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Oman au fil du temps. Une nation de la Nahda à l’Oman Vision 2040

Baloch Mashkat (Muscat) and the Sultan Qaboos Era: Cultural Performance, Cosmopolitanism, and Translocal Consciousness

George Murer


Baloch cultural life in Muscat is a vivid part of Oman's national landscape as it has evolved from the time the late Sultan Qaboos took power. Although often typecast as soldiers or police officers, Omani Baloch are deeply integrated into a broad spectrum of professions and social milieus. These include communities of arts and letters at the heart of the Omani cultural renaissance championed by the late Sultan and embodied in institutions such as Royal Opera House, the Muscat International Film Festival, and the Oud Hobbyists Association. The many nuances to Baloch identity have led to a plurality of social spaces, from literary forums intertwined with South Asian intellectual spheres to ceremonial contexts in which Omanis of Baloch, Peninsular Arab, and East African heritage converge. Networks of patronage and transnational circulations of songs and poetry among Baloch attest to the longevity of Western Indian Ocean circuits of cultural exchange.

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1One of the striking features of the social landscape and national identity of Oman as a nation-state on the Arabian Peninsula is the overt recognition that its citizenry are of diverse geocultural backgrounds. The cultural backgrounds of the most prominent segments of Oman's citizen population, particularly in coastal regions, are Peninsular Arab, East African Bantu (locally called Zanjibârî), and Baloch—the origins of the latter lie mainly in the Makran subregion of Balochistan that extends along the Arabian Sea coast. The vital presence of Baloch in Oman and the significance of Oman for Baloch regionally are two intertwined frames that add a vivid dimension to an understanding of arts, culture, and ethnolinguistic patternings in the Gulf/Arabian Sea region.

  • 1 For overviews of Baloch settlement on the Arabian Peninsula, see al-Ameeri 2003; Peterson, 2013; an (...)
  • 2 While I was perpetually struck by the harmonious social dynamic I encountered in Oman and in partic (...)

2Against the backdrop of political and commercial entanglements binding the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, South Asia, and East Africa (and further impacted by European colonial intrusions and interventions), Balochistan is a culturally autonomous zone of gradation between West and South Asia. Through continual flows of migration, the core sphere of Baloch culture extends to the Eastern Arabian Peninsula1. The extent to which Baloch have made their home for centuries in various parts of Oman—not only in Muscat/Matrah and Batinah, but in Sharqiyyah, Dhofar, and Dhahirah provinces—and continue to settle or temporarily sojourn in Oman from Balochistan has meant that Oman looms large as a locale in Baloch historical consciousness. Among non-Baloch Omanis, attitudes towards the formidable presence of Baloch in Oman are complex2.

3In quotidian rhythms of interaction and social performance, Omanis often cannot neatly be designated as Arab, Zanjibari, or Baloch (or Luwati, Jebeli, 'Ajam, etc.). Mixed ancestry and family histories of mobility across the Western Indian Ocean are common. Arab and Baloch Omanis may come from families who have been repatriated from Zanzibar or Mombasa and speak fluent Swahili. An Omani's phenotypical features may prompt assumptions about geocultural origins without having much bearing on their lived cultural identity. Nevertheless, specific affiliations do have social import—if an individual or household is Sunni, Shi'i, or Ibadi; if they are from Sur or Ibri or Mirbat; if they have a position within a tribal structure, or military ties, or slave ancestry, or belong to a mercantile lineage.

4Answering the tricky dynamics between these subsets, the Omani state, particularly in the era of governance of the late Sultan Qaboos, has tended to promote an emphatically unified Omani identity, one that both recognizes Oman's intercontinental imperial history and discourages overt assertions of difference between groups such as expressions of ethnic pride and solidarity. In this article, I will survey key aspects of Oman's recent history and examine the ongoing transformation of Muscat in the Sultan Qaboos era as manifested in the cultural performances of Baloch communities, whose intricate contours are shaped by transnational networks, complex fields of historical memory, shifts in urban morphology, and diffuse social and political orientations.

The Adjacent, Facing Worlds of Oman and Balochistan

  • 3 See Axënov, 2003.
  • 4 For an overview of Baloch in East Africa, see Lodhi 2013.

5The combined waterways across which Baloch have migrated to the Arabian Peninsula are known today as the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf) and Gulf of Oman (or Gulf of Makran). Balochistan extends from just west of Karachi to the straits of Hormoz and primarily consists of Pakistan's largest and least populous province (Balochistan) and Iran's largest and least populous province (Sistan va Baluchistan), with narrow portions of Afghanistan's southern provinces of Nimroz and Helmand also included. Baloch tend to portray Balochistan as extending to parts of the Iranian provinces of Hormozgan, Kerman, and South Khorasan, with the extensive presence of Baloch language and culture in these areas supporting such claims. This greater Balochistan, when combined with Karachi and coastal Oman and the UAE, is the core area of Baloch habitation, with nearby concentrations in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, and in the Yolöten valley of Eastern Turkmenistan3. Outside of this nexus spanning the intersection of West, Central, and South Asia, Baloch are most notably concentrated in East Africa, in regions corresponding to former Omani imperial holdings4, and in Sweden and Norway, with communities in India as well.

  • 5 Badalkhan, 2013.
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Breseeg, 2001, p. 90-02.
  • 8 See Badalkhan, 2005.

6Concerning the precise geographic origins of Baloch as a nation, some believe the Baloch came gradually as a nomadic group from an area close to Aleppo5, and indeed Baloch appears to be most closely related to Kurdish and Dimili (Zazaki). Others believe in South Arabian origins, narrating a migration from what today is Yemen and the acquisition of a Persianate language en route6. Others believe that Baloch should be considered an autochthonous population who, perched on a significant crossroads, has absorbed diverse cultural and linguistic traits7. Important dimensions to the cultural diversity of Balochistan itself include the presence of Brahui tribes, whose ancestral language belongs to the Dravidian family, but who have culturally merged in many respects with Baloch, generally evincing a complete fluency in Baloch language and custom and a shared historical outlook. Professional, skilled musical performance is in large part the provenance of a group, conceptualized as a socioeconomic caste with distinct ethnolinguistic origins, known variably as Lodi (or Lori) and Domb and linked with the larger category of Dom and Roma groups that have spread out westward from Northwest India over a vast expanse, often retaining—through processes of exclusion and marginalization—hereditary artisanal roles including musical performance8.

  • 9 Korn and Nourzaei, 2018.
  • 10 See Hopper, 2015, p. 203-206; Mathew, 2016, p. 55-59; and Suzuki, 2013, p. 214-215.

