Singapore’s Arab community traces ancestral roots to Yemen’s Hadhramaut Valley

Wadi Dawan in the Hadhramaut Valley, main picture. (Arab News photo by Munshi Ahmed)
Updated 20 July 2018
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Singapore’s Arab community traces ancestral roots to Yemen’s Hadhramaut Valley

  • Though the Indian Ocean separates the Asian metropolis of Singapore and the Arabian deserts of Hadhramaut, the ties that bind them run deep and go back centuries
  • Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Hadhramaut was at one time a key post on the ancient spice trade route

SINGAPORE: The first car to arrive in Tarim, a historic town in the Hadhramaut Valley of Yemen, was an American Studebaker.

It had traveled across oceans and continents to get there — but not without the help of one prominent Arab family in Singapore.

“Tarim’s first car was bought and imported to Singapore by the Alkaff family,” said Zahra Aljunied, whose forefathers came from Tarim. The 62-year-old senior librarian is a fifth-generation Singaporean Arab from the lineage of Syed Omar Aljunied, one of the first Arabs to set foot in the port in 1820.

“They disassembled the car, put it on a ship, and brought it to Mukallah, which is nine hours’ drive from Tarim,” she told Arab News. “Then it was put on the back of camels, brought all the way to Tarim, where they reassembled the car with the S (Singapore number) plate before it was driven.”

Though the Indian Ocean separates the Asian metropolis of Singapore and the Arabian deserts of Hadhramaut, the ties that bind them run deep and go back centuries.

Almost all Arabs in Southeast Asia trace their ancestry to Hadhramaut, a region on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in present-day Yemen. Referred to as Hadhrami Arabs, they began migrating to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in large numbers from the mid-18th century.

Names such as Aljunied, Alkaff and Alsagoff are familiar to most Singaporeans, as streets, buildings, mosques, schools and even a district have been named after these prominent Arab clans. Yet few realize the impact the early Muslim settlers had on colonial Singapore, or on the families they left behind in the homeland.

“When Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, one of the first things he did was to persuade Hadhrami families to come here,” recounted Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo at the launch of a 2010 exhibition about Arabs in Southeast Asia.

“Syed Mohammed Harun Aljunied and (his nephew) Syed Omar Aljunied from Palembang (in present-day Indonesia) were given a warm welcome, and from that time on Singapore became the center of the Hadhrami network in Southeast Asia,” Yeo said. 

Zahra Aljunied, a fifth-generation Singaporean Arab. (AN photo by Munshi Ahmed)

Attracted by Singapore’s free port status, the two men — already successful merchants in Palembang — brought everything they owned “lock, stock and barrel,” said Zahra, whose paternal grandmother came from the line of Syed Omar. 

Syed Omar was born in 1792 in Tarim, a small town in South Yemen widely considered a theological, judicial and academic hub in Hadhramaut. The Malays saw him as a prince because the Aljunied family, being part of the Ba’alawi tribe, can trace their ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad and were regarded as legitimate custodians of Islam. 

But growing up, Tarim was a place that Zahra and her siblings shunned.

“When we were kids, my grandmother or grandfather will say: ‘If you are naughty, we will send you back to Hadhramaut’,” she said, laughing. “So we looked at Hadhramaut as a place we didn’t want to be in. We didn’t look forward to going there.”

But her journey towards discovering her roots took a new turn in 2004, when she became part of a research team from Singapore organizing an exhibition entitled “Rihlah — Arabs in Southeast Asia.” 

That journey drew her back to Hadhramaut five times, and also to Palembang and Java in Indonesia. She discovered that decades of Southeast Asian influence gave Hadhramaut a unique culture not found in other parts of the Middle East.

“When I first went to Hadhramaut, it was so different from Sanaa … It’s their way of life — what they eat, wear, even the language,” she said. 

While men in Sanaa usually wear the traditional Yemeni dress called a thobe, men in Hadhramaut prefer shirts and sarongs, traditional Indonesian clothing often made of Javanese batik. 

