Posted on November 12, 2010 - by mira
By Mira Baz and Celia Zeilberger
Published in Yemen Today
(Photos by Mira Baz and PJW)
Traveling through Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia, it can be tempting for a visitor to ask locals, “Where is your family originally from?”
Malaysia’s multiethnic nature entices visitors to ask the question.
“Can you guess?” Hussein, the cab driver, replies, not expecting an accurate guess.
“You look Yemeni.” He does.
He smiles, a bit taken aback. “My grandfather migrated from Yemen,” he says. A long conversation about Yemen and his family ensues as the car rolls down Kuala Lumpur’s busy roads shaded with towering ancient trees. In his twenties, Hussein speaks little Arabic and has never been to Yemen, like many young Malaysians of Yemeni and (usually) Hadrami descent.
Yemeni culture in the Malaysian melting pot
Malaysia is a true melting pot – citizens of Indian, Chinese, Thai and Arab descent all call themselves Malaysian. Officials at the Malaysian embassy stress that though cultural plurality is encouraged, Malaysian identity takes precedence. “While individuals may take pride in being of Yemeni descent, to us, they are all just Malaysian.” Cultural differences are celebrated, but they are just considered a subset of the greater Malaysian identity.
This cultural inclusiveness is quite remarkable in a region known for cultural uniformity. Indeed, there are public holidays commemorating the religious and cultural festivals of each individual ethnic group. Meander around almost any of Malaysia’s cities, and you will come across different neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown, where individuals celebrate their unique cultures and customs. At Malaysia’s ubiquitous hawker centers, food vendors selling Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian and Arab cuisine compete side by side for the ringitts of locals and tourists.
While Yemenis may not have as visible a presence as some groups in Malaysia, they have nonetheless had a lasting impact on the country.
A number of Malaysians whose families have lived in the country for generations trace their lineage back to Hadramaut. In addition, hundreds of Yemenis now work in Malaysia, thousands more study at Malaysian universities, and many more come as tourists each year. Because Malaysia is one of the only countries that does not require Yemenis to have visas to enter, and because it is a beautiful country that is both exotic and comfortingly familiar to those from Yemen, Yemenis swarm to Malaysia. Malaysians regard these tourists with affection. One cab driver, Hong, says he looks forward to the Eids every year, because they are “peak Arab season.”
Years of Yemenis coming to Malaysia for both short and long stays has left an indelible imprint on Malaysian culture. Arabic restaurants dot the sidewalks of the buzzing Bukit Bintang area, and not far from here is a prominent sign pointing the way to one of the city’s two Hadramaut restaurants. At one of these restaurants, a young Yemeni waiter receives customers. He is a more recent immigrant, like countless young Yemenis who arrive every year seeking jobs or an education in this rapidly developing country. They follow in the footsteps (or ship tracks, if you like) of generations of Yemenis who have made the centuries-old journey across the Indian Ocean.
The manager of one of the Hadramaut restaurants, Yaser Faisal Noman, emigrated from Ibb seven years ago. He says that Yemeni expatriates, many of whom are students studying in Kuala Lumpur, love coming to his restaurant “to eat the food they grew up with.” Bilal Nader, the owner of the other Hadramaut restaurant and another relatively recent immigrant from Taiz, seconds Noman’s account, and adds that born and bred Malaysians of Yemeni descent also enjoy eating these traditional foods. “The Yemenis hold on to their traditions, and the Malaysians of Yemeni descent come here in droves to eat our delicious salta and fahsa,” he boasts.
The Yemeni cultural presence in Malaysia is not confined to salta and fahsa, though. At the Islamic Museum, Yemeni influence is evident in Malaysian handicrafts, from jambiyas to qamariya-inspired window fittings. In Penang, the famous Lebuh Acheh Mosque on Acheen Street attracts swarms of tourists. The mosque was established in 1801 by a prominent Achinese merchant of Hadrami descent, as a center for his fellow Hadramis. Many of these Hadramis lived, and still live today, on Acheen Street, in specially-erected houses near the mosque. The street became a hub of Arab and Yemeni culture. Shops selling Middle Eastern spices and traditional handicrafts shops flourished. The street became particularly packed during the season before the Hajj, when pilgrims would flock to the historical street to prepare for the pilgrimage to Mecca.
A distinct history
Yemenis, particularly from Hadramaut, have had a long history of contact with Southeast Asia, dating back to the pre-Islamic and early Islamic spice trade routes from Southern Arabia. But the most reliably documented settlements of Hadramis in Asia start from the thirteenth century, growing in numbers in more recent centuries.
“We can trace back their large wave of immigration to Southeast Asia to the 17th, 18th and 19th century,” says Dr. Ahmed Abushouk, Professor of History at the International Islamic University Malaysia. “After the opening of the Suez Canal [in 1869], their number increased radically in different parts of Southeast Asia, and particularly in Indonesia. Singapore also became one of the most important commercial centers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its strategic position facilitated the Hadramis’ mobility between their homeland [Yemen] and the diaspora community in Southeast Asia.”
The Hadrami migrants were merchants and traders who worked mainly in shipping and shipbuilding, but also became Islamic missionaries and politicians in their newly adopted homelands. According to a paper by William Gervase Clarence-Smith, shipping dominated the Hadramis’ entrepreneurial activities and they nearly dominated the shipping industry. In the 18th century, for instance, they made up only 2% of sea captains but owned larger ships and crossed longer distances than all the competition, outranked only by the Dutch East Indies Company.
Their success stories in Asia attracted more immigration from Yemen, and by the 1930s, Dr. Abushouk says, up to a third of the population of Hadramaut, or around 100,000 Hadramis, were living in Asia and Southeast Asia. The majority of them maintained ties with their homeland and sent back remittances which became the backbone of the Hadrami economy. The money not only supported their families back home but also funded various projects such as building mosques and schools and buying lands.
“Yemeni Hadramis by nature are very good traders,” says Dr. Abushouk, “and they have a very wide network in the Indian Ocean, mainly due to trade. Besides that, some of them are very active religious scholars. They succeeded in this context because the Hadrami Sayyids claim their descent from the Prophet, and this gave them a better chance to integrate into the Southeast Asian communities and to intermarry with indigenous religious and political elites.”
Such family names as al-Attas, al-Saqqaf, al-Junayd, al-Bar and Bawazir became prominent and well-respected in the Malay Archipelago, holding leading scholarly, commercial and political positions. Of the many notable public figures are Syed Hamid bin Jaafar al-Bar, a former Malaysian government minister, and the House of Jamalullail (or Jamal al-Layl), the ruling family of the Malaysian state of Perlis since the 18th century.
The Hadrami Sayyids (or Syeds) trace their lineage to the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib via his son, Hussein. A descendant of Hussein who had migrated to Hadramaut from Iraq is considered the ancestor of the Sayyids. They would later become known as the Ba-Alawi tribe and would spread the Sufi order known as Tariqa Alawiyya.
“[They] played a major role in the Islamization of East Africa, Southern India, and the Malay-Indonesia Archipelago,” writes Dr. Syed Farid Alatas, Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. “Many authors stress the fact that Islam was brought to the region by traders from Arabia, Persia, India and China.”
In Malaysia today, their impact can still be felt, at the restaurants selling sizzling salta, the shops selling crafts, and the mosques and houses standing as testaments to this community’s rich history.
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