7In addition, coastal areas of Balochistan, including major port and fishing towns such as Jask, Chabahar, Pasni, Jiwani, and Gwadar, as well as Karachi, are home to large numbers of Baloch speakers whose ancestors were settled in Balochistan from East Africa as part of the Indian Ocean slave trade9, in which Omani and Baloch traders played a consistent role10. One of the tenets of Baloch culture and honor is that anyone who lives among Baloch, follows Baloch customs, and speaks Baloch is accepted as Baloch. Nonetheless, distinctions are made in practice between people who are of "pureborn" (aslzat) Baloch ancestry and those who are not. Social divisions among Baloch are consequential in several general ways. Different groups of different socioeconomic standing are associated with different types of labor. There are religious differences, notably between Sunni (namâzî) and Zigri adherents (as well as Shi'ah and, in Oman, Ibadhis), as well as between individuals who are observant and those who, wary of religion's role as a political force, adopt a less pious and more critical stance. While certain tribal lineages carry a great deal of prestige and often ensure inherited wealth, land, and power, Baloch nationalism tends to promote an egalitarian unity among Baloch. The resulting rejection of the bolstering of powerful tribal leaders (sardars) through inherited stature and wealth acutely parallels North Kurdish nationalist movements, where the landowning aghas are similarly held to be an anathema to a shared progressive Kurdish nationalist vision.

8These dynamics maintain their relevance among Baloch in Oman and neighboring Arab Gulf states. As an example, one Baloch family who have hosted me extensively in Kuwait belong to a family of prominence in their home region (mulk) in western Balochistan. Until his very recent passing away, one of the most prolific and celebrated Baloch surôz (upright fiddle) players belonged to their mulk and resided under their care and shelter in a client-patron relationship, and they would hear of his hardships and look after his medical expenses. By contrast, this family leads an essentially stateless (bîdûn) existence in Kuwait. Living outside Iran in unofficial exile, they are legally still citizens of Iran in the eyes of the administrative structures of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. One member of this household revealed in conversation that he viewed Baloch of African heritage—and thus without a clear Baloch lineage—with suspicion. His logic was that Baloch who belong to a tribe whose honor is at stake must be loyal to the Baloch nation and exemplary in their conduct, while people of unspecifiable ancestry who lead impoverished lives end up milling about public spaces and are frequently offered incentives to be informers—the eyes and ears of the state. And yet the members of this household firmly belong to the intellectual movement that proclaims unity and brotherhood among all Baloch. Such widespread contradictions are fueled by present circumstances.

  • 11 Thomas, 1931, p. 147-148, 201-202, 238-239.
  • 12 Burton, 2010 [1901], 132; Lutfi, 2018, p. 86.

9In Oman, Baloch are very much part of the national history. Throughout the Gulf region, Baloch are typecast as mercenary soldiers, though they hold many vocations and comprise multiple tiers of social standing. Most of the soldiers in the Omani army in the early twentieth century were Baloch, and the better part of the population of Muscat was also Baloch. Writing in the late 1920s, Betram Thomas, the British economic advisor to Sultan Taimur bin Faisal, describes traveling the length of Oman in the company of the Sultan. He mentions numerous Baloch he encounters—oarsmen, young servants, slaves, and an aged slave trader11. Richard Burton also was accompanied by Baloch guards as he travelled through East Africa12.

  • 13 See Hopper, 2015, p. 203-206.
  • 14 Rabi, 2011, p. 48.

10Among Baloch in Muscat, there have been pronounced spikes in the otherwise continuous migration from Balochistan. For instance, when the international slave trade was abolished in the 19th century by European signatories, slaves were brought from the Makran region of Balochistan in deliberate circumvention of the treaty and its enforcement by British and French naval patrols13. The uprisings in Jebel Akhdar and Dhofar in the mid-twentieth century precipitated a period of active recruitment of soldiers from Balochistan. The Gwadar Peninsula was still governed by Oman until 1958, while the interior of Oman retained a certain amount of autonomy under the guidance a presiding Ibadi Imam until 1952. Sultan Said bin Taimur inherited from his father a depleted economy entirely dependent on British supervision and investment. In 1933, Sultan Said took decisive steps in 1933 towards Omani economic autonomy from the British empire who had overseen the country's commercial affairs through appointed British advisors14.

11With the development of the oil industry, associated employment of various types lured Baloch to Oman and neighboring states. Baloch who have arrived with these more recent patterns maintain close ties with kin in Balochistan and typically use their allotments for personal foreign employees (drivers, cooks, nannies, housekeepers, and other servants) to sponsor temporary workers from Balochistan. During my fieldwork in Muscat, I noted the wide array professional occupations held by the Omani Baloch citizens I came to know. Their vocations included airport refueling technician, water delivery company director, oil company field technician, flight attendant, commercial airline pilot, tailor, police officer and court translator, adventure tour operator, beauty salon proprietor, telecommunications sales executive, filmmaker and film festival director, and university professor. This is a small sampling from the hundreds of Omani Baloch I met, representing those I came to know best and also giving an accurate sense of the breadth of work in which this broad demographic is engaged, in contrast to the narrow range of professions with which they are commonly associated. Each of these professions is tied to an integral facet of Oman's evolving socioeconomic and cultural landscape.

12While it is undeniable that Baloch have had a pronounced role in Omani armed services historically and right up to the present, the participation of Baloch in a wide array of professional sectors in Oman not only complicates the oversimplifying tendency to paint Baloch as mercenaries but also represents other ways in which Baloch support and subscribe to (and benefit from) development in Oman as guided in part by the vision of the late Sultan. The fact that many Baloch maintain a dual sense of personal investment in their ancestral homeland (Balochistan) and their adopted homeland (Oman) points to transoceanic histories that have permanently intertwined Omani rulers and Makrani Baloch. Within this equation, the patterns of mobility and power relations binding Baloch to Oman are very different from the maritime histories of other groups such as Hadramis, Javanese, Tamils, Gujaratis, Syrians, Armenians, and East Africans whose established extraterritorial presences around the Indian Ocean littoral arise from trade networks in some cases, and imperially driven infrastructures of slavery and indentured servitude in others.

Sultan Qaboos's Nahḍa and Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanism

  • 15 Valeri, 2013, p. 58-60.
  • 16 Ibid.: p. 30, 39.

13In 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said (d. 2020) deposed his father Sultan Said bin Taimur under the premise that the latter had taken an inefficient approach to governance. Oman lagged behind its neighbors in social and economic modernization and was mired in attempts to suppress separatist movements, including the Dhofar supported by Marxist forces in South Yemen15. While Oman's coastal regions and transoceanic holdings espoused Sunni Islam of the Shafi'i and Hanbali legal schools, much of the interior and the Sultan and state authorities were guided by Ibadi doctrine and interpretations, while a Saudi Arabia-backed Wahabi movement has also had a long and influential presence16.

  • 17 See Hubbard, 2020.

14The vision of Sultan Qaboos in part revolved around a loosening of some of the constraints traditionally upheld in accordance with Ibadi prescriptions. Sultan Qaboos promoted a vibrant spirit of modernization and cultural flourish. He was extremely fond of music and was reported to play the pipe organ as well as the oud, albeit never in public17. Two institutions that embody the kind of flourish in artistic engagement he envisioned are the Royal Opera House Muscat, where organ recitals, symphonic concerts, and popular music from West Africa and the across the Arab world were presented, and the Oud Hobbyists' Association, where maqâm-based Arab repertoires were taught and performing and recording ensembles were formed. Throughout my fieldwork in Oman from 2014 to 2017, I found a deep affection for Sultan Qaboos among Omani Baloch. With this deep affection came deep concern for his well-being as he was undergoing lengthy medical treatments in Germany. His return was cause for much celebration but the knowledge that his days were inevitably limited was the source of considerable anxiety. The Sultan's royal guard was partially made up of Omani Baloch and some people even suggested to me, perhaps wishfully, that the Sultan spoke Baloch.