“Yes, they dress differently … They eat belacan (the shrimp paste condiment used in Southeast Asia) and keropok (Malay/Indonesian prawn crackers), all imported from Indonesia,” Zahra said.

“You ask me how I’ve assimilated to the culture here, but over in Tarim, they have already assimilated to the culture that is imported from here.” 

Abdul Rahman bin Junied Aljunied, Zahra’s great grandfather. (AN photo by Munshi Ahmed)

Hadhramis have been traversing the Indian Ocean for centuries, said Syed Farid Alatas, professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.

Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Hadhramaut was at that time a key post on the ancient spice trade route.

“The migration to Southeast Asia was relatively recent compared with the other migrations in East Africa and southern India,” said Alatas, who is also from a prominent Hadhrami family in Southeast Asia.

Famine and economic hardship were some push factors, he added. “But I think you can’t divorce that from a certain interest that Hadhramis have because they were living in the coastal areas. Hadhramaut has a long coast and so they were seafaring and interested in going out, in exploring other places.”

However, the homeland was never far from their hearts. Parents used to send their young sons to Hadhramaut to study in religious schools, where they would to learn Arabic and Islamic values. Sometimes they also married off their local-born daughters to Hadhrami men. 

“They want their sons to know Arabic, so they send them to study there for many years, like my father, my uncle, some of my brothers,” Zahra said. “My grandfather was the same like others before him. They often sent money and many things back to Hadhramaut. Maybe once in three months, my grandmother would get a big carton and put lots of things inside — keropok (prawn crackers), belacan (shrimp paste), the Three Rifles brand (a homegrown brand) men’s singlets.”

Remittances from the Far East soon became the most important source of income for those in the homeland as overpopulation, poverty and arid farming conditions made it difficult to sustain traditional livelihoods such as agriculture, herding and trade.

By the 19th century, Arabs in Southeast Asia dominated trade, commerce and maritime networks. They operated the largest fleets and vessels in the Indo-Malay archipelago, and the port of Singapore became the hub of Hadhrami shipping. For a time, Singapore was also the major transit point for Hajj pilgrims.

Hadhrami Arabs were instrumental in the spread of Islam in the region. Many held high positions in civic and religious affairs or took part in politics. Others owned large swathes of land in the early colonial days — an estimated 50 percent of Singapore’s total land mass at one time, according to one scholar. 

Known for their philanthropy, they also donated much of their land for cemeteries, hospitals and places of worship including famous landmarks such as St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Singapore’s first mosque, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka — both of which still stand today.

After World War II, however, Arab wealth and prominence in Singapore began to fade, due in part to rent controls as the government sought to curb inflation. The introduction of the 1966 land acquisition act also affected Arab land ownership as the post-independence government bought property  for state development.

Estimates put the Arab population in Singapore at about 10,000 today, but some say that the numbers are difficult to determine as many have assimilated into the Malay community and no longer distinguish themselves as Arabs. 

Syed Harun bin Hassan Aljunied, Zahra’s paternal grandfather. (AN photo by Munshi Ahmed)

“Many Hadhrami emigrants intermarried with their host societies and integrated so completely that after the passing of a generation or two, their descendants could no longer be regarded as members of a diaspora. Others, however, chose to retain their affiliation to the homeland,” wrote historian Ulrike Freitag in her book “Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut: Reforming the Homeland.”

However, she warned that “it would be premature to conclude that members of the Hadhrami diaspora have either all departed or assimilated to the extent of renouncing their Hadhrami identity.”

Some observers say that Singaporean Arabs have lost their identity since many young Arabs no longer speak Arabic and have little ties to Hadhramaut, but Alatas disagreed.

“Have Singaporean Chinese lost their identity?” he asked. “Singaporean Chinese are not like the Chinese in China. Even if they speak Mandarin, they think differently from Chinese in China. On that basis, is it fair to say that Chinese in Singapore have lost their identity?”

