Friday 30 October 2015

The Ajam of Manama

The Ajam of Bahrain
But first, an introduction. The Ajam (عجم) are an ethnic group in Bahrain composed of ethnic Persians who hold Bahraini citizenship. They have traditionally been merchants living in specific quarters of Manama and Muharraq. They mostly adhere to the Shia sect of Islam. In the Manama Souq, many Persians are clustered in the neighborhoods of Mushbir and Fareeq el-Makharqa. They're estimated to number around 100,000.
The Persian-run school (Ittihad School) in 1939
The story of their origins is actually quite interesting. Let's begin, shall we?

Bahrain was under control of the Persians for a considerable portion of its history (Parthian, Sassanian, Safavid, Qajar dynasties amongst all) so we are going to assume that Persians from across the Gulf migrated at some point to Bahrain. However, we kinda need proof to say this. Proof that we don’t have the luxury of having. In fact, the earliest verified evidence of Persians owning some sort of Bahraini property comes from a deed that indicated the purchase of a date plantation in Bilad al-Qadeem in 1828. 

Why migrate to Bahrain?

Historians agree that large-scale migrations to Bahrain occurred between the 1860s and early 1920s. There are several reasons for this;
  • In the late 19th century, the Shahs, in their infinite wisdom, sought to consolidate revenue from customs and trade along the southern coastline of Iran. Obviously, this impeded merchants on their God-given right to acquire money. Merchants began favouring trading posts across the Gulf (Kuwait, Dubai, Manama) to the extent that they preferred trading in Indian rupees rather than the Persian kran.
  • Southern Iran in the 1860s-1920s wasn’t a fun place. Scarce rain caused food shortages in Bushehr between 1870-72, 1888-92 and 1897-8. Naturally, crime followed and staple food prices like wheat skyrocketed. Locust swarms and outbreaks of cattle disease didn’t help. Famines and outbreaks of diseases like cholera and smallpox in the 1870s and 1890s also certainly didn’t help.
Bonus: Over half of the Ajam are estimated to originate from Dasht district, where Bushehr is the capital city.

When did the Ajam arrive?

Now because the first census of Bahrain was conducted in 1904, we have absolutely no clue on the exact numbers. But we are really good at guesstimating. Records show a sharp increase in the consumption of tea imports, shawl, rosewater, books and shoes in 1873-1905. Persians of the mercantile class were often literate and contemporary writing by British observers welcomed the “more refined taste and superior material culture of the Ajam immigrants” (their words).

What type of people migrated?

If you think all the Ajam were rich traders looking to make a quick buck, you’d be mistaken. The majority of Persians who left Bushehr were economic migrants assisted by relatives in Bahrain or were often simply impoverished peasants and labourers escaping the insecurities of rural Iran. Persians often intermarried with first-cousins and relatives in Iran to promote continuity with their former homeland.

For a case study of the Safar and Sharif families et al, refer to the reference at the end.

The Ajam of Manama

It’s 1904. If you paid attention, you’d know we have the census by now. The census in 1904 showed that over 1,550 Persians lived in Manama, forming the largest permanent foreign ethnic group in the city. Patronage for more Persian immigrants was provided by the Bushehri and Kazerooni families (entrepreneur groups who wished to enlarge their incomes basically) who were responsible for the protection of over 20% of the Ajam population of the city.

The Fareej:

You’d think that with Persians predominately being traders or labourers, they’d be centered around the souq (property-wise at least), right? Nope. The souq’s buildings were owned by members of the ruling family so the Persians improvised by living on the then-outskirts of Manama, resulting in the formation of residential districts we all know and love called the Fareej. 

The oldest of these residential districts are the Fareej Kanoo and Fadhil (collectively known as the fareej-al-Ajam / the Persian quarter) located just east of the souq and port. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Hammam and Makharga districts were established. In the 1920s, the fareej of Mushbir and Bu Sirra were still growing.

The Ajam elite (particularly the Bushehri and Kazerooni families, being building contractors) acquired empty land in the residential quarters to build houses and hut compounds called hawteh. This was how the neighborhoods grew. These residential quarters were often housed by families that knew each other etc.

For the rich Persians, life was good. For the impoverished and unskilled labourer? Not so much. They rarely found accommodation in good places and often worked mainly in the pearl industry or in menial labour alongside the Baharna, freed slaves and Baluchis. In 1929, these poor Persians formed a majority of the labour force in the port; they were often involved in disturbances with the Najdi population (in 1903-4 and 1923). Their populations increased in the 1910s and 1920s. 

For the poor Persian, hawteh was not a luxury they could have. They often lived in concentrated informal housing called barasti or ‘arish. The barasti sprung up in eastern Manama and on marshland of no agricultural value. 

A key way to distinguish rich and poor neighborhoods was by name. Richer neighbourhoods were named after families whereas poorer ones were named after geographic locations (where said-poor Persians came from) like Awadhiyya, Suqaiya and Minawiyyah.
People in front of a barasti, 1930s Bahrain.
Bonus - the history of Adliya
The history of Adliya is somewhat… sad. Actually, it’s very sad.
First founded and named Zulmabad (which literally means the land of oppression), it housed predominately poor Persians from Bander Abbas in 1923. The district was a source of major epidemics and, in an effort by the Manama municipality to clean its act, decided to change its name to an Arabicised Adliya (land of justice!) in 1938. But still, people were poor. It was sad. Such is life.

Author's note: Yes, I am aware of the existence of a wonderful history of the Ajam of Muharraq. I hope to include it at some point in the future. Do add any interesting information in the comments below!

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