  • 18 Limbert, 2010, p. 6.

15The 1970s were a dramatic period for Oman. Due especially to the vision of Sultan Qaboos, the country began to undergo a transformation that is framed to this day as a renaissance (nahḍa), one "linked to industriousness, cosmopolitanism, piety, and seriousness of purpose"18. Today new shipping ports, airports, ferry services, and highways continue to enlarge Muscat, expanding its environs, and binding it more tightly to the towns of Batinah and increasing route of overseas access.

16The 1970s saw the awakening of Muscat's old, maritime port society to the new route networks of jet age connectivity. This was a belated awakening in contrast with neighbors such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and UAE. In the case of Baloch, this heightened connectivity was due not only to a more self-consciously modern outlook promoted at the national level but also to continuous ties with Balochistan bolstered by massive new waves of immigration prompted especially by recruitment to the Omani military owing to the wars in Jebel Akhdar and Dhofar, and the need for skilled and unskilled foreign labor at the oilfields. As Baloch communities were reconstituted by fresh arrivals, demand for imported musical talent grew as a means of upholding a cultural texture continuous with the homeland. Certain individuals emerged in patronage roles that lend them prestige and an aura of magnanimity. To patronize individual performers of scant means does not require great expenditure but it does ultimately serve as an investment in Baloch culture and social cohesion. The resulting networks reinforce the sentiment that Oman is fundamentally hospitable to Baloch, unlike the regimes that impose their political sovereignty on Balochistan.

17If Baloch are typecast as soldiers in the popular imagination of their non-Baloch neighbors in Oman, there are other telling stereotypes that have come to my attention. The notion of cultivating a hip youth culture in Oman is mainly attached to Omanis whose Baloch and/or African backgrounds are amplified in their fashion sense, comportment, and musical tastes.

  • 19 al-Harthy and Rasmussen, 2012, p. 18-19.

18When my interlocutors shared their impressions of the stereotypes of Baloch in circulation among Omanis, music was often a key factor. An archetypal musically inclined Baloch, to my mind, might be singing in Baloch, playing instruments such as the surôz, benjû, tambûrag, or dônelî, or dancing dô chapî or leywah, but I was told that Omanis talked about Baloch always having guitars on hand or making up a disproportionate percentage of the Royal Omani Symphony. Anne Rasmussen reports that many Omanis take pride in the Opera House and Symphony as symbols of prosperity and progress but ultimately feel very little cultural connection to these institutions, which hardly seem to represent Omani culture, even if they can be understood as extensions of the Sultan's highly cultivated tastes and interests. I found it striking that the director of the Oud Hobbyists' Association in Muscat, as well as one of the senior faculty of the Institute of Higher Musical Arts in Kuwait City (and distinguished qanûn player) are ethnic Baloch. The former trained at the latter institute19.

  • 20 Shawqi, 1994, p. 104, 146-147.
  • 21 Christensen and Castelo-Branco, 2009, p. 190-195.
  • 22 al-Shidi, 2008, p. 233.

19Another significant state arts initiative was the founding of the Oman Center for Traditional Music (OCTM), a center in Muscat that houses and extensive and ever-expanding audiovisual archive and which has produced and supported numerous publications framing the variegated landscape of music, dance, and ceremonial arts in the diverse regions of Oman. Only a small portion of the musical activities of Baloch are typically included as part of Oman's traditional music heritage, chiefly wedding dances (lârô, raqs al-Balûshî, daqqa Balûshiyya) of Baloch towns and quarters in Batinah, the coastal strip and date groves that extend from just north/west of Muscat to the border with the United Arab Emirates (where, culturally, this region continues to Kalba and Fujairah). For instance, lârô is included in Yusuf Shawqi's Encyclopedia of Traditional Music of Oman20 and receives some attention in the research on music in Batinah conducted and published by Dieter Christensen and Salwa el-Shawan Castelo-Branco21, while Jum'a Khamis al-Shidi includes another genre that is part of the Baloch wedding celebration sequence in Batinah—kûnzak22.

  • 23 See al-Harthy, 2010; 2012 and al-Kathiri, 2005.
  • 24 See Rasmussen, 2012.
  • 25 al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 109; Mathews, 2016, p. 12, 20.
  • 26 Sebiane, 2007.

20The arts presented live at festivals and national day celebrations tend to be drawn from genres associated with an East African ancestry (mdema, maidan, mikwara, leywah)23 or a peninsular Arab heritage (razha, azî, mâlid, sharh, bara', ayâla)24. These arts are considered both endogenous to Oman (at least in the form they have come to take) and appropriate to the various occasions as they can each be understood to be paying a form of tribute. Omanis of East African heritage who identify as Zanjibari frequently engage Swahili taarab ensembles for weddings and other occasions25, but as with most Baloch genres, these tend not be regarded as Omani culture and heritage. In Muscat, Seeb, and Barka—now essentially a single metropolitan area—and on into the nearby Batinah region, there are troupes specializing in traditional arts considered Omani (mâlid al-Barzanjî, mâlid al-hawâma, leywah) that are made up of Baloch performers. This echoes the situation with leiwah performances in Dubai described by Maho Sebiane26. These troupes are authorized to perform these arts as representative of Omani heritage but they most often perform them in community settings to fulfill needs and obligations dictated by collective beliefs and social habits. During the course of my fieldwork I was introduced to a mâlid group in Barka who were prepared to perform a full cycle of their repertoire at a rate set by the Omani government, which I could ill afford. All of the members were speakers of Balochi, of a variety that diverged from the contemporary everyday Balochi spoken in Makran, as heard among speakers who had either arrived from Makran recently or conversed regularly with Makrani friends and relations. However, I was able to observe a number of ceremonies of various types (mâlid, dammâl, sûriya) in the company of Baloch friends.

21At the same time, local Baloch, both citizens and temporary residents, have been engaged to perform publicly at several recent events such as the Muscat International Book Fair, where in 2016 a Baloch benjû (keyed zither) player played on a stage as attendees wound their way among the book displays, and the inauguration of a brand new shopping Mall in Muscat in 2019, where the Muna Band, a prominent Baloch wedding band, performed Bollywood covers in official formal Omani attire (in contrast to their characteristic fashionable street wear—shredded denim vests, pastel colored jeans, name brand sneakers).

