In today’s world, when migrants are increasingly being viewed with fear and suspicion, one story that successfully endures is that of the migration of South Asians to the Persian Gulf. Several centuries after the exchange of cultures and commerce began between the regions, around 3 lakh Indians still travel to the Gulf nations every year for work, adding to the range and complexity of the diasporic experience.
These varied experiences are what a new Instagram account, called Gulf ⇄ South Asia, has set out to capture, with photographs connecting the Persian Gulf and South Asia in the 20th century. One post on it, for instance, features a group portrait of five Kuwaiti men, who travelled to the Bombay zoo in 1954 to buy animals for Kuwait’s first zoo. Among these travellers, one man stands out – while his compatriots are dressed in dishdashas, he is wearing a shalwar-kameez. Another post recounts a Pakistani expatriate’s arrival in Oman in 1975, accompanied by a photograph of the Muscat neighbourhood Wadi Al Kabir.
Gulf ⇄ South Asia has been set up by Ayesha, a writer and Arabic translator, who was born in India and grew up in the United Kingdom. Through her early life, she heard relatives – including her grandfather – recounting experiences of living in the Gulf, but she only started thinking about them after moving to Bahrain in 2001. “I then became very interested in the history of the Gulf and of the Western Indian Ocean, particularly the connections between the Gulf and South Asia,” said Ayesha, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
For several years, Ayesha nurtured her interest by sharing stories about history, culture and language. On her blog and then Twitter and Facebook accounts – all created under the Ibn Battuta-inspired online moniker Bintbattuta – she would post links connected to the Middle East and South Asia. But she wanted to be do more.
“I had been thinking for a long time about sharing the Gulf-South Asian connections [found] in books, academic papers and archives in an accessible, non-academic format,” said Ayesha. Another desire she had was to present personal stories, the same way visual archives, such as the Indian Memory Project, do. Instagram, she decided, would be the best platform for this. “It also allows me to translate and repost from Arabic accounts, which are sharing photos and documents, often from family archives,” she said. One such account belongs to Hussain Albadi, who has been researching the history of the Khaleeji community in Mumbai.
Gulf ⇄ South Asia has so far posted images and stories that either have been published online or feature in books. A few are translations of Arabic posts. “I will continue to share that kind of material but I certainly hope this becomes a crowdsourced archive too,” she said.
While Ayesha is aware that it will take time for word to spread, some stories have started coming in. In one post, Ismail Noor spoke about his inextricable bond with the region: “...since I was born in Dubai and lived there for a few years in the beginning, I thought of this place as a home always, even when I was living in Karachi [afterward].” Another post is Priya D’Souza’s tale of growing up in Qatar in the 1970s. Ayesha was struck by the palpable sense of community that D’Souza described in her account. “My hope is that through sharing stories like hers, the account will create a fuller picture of the South Asian experience in the Gulf.”
For D’Souza, it was a welcome surprise to discover a space where she could share and encounter stories that were specific to the Gulf South Asian experience. “It is always nice to hear about someone who has shared a similar experience to me,” she said. D’Souza now lives in Slovenia but runs a communication consultancy whose clients are mostly in Qatar. “I will always feel connected to Doha as I was born there.”
Ayesha hopes that the account will also interest Khaleejis who have lived in South Asia. Her own interest in their history grew out of the research she did into the life of Ebrahim Al-Arrayedh, one of Bahrain’s greatest poets, who was born in Bombay. “I learnt about the Khaleeji community in Bombay and then about those in Calicut and Karachi – histories that I think a lot of people would like to hear about, so I am looking forward to sharing them,” she said.
She recently met an Emirati man in Dubai who, after discovering that she had come from Bengaluru, began narrating stories from when he studied in the city. “He had a lot of fond memories of the years he lived in India and I think a lot of Khaleejis have similar stories to share,” she said.
Does Ayesha envisage curating an exhibition or writing a book on this subject? Both, she hopes. “The response [to the Instagram account] has proved how much interest there is in these stories.”