Adeni Indians: 200 years of integration
Older generations in the city still recall the image of Aziz, the silent contemplating Indian man who established a bookshop cum library over a century ago, in a Victorian style building at Al-Tawahi district. As you enter this crowded bookshop you are greeted with a smell of Indian incense which he always burned to remind him of home. The place is home to a magnificent collection of Indian, English and some books in other languages depending on the nationalities of tourists or sailors who contributed to the library.
It also includes some of the oldest pictures and maps of Aden.
However, this valuable treasure has become out of reach since Aziz passed away in 2006 and the younger generation lost interest in preserving it and decided to sell it.
The same fate met Barakat Al-Durzei’s shop who was the special tailor for the British and Indian soldiers during the British colonization of Aden. His shop was stacked with the long Victorian style military uniforms and even official men’s suits with specially decorated cuffs and buttons that were famous in the 19th century.
This shop was put out of business when the British left Yemen in 1967. For many years Barakat kept the shop open as a place for people to spend time and read until he finally decided to close it down in 1992 after he distributed all the valuable merchandize to neighbors and friends.
Bombay port in Al-Tawahi
Until date, in Al-Tawahi district in Aden governorate, at the entrance of the tourist dock, you can still find post office that was built in 1919 by the Khan family. Now the place where you can find old and new stamps, tourist pictures and post cards, and Yemeni, Indian and Chinese agate is run by third generation Nadir Khan and his two brothers. His father Mahmoud Buji Khan who was a known sports figure in Aden.
The Buji-Khan family is one of the most famous families in Aden of Indian descendant who maintained their Indian traditions with a few tweaks to adapt to Yemeni culture.
The Khan post office is a part of the larger Bombay Port in Al-Tawahi built in April 1904 which was called then the “Prince of Wales Harbor.”
The Bombay port was a famous transit point for ships coming from all around the world although today much of the traffic has gone down for various reasons.
Preserved Indian Traditions
Many Yemeni families of Indian origin maintained much of their traditions in a quest for preserving their identity in Aden despite their well integration into the Yemeni society.
There are the Mahmoud Khan, Abdulmajeed Al-Kashi, Sulaiman Rahool, Khalid Ibrahim Mummin, and Mahmoud Ghulam families who all tried persistently to preserve the Indian and English language among their children.
Yet they all admit that today’s generation is less keen on speaking Hindi and Urdu. Another reason for this is that many Indians in Aden have married into Yemeni families and so the mixed marriages have created a more Yemeni dominated generation.
However, some families like Naser Abdulnabi Al-Buhri, Hashim Asaboola, Bahader Khan, Al-Manager, Mana, Beer Bahai, Khawajah, Makki, and Iman Rustum Khan said they still preserve their language, food and tradition to the fifth generation today.
They still wear the Kurta, Sari, Izar, Panjabi, Gharara. Although they complain that the fabric for making these clothes has become quite expensive. Also they complained that education in English, unlike the British times, has become limited to expensive private schools which they can’t afford to send their children to.
These are wedding celebrations where the Indian community play and sing Indian traditional songs mixed with Yemeni folklore. The women wear “hajala” which is an ankle bracelet and make musical sounds with their steps following Indian dance styles.
Khalid Ibrahim Mummin says they have just had one in January this year in Al-Buraiqa and the whole neighborhood celebrated with them until after midnight.
There are several areas in Aden like Al-Qatee’, Khassaf, and the Indian district or Hussain district which was called Binian locality in the past.
There is also Musafir Khan area in Crater and which holds a special significance for Indians of older generations because it was the reception and welcoming point for new Indians.
In these districts you can find some of the oldest Indian shops such as Rahool’s shop for paan and tunbul. Some say this shop goes way back to 1800. The shop sells fofal, nora, tobacco and special flavors.
There is also Abdulnabi’s famous shop which dates 1889 and is located in the oldest market in Aden which is Al-Buhra Market, an Indian clan that existed in Aden since the 18th century.
They still use terms such as Yihwar which means commercial trading and Abdulnabi’s shop is one of twenty similar shops that sell special fragrances, kuhol, incense, body oils and other specially made cosmetics.
Naser Abdulhussian Abdulnabi Al-Buhri one of the younger generations who opened his own shop says that there is a huge demand for this to the extent that they opened branched in UAE and India.
He says many of the Buhra clan had to leave Yemen in the seventies to the gulf countries when conflict took place in Aden because they were peaceful businessmen who did not want their businesses to be affected by the conflict.
Abdulmajeed Al-Kashi owner of Abdulkarim Al-Kasho spices shop says it was the Indians who brought dishes such as Zurbian, Biryani, Siadia, Daal and Kajar Halwa. There are other dishes according to Nadira Khan and Farhana such as kulonji, kishra, kari, green sabji, wara potato, shabati bread.
The shop sells special spices needed to make these dishes and others although some spices used now in Aden are different from the original ones still used today in India.
Between 1839 and 1932 Aden was under the central government in India, specifically Bombay administration.
The Indian disapora in Aden had great influence in the region because of its economic strength. In fact it has also influenced the culture and social practices in Aden and integrated Indian music, cuisine and costumes into the Yemeni ones.
French social scientist Arthur De Gobineau describes Aden city which he visited in 1855 saying:
“In Aden we saw an Indian city over Arab land amidst rocks.”
In the same context Yemeni researcher Shafiqa Abdullah Al-Arasi says that the Indian influence has become embedded in the Adani society texture.
“During the Indian/British influence in Aden the Indian culture dominated the city as many of the government paperwork was done in English with an Indian style. Even the Arabic songs were played on Indian music and so was the dress-code.”
However, due to politics, the British Empire decided to circumvent the Indian influence and redirect the governance to London which angered the Indian community in Aden especially the business owners. Great disputes took place between the Indian community and the British government in Aden on this decision and threatened that this will have significant economic consequences.
Historical documents show that some of the influential Indian businessmen in Aden sent a letter to the British government stating that “India has more right to Aden than the Brits due to the longer historical and cultural relations India and Yemen.”