22While Baloch are fully integrated into Omani society, a significant subset of Omani Baloch maintains its own spaces for social and intellectual intercourse, directly patterned on the mold of Makrani Baloch culture. There is a fluid circuit binding intellectual, political, and literary life in Muscat, Turbat, Karachi, Bahrain, the greater Dubai metro area (which includes Ajman, Umm al-Qiwin, and parts of Sharjah), Kuwait City, Doha, and Stockholm. Poets, singers, instrumentalists, and other literary figures come and go, making their rounds through these various locations, relying on financial and bureaucratic support from local patrons.

23Rough distinctions should be drawn between Baloch who have completely assimilated Omani Arab language and culture in various specific regions and retain little of their Baloch heritage apart from their names and a sort of tribal identity; Baloch who have retained Balochi as their spoken language and who observe a wide array of Baloch customs that are most acutely on display at weddings and other occasions of communal import but who have lost direct contact with Balochistan and thoroughly localized their cultural outlook; and Baloch whose families have emigrated to Oman in living memory and whose ties to kin and home regions in Balochistan remain strong. At any given moment there are many non-Omani citizen Baloch in Oman, present primarily at the behest of Baloch in the latter grouping, representing one facet of their continued intensive contact with their homeland. Musical performers are among those non-citizen Baloch whose temporary residencies in Oman are sponsored by Omani Baloch citizens.

24Another important set of distinctions aligns Baloch households with regions of origin. Most Baloch in Oman come from the Makran region of Balochistan, either coastal areas—Sirik, Jask, Konarak, Chahbahar, Pasni, Jiwani, Gwadar; regions further inland—Dasht, Mand, Bampur, Buled, Bampusht; or Karachi's large Baloch communities, who have historically migrated chiefly from Makran. Others come from Zahedan or Quetta, or in some cases from Marri-Bugti areas and are often immediately identifiable because of regional attire and distinctive ways of wearing moustaches and beards. And as mentioned above, a portion of Muscat's Baloch community are descended from East African ancestors who had been forced into slavery and brought to Makran. Just as Oman's history has informed many of the cultural attributes of its citizenry, this citizenry continues to shape the country, especially Muscat.

The Urban Morphology of Baloch Community in Muscat

  • 27 This poem is shared on the Baloch literary site Baask but I found it to be much talked about in Bal (...)

25Today's Muscat grew to its current proportions out a series of coastal settlements—old Muscat with its twin forts, Sidab, Matrah, and Jibroo, and the town of Seeb. Oman is evoked and described explicitly in Baloch poetry of different periods. One of the earlier Baloch poets of renown within a written literary tradition, Mulla Fazel is famed among Baloch in Oman for a poem, notably sung in the late 20th century by the contemporary singer Nur Mohammad Nural, that narrates an itinerary passing from one port town to another along the coast of Oman. The poem takes us from Batinah (Suwayq, Sohar, Musna', Barka) to Matrah and finally Muscat, praising Barka's high facades and ramparts (Berkâ a mârî u hasâr burzîn), Matrah's bazaars laden with ancient treasures (pîrâkîn ganjîn Matrahey bâzâr), peaceful nights in Musanna' (Yak shapî ârâm it Musannâ' int), the potable water in Suwaiq's lush flowery gardens (Âp kan che golzarîn Suwaiq bâghîn), and finally Muscat's military forts (kût sepâhânî) and dramatically sloping landscape (Mashkat e washîn zîd setâhânî), desciptions that employ a sensuous, even amorous language. The poem is often referred to today as Mulla Fazel's "Muscat poem" (Mashkatî Shêr)27.

26Modern Baloch singer Faizok (1901-1982) famously performed a song, "Mashkate Merok," in which an affection for Muscat is intertwined with a pining for an absent beloved who comes from Muscat. More recent popular songs in circulation specify the newly established outskirt of Muscat, Maabela, as having its own magnetic pull, luring Baloch from their homeland. Maabela is not a bustling commercial district, but rather a nondescript sprawl of new homes, social housing, and properties under construction, some yet without water, extending into the desert. Its appeal is its stature as a site of concentrated yet unconfined Baloch community in a land of stability and economic opportunity relative to nearby Balochistan. It is popularly held that were it its own municipality, Maabela would be Oman's second largest city.

Maabela, Oman, 2015

Maabela, Oman, 2015

George Murer

27As the city modernized and expanded northwest along the coast, Ruwi, Qurum, and Madinat Sultan Qaboos became important commercial, residential, and diplomatic districts. The need for housing the growing population led to the creation of new residential areas, bridging the empty space between Muscat and Seeb, and extending inland to the other side of Jebel Matrah. One of the most populous parts of the old city was Jibroo, a crowded walled quarter in which a substantial portion of Muscat's Baloch population was concentrated. A section comprising approximately two thirds of Jibroo was demolished to make room for municipal facilities and Old Muscat Baloch households were transplanted to social housing in the northern suburbs—Khoudh, Hail, and Maabela—and inland—Amarat and Wadi Hattat. Thus while Baloch live throughout much of the city, from Fanja to Wadi Kabir to Azaiba, there are number of areas that today have especially large Baloch communities—Matrah, Sidab, Jibroo, Hail, Khoudh, Seeb, Amarat, Wadi Hattat, and above all, Maabela. Barka, a nearby coastal town with its own long-settled Baloch population, is currently in the process of absorbing Baloch from Muscat as the latter's metro area steadily expands, and more affordable housing becomes increasingly scant.

Muscat metro area with principle sections of Baloch population labeled

Muscat metro area with principle sections of Baloch population labeled

George Murer

  • 28 Peterson, 2007, p. 22.
  • 29 Ibid.

28Historian J.E. Peterson writes of early twentieth-century distinctions between the "intramuros" and "extramuros" portions of each settlement. The rulers and most established merchants and important foreign emissaries would reside in comfort and security within the walls, while "many of the houses outside the walls tended to be of barasti (palm frond) construction" and "were always the worst to suffer in times of political unrest or natural disaster"28. Peterson further specifies that "the names of the Extramuros quarters often reflected the occupations of their inhabitants: al-Dalalil (brokers or middlemen); al-Madbaghah (tannery), al-Nisasil (weavers), al-Hinna (selling of henna), and al-Safafir (coppersmiths)"29. In his descriptions of this period, Peterson writes that:

  • 30 Ibid.

Although by tradition Muscat was originally occupied by the Arab Bani Wuhayb tribe and Matrah by the Arab Bani Hasan tribe, neither tribe no longer [sic] comprised the majority in either town even by the turn of the 20th century. Baluch formed probably the largest proportion of the populations, followed by people of black African descent30.

  • 31 Ibid.

29Even before the dramatic expansion of Muscat and resettlement of the residents of its old towns, "the fishing suburbs such as Kalbuh, Sidab, Haramil, al-Bustan, and Qantab contained sizeable numbers of Baloch"31.

  • 32 See Bream and Selle, 2008, p. 17.

30Of the sections that continue to be associated with heavy concentrations of Baloch inhabitants, Jibroo is the one best known as a Baloch quarter. In fact, it was so densely populated behind its walled enclosures that it developed a reputation as its own lawless zone, known for criminal activities and eruptions of violence32.

