Enseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean, 2002

Tropes about globalization champion its rapid ascent as it “loudly shouts its presence everywhere.” (3) In contrast, diasporas gather slowly, over generations building identities. The dual process of absence and presence shapes such developments. Globalization papers over absence, while diaspora highlights it. Experiences of mobility in the Indian Ocean over the course of centuries and the meanings for and created by the diasporic Hadrami community serve as the subject of anthropologist Enseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean. This diasporic community, especially its holy figures referred to as sayyids, altered perceptions of origin, space, and departure, giving meaning to genealogies and to the diaspora itself.

Ho emphasizes mobility and genealogy as key aspects of his work. Noting that “before modernism, experiences of mobility involved complex and subtle interplays between absence and presence in many dimensions,” (10), Ho explores these dimensions through the Adeni’s history of mobility. Within the Indian Ocean region, Sayyids secured reputations as holy men whose mobility many viewed as “gifts to local populations.” (92) This diasporic process of migration and return reoriented the importance of place such that Tarim, transformed by the religious importance of the Hadrami, became a place of origin. The burial of religious figures like sayyids at Tarim embedded an importance within the location of Tarim itself, but also to its flowing diaspora. Religious texts most notably The Travelling Light Unveiled and The Irrigating Fount served as foundational texts for sayyids, helping to cement their reputations and mobility as beneficial to local communities.

Hadrami mobility created a transcultural space in the Indian Ocean. Sayyids created connections between themselves, local rulers, holy men, and various others. Yet, as Ho points out, many historians have missed such developments. “Historical scholarship that studies soldiers, Sufis, and scholars as separate types fails to perceive the links among individuals, peer groups, generalizations, and diasporic families.” (108) “Religious adepts” like sayyids enjoyed patronage by local elites. The Hadrami diaspora, especially the adepts, carried with them valuable genealogies that legitimated rulers while bringing positive religious representations to a community. The combination of “prophetic genealogy” along with the development of religious texts “gathered previously independent domains of ritual, place, and text” (221) creating an institutional complex, which Ho labels the “Alawi Way”.

This “Alawi Way” carried with it a known religious context that encouraged the mobility of Hadrami sayyids and others. Throughout the Indian Ocean region, “the corollary of mobility is challenged by ambitious usurpers from outside.” (158) However, sayyids and others utilized “asymmetrical marriages” to local elites which resulted in “the historical creation of a large sociogeographical seascape that peoples of different origins could navigate and inhabit,” in which “experiential gradations” between the local and the diasporic “animated the rhythms of regional political and economic history.” (159) Moreover, such marriages imbued the “hybrid religious” texts mentioned previously into transcultural works spanning the Indian Ocean region.

The coming of British imperialism altered the situational and relational identities of the Hadrami diaspora. Though initially utilized as local elites and intermediary religious figures, by the 1960s, there emerged a “modern sayyid … who hosted and counseled the colonial district officer” (293) and served as a gatekeeper determining who received and didn’t receive passports. Unfortunately, the post-WWII emphasis on the nation-state transformed sayyid’s relationship to the Indian Ocean world, leaving them with binary identities of citizen or alien, disrupting much of what it took generations to develop.

Ho’s work illustrates the complex processes of diasporic formation and their broader meaning, while also illuminating how these meanings became tied to mobility. However, The Graves of Tarim offers little in the way of common perspective, in that the reader encounters essentially regional elites. The religious importance to common people is obscured by the focus on such individuals. Second, the book methodically traces Hadrami diaspora through earlier centuries only to rush through the twentieth. Though Ho attempts to connect much of what came before to incidents of violence and conflict in the late twentieth century such connections remain unclear.

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