The Southasian samosa has a transnational sibling from which it is said to have been derived: the West Asian sambusak. The sambusak has a similar golden-brown exterior. Once bitten into, its crumbly golden shell gives way to a riot of meaty juices in the centre. This samosa siblinghood is merely one of the numerous ways in which the lives of Southasians and West Asians have been generationally intertwined. Being of and from each other, we see traces of this shared heritage in our modern food habits, music, poetry and even the folk tales we tell our children. This is the parting thought one has upon finishing Seema Alavi’s extensively researched Sovereigns of the Sea: Omani Ambition in the Age of Empire. Through the histories of five Omani sultans with varied legacies, the book speaks to the interconnectedness of Southasia, West Asia and East Africa via politics, economics, Anglo-French colonialism, the slave trade and myriad community linkages. Narrating these histories through the lens of the sultans and the Indian Ocean from 1791 to the 1880s, Alavi’s book leaves readers pondering over the strict bounds of nation-states, and whether today’s borders will ever adequately explain who we are now and whence we came. This book is also an important addition to the growing collection of scholarship on Indian Ocean history.
What makes Sovereigns of the Sea particularly compelling is that it fills historical gaps for those interested in a cohesive story of Oman, Zanzibar and Southasia. Modern Oman also remains synonymous with the sea. I grew up in Oman as one of many “Gulfie” kids of Southasian heritage. As a child flying into Muscat, Oman’s capital, I would always request a window seat so I could survey from the aircraft that first view of the city: cerulean blue seas against the dramatic Hajar mountains. Growing up in Muscat, weekend visits to the fish market in Muttrah, next to Port Sultan Qaboos, were a rite of passage, with a pitstop at another bustling market in the same area, the Muttrah Souq. One of my earliest childhood memories from Muscat is the exciting melee of the fish market. My eyes would widen as I watched fishermen and vendors sell wares, building my anticipation for what we would soon eat for lunch. The Muttrah Souq brimmed with all sorts of knickknacks: dates and hookahs of a hundred sizes, silver pouring out of every spare inch of space in the shop rows. As interesting as the wares was the variety of people passing through. Aside from the habitual tourists, resident Southasians and Africans filled the market both as sellers and zealously haggling customers. One could spot Omani men and women in dishdashas and abayas, as well as Southasians in saris and Africans in Kanga-inspired prints. The souq has, of course, changed over the years, but it still possesses much of the same hubbub and soul as it did when I experienced it as a child almost thirty years ago.
Alavi’s book hence rightly focuses on the sea in its telling of history, as the sea is part of Oman’s heart. Although this is not a contemporary history of Oman and its formation, or of the post-oil-boom dynamics that followed the 1970s, Alavi’s work firmly establishes that Southasia and West Asia have been inextricably linked for generations, just as one witnesses in present-day Muttrah Souq.
The five sultans whose reigns are described expansively in Alavi’s book are, respectively, Sayyid Saïd, Sayyid Majid, Sayyid Thuwayni, Sayyid Turki and Sultan Barghash. Each of these sultans controlled the realms of either Oman or Zanzibar in varying measure during the period between 1806 and 1888. It was during this time that Zanzibar also separated from Muscat and Oman, becoming an independent sultanate in 1861. Alavi points to the woeful Eurocentricity of many historical narratives on the Indian Ocean, resulting in the “general invisibility of the Sultans”. She takes a different tack. Rather than thinking of the Omani Sultans as gullible pawns on the chessboard of Anglo-French colonialism, Sovereigns of the Sea describes each sultan as an individual embracing his own agency to shape a unique political approach. Majid and Barghash, who were central to the burgeoning of the slave trade in Oman and Zanzibar, are described as “sea sovereigns”. Meanwhile, Thuwayni and Turki leveraged their relationships with the dreaded Wahhabis, then perceived by the West as a menacing threat, to gain influence.
It is an insufferable travesty that, by and large, global lenses on history and various other domains of knowledge remain overwhelmingly West-centric, placing the arduous task of decolonisation on the shoulders of the Global South. That said, this book’s particular narrative is thankfully more ubiquitous today than it was even a decade ago. It is actually in the finer details that Alavi’s most intriguing decolonisation arguments emerge. Far from Oman’s rulers being innocent vassals bulldozed by colonial powers, Alavi describes how they deliberately brewed a mix of their personal and public lives to gain political latitude. This ranged from leveraging local tribal relationships to marrying strategically to garner political influence. In a historical anecdote that was likely outrageously racy and the subject of household gossip in its time, the story of Salima, Sayyid Majid’s sister, unfolds. Salima left Zanzibar in 1868, secreting away to Aden to wed her lover, a German merchant. Alavi describes how the resulting household scandal and Majid’s treatment of it had implications spilling into his political career.
Narrating these histories through the lens of the sultans and the Indian Ocean, Seema Alavi’s book leaves readers pondering whether today’s borders will ever adequately explain who we are now and whence we came.