31One of the current Sultan's urban renewal projects, beginning around 1985, was to claim about two thirds of Jibroo for royal and municipal administrative facilities and move the corresponding inhabitants to generously subsidized housing in the then new suburban expanses including Khoudh, Hail, Amarat, and Wadi Hattat, and more recently Maabela.

  • 33 See Badalkhan, 2001.

32For all the surface uniformity sought through state policies, explicit manifestations of Baloch culture as existing apart from a unified Omani culture remain vital to Baloch communities in Muscat. These take place in the spaces inhabited by Baloch communities, but often in the shadows of out-of-the-way locations, a decentering that is unsettling to advocates of Baloch culture and identity. At one point, the nicely kept Qurum Park, located in Muscat's immaculate and affluent garden city-style district of ministries and embassies, was secured for a Baloch music and culture gathering. The event was lively and well-attended and it laid bare too much out in the open to the point where a repeat was not allowed. From then on, large Baloch cultural gatherings were generally held on a "farm" (bag) well outside the city. When a professional hereditary surôzî came from Makran for an extended stay in 2014, he gave two well-attended performances in this setting, the second one alongside one of the few pahlawâns (skilled singers of Baloch epic poetry33) left in Makran, Mullah Saleh.

33Intercommunal boundaries and intersections amid the city's dynamic spatialization are also expressed in the rhythms of spirit possession ceremonies, which themselves are imbued with vivid geographic narratives.

Spirit Possession Ceremonies as a Facet of Muscat Residential Life

34From Northern Sudan to Mogadishu to Aden to Bandar-e Abbas to Karachi, spirit possession ceremonies are acutely associated with narratives of trauma as well as with contact across the Western Indian Ocean. Closely interrelated variations of the zâr ceremony have spread over time to settlements around the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf littoral, initially—it seems—from the Horn of Africa region. This spread is linked to the Indian Ocean slave trade but may reflect longer ongoing relations between the regions. Whatever the age of the ceremonial practices and their ritual components, recent histories of trans-settlement, forced migration, colonialism, and other drastic changes to regional social landscapes and community rhythms provide a vivid backdrop to the narratives implicitly enacted on these occasions and the needs they are held to address.

  • 34 For a reflection on guâtî melodies as used for the basis for virtuosic forays into musical inventio (...)

35The most distinctively Makrani Baloch spirit possession-oriented healing ceremony is the guâtî-dammâlî complex, which is widely practiced from Chahbahar and Iranshahr to Pasni and Gwadar to Karachi (see During 1989). At present guâtî-dammâl ceremonies are not a widespread fixture among Omani Baloch, but there is a lot of interest in them in certain quarters, as they represent not only a trance-oriented gathering but as a compelling musical art are a vivid manifestation of the culture of Balochistan. The climactic repetitive melodies of guâtî ceremonies and their hypnotic strumming patterns are often decontextualized as part of the celebrated repertoires of accomplished Makrani Baloch instrumentalists, such as virtuoso benjû players Abdurahman Surizehi and Rasoolbaksh Farid and the late master surôz player Rasoolbaksh Zangeshahi34.

  • 35 See Holmes Katz, 2010; and al-Shidi, 2008, p. 292-294.
  • 36 See also Christensen and Castelo-Branco, 2009, p. 170-177; and al-Shidi, 2008, p. 254-262.
  • 37 See Darvishi, 1373/1995 and Gharasou, 2008.
  • 38 al-Malaki, 1999, p.186.
  • 39 See Shawqi, 1994, p. 20; Sultana, 1991, p. 217; Pinto, 2013, p.62-66.

36Two particular ceremonies related to the concept of spirit possession have prominence within Baloch communities in Muscat and serve to bridge Muscat with Makran, amid other links to Sindh, Hadramawt, East Africa, and elsewhere. The first is the mâlid, a unique ceremony whose features, functions, and geographic purview, while quite coherent, are a bit tricky to delineate succinctly. The mâlid is a dignified, pious Muslim ceremony, that in many instances incorporates a recitation of the Mawlid Sharaf al-Anam, a chronicle of miracles and spiritual gravitas surrounding the birth and life of the Prophet Mohammad (ص) and more colloquially known as the Barzanji, after its author35. Performances of the mâlid mark important religious occasions such as the birth of the Prophet (ص) and auspicious occasions such as inauguration of a new home or the fulfillment of a votive promise and involved, apart from the recitations of the qari', or muallem, a responsorial section (hawâwîm) who answer with kneeling choreographed body motions alongside their vocalizations and beating of frame drums (târât)36. The ceremony is found in Oman and Makran, as well as in adjacent parts of the Gulf and Zanzibar and the Comoros. The mâlid retains key aspects of the distinctive form and structure of the zâr while simultaneously incorporating characteristics of the zâr ceremony and the Qaderi and Rifa'i Sufi dhikrs. In particular the chanting and repetitive drumming are used to bring attendees into a trance, which is understood both as therapeutic and as confirming the presence of a powerful shaykh—often Abdelqadir Jilani, Ahmed Rifa'i, Ahmed al-Badawi, or (specifically among Baloch) Lal Shahbaz Qalandar—as an inhabiting spirit who must be appeased in some way to calm the sense of overwhelming affliction in the inhabited mortal. Among Persian speakers it is known as mashâyekh37 and in Swahili is called maulidi ya homu and in Bahrain it is called the zâr al-dhikr38. In some settings in Makran and Oman, the mâlid involves participants stabbing themselves with knives and skewers, a practice closely associated with Rifa'i dhikr in which context it is known as darb al-shîsh39.

Warming târât before a mâlid

Warming târât before a mâlid

George Murer

37In Muscat, as well as elsewhere in Oman, the mâlid is considered a part of Omani cultural heritage and there are official mâlid troupes (furuq), who perform at official occasions but are also relied upon by communities. However, mâlids are not cordoned off—either officially or popularly—as the province of any one ethnically inscribed subgroup in Oman, but represent instead a shared sphere of practice.

  • 40 See Badalkhan, 2000.
  • 41 See Frembgen, 2012; Wolf, 2006; Mokhtar, 2012; During, 1997.

