12 June, 2014

Little Hadhramout, In Hyderabad, India

Drive out of Hyderabad's gleaming Rajiv Gandhi International Airport and you hit a brand-new highway created after hacking into the rugged hills around. Fifteen minutes into this fast track, after you've taken in the lushness en route and the medieval tomb of Sufi saint Baba Sharfuddin atop a steep hill, a sudden incongruity hits you.The spacious, greenery-lined road makes way for a narrow, potholed lane that leads to a cluster of one-storied houses.Inside the maze of alleys, men dressed in lungis and tent-like kurtas are loitering, some on motorcycles, some crowding the corner chaikhana. The few women around are veiled,mostly accompanied by male relatives.

Welcome to Barkas, India's only authentic Arab street, which makes you feel like you're in crowded Cairo or an old locality of Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Located in the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad, this colony of former employees of the Nizams, including their private army, is a hub of Arab culture, music and cuisine.You can savour Iranian dishes like haleem (meat cooked with crushed wheat and spices) and biryani in many places in Hyderabad - but it's at Barkas that you get harees, a sweet mouthwatering version of haleem. At dawn, people from far off corners of the city and outside flock to Barkas to enjoy the piping hot delicacy at select restaurants.

In this mini Arabia, guests are welcomed with dates and kahwa (Arab coffee). As you sip the hot beverage sitting at Mohsin Al-Kaseri's high-roofed home decorated with beautifully calligraphed Quranic ayats (verses), Mohsin tells you about the antecedents of Barkas, a corruption of the English word Barracks.

Mohsin's grandfather Obaid bin Abdullah Al-Kaseri, like most original inhabitants of Barkas, came from Hadhramout. Much before the discovery of oil in the Arab peninsula in the 1920s and its subsequent petrol-propelled prosperity, able-bodied, jobless Hadhrami Arabs joined the riyasat (state) of Mir Mehboob Ali Khan (1886-1911 ), the sixth Nizam. The Arabs got further entrenched in the princely state during the reign of the seventh and last Nizam,Mir Osman Ali Khan (1911-1967 ), on whom Time magazine, in the 1930s, had bestowed the status of the richest man in the world.

The Nizams, surrounded by hostile nawabs and maharajas in the Deccan, immensely trusted the tall, strongly-built Hadhrami Arabs who were mostly recruited in their personal army. As their number grew, the Arabs were settled in barracks on the outskirts of the walled,gated city. At the end of the last Nizam's rule in 1948 and the police action against his resistance to join the newly independent Indian state,Barkas felt orphaned. "Since the day he ceased to be our ruler, Mir Osman Ali Khan fixed a pension of Rs 19 per month to each Arab in the Barkas from his personal wealth. They guarded his palaces,gardens and treasure troves of diamonds and jewellery," recalls 68-year-old Abdullah Kharmoshi, ex-principal of the city-based Nooriya Arabic college.

Kharmoshi, as a senior resident of Barkas whose three well-educated children run a management school,  has closely monitored the changing fortunes of fellow Arabs in Hyderabad. "Our ancestors were dirt-poor and uneducated.But now the new generation is getting educated and prospering," says Kharmoshi,whose son is studying management in Australia. Part of the prosperity has come via the Gulf oil boom. At least one male member from each family in Barkas works in the Gulf.

Barkas's link with the Arab, Hadhramaut in particular, world is not merely with the latter's language and culture. It's through sports too. You can take an Arab out of an Arab country, but you can't take his love for football out of him. So, as in Arab countries, the youth in Barkas are obsessed with soccer. The likes of Sania Mirza and Mohammed Azharuddin might have earned stardom, but it is football the boys in Barkas swear by.

"When we formed our football club two years ago, we deliberately called it Barracks United as a mark of respect for the original name of our locality," says 19-year-old Imran Bin Ali Bhazeq, a soccer champion and an engineering student. Imran is upset that at a tournament in the city, his club got defeated due to the referee's "bias"."Even some Muslims in other parts of the city don't want the boys at Barkas to excel in any field, be it sports or education," alleges Imran. "For them, we are still outsiders who refuse to integrate with the local culture."

This evidence of exclusivity is apparent in several areas. Most boys and girls in Barkas marry their close relatives, preferably from the same tribes. The youth's music tastes don't favour the staple qawwalis and ghazals - it's Egyptian singers like Amar Deyab and Lebanese singers like Nancy Agram who sell like hot cakes here. And even in death the exclusivity continues - when someone dies in Barkas, a volunteer from the trust Majlis Tanzeem Sabeelul Khair visits the family, measures the body and prepares his/her grave at a massive graveyard. No Muslims outside Barkas are allowed to find a resting place here.

As we leave Barkas, a group of men in lungis and Arab gowns crowd a chaikhana, sipping sipping mint-peppered Suleimani chai in tiny glass cups. Hyderabad's new avatar Cyberabad might be in the race to emerge as the cyber Mecca of India. But in a far corner of the city, Barkas obstinately enjoy its status quo.

Read More On The Barkas: The Hindu & One India