The one downside, however, is that while the book contains a treasure trove of research, the likely impediments to accessing research on the Omani side have resulted in most of the source material coming from colonial, Indian and Zanzibari archival materials. Oman today still has severe censorship laws and a dearth of freedom of expression, enforced by a powerful deep state that prefers to keep much of its history under a pall of silence. Perhaps a means to circumvent this for scholars wishing to build on this work would be to understand how this history of power struggles, socio-economic and cultural linkages, political manoeuvring and slavery moulded Omani society today.
Given its storied past, modern Oman remains a bridge between the old world and the new, not unlike much of Southasia. A good example of these cultural similarities are the stories of djinns that continue to live large in present-day society. Djinns are believed to be hidden creatures that exist in a world parallel to that of humans, and are neither implicitly good nor bad. Closely entangled with Islamic beliefs, rumours of djinns still exist in Oman today. For example, an old friend in Oman told me that intrepid travellers may sometimes be forewarned to not take on an elderly woman hitchhiker who appears by Muscat’s Darsait flyover. Unbeknown to travellers, the lady soon reveals herself to be a djinn with the legs of a goat. Such stories also pepper the Southasian landscape today – for instance, Delhi’s iconic Feroz Shah Kotla, built by Feroze Shah Tuglaq in 1354, is still believed to be home to djinns. The sultans described by Alavi similarly possess likenesses with princes and kings from Southasia by way of historical practices. Having durbars – essentially holding court over an assemblage of influential persons – was one such practice.
The ties between Southasia and Oman are so profound as to have significant bearing on how modern-day society has evolved in both regions. One example of this is the Lawatia community of Oman, long embedded within Omani society. While there are a lot of competing theories about their origins, one theory is that they were a merchant community hailing from the region of Sindh, in present-day Pakistan, and that their relations with Oman date back to as early as the 1700s. With rich research on merchants and their trade in both goods and people, Sovereigns of the Sea is equally a history of connected economies. Several instances arise of the Khojas, Kutchis, Banias and Baluchis of Southasia playing key roles in oceanic history. This is seen, for instance, with the Kutchis under the reign of Sayyid Thuwayni, whose rule ended abruptly in 1866 with a spine-chilling murder, allegedly at the hands of his own son. (The incident was likened by a British resident in the 1860s to Shakespeare’s gory Macbeth.) The sultans of this time were constantly engineering solutions to allow for the slave trade to burgeon to their benefit, in a context where the British were pushing abolitionist arguments to gain economic dominance. The push by the British to ban any private trade of slaves and arms escalated on the heels of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. At this time, Thuwayni bolstered his relationship with Indian Kutchis, encouraging them to work in Muscat. Alavi details accounts of merchants such as Ratansi Purshottam, a wealthy Kutchi, who moved to Muscat and played a role in the burgeoning of the arms trade out of Oman’s capital city.
Given its storied past, modern Oman remains a bridge between the old world and the new, not unlike much of Southasia.
Temporally, Sovereigns of the Sea is situated in a significant period. This stretch of the 1800s is close to modern history, yet not entirely contemporary. After this period, a series of episodes in Omani history unfurled with knock-on consequences for the region and the world. A key influence on modern-day Oman was the Dhofar Revolution of the 1960s, which commenced with a Marxist group in the southern state of Dhofar demanding independence. The resulting war formally concluded in 1976, with Sultan Qaboos bin Said consolidating power with assistance from both the United Kingdom and Iran, and overthrowing his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, in the process. While Oman remained a non-democratic Sultanate with no freedom of expression, a period of reforms followed under Qaboos to modernise Oman, including in arenas such as health and education. The 1970s were also marked by a sizeable surge in oil production and revenues in West Asia, which triggered an influx of Southasian migrants into the region, also extending to Oman. Given that the national populations of the Arab Gulf states were relatively small in comparison to the demand for labour on the heels of the oil boom, migrant workers were recruited in large numbers. While each Gulf country of course had its own dynamics, by and large the configuration of their economies at the time involved a hefty dependence on oil coupled with low-skilled jobs fulfilled by migrant workers without sufficient protections in policy and in practice.
Far from Oman’s rulers being innocent vassals bulldozed by colonial powers, Seema Alavi describes how they deliberately brewed a mix of their personal and public lives to gain political latitude.