Arabs are no exception, he said. “You have Arabs in Singapore who feel and strongly identify themselves as Arab. On the other hand, you have those who have assimilated into Malay society — they know they have Arab ancestry, but they feel Malay.

“Then you have Arabs who are in between, who are creole.”

The war in Yemen has taken a huge human and economic toll on the country and disrupted transport links. Even those hoping to maintain ties with their ancestral home find it hard to return.

Flights have become irregular and expensive, and reaching Tarim now involves a 10-hour bus journey from Salalah in Oman, Zahra said.

“My father also stopped going,” she said sadly. “I miss Tarim.”


Former UN chief and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kofi Annan has died

Updated 18 August 2018
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Former UN chief and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kofi Annan has died

  • His family said he died after a short unspecified illness
  • During his tenure, Annan presided over some of the worst failures and scandals at the world body

GENEVA: Kofi Annan, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats and a charismatic symbol of the United Nations who rose through its ranks to become the first black African secretary-general, has died. He was 80.
His foundation announced his death in Switzerland on Saturday in a tweet , saying that he died after a short unspecified illness.
“Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy,” the foundation said in a statement.
Annan spent virtually his entire career as an administrator in the United Nations. His aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become its seventh secretary-general, and the first hired from within. He served two terms from Jan. 1, 1997, to Dec. 31, 2006, capped nearly mid-way when he and the UN were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.
During his tenure, Annan presided over some of the worst failures and scandals at the world body, one of its most turbulent periods since its founding in 1945. Challenges from the outset forced him to spend much of his time struggling to restore its tarnished reputation.
His enduring moral prestige remained largely undented, however, both through charisma and by virtue of having negotiated with most of the powers in the world.
When he departed from the United Nations, he left behind a global organization far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping and fighting poverty, setting the framework for the UN’s 21st-century response to mass atrocities and its emphasis on human rights and development.
“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “It is with profound sadness that I learned of his passing. In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination.”
Even out of office, Annan never completely left the UN orbit. He returned in special roles, including as the UN-Arab League’s special envoy to Syria in 2012. He remained a powerful advocate for global causes through his eponymous foundation.
Annan took on the top UN post six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided during a decade when the world united against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks — then divided deeply over the US-led war against Iraq. The US relationship tested him as a world diplomatic leader.
“I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME magazine to mark the publication of his memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.”
“I worked very hard — I was working the phone, talking to leaders around the world. The US did not have the support in the Security Council,” Annan recalled in the videotaped interview posted on The Kofi Annan Foundation’s website.
“So they decided to go without the council. But I think the council was right in not sanctioning the war,” he said. “Could you imagine if the UN had endorsed the war in Iraq, what our reputation would be like? Although at that point, President (George W.) Bush said the UN was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better.”
Despite his well-honed diplomatic skills, Annan was never afraid to speak candidly. That didn’t always win him fans, particularly in the case of Bush’s administration, with whom Annan’s camp spent much time bickering. Much of his second term was spent at odds with the United States, the UN’s biggest contributor, as he tried to lean on the nation to pay almost $2 billion in arrears.
Kofi Atta Annan was born April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs.
He shared his middle name Atta — “twin” in Ghana’s Akan language — with a twin sister, Efua. He became fluent in English, French and several African languages, attending an elite boarding school and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He finished his undergraduate work in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961. From there he went to Geneva, where he began his graduate studies in international affairs and launched his UN career.
Annan married Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman, in 1965, and they had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. He returned to the US in 1971 and earned a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The couple separated during the 1970s and, while working in Geneva, Annan met his second wife, Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren. They married in 1984.
Annan worked for the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia, its Emergency Force in Egypt, and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, before taking a series of senior posts at UN headquarters in New York dealing with human resources, budget, finance, and staff security.
