Last stand of a hybrid language from Oman’s seafaring past

KUMZAR, Oman – It is a little past 8pm. A significant drop in temperature has made the heat a little more bearable. Hassan Hassan, dressed in an elegant dishdasha

(robe), walks across the sun-baked pebbles of Kumzar, his leather sandals squeaking. With a traditional meedwa pipe between his teeth, the 22-year-old fisherman scans the horizon, the mountains and the sea.

But with the rise to power of Sultan Qaboos in 1970, the future of the Kumzaris’ culture was at risk. For the past half century, Oman has been developing at breakneck speed. The UN has ranked the social and economic growth of the sultanate, since 1970, among the top 10 nations worldwide. Since then, education – and language in particular – has played an increasingly important role in the policies of Oman.

Hassan recalls how hard it was for his generation to switch from their mother tongue to Arabic. “Kumzari was no longer allowed at school. It was hard for us because before then, we hardly ever used Arabic in the village. It was only used at the mosque, in fact. Otherwise, it was mostly spoken outside of the village. Nowadays, everyone speaks it,” he told Middle East Eye.

The arrival of TV and internet only made matters worse, which adds to the young fisherman’s pessimism. “One day, only the village elders will use Kumzari. Young people will only speak Arabic. Though today people my age still use mainly Kumzari among themselves, school in Arabic really changed a lot of things.”

Hassan, a pragmatist, sweeps aside the cultural value of Kumzari to take a more practical view of things. “Nobody speaks Kumzari. Where else in the world is it spoken? Do you think someone in New York would answer me if I started to speak in Kumzari. It isn’t even on Google Translate.”

In the early morning, Abdullah Hamed sets off to tend to his herd of goats. The 58-year-old man, with a deeply creased face and a cap fitted snugly to his head, sits down with difficulty. In the shade, his goats calmly watch every move and gesture he makes. Next to him, Ali Hassan, a 20-year-old fisherman wearing a backwards hat and a pair of nylon shorts, exchanges WhatsApp messages with friends in the city.  

Fleets coming from the Ottoman Empire, India, Persia, Portugal, Holland, and a number of other European countries, used to stop here for fresh water before continuing on their way. “The village is special, just like our language, Kumzari. It is unique. In the few neighbouring villages facing the strait people speak only Arabic.”

It is in this vague historical context, by and large brought about by the absence of written sources, that the practice of Kumzari continues to decline, although the language is an integral part of its cultural identity. Kumzari today is on the “seriously endangered” list in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  

“In the past, Kumzari was spoken 100 percent of the time. Arabic was only used outside of the village or with strangers. Today, however, Arabic is spoken in both the village and at school. It is mandatory for school children to speak it. And when they go home, they turn on the TV, which is also in Arabic. All the media are in Arabic. The only exceptions are text and WhatsApp messages. Kumzari is used for text messaging, but written in Arabic.”

Family, the last hope for sustaining the Kumzari language

Though he refuses to accept the ultimate disappearance of Kumzari one day, he admits that a process is inexorably underway. “It all depends on the families. Some teach their children Arabic, others Kumzari and Arabic, and others still only Kumzari. Some families think there is no point in teaching Kumzari at all, that the children will learn it on their own, since everybody speaks it in the family and in the village. To them, it’s a natural process.”

Inter-tribal tensions

“In 1970, the tribal leaders in the region were consulted to officially delineate the border between the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The sheikhs in the largest confederation in Musandam [the Shihuh] were in favour of an attachment to Muscat, and therefore to Oman. The people of Kumzar, most of who belong to the Shihuh confederation, but to a relatively weak political branch, had no say in the matter and were forced to go along with the decisions made in Bukha and Khasab [two large towns on the Musandam peninsula] by the most influential of the Shihuh sheikhs.

Closer to the Emiratis, the Kumzaris had little desire to be subjected to the authority of Muscat. But their dreams of a Musandam distanced from the Oman Sultanate were ill-timed.

“Thus some groups in Musandam opposed to the region’s attachment to Muscat were accused of having ties to the Dhofar Rebellion and to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, which was very active in the region up through the late 1970s. So it was in this context that arrests took place in Musandam, in the name of the “fight against communist terrorism”.

A researcher, who insisted on remaining anonymous, confirmed that the Omani authorities are suspicious of the Kumzaris even today. “Their language is close to Farsi. Geographically, they are closer to Iran. This is why the government, after the Iranian Revolution, kept such close tabs on the village. They were afraid that Iran might win them over.”  

This story originally appeared in the MEE French edition and was translated by Heather Allen.

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