Sovereigns of the Sea is simultaneously a history of the slave trade under various sultans. In addition to the obstacles in accessing archival information on Oman, it is likely that historical accounts from non-elites such as shopkeepers, traders and slaves are extremely sparse. While this is entirely understandable, it does result in this history of the Indian Ocean being recounted overwhelmingly through the lens of elites and royalty. A smattering of anecdotes in the book indicate the severity of slave experiences at the time: the arrival of cholera in Zanzibar in 1835, for instance. “Slave dhows with cholera-inflicted (sic) people became a liability on the arrival at Zanzibar,” Alavi writes. “In order to avoid paying customs duties on the sick and dying slaves, dealers usually dumped them into the ocean at their own peril.” The book argues that there was still a distinction between the hue of slavery in Muslim and colonial societies – in the former, Alavi writes, it was more “free of the atrocities that characterized it in the Western world.” The practice of slave trading was finally abolished in Oman as late as in 1970, as per some accounts. Given that part of the practice of the sultans Alavi mentions at length was to claim that slavery was abolished even as they actively promoted it, the exact date of this abolition in practice seems unclear. Celestial Bodies, the 2019 International Man Booker-winning novel by the Omani writer Jokha Alharthi, is, among many other things, an attempt to grapple with the long shadow of the slave trade in the region.
Alavi’s book is particularly significant given the enormous accessibility hurdles to archival material in Oman. A possible means for scholars to gain an understanding of Oman despite these hurdles would be to understand Omani society by way of its current community makeup. Several of the communities mentioned in the book continue to possess modern-day descendants. In Southasia, much can be gleaned from the surnames of individuals and communities, which can indicate caste, religion and other social markers. Oman is not too dissimilar in that the surnames of individuals and their communities, or perhaps even other markers, indicate a lot about their socio-economic context, whether it be Shia, Sunni or Ibadi. The potential ramifications latent in these names are also not unlike those we grapple with in Southasia, from marriages of lovers thwarted to the dynamics of determining who can inherit assets or political clout.
It is an insufferable travesty that global lenses on history and various other domains of knowledge remain overwhelmingly West-centric, placing the arduous task of decolonisation on the shoulders of the Global South.
The nature of the Southasians comprising parts of the Omani social fabric has, of course, shape-shifted in various ways from the 1800s to the present day. The aforementioned influx of migrants from Southasia during the oil boom in Oman and the wider Arab Gulf had a sizeable impact on the makeup of the resident migrant society today. For instance, it is common to see Pashtuns from the northwest of Pakistan employed in logistics, Malayali nurses employed in hospitals, or Sri Lankan migrants employed as domestic workers. Southasians from more privileged socio-economic strata in their home countries can also be seen holding white-collar jobs in realms ranging from finance to medicine. While Oman-bound migration remains an important avenue for Southasians in search of employment, the country has come under criticism from rights groups for its two-tier visa sponsorship system, which can be extremely exploitative, particularly for low-wage migrants. It has also been critiqued for its human-rights record with respect to the lack of freedom of expression and the oppression of political dissidents – perhaps rightly less so than other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have larger incoming volumes of migrants and tend to be more averse to critique for their human rights records. Oman has also long possessed close ties with India, with the late Sultan Qaboos once a student of Shankar Dayal Sharma, the former Indian president. The Indian government even declared a day of national mourning when Qaboos passed away in January 2020, reiterating the close relations between the two states. Oman has additionally played a key role for India in, for instance, the agreement that permits India certain access to the port of Duqm, viewed as being strategically important as a counter to Chinese influence in the region. Oman is also often underappreciated for its role in foreign policy on a global scale. Its quiet part in brokering the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran in 2015, and its continued involvement in US-Iran intermediation, is one example.
Southasians reading this book are also likely to note the different flavours of colonialism in West Asia and East Africa relative to their own context. Since Oman and states such as the present-day United Arab Emirates were once British protectorates, their history of colonial oppression, even while it is exceedingly problematic, does not strike the same bloodcurdling tenor as the experiences of Southasia under British hegemony. The bodies of black- and brown-skinned individuals were certainly treated as dispensable across a varied spectrum of settings, but the way in which this took concrete shape differed between Oman and Southasia.
With rich research on merchants and their trade, ‘Sovereigns of the Sea’ is equally a history of connected economies. Several instances arise of the Khojas, Kutchis, Banias and Baluchis of Southasia playing key roles in oceanic history.
Owing to its density, Sovereigns of the Sea may come across to the casual reader as a touch tricky to read, but it is wholly worth the effort given its immense educational value. By way of speaking through the seas instead of solely via the land, the book leaves lasting impressions of the fluid forms of nationhood, identity and culture in these regions. During Eid al-Fitr, it is common practice in Oman and many parts of West Asia to share an enormous plate of meat and rice with everyone present. Alavi’s Sovereigns of the Sea is not unlike this plate of food: a shared history of our regions. Particularly in an era of polarisation, it may do us all well to remember that we have a shared context of many things: of bloodshed and discrimination, of pandemics, of war, but also of things such as our languages, food and clothing. This can be gleaned from the various images in the book, where it is apparent that West Asia and Southasia have even had significant bearing on each other’s preferred accoutrement over time.
From samosas to sambusak, like the movement of people, the movement of food can result in further diversity, enriching all our lives. Although these foods are separated by hard borders today, there remain some striking similarities between the households wolfing them down, often with a similar degree of relish.