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Why Hyderabad’s Yemeni descendants worry about proving their citizenship

An outdoor kitchen where kebabs and other delicacies are prepared at the Qasr al Mandi in Barkas   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

Through the arterial thoroughfares of Hyderabad’s Old City, past the imposing Charminar and the Falaknuma Palace (now a Taj Hotel) atop a hillock, I reach Chandrayangutta. Nestled here, south of River Musi, is the Barkas neighbourhood. This is where descendants of Yemeni tribes have lived for over three centuries. It was in the late 17th century that Lahmadi Yemeni tribesmen, among many others, migrated to the subcontinent, mostly to join the Hyderabad State’s armed forces. They eventually made the city their permanent home. When India became independent, the Yemenis also became citizens.

Today, Ali bin Saleh Lahmadi, a businessman and a descendant of the Lahmadi Yemenis, is among those worrying about his citizenship, like so many others. For the last three Fridays, after the jumma namaz, the people of Barkas have been congregating on the sprawling grounds here to protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. For the last fortnight, they have also organised a symbolic ‘lights off’ protest. “From 7 p.m. to 7.15 p.m., shops turn off all lights. It is a protest against the siyaah (black) law,” says Lahmadi.

“I was born here, my parents were born here, my grandparents were born here. My forefathers came here from Yemen and worked as soldiers in the Nizam’s army. It is absurd to be told now that we might have to show documents or be asked where our parents were born,” says Lahamadi.

From the barracks

Barkas is a corruption of the word ‘barracks’. Yemeni soldiers first enlisted in the Asaf Jahi dynasty’s structured armed forces, the Nazm-e-Jamiyat, and in the irregular forces, the Afwaj-e-Beqaidah. The area was named after the barracks in which they were housed. The late Omar Khalidi, a famous Hyderabadi historian, notes that the Nizam’s Diwan or Prime Minister, Salar Jung, established a special court for Arabs — the Qazaat-e-Uroob. He also records that these soldiers were called chaush, the Turkish equivalent of a palace guard. This word, at times, is used in a pejorative sense as well. Today, the number of Yemenis here number between 50,000 to a lakh, and represent 100-150 tribes.

It is early in the morning. Boys and girls in school uniforms are riding pillion on bikes as their fathers drive them to school. At a tea stall on the pavement, a group of men sit around on stools, cigarettes pressed between their fingers, sipping tea. The tea of choice here is Sulaimani chai, an inalienable part of Yemeni culture: golden, sans milk, with mint leaves and a gentle squeeze of lemon. “Assalaamualaikum! Atashribu shai? (Peace be with you! Want some tea?)” Mohammed bin Saalam, the tea-seller, asks teasingly in Arabic, waving at an acquaintance who is rushing past. At the shop, the customers solemnly discuss the new developments: the frequent protests the city has witnessed over the past months.

Locals of Barkas gather at a qahwa shop

Locals of Barkas gather at a qahwa shop   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The men zipping by on motorcycles wear the ghatra, the traditional headgear worn in the Arabian Peninsula, wrapped around their head, its ends flapping on their backs and their lungis slapping against bare shins. The footwear most favoured is the arba chappal, sandals with a thick sole and two horizontal straps, usually adorned with a golden or silver buckle.

Some 45 years ago, the people of Barkas were primarily agriculturalists. But with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries striking oil, employment opportunities poured into Hyderabad. Much like the Dakhnis, the Barkas men too grabbed these jobs.

“Most of us had lost contact with our relatives in Yemen. Finding work in GCC countries not only helped us get back on our feet, it gave our community better access to education. We reconnected with family. Members of the Yemeni diaspora live in Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries. We traced them through our tribe names. The internet played its part — we found many relatives online,” says Saleh Ahmad bin Abdat, an office-bearer of Jamiatul Yemeniyya bil Hind, an association of Yemenis in India. As he introduces himself, the aspirated ‘h’ in Saleh and Ahmad is hard to miss.

Empowering daughters

With money pouring in, and the focus moving towards education, many more girls began going to school and college, says Ayesha Bahameid, who is both a graduate from a regular college and an aalimah, a woman who has received traditional madrassa education. “My sister is a doctor. The community has realised that women should be educated and has made rapid strides in this regard,” she says.

