A remarkable new museum in Doha shines a rare light on the Indian Ocean slave trade a century ago, and is helping Qataris to shape their future by examining issues of race and identity in the Arabian Gulf.
Doha slavery museum confronts past to help Qataris shape future
DOHA // Newly planted trees stand solemnly over the whitewashed courtyard of a traditional mansion in old Doha that less than a hundred years ago was often filled with shackled men, women and children from east Africa — the main commodities in a booming Gulf slave trade.
The large home once belonged to Doha’s most prominent slave trader, a man his neighbours called “jelmood”, or “rock” — an allusion to his hard heart. Today, in the old house, this story and the larger history of slavery in the Indian Ocean world that brought, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people to the Arabian Gulf is being explored for the first time in a museum confronting the past and, its curators hope, helping Qataris shape their future.
“These settings reveal the circumstances of the enslaved people whose lives form part of the story of this country,” reads one of the museum’s displays — a history that has largely been forgotten and avoided in both official narratives and the public conscience, even by the descendants of slaves now integrated into Gulf societies.
The first exhibit in the museum features an ancient slave sales contract inscribed in Aramaic on a clay tablet, Greek paintings of slaves working an olive plantation and other examples of slavery throughout history. The artefacts are intended to create historical context and describe the various forms of slavery, stretching from ancient Mesopotamia to serfdom in Middle Ages Europe and the most brutal form of human bondage, the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The historical frame then shifts to the system of which the Gulf was a part, the Indian Ocean slave trade. Short video lectures by scholars and archival photographs describe the “maritime silk road” that connected the islands of South-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, the Arab Gulf and east Africa as a distinct region. One of the threads linking these far-flung cultures and empires was slavery, though it was of a less oppressive form than in the Americas. In the Indian Ocean world, race was not defined primarily by skin colour, but through paternal descent.
While many slaves brought to the Gulf were from impoverished Balochistan, and some Gulf Arabs were enslaved through war or sold themselves into slavery because of extreme poverty, during the trade’s peak most were from east Africa.
The museum tells their stories through testimony given by freed slaves in manumission documents from the British political agent in Manama — the colonial administrator for the Trucial States — from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the trade was at its height. Stories of individual enslaved Africans are told in first person in animated and live action films that trace their paths from east Africa to the Gulf, and the harsh circumstances of their lives as they dived for pearls, worked date plantations and served in households.
The museum curators, who worked with western historians on the plan for the museum, collected oral histories from a handful of Qatari families and archival material that details the roles of Qataris in the trade. But they have not presented all of the material publicly, and took care to obscure identities in the exhibits.
Some Qataris, both descendants of slaves and of slave-owners, did have concerns about the museum, and many refused requests for oral histories, said a consultant who worked on the museum. As a result, Bin Jelmood House does not explore in much detail how contemporary Qatari society has been influenced by people whose ancestors were brought, not so long ago, from Africa.
Conceptions of race and identity in the Gulf and a desire by many citizens to leave their history untold forced the museum’s western consultants to rethink how they would present the story of slavery. Distinct black identity and multiculturalism were not available frames for the project. “If they’re a Qatari national and they have been for a long time and they happen to be black, they’re not ‘Black,’” the consultant said.
Bin Jelmood House is one of three new museums in the Msheireb heritage quarter, all located in a cluster of old homes around which the district is being developed as a bridge between historical Doha and the towers and malls of West Bay and Katara. Each of the museums focuses on an aspect of Qatar’s history, particularly since the discovery of oil in the 1939.
But Bin Jelmood House stands out by confronting a painful and unpopular aspect of that history. “Since this house was owned by a slave trader we thought it would be interesting for us to talk about human exploitation, and this is part of the history that we cannot deny — we cannot doctor it to tell the story of something else,” said Hafiz Ali Ali, the director of the Msheireb museums. “The significance is that each house transformed Qatar in some way, [and] the key message we wanted to communicate was to create this awareness for Qatari people to know about the past and also look at the future — what will be the future? How we can shape our society?”
The last portion of the museum ties slavery in the past to modern forms of human exploitation, from sex trafficking to workers in Bangladesh’s garment factories and those who make our mobile phones and computers, to the conditions for labourers in the Gulf.
Although Mr Ali said the museum was not intended as a reaction to criticism of Qatar over the treatment of mostly South Asian workers building the football World Cup 2022 infrastructure, broadening the conversation about exploitation is a savvy tactic, observers say.
“It’s probably largely communicating to a global audience … and trying to show they are both open to dealing with some of these challenges, but also showing that this isn’t a fault that’s just with Qatar, that there are global connections, which I think is a pretty sophisticated way of tackling that problem,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Bin Jelmood House has also opened at a time when Gulf governments are working to create and reinforce notions of national belonging and identity as imperative economic reforms, privatisation and diversification threaten to weaken the traditional social contract between ruler and citizen that has been underwritten by vast — and now unsustainable — state largesse.
Over the past decade, Gulf countries have sought to do this, in part, through “novel forms of nation-building and inculcation of patriotism”, Ms Diwan wrote recently.
These initiatives are accelerating, Ms Diwan said. “How do you strengthen the national identity of your citizens at the same time that you’re opening up your country” economically, she said. The Bin Jelmood museum is, partially, an attempt to “educate citizens towards greater pluralism and tolerance”.
Qatar was the first Gulf country to give citizenship to the descendants of slaves, and its museum, which brings this history into conversations about national identity, is also ahead of the curve. The United States still does not have a national slavery museum, although a museum of African American history and culture is to open in Washington later this year.
“The new museum in Doha, by highlighting the peak pearling period, when great wealth was created on the backs of enslaved and exploited divers, bravely challenges widely held notions of Gulf history, and this differs significantly from other museums I have seen in the Gulf,” said Matthew Hopper, a historian at Cambridge university. “Among the Gulf states, Qatar pioneered the broad inclusion of diverse members of its population into its citizenry early in its history.”
The museum’s stark presentation of the recent past and its inclusion of this history in a national narrative is an important step forward, said one Gulf commentator.
“The Bin Jelmood House museum is a turning point for the Gulf states that are finally starting to confront a dark era in their past. Slavery was only outlawed in the Gulf in the 1960s and many of our parents and grandparents witnessed it first-hand,” said Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati cultural commentator and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation. “There are also parallels that can be drawn between the mistreatment of individuals in the recent past and the continuing challenges with regards to labour practices in the Gulf. Education is the best guarantee that in the future no individual’s personal rights will be violated, and such museums are a cornerstone in this educational process.”
Reem, a 20-year-old Qatari communications student at Northwestern University in Doha, was visiting the museum as part of her literature class’s reading of The Moor’s Account, a recent novel about a Moorish slave in the New World.
“I grew up in Doha and had no idea this was a slave market,” she said. “We’ve always known or had this general sense of how they are a part of our family and how they’ve been integrated into our community, but there is this whole part we didn’t know about until you go through all the rooms and you see the historical background, the changes, and it’s a different perspective, it’s a different narrative than what we’re used to.”
* This article has been updated to reflect the correct designation of Hafiz Ali Ali.