38The dammâl ceremony, whose late-night timing and spirit interface is virtually the same as a mâlid, is a more exclusively Baloch ritual and corresponds to the ceremony performed in Makran as sheperja40, emphasizing chants in Balochi or Persian, as opposed to the Arabic of the mâlid and drumming on upright and double headed drums, as opposed to the frame drums used in mâlids. The focal point of the dammâl tends to be the inhabiting spirits of Fariduddin Ganjishekar and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Sufi shaykhs whose shrines are major objects of pilgrimage in Punjab and Sindh respectively. The term dammâl itself, referenced above as part of the Makrani guâtî-dammâlî complex, intends a kind of ecstatic devotional dance performed to vigorous drumming at these shrines. I have observed that at dammâl ceremonies, possessed individuals enter into trance (becoming por, in Baloch) while seated or kneeling, just as at a mâlid or zâr ceremony, but other participants respond to the drumming and chanting by dancing in place on their feet, jumping up and down or twirling, which is the dammâl idiom itself41. One Baloch friend who accompanied me to a dammâl ceremony became displeased when an individual supposedly inhabited by Lal Shahbaz Qalandar started addressing those around him in a buffoonish, maniacal fashion. This was too much for my friend to accept, as he considered Lal Shahbaz Qalandar an impeccably dignified figure. Nonetheless, part of being por is a state of utter abandon—violent facial contortions, flailing around, and rocking forcefully and babbling uncontrollably. At a mâlid attended by Baloch in a Baloch neighborhood but officiated by non-Balochi Omanis, the muallim and his respondents began to chant in the Qalandari idiom upon finding that someone was inhabited by Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

Khodabaksh Mewal's wedding band playing a leywah segment in their compound in Matrah

Khodabaksh Mewal's wedding band playing a leywah segment in their compound in Matrah

George Murer

39The fluidity surrounding these ceremonial contexts proceeds from ongoing transformations of political circumstances and historical consciousness. For instance, the leywah genre has roots in a spectrum of ceremonial dances associated with spirit possession in East Africa and as a practice among enslaved and slave-descended residents or citizens of Oman of diverse East African Bantu heritage has been suppressed at various stages and has gradually emerged as a “sea art” (fann bahrî) performed in showcases of maritime cultural heritage from Kuwait to Oman. Apart from these latter contexts, I have encountered leywah often as invoked through motifs, drumming patterns, and exhortations woven into Muscat Baloch wedding repertoires. Its prominence as within the iconography of local Baloch culture in Muscat while maintaining a vivid East African association is paralleled in the Lyari district of Karachi.

  • 42 For an extensive analysis of the historical backdrop and performance particulars of the leywah genr (...)

40In the space of a few days, I listened to descriptions of leywah ceremonies (as distinct from the leywah idioms embedded in Muscat Baloch wedding repertoires) from two interlocutors holding two very different positions in the socioeconomic order of Muscat's environs. First, a Makrani Baloch of Pakistani nationality who worked as the cook in the small Balochistan restaurant on the main drag of Barka's city center, described leywah as performed as a ceremony in Makran, contrasting it with mâlid and sheperjah in terms of drums and their timbres, rhythm patterns, and body motions. Second, an expatriate Kenyan national related to me how leywah troupes were engaged to commemorate the inauguration of new vessels42 at the marina at Muscat's upscale housing development and shopping/dining complex known as The Wave (or al-Mawj), where he worked. On a much lesser scale than is evident in Dubai, Oman has invested in state-of-the art amenities that seem to cater exclusively to conspicuously privileged local and foreign elites and yet have come to belong to a larger and more intricately layered local socio-economic landscape.

The Reinvention of Muscat as a Luxury Destination

41Welcoming me back to Muscat when I arrived for my third of four fieldwork residencies, Baloch friends picked me up and we drove to the marina. There were three Baloch men I had gotten to known over my first two stays, and two young guests from Chahbahar. We boarded one of their boats and sped over to a hawr, one of Muscat's famed beach-lined rocky coves that are only accessible from the water. We anchored the boat and waded to the sandy shore and my hosts prepared a fire pit and proceeded to grill lamb that we ate with a fresh herb salsa. The atmosphere was relaxed but upbeat. The thrilling blast of freedom that came with skipping along the waves out on the open water had not dissipated in the tranquility of this secluded natural harbor. From the boat's stereo system, contemporary Makrani Baloch pop music—Wahab Baloch's latest—was cranked to eleven. Before long, another boat brimming with British expats in their party mode arrived and dropped anchor in the same hawr and a playful sound clash ensued. They were blasting the top 40 flavor of the month, maybe Robin Thicke, maybe Pharrell, maybe Adele, maybe Daft Punk, likely all of the above. There was a mutual acknowledgment that the day had been shorn of nagging pressures—the weather was perfect, the water clear and its temperature just right. I wallowed in the water with the guests from Chabahar. They balanced beer cans on their heads and I managed to slice my foot on a bit of coral. I doubt if the Brits had any idea what we were listening to but when they had gone, the cacophony tapered off and the natural equilibrium of the sun-drenched rocky inlet was restored. The fresh sea breeze was underlain by hypnotic, bass-heavy drumming and Wahab’s voice, the spaces between the song’s verses rendered even more empty and distant by forlorn and straining passages on the surôz.

42Two ideals that run through Makrani Baloch culture—the art of hospitality and offering comfort and protection to the vulnerable stranger, and the cultivation of exquisite settings for intimate gatherings—often draw Omani Baloch to Muscat's burgeoning resort culture, as much as to its stretches of public beach and secluded wadîs. Luxury is expressed in the abundance of food and drink, the quality of music and companionship, and scenic comforts of surging water, open expanses, and even perceptibly unstagnated water—the trickling of a stream, the surging of the surf, the rippling surface of a pool.

Visiting musicians from Makran setting up to play at a gathering in a wadî outside of Muscat

Visiting musicians from Makran setting up to play at a gathering in a wadî outside of Muscat

George Murer

  • 43 Valeri, 2013, p. 216.

43The simultaneous devotion to idealized replications of traditional—pre-urban—Baloch cultural milieus and a thoroughly contemporary, hypermodern frame of engagement is a striking constant. Muscat does not have the high-rise glitz of Dubai or Qatar's business district. It is not a fast-paced city. But its clean, modern resorts cater to tastes for unharried comfort. Affluent foreign visitors account for a significant source of revenue—adult, luxury tourism, one might say. Visa policies are in part designed to discourage youthful backpackers engaging in carefree travel at minimum expenditure43. Muscat offers pricy diversions that essentially enable the Western white-collar resident workforce and business visitors to pamper themselves as time permits. The explosion of spas, five-star hotels, and resorts offers entrepreneurial opportunities to Omanis, among them Baloch, and creates an infrastructure of informal access to facilities pointedly constructed for "guests."

44Several of Muscat's veteran Baloch band leaders now lead groups catering to the tastes of international—largely western—clientele at the big hotels, where New Year’s Eve parties and other occasions create demand for live performances of dance-oriented American and British top-40 staples. In and of itself, such gigs belong to a service industry dominated elsewhere by overseas workers from the Philippines. However, the luxuriating tropical aura that pervades the music performed by these groups—from commercial Anglophone pop to sentimental Tehrangeles-style crooning to pan-Latin fantasias of textured acoustic guitars and large percussion sections—is woven back into Baloch social life, whether at weddings or at more informal gatherings.

Mashkatî Baloch Intersections with a Global Mediascape

45Baloch communities grounded in Muscat's urban locality look outward to a popular culture landscape that is in turns global, American, Emirati, South Asian, or Iranian. Various points of intersection stand out in which performers, intellectuals, activists, and auteurs merge an Omani Baloch identity with a global vision of creativity, connectivity, and advocacy. These are equally tied to regional and global flows and to Oman's ongoing—and accelerating—self-reinvention.

