Uncovering the Links, Part 2

Over winter break of the 1997-8 academic year, I traveled to Tanzania and India as part of a team of four faculty and two graduate students from the University of Iowa. We were funded by the Ford Foundation for a project entitled, "Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies." In India we traveled to the city of Hyderabad, where Joseph Harris had studied a sizable Afro-Indian community thirty years earlier. The Islamic kings, or nizams, of Hyderabad had created a corps of east African bodyguards over several centuries. Descendants of this community still prefer to call themselves "chaush," from an Ottoman military term, even though their status as bodyguards to royalty ended with the dissolution of the Nizam's kingdom at Indian independence in 1948. Since this time there has been rank discrimination against them. Thus the people we approached were cautiously friendly, and individuals who told us that they were Chaush denied that they knew or remembered anything "African" at all. All such information was lost generations ago, we were told, and now Chaush are Muslims like any others in Hyderabad. We had read in Harris' book that Chaush sometimes perform "African dances" at weddings and other public events, so we asked if this was still the case, and met with denial once more. Finally a lithe, white-haired gentleman stepped forward and said that he did recall an African song and dance taught to him by his grandfather, but he did not understand the words. A circle was cleared in the crowd in front of us, and the man sang and danced. Team member Barbara Thompson, tears of excitement in her eyes, said she knew the song and proceeded to sing the refrain, much to the absolute astonishment of everyone within earshot. The grandfather's song is one she had heard many times, she explained, sung as possession-cult seances were getting underway in northeastern Tanzania among the Shambaa people she was then studying. Barbara was immediately swept up by the singer and several other excited men, who applauded and asked that they be photographed with her.

The Indian Ocean has been sailed for millennia. Land routes linking and setting out from ocean ports have long reached deep into interior lands. One place where we can trace the historical and cultural connections that have resulted from these millennia of movement is in the plastic arts. The famous Swahili doors of Zanzibar are an obvious example, with their richly hybrid African, Arabian, and Indian styles. Still more intricate examples exist. Yet in spite of these intriguing signs of potential discovery, very little is actually known about the dynamics of cultural exchange between east Africans and peoples of the islands and around the rim of the Indian Ocean. The "Crossing Borders" project dispenses with the apparent "bounded-ness" of continents which has limited scholarly pursuit and plagued the post-Cold War project of Area Studies. Instead we begin with the premise that the islands and rim of the Indian ocean are deeply interconnected. It will require a mix of patience, chutzpah, and blind luck to unearth links such as the incident that I have just described. Such moments of cultural re-connection, however, are the best examples of the rewards in such work. Moreover, they stimulate further inquiry by raising new sets of questions, questions that unsettle many of our current analytic categories. They force us to think of geography as a process, one that continually reshapes our relationship to history, identity, and movement.

How are we to understand the Chaush community of Hyderabad? As part of an African diaspora? As an "exclave" (in the words of Martin Lewis and Karen Wigan) in an African cultural "archipelago" of disconnected communities? What does it mean for us to employ such labels if Chaush themselves refuse to show interest in an Afro-oriented identity? In other words, to what degree does exploratory research such as ours create a geography for people who would deny its existence? In addition, or opposition, what are we to make of the multiple ways in which the Chuash community understands and positions itself? For example, while Chaush have suffered discrimination, their persecution may be no different from that suffered by other Indians who find themselves at
the bottom of the caste schedule, or omitted from it altogether as the Chaush are. Moreover, nowadays Chaush are finding new economic strength through labor migration to the Gulf States, playing upon their universalist Islamic identity. Here it would be simply too easy to define Islam as a "religion," thus ignoring how it also provides a strong sense of political and cultural identity merging with the ways that ethnicity may be understood in other contexts. What is the relationship between Chaush understanding themselves as disinherited Muslims and their denial of an African origin? How does this relate to their identification as "Muslims like any other in Hyderabad?" Finally, how can any single, stable analytic device capture a history and identity that is inherently situational, fluid and unstable? Indeed as the world becomes increasingly interconnected in obvious and not-so-obvious ways through rampant "globalization," the process of geography, or "process geography," promises to become more and more entangled. Through cultural re-connections such as the song and dance described above, the "Crossing Borders" project hopes to open doors into our pasts, our present, and even our future.


Realising that Ida could turn out to be a significant missing link between modern primates, lemurs and lower mammals, he persuaded the Natural History Museum in Oslo to purchase the fossil and assembled an international team of experts to study it. Their findings were announced in a press conference and the online publication of a scientific paper on 19 May 2009. -Steven C. Wyer
http://www.ejeeva.com/ We were adjourned by the Ford Foundation for a activity entitled, "Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies." In India we catholic to the city-limits of Hyderabad, area Joseph Harris had advised a ample Afro-Indian association thirty years earlier. 

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