x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

An online branch for family trees

We speak to Saima Mir, a former journalist who has established a website to help South Asian families trace their largely oral histories.

Saima Mir, the founder of the website WhosTheDaadi.com which aims to help South Asian families trace their ancestries. Stephen Lock for The National
Saima Mir, the founder of the website WhosTheDaadi.com which aims to help South Asian families trace their ancestries. Stephen Lock for The National

Saima Mir has so many cousins she's actually lost count. Sitting on the edge of a sofa in her south London home, she thinks about it for five minutes, attempting a mental tally before she gives up.

"Let's just say that if there's a wedding, there'll be at least 80 first cousins there," she laughs. "At least 80. And that's just our cousins in the UK."

Mir's family tree is as sprawling as you'd expect of a typically big, South Asian family. Her mother is one of seven sisters and one brother; her father is one of eight. One of her (many) cousins has a chart of the Mir family tree; it can apparently be traced back five generations.

Mir, a former BBC video journalist, has always been fascinated by her family history, in which generations have travelled from Kashmir to Karachi to London and Bradford in the UK. However, she is also aware that as time passes, that history is slowly fading away.

"I used to spend summers at my grandmother's house in Karachi and I used to love listening to those stories," she says. "But I was a child and I never thought to make notes about it. We all grow up with stories about our family, but it's rarely written down. Now I want to be able to record it all."

That's why Mir has set up a new ancestry website, called WhosTheDaadi.com, to help those like herself with South Asian roots trace and record their family history and set in stone the stories that are passed on from generation to generation but never documented.

"Some people can trace their family history easily, but it's harder when you have no factual records," she says. "South Asians don't have a history of record keeping. We just don't. We have all these little bits of information, all these stories, and I just wish we could fill in the gaps."

That's where WhosTheDaadi.com comes in. Unlike mainstream genealogy websites, it doesn't depend on official birth, death or marriage certificates, which often aren't registered in South Asia in the first place, meaning that families don't have a paper trail with which to construct a family tree.

Instead, the site allows users to build their own database by logging family names and uploading details, such as the places where people lived, and sharing anecdotal stories of their family's past. Users can search for people sharing the same surname or who originate from the same city or village. The site also allows people to upload old family photos and ask others for help in identifying anyone whose name they don't know to make sense of unexplained history.

"I started thinking that there must be other people who want to record their grandparents' history like me - and that's how I got the idea for the website," explains Mir. "I thought there must be some way of recording history and sharing memories to build a sense of our past before it gets too late and we lose everything."

Mir was moved to set up the website when her naani, her maternal grandmother, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last year. She was heartbroken when she realised her naani could no longer remember the family stories she used to tell.

"My naani was there for me my whole life. But now, because of the Alzheimer's, she doesn't recognise me and it breaks my heart," says Mir. "She's in her 80s now and when she sees me she asks whose daughter I am."

WhostheDaadi.com launched in August and is still in its infancy; its success will depend on attracting enough users to create a database that is large enough to search on a global scale.

But Mir is confident the database will grow.

Some users come from families split during Partition in 1947 - she says they hope the site will help them find lost relatives. Mir is also liaising with the Citizens Archive, a cultural heritage organisation based in Pakistan, to explore what can be done to connect families spread between India and Pakistan. "Hopefully this will heal some rifts," she says.

Ultimately, Mir hopes WhostheDaadi.com will serve as a way to remind future generations of their South Asian roots, regardless of where they were born or grew up. "We are so far removed from our ancestors. We don't walk the same streets as them, we don't even speak the same language anymore," she says. "But in order to make sense of who we are, we need to know where we came from."

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