46The filmmaker Muzna alMusaffer is an Omani Baloch woman whose films have been presented on the regional and global stage. She currently produces shows for Oman National TV's Culture Channel and is one of the organizers of the new Muscat International Film Festival. Her films are textural portraits of different facets of Oman's cultural and historical landscape, in both fiction and documentary modes.

47Her short film Cholo, which she shot in Zanzibar with dialogue in Swahili, tells the story of the ongoing link between Oman and Tanzania through a reunion of two young brothers, one who relocated with some of his family to Muscat and the other who lives in Zanzibar. When I met her, she was working on a short film set in a Jebeli-speaking community in Dhofar, against the backdrop of memories of the Dhofar war.

48A remarkable project of hers was to mentor a first-time filmmaker in Muscat, as part of a Danish-Jordanian sponsored workshop called "Stories Untold," culminating in the production of Pashk, an eleven-minute short directed by a middle-aged Baloch woman from Matrah, Fatma Hassan, with Muzna assisting as "tutor" and co-director. The film is a portrait of Baloch life and community in Matrah, chronicling the life of the souq. At one point the filmmaker and her sister are at a tailor's in the souq, where choosing patterns and embroidery that reflect Balochistan in their technique and motifs is a crucial precursor to the ordered phases of an upcoming wedding. The strains of frequent transit between the northern expanse of Muscat—Hail, Khoudh, Maabela, and Seeb—and Old Muscat to the south emerge when the sister attempts in vain to haggle—"I came all the way from Khoudh!"

49The dialogue is in a mixture of Baloch and Arabic that vividly reflects the Baloch character of the area, with the word mîtag (Baloch word for village, community, neighborhood) consistently employed. One neighbor, speaking Baloch, is asked to talk about the Baloch generally. "We Baloch have two ears and one nose!...," he proclaims, before putting up his arms in a farewell greeting and turning away, "Enough about the Baloch...."

50Oman may appear on the surface to be a country without a clearly delineated space for youth culture despite its overwhelmingly young population. In the evenings, public spaces—waterfront promenades, the parks, the popular beaches, the Matrah corniche, even dusty tracts and ditches separating busy thoroughfares from their less well-lit side streets—all teem with young men in particular. Walking, sitting, driving, and off-roading would seem to be the main activities that bring these young men together. Coffee shops selling tea and snacks are popular spots for regular, casual socializing. For Baloch youth who desire a more concentrated, demonstrative social outlet, weddings in Baloch neighborhoods serve as focal points. Baloch wedding bands play epic, propulsive songs punctuated by climactic swells from their layered percussion sections and vigorously chanted exhortations, combining in a kaleidoscopic fashion Baloch, Iranian, Arab, American, and South Asian musical referents. Other flows of popular youth culture hold an appeal that is more difficult to integrate into these wedding parties, especially hip hop culture, which is increasingly resonant among Baloch youth in Muscat.

At a rehearsal for a Baloch wedding band, Sidab, Muscat, 2014

At a rehearsal for a Baloch wedding band, Sidab, Muscat, 2014

George Murer

  • 44 Eisenberg, 2012.

51As with the hip hop scene that Andrew J. Eisenberg presents as anchored to Mombasa's Indian Ocean-inclined waterfront old city44, hip hop idioms in Baloch Muscat are both spatially situated and spatially imagined as they bind young people together around a shared geographic outlook and common concerns. Among the most vocal and high-profile Baloch rappers in Muscat is Haitham Soundkiller (Haitham al-Zadjali), based in Maabela, the ever-growing extension of Muscat to the north of the center. He maintains a working relationship with Prince Adool, a Baloch rapper based in Bahrain, paralleling the connections maintained by poets and activists across Gulf states. The clear objective for these and other Baloch rappers is nurturing a consciousness of Balochistan as a beloved homeland under siege. Community rhythms, sensitivities surrounding overt political expression, and the regulation of public space prove formidable obstacles to live hip hop performances. Therefore, social media is the primary space to which Haitham Soundkiller and Prince Adool turn for exposure and consumption. Stylistically, both the music and the casual demeanor of these young men are anchored in an ethos of nonchalant dissonance.

52Musical features associated with Baloch folk music may be entirely absent from the songs created and recorded by these young rap artists, but they are acutely attuned both to ongoing events in Balochistan—the political crisis, attacks and ambushes, disappearances of activists and community members—and to developments within the Peninsular literary community, such as the recent passing in early 2018 of Abdulmajid Gwadari, poet and author of the unofficial Baloch national anthem. Haitham Soundkiller's "Mae Watan" ("Our Homeland") featuring illEagle Aliens, is accompanied by a video consisting of roughly edited footage of Pakistani military aggression in Balochistan—Pakistani soldiers menacing Baloch civilians, corpses of murdered Baloch civilians, buildings on fire, exploding mountainsides, intercut with scenes of Baloch guerillas training in mountain and desert environments.

53In Sweden's large Baloch community, meanwhile, the singer Rostam Mirlashari has emerged as an advocate for Baloch culture and rights, serving as an ambassador to non-Baloch, partnering at times with South Iranian ney anbân (bagpipe) player Said Shanbehzadeh (himself of partial Baloch ancestry) to present a side of Gulf culture that reflects the region's diversity and fuses idioms coded as traditional with the musicians' individual expressive personalities. One of Rostam Mirlashari's relatives, Noora al-Meer, is an Omani Baloch woman who has made a substantial contribution to the forging of new Baloch musical vernaculars through her dreamy, lo-fi, ukulele-accompanied ballads sung in Baloch that have proved quite popular on social media, particularly among Omanis, both Baloch and non-Baloch. Rostam Mirlashari, seeking to nurture a progressive, contemporary forum for Baloch culture, has actively encouraged her to hone this style, which fits both transnational Baloch and cosmopolitan Omani visions for the current moment.

Omani Baloch Connections with Other Gulf States

54Migration from Oman has been pronounced only during certain periods and under certain conditions. The Omani imperial colonization of portions of East Africa notably extending from northern Mozambique to the Lamu archipelago was the longest-lived and extensive trans-settlement event for Omanis in recorded history. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the migration to neighboring Arab Gulf states, notably Bahrain, in response to drought, a floundering economy, and devastating weather disasters, also represents a significant episode. Both instances gave rise to major waves of returnees who were marked by a sense of social difference owing to the impact of the lengthy sojourns abroad on language, comportment, and outlook. To this day, Baloch whose families have resided for a long period in Bahrain before resettling in Oman receive comments from fellow Omanis remarking that their Arabic accents are more Bahraini than Omani.

