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Hyderabad's Barkas community: solidarity amidst Palestinian tragedy

Hyderabads Barkas community: solidarity amidst Palestinian tragedy

As a Keralite who used to live in the Gulf, whether you left years ago or just yesterday, you still crave Arabic food when you come back to India. One day, while visiting my friends in Hyderabad, I had a strong craving for mandi. They claimed to know the best place for camel meat and mandi, saying it was as authentic as it gets because it's owned by Yemenis.

Intrigued, I tagged along, and when we reached the mandi shop, they were right—the mandi was amazing. People were chatting in Dakkhini Urdu, a language I've also heard spoken by Bahujan Muslims in Mathikere and Ambedkar colonies. But these folks didn't look like typical Indians; they had an Arab look. Turns out, they're Indians who migrated from Yemen ages ago.

As I observed them, I overheard discussions about Hind Rajab circulating in the news and how it was deemed a "plain dead genocide" and why it still hadn't garnered global condemnation. It was surprising to see how Yemenis have always stood in solidarity with Palestine, and even here, Indian descendants of Yemenis still embody that same solidarity spirit.

A group of Arab ancestry known as the "Barkas" made their home in Hyderabad, India's Barkas township mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. These people moved from different areas of the Arabian Peninsula, including Hadhramaut in Yemen. The town was first built to accommodate Arab soldiers who were brought to Hyderabad under the rule of Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad.

The Barkas community preserved unique facets of Arab culture, civilization, and way of life while eventually getting assimilated into Hyderabad's cultural fabric. The Muslim rulers of the Deccan used the migration of Arab tribes, especially the Hadrami tribes, as part of a bigger plan to construct military units made up of men from a variety of backgrounds, including Arabs and Pathans, Siddis or Habshis who came from Africa, and those from Afghanistan.

Many of the people living in Barkas had no job or resources once the Nizam's army was dissolved, even though they had military ancestry. While some decided to go back home, a large number decided to stay in Hyderabad and make a fresh start in spite of obstacles. The Barkas community is still a vital component of Hyderabad's culture today. They are acknowledged as an integral part of the city's history and have contributed to its rich heritage. They have woven their tale into the fabric of modern-day Hyderabad by being resilient and adaptable.

Although they consider themselves people of Hyderabad and view everyone around them as their brothers and sisters, the individuals in the Barkas community are constantly striving to prove their Indianness, as emphasized by Mabrook bin Muhammed Alsaari, the founder and president of the Foundation of Salala Welfare Society, who is a prominent figure in the Barkas community. He was eager to share information about the community, highlighting their longstanding and unwavering support for Palestine despite being minorities in India.

Their resilience is evident in their peaceful actions. During the time of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which posed significant challenges to their citizenship status, they saw the law as nothing but a divisive force in the nation's fabric. Alsaari mentioned that the shopkeepers of the community collectively decided to participate in a lights-off protest from 7 pm to 8 pm in some areas and from 7 pm to 7:15 pm in others. Despite risking their revenue during peak customer hours, they chose to make a statement against the discriminatory law through their lights-off protest.

This same spirit of peaceful protest is evident in the community's ongoing solidarity with Palestine. They continue to express their support through peaceful means, echoing their commitment to justice and empathy for oppressed communities, even while facing challenges of their own.

It should come as no surprise that Indian descendants of Yemeni descent, who are strongly rooted in their Yemeni background and proud of their Indian identity, support Palestine. Alsaari emphasized that this assistance began during the British occupation of Yemen in the 1940s. Yemenis demonstrated against Zionist advances and Britain's backing of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, which they saw as a gift for the Israelites.

Yemen has always supported Palestine, through thick and thin, even through its transformation into an Arab democratic state and its subsequent isolation as a result of policy disagreements with its neighbours in the Middle East. Alsaari made it clear that Yemenis detest Israeli atrocities and firmly stand with the Palestinian people even though they do not support Hamas.

Yemenis continue to show their support for Palestine in a number of ways. Headlines often report on instances like the Houthi seizure of ships in the Red Sea. While these actions involve only limited missile and drone attacks directed at Israel, the disruption caused to shipping routes has significant political and public relations implications.

Despite global superpowers' reluctance to take a firm stance, Yemenis have unequivocally voiced their support for Palestine. Their actions speak volumes about their commitment, offering tangible support amidst complex geopolitical dynamics.

Al Jazeera has rightfully labelled the ongoing tragedy in Palestine as the most extensively documented genocide in history, with even refugee sites like Rafah being brutally attacked. Over 1.4 million displaced individuals, including women and children, have sought shelter at this border, only to face further violence. The audacity of Israel's actions, seemingly unchecked despite the circulation of images depicting the deaths of innocent children, is shocking to everyone, including the Barkas community. Even reports from ground journalists like Motaz Azaiza, whose coverage is often censored by platforms like Instagram, highlight the grim reality.

One particularly harrowing incident involved the deliberate targeting of a 6-year-old girl and those attempting to aid her, as uncovered by an investigation by the Euro-Med Human Rights organization. Palestinian Red Cross volunteers and others in the child's car were subjected to a planned gunfire attack. These cowardly acts perpetrated by Israeli forces are not seen by Barakas as acts of greatness; rather, they are viewed as despicable acts of violence against defenceless civilians, tantamount to genocide.

For the Barkas community, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not seen as a war but rather as a clear case of Israeli forces committing genocide against Palestinians. These discussions permeate not only their Friday prayers but also translate into tangible actions. The community believes in the fundamental right to express solidarity with the oppressed and stand against injustice.

One of the most effective ways the Barkas community expresses their support for Palestine is by raising awareness through local vendors. Alsaari explained how their foundation has encouraged boycotting Israeli products in these shops since October 2023, yielding positive results. When questioned about the potential loss of business due to customers requesting commonly used products like Nestle's Maggi, Alsaari emphasized the shopkeepers' education and readiness to offer alternatives. "If you want Maggi, we'll offer you Yippee; if you prefer Nestle milk, we have Amul milk. We can always substitute them with local products," he affirmed. By promoting Indian products as substitutes for imported ones, the shopkeepers not only support the local economy but also take a principled stand against injustice.

The shai and mandi specialities offered by the Barkas community have become integral to Hyderabad's culinary landscape, serving as entry points for many to discover their unique identity. Alsaari emphasized that they consider themselves as much Telanganites as they do descendants of Arab lineage. Dishes like harees, qahwa, and mandi, rooted in Yemeni cuisine, have been warmly embraced by the broader Telangana community.

"Praises to Allah, we have been able to uphold our traditions and extend hospitality to our guests," Alsaari remarked. This inclusive approach has drawn guests from diverse communities, fostering connections and cultural exchange.

Despite being a relatively small diaspora in India, the Barkas community has demonstrated unwavering solidarity without fear. This resilience serves as a powerful example for the world to witness, showcasing the strength that comes from unity and standing up for what is right. My visit to the Barkas community underscored the importance of embracing diversity and standing in solidarity with oppressed communities.

Nada Sulaiman is a PhD Scholar in the Department of English Studies at CHRIST (Deemed to be University) Bangalore

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TAGS:Israel Palestine ConflictBarkas community
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