He also had special assignments. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he facilitated the repatriation from Iraq of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals, and the release of western hostages in Iraq. He led the initial negotiations with Iraq for the sale of oil in exchange for humanitarian relief.
Just before becoming secretary-general, Annan served as UN peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from UN protective forces to NATO-led troops.
The UN peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
In both cases, the UN had deployed troops under Annan’s command, but they failed to save the lives of the civilians they were mandated to protect. Annan offered apologies, but ignored calls to resign by US Republican lawmakers. After became secretary-general, he called for UN reports on those two debacles — and they were highly critical of his management.
As secretary-general, Annan forged his experiences into a doctrine called the “Responsibility to Protect,” that countries accepted — at least in principle — to head off genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
Annan sought to strengthen the UN’s management, coherence and accountability, efforts that required huge investments in training and technology, a new whistleblower policy and financial disclosure requirements.
In 1998, he helped ease a transition to civilian rule in Nigeria and visited Iraq to try to resolve its impasse with the Security Council over compliance with weapons inspections and other matters. The effort helped avoid an outbreak of hostilities that seemed imminent at the time.
In 1999, he was deeply involved in the process by which East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, and started the “Global Compact” initiative that has grown into the world’s largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility.
Annan was chief architect of what became known as the Millennium Development Goals, and played a central role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the UN’s first counter-terrorism strategy.
Annan’s uncontested election to a second term was unprecedented, reflecting the overwhelming support he enjoyed from both rich and poor countries. Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, which disburses Ted Turner’s $1 billion pledge to UN causes, hailed “a saint-like sense about him.”
In 2005, Annan succeeded in establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. But that year, the UN was facing almost daily attacks over allegations about corruption in the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq, bribery by UN purchasing officials and widespread sex abuse by UN peacekeepers — an issue that would only balloon in importance after he left office.
It emerged that Annan’s son, Kojo, had not disclosed payments he received from his employer, which had a $10 million-a-year contract to monitor humanitarian aid under the oil-for-food program. The company paid at least $300,000 to Kojo so he would not work for competitors after he left.
An independent report criticized the secretary-general for being too complacent, saying he should have done more to investigate matters even if he was not involved with the awarding of the contract.
World leaders agreed to create an internal UN ethics office, but a major overhaul of the UN’s outdated management practices and operating procedures was left to Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon.
Before leaving office, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and mediated a settlement of a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula.
At a farewell news conference, Annan listed as top achievements the promotion of human rights, the fighting to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the UN campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS.
He never took disappointments and setbacks personally. And he kept his view that diplomacy should take place in private and not in the public forum.
In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world’s top diplomatic job, joking that “SG,” for secretary-general, also signified “scapegoat” around UN headquarters.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke called Annan “an international rock star of diplomacy.”
After leaving his high-profile UN perch, Annan didn’t let up. In 2007, his Geneva-based foundation was created. That year he helped broker peace in Kenya, where election violence had killed over 1,000 people.
He also joined “The Elders,” an elite group of former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, eventually succeeding Desmond Tutu as its chairman after a failed interlude trying to resolve Syria’s rising civil war.
As special envoy to Syria in 2012, Annan won international backing for a six-point plan for peace. The UN deployed a 300-member observer force to monitor a cease-fire, but peace never took hold and Annan was unable to surmount the bitter stalemate among Security Council powers. He resigned in frustration seven months into the job, as the civil war raged on.
Annan continued to crisscross the globe. In 2017, his foundation’s biggest projects included promotion of fair, peaceful elections; work with Myanmar’s government to improve life in troubled Rakhine state; and battling violent extremism by enlisting young people to help.
He also remained a vocal commentator on troubles like the refugee crisis; promoted good governance, anti-corruption measures and sustainable agriculture in Africa; and pushed efforts in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.
Annan retained connections to many international organizations. He was chancellor of the University of Ghana, a fellow at New York’s Columbia University, and professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world’s top diplomatic job, joking that “SG,” for secretary-general, also signified “scapegoat” around UN headquarters.
Annan is survived by his wife and three children. Funeral arrangement weren’t immediately announced.