after the so-called Arab Spring. The human cost of civil war as you encounter suddenly is shared by the Rohingya to the Afghan. There needs to be present avenues of redressal for people who did not plan to be stuck in airport terminals.

I was wondering in reply if you could write to me in the ways I could assist in getting you out of the conundrum that you find yourself.

It is hard being stuck, where your destination is here, but not here yet. I hope you find more than a burger when you finally manage to get out of here.

Hope to hear from you soon

Take care


This blog is thanks to the efforts of Vanshika Singh, the catalyst behind a writing initiative for Graduate Students at the National University of Singapore, Department of Geography