Current Research

Themes

 

  • Migration, (im)mobility,  and transnationalism

  • "Bottom up" history

  • The intimate and personal as political

  • Gender and women

  • Conceptualizations of space

  • Food, clothing, and the materiality of cultural history

Methodology

 I use oral history to construct biographical histories of non-elite actors. I demonstrate that these actors, though often immobile themselves, preserve transnational connections through the languages that they speak with their children, the foods they share with their neighbors, the clothes they wear, and the far-flung family members they keep in their address books.

 

I conducted 235 interviews in Swahili for this project. My research was funded by grants from a Fulbright Hays DDRA for the Middle East and Fulbright IIE for Africa, which facilitated 2 years of archival and oral history research in Zanzibar, Oman, and the UK.

Immobility in a Sea of Migration: biographical histories of transnational families in Zanzibar and Oman, ca 1850-2019

My current research project tells the history of Arab migration in the Western Indian Ocean from the "bottom up."

Scholarship on the history of transnational connections between Zanzibar and Oman has centered a small cast of elite men, highlighting the acts of Sultans and the priorities of the merchant class. My research refocuses on the experiences and priorities of the non-elite. Specifically, I highlight the ways that this historical narrative shifts when it takes into account the experiences of women, the lower classes, and rural actors. 

Immobility is a central theme in the history of this transnational community. 

While the Arab community of East Africa has generally been understood as a fluidly mobile transnational elite, a "bottom up" history reveals the importance of immobility in the experiences of most of its members. Access to mobility should be understood as far more lumpy and uneven than is generally considered in scholarship on transnationalism. 

While researching in Pemba, Tanzania, I sat on the floor of Suleiman Hemed’s sitting room to interview him about his family history as Omani migrants. Surrounding us were material evidence of a country over 2.5 thousand miles away on the Arabian Peninsula. As we ate Omani dates and sipped Omani style coffee, a poster of the Omani Sultan hung on the wall behind my head. “Have you ever been to Oman?” I ask. Suleiman says “No, not yet.” Suleiman is a member of a transnational community that formed through generations of circular migration between the Zanzibar archipelago and Oman. Despite his own immobility, connections to Oman are important in Suleiman’s daily life. This apparent paradox was not unique to Suleiman, but reflects a common theme throughout my 235 interviews. 

 

The central contradiction driving my project is that many Arabs in Zanzibar simultaneously have never left their small island and yet perceive themselves as part of a transnational community of Omani-Zanzibaris. Scholarship on international migration has frequently seen transnationalism as relatively uniform and inevitable by assuming that people within transnational communities necessarily think and behave transnationally. In practice, this seamless image is uneven—members of the same community and even the same family have different access to and interest in mobility, transnational exchanges, and cosmopolitan identities. 

The relative immobility of the lower classes and women in the wake of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution fundamentally changes the timeline of Oman-Zanzibar connections. 

 Examining the history of Omani-Zanzibaris throughout the “long” 20th century radically departs from the current scholarly timeline of Western Indian Ocean history. The dominant historical narrative of this region in the 20th century is one of regional fragmentation, racial division, and violence. In the case of Zanzibar-Oman connections, the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, which caused a mass exodus of the Arab population, and the 1970 coup in Oman, which offered Arab-Zanzibari emigrants a new home, are generally viewed as endpoints of centuries-old exchanges of people, goods, and culture.

 

By centering the individuals who were largely excluded by economic and social barriers to mobility from this exodus, my research challenges this metanarrative. I examine how intraregional connections of the Western Indian Ocean have fluctuated over time while remaining a persistent feature of the area. Indeed, when viewed through the experiences of my interlocutors as opposed to the lens of economic and political regimes, the Zanzibar revolution of 1964 does not represent an end point as it is more frequently viewed, but rather an intensification transnational connections.

I'm interested in the emotive, cultural, and material histories of transnational families.

During my first summer in Oman, I met a woman selling Swahili fabrics at a "woman's market" in the Omani interior. She invited me back to her home, where she served me Zanzibari food and introduced me to her family. She and her family chatted with me in Swahili about how the Zanzibari restaurants that are all over Oman are good, but not compared to the African food that she makes at home. 

My research centers the intimate spaces of family life, arguing that these spaces were key sites in the creation of an Omani-Zanzibari transnational community infrastructure. 

PhD Candidate, ABD

Michigan State University