55Already, Oman and the UAE interlock with one another in their current political delineations. Bureimi, Oman and al-Ain, UAE are a single urban area. The territory of Oman is interrupted by the Eastern portion of the UAE along the Gulf of Oman coast before resuming at the Musandem Peninsula that forms one side of the Straits of Hormoz. Oman's Batinah region is essentially culturally continuous with Fujeirah and Kalba and eastern Sharjah in the UAE. These continuities speak to relations between Baloch citizens of both states. Following the tribal organization of a large portion of Oman's citizenry, the state has designated one individual, from a lineage notably allied with Oman's sultans, as shaykh of the al-Balushi tribe. This is an open-ended appointment to which all Omanis who identify as belonging to the al-Balushi have access, though in practice there is a subset who actually turn to him in the capacity of his being their leader. He is a young man and at the time of my research was studying at University in Malaysia but was present in the country during one of my fieldwork residencies and graciously received me at his residences in both Muscat and Sohar. His family has another residence in Kalbah, UAE, which isn't very far up the coast from Shenas, another town in Oman's Batinah region with a large concentration of Baloch. In the time I spent with him, I noted that he is extremely well connected and observed that he actively hears grievances and resolve disputes for people who come to him seeking his intercession.

56The shaykh is fluent in Arabic and Baloch as spoken both in his home region of Giovan, the area around Jask and Sirik in today's province of Hormozgan in Iran, and further east in Makran, as spoken by most of Oman's Baloch population. As in Oman, the Baloch population of the UAE come mainly from Makran, with some coming from the same western extremity of Makran as the shaykh and his family, which has its own distinct dialect and styles of music, some of which—especially wedding dances—are closely interrelated with the music of coastal Southern Iran as it extends to Khuzestan through western Hormozgan and Bushehr.

  • 45 For an overview of Baloch nationalist literary movements, see Jahani, 1996.

57A dense web of constant contacts and collaborations between Baloch in Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait is sustained through the literary salon culture of Baloch poets and cultural activists, with further intensive interface with Baloch intellectuals in Balochistan, Karachi, Scandinavia, and elsewhere45. The exchange of poems, collaborations on literary publications, and a shared love of Baloch music and culture more broadly keeps these circles tight-knit through both online interactions and frequent in-person meetings and gatherings of varying degrees of formality.


58In 2019, the unthinkable happened and Sultan Qaboos passed from among his subjects. His successor Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, however, has a long history of a deep official involvement with foreign affairs, diplomacy, and cultural administration—he served as the Minister of Heritage and Culture.

  • 46 Limbert, 2010, p. 10.

59Mandana Limbert observed a decade ago that "apprehension and the unknowable mark expectations of Oman's future," suggesting "a distinct form of developmental temporality, one in which 'modernity' becomes less an irrevocable and final stage in a teleology of development than a contingent, surprising, and bounded era”46. Faced with the precarity of resources and regional stability, the country must rely on Omani society itself—its attitudes and aspirations and diversity—to define its near-term future.

60Oman has a remarkable reputation for diplomacy and neutrality amid some irreconcilable regional tensions, particularly those between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for which the people of Yemen have suffered terribly and which keep Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait on edge, dictating many of their more pressing concerns and policies. This stature—beyond proceeding from a wise pragmatism—may reflect in part a process of redemption after centuries of imperial domination with an embedded slave trade and may inversely represent returns on a long-standing investment in connectivity across the Western Indian Ocean. Whatever the underlying motivations guiding Oman's singular approach to statecraft, the intimate intersection between Omani, Baloch, and Swahili societies retains its prominence across the Western Indian Ocean region, with Muscat today counted among the bona fide capitals of Baloch culture.

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Shawqi, Yusuf. 1994. Dictionary of Traditional Music in Oman. Wilhelmshaven: Florien Noetzel Verlag.

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1 For overviews of Baloch settlement on the Arabian Peninsula, see al-Ameeri 2003; Peterson, 2013; and Jahani 2014.

2 While I was perpetually struck by the harmonious social dynamic I encountered in Oman and in particular by the universal fondness for Oman and its Sultan harbored by Omani Baloch citizens, I have preserved the anonymity of my interlocutors throughout this article.

3 See Axënov, 2003.

4 For an overview of Baloch in East Africa, see Lodhi 2013.

5 Badalkhan, 2013.

6 Ibid.

7 Breseeg, 2001, p. 90-02.

8 See Badalkhan, 2005.

9 Korn and Nourzaei, 2018.

10 See Hopper, 2015, p. 203-206; Mathew, 2016, p. 55-59; and Suzuki, 2013, p. 214-215.

11 Thomas, 1931, p. 147-148, 201-202, 238-239.

12 Burton, 2010 [1901], 132; Lutfi, 2018, p. 86.

13 See Hopper, 2015, p. 203-206.

14 Rabi, 2011, p. 48.

15 Valeri, 2013, p. 58-60.

16 Ibid.: p. 30, 39.

17 See Hubbard, 2020.

18 Limbert, 2010, p. 6.

19 al-Harthy and Rasmussen, 2012, p. 18-19.

20 Shawqi, 1994, p. 104, 146-147.

21 Christensen and Castelo-Branco, 2009, p. 190-195.

22 al-Shidi, 2008, p. 233.

23 See al-Harthy, 2010; 2012 and al-Kathiri, 2005.

24 See Rasmussen, 2012.

25 al-Rasheed, 2013, p. 109; Mathews, 2016, p. 12, 20.

26 Sebiane, 2007.

27 This poem is shared on the Baloch literary site Baask but I found it to be much talked about in Baloch circles in Muscat.

28 Peterson, 2007, p. 22.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 See Bream and Selle, 2008, p. 17.

33 See Badalkhan, 2001.

34 For a reflection on guâtî melodies as used for the basis for virtuosic forays into musical invention, see Surizehi, 2006.

35 See Holmes Katz, 2010; and al-Shidi, 2008, p. 292-294.

36 See also Christensen and Castelo-Branco, 2009, p. 170-177; and al-Shidi, 2008, p. 254-262.

37 See Darvishi, 1373/1995 and Gharasou, 2008.

38 al-Malaki, 1999, p.186.

39 See Shawqi, 1994, p. 20; Sultana, 1991, p. 217; Pinto, 2013, p.62-66.

40 See Badalkhan, 2000.

41 See Frembgen, 2012; Wolf, 2006; Mokhtar, 2012; During, 1997.

42 For an extensive analysis of the historical backdrop and performance particulars of the leywah genre in the Gulf region, see Sebiane 2007; 2015; 2017.

43 Valeri, 2013, p. 216.

44 Eisenberg, 2012.

45 For an overview of Baloch nationalist literary movements, see Jahani, 1996.

46 Limbert, 2010, p. 10.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Maabela, Oman, 2015
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 348k
Titre Muscat metro area with principle sections of Baloch population labeled
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
Titre Warming târât before a mâlid
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 398k
Titre Khodabaksh Mewal's wedding band playing a leywah segment in their compound in Matrah
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 388k
Titre Visiting musicians from Makran setting up to play at a gathering in a wadî outside of Muscat
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 604k
Titre At a rehearsal for a Baloch wedding band, Sidab, Muscat, 2014
Crédits George Murer
Fichier image/jpeg, 402k
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George Murer, « Baloch Mashkat (Muscat) and the Sultan Qaboos Era: Cultural Performance, Cosmopolitanism, and Translocal Consciousness », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 15 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 20 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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George Murer

Department of Music, Hunter College (CUNY)

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