The Yemenis are now a powerful political bloc. Unlike the descendants of another migrant community, the Habashis, for instance, who were enlisted in the Nizam’s African Cavalry Guards, the Yemenis have thrived politically. The community continues to be represented in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). Fahad bin Samad Abdat, now in his 20s, is one of the youngest corporators; Ahmed bin Abdullah Balala is an MLA in the Telangana State Legislative Assembly. Ausaf Sayeed, a Hyderabadi-Yemeni, is the present Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

A customer tries on the traditional arba chappal at a footwear store

A customer tries on the traditional arba chappal at a footwear store   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

While jobs in the Gulf have immensely improved the fortunes of many Hyderabadis from the 70s on, it gave the Yemeni groups another opportunity: the business of food. By the late 2000s, Arabian cuisine had become an integral part of Hyderabad’s culinary culture. Mandi is a dish of rice and meat (beef, mutton, chicken, fish, quail) garnished generously with raisins, cashews and almonds. Such is its popularity today that mandi finds a place on the traditional dastarkhwan alongside Hyderabadi biryani. Techies in Hyderabad, students, families, visitors — everyone throngs to mandi restaurants in Barkas and Errakunta, which is its geographical extension. Customers sit cross-legged at low tables as waiters bring in massive thaalas or plates. Everyone eats from a single plate.

Old world and new

The first mandi restaurant opened in 1997, a small eatery that only locals frequented. Then another one opened in 2004. “But the real change came around 2010, when the Matam al Arabi restaurant opened. That is when everything changed and the people of Barkas realised we could do well in the Arabian cuisine business,” says Khalid ‘Jameel’ al Barzikh, who runs the Qasr al Mandi restaurant. “Here, we use the original recipe. The rice and meat are cooked together in a special pit. You can say that the mandi is buried, so the cooking technique is known as madfoon, meaning ‘to bury’,” he says. Qasr al Mandi is located on the Srisailam Highway that connects Barkas to the famous temple town of Srisailam on the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh border.

Thanks to the demand from foodies willing to travel miles for a feast, some 30 mandi restaurants have sprung up along this 5-km stretch alone. Indeed, the stamp of Arabian culture, of the Yemeni community and their cuisine, is no longer confined to the Old City. Mandi restaurants have mushroomed in newer parts of town too: there are two in uptown Jubilee Hills Road Number 36, popularly known as ‘36’ among the IT crowd and another in HiTec City.

A stone’s throw from the Barkas Library is Hadrami Harees, which has been in business for over half a century. Harees is a forerunner to the Hyderabadi haleem, a dish that combines pounded meat and wheat. Two men with chiselled features and deep-set eyes walk into the restaurant. “Do mitthi diyo, bhai (two sweet ones, brother),” they say in Dakhni, an idiom known for its propensity to contract words. Promptly, Qaiser Haftoor, sitting cross-legged in his lungi straddling the harees kiln, scalps the cauldron and plops two large ladlefuls on a white, scalloped metal plate with blue rims. He then does something unexpected. He mixes two spoonfuls of sugar in the harees and stirs until the crystals dissolve. “Mitthi harees is very popular. People come from all over the city for it. Of course, we also serve khaari (salty) harees,” says Haftoor, whose father started the eatery 53 years ago.

A mandi thaala at the Qasr al Mandi restaurant in Barkas

A mandi thaala at the Qasr al Mandi restaurant in Barkas   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

It is now afternoon. The strains of azaan waft across from the Jama Masjid. The faithful heed the call and join the congregation. Prayers here are like any performed in mosques elsewhere in the city, but if you look closely, you will notice that some hand gestures are different. “In most parts of Hyderabad, and indeed India, the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence is practised. In Barkas, and especially among the Arabs, the Shafai’i school is predominant,” says Farooq Arifi, who comes from a family of hereditary qazis and is a senior employee at the Telangana State Waqf Board.

A fruit auction

A fruit auction   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The area has been home to both the traditional and modern, says Raheem Bawazir, a media professional and Barkas resident. The community has produced doctors (and built the Bakoban Hospital), lawyers, educationalists, politicians, and IT professionals, but it continues to be as steeped in tradition as always. Case in point: the daily fruit harraaj or auction. Abdul Aziz Misri is in his late 60s. Every morning near the Barkas ground parking lot, he presides over the harraaj of mulberry, guava and figs. Pushcart vendors gather around him and place their bids. The highest bidder takes the whole lot. “The harraaj is around 90 years old. No matter what happens, some things here will remain the same. Ninety years ago, fruits grew on trees in home orchards here; in 2020, the yield has decreased, but the fruits still come from homes,” he says.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 1:37:35 PM |

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