Tracing the origins and accomplishments of the marginalized community
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), earlier this month, nominated Tanzeela Qambrani to a women’s reserved seat in the Sindh Assembly following the July 25 general elections. The decision is welcome and notable for finally recognizing the southern province’s small but vibrant Sheedi—a tribal name indicating origins in Africa—community, to which Qambrani belongs. It also helps that Qambrani is no freeloader: the 39-year-old obtained a postgraduate degree in Computer Science from the University of Sindh and is the first Sheedi to ever be appointed a lawmaker in the provincial assembly.
No one could have thought of the Sheedis, a gifted but ignored minority, except the progressive son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who currently heads the PPP, which is expected to form the government in Sindh. Qambrani said as much after attracting the attention of the media due to her origins. A mother-of-three, she was earlier nominated by the party to head the municipal committee in Badin district’s Matli town, which reportedly did not sit well with many within the party. One of her detractors actually turned independent and contested against her, so incensed was he at her being tapped by the PPP.
Out of Africa
Qambrani says her ancestors came to Sindh a century ago from what is now Tanzania. Her family has maintained ties with their ancestral homeland, with one sister currently living in Tanzania after marrying a local. Another of her sisters has a husband from Ghana.
Conscious of the neglect and sheer maltreatment of the community, Qambrani is defiant as she talks of her life in Pakistan and the controversy she used to attract by wearing jeans and a headscarf to university. She is, unsurprisingly, thankful to Bilawal, saying he rescued her from the obscurity that her lawyer father and headmistress mother had to endure due to their background. Sharp minds, both, they were nonetheless unable to enact any meaningful change for members of their community. Qambrani hopes to change that.
‘Sheedi’ is a word that many outside of Sindh may not even be aware of. Colloquially, the word is often used in the southern province to refer to a “bad person,” much like residents of Punjab use the word ‘majha’ to mean hoodlum. Both words have noble origins that have been twisted by the passage of time. ‘Majha’ draws its origins from Mi’raj, a proper noun celebrating the ascension of Islam’s Prophet in the sacred month of Rajab. ‘Sahja’ is another word that, despite lofty origins, is utilized as an insult in Pakistan. This is patently absurd because it originates from the Arabic ‘Siraj’ (lamp), which is one of the names attributed to Islam’s Prophet in the holy Quran. Similarly, ‘Sheedi’ is derived from ‘Sidi,’ which in turn is derived from the Arabic ‘Syed.’ In many African states, such as Morocco, even today, you’ll find ‘Syed’ reduced to ‘Sidi’ or simply ‘Sid.’ The usage of the word from honorific to insult is a journey almost as telling as the one the original Sheedis are believed to have taken to reach Asia from their homes in Africa.
El Cid and Hoshoo Sheedi
During the 11th century, a soldier of fortune in Spain became the country’s national hero after fighting off neighboring Christian and Muslim invaders. Rodrigo Diaz was known as ‘El Cid’ by Muslims, a variant of the Arabic ‘Syed,’ or ‘my lord,’ while his Christian supporters called him El Camprador (the champion). He was immortalized in European literature when French classical poet Corneille based his Le Cid on Spanish writer Guillén de Castro’s Las Mocedades del Cid.
Fast-forward a few centuries. In the 1960s, Sindhi nationalism found a hero in Hoshoo Sheedi, the martyred general of the Talpurs who fought the British Army in the 1800s, eventually being killed in 1843 at the Battle of Hyderabad. Buried at Pakka Qila in Hyderabad, the traditional castle of the Talpur rulers that is now home to muhajirs from India, the discovery of his grave led to calls for resettlement of the refugees from India. Sindhi nationalists wanted the Pakka Qila to be preserved as a historic site. But despite his great bravery in the battlefield, little is known about Hoshoo Sheedi. Who was he? Why was he called ‘Sheedi’?
The original word was likely, as believed by historians, ‘Syedi.’ But that raises another question: why would a Sindhi person be called ‘Sheedi’? Perhaps it is because he was a member of the Sheedi community as we know them now. There is precedent for this theory.
Sheedi in South Asia
Dr. Helene Basu, associate professor at the Free University in Berlin, is a leading authority on the marginalized community. In medieval times, she says, African slaves were brought to South Asia in large numbers. Indian history from the era often refers to Ethiopian or Abyssinian slaves serving at royal courts or in the armies of imperial and local rulers alike. There are even documents that suggest they ruled in times of chaos.
According to Basu, Sheedis are found in many states across India, but nowhere do their populations exceed 20,000. The largest community of Sheedis is found in Sindh: some years ago, there were 50,000 of them, “but that number must have trebled.”
She adds: “Tracing the route is, perhaps, a bit exaggerated. There are quite a few good historical studies about the East African slave trade and its range in the Indian Ocean world, which give some clues about the areas from where slaves were drawn as well as about the geographical shifts of the recruitment areas over time. In the 13th and 14th centuries, slaves were mainly drawn from lower Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan—the Nile area. Many of them ended up being so-called slave-soldiers in the armies of conquerors and Sultans all over the Islamic world.” So how did “my lord” devolve to, charitably, “hoodlum”?
Origin and etymology
To understand how words change over time, it is best to go back to their root. For Sheedi, that root is ‘swd.’ In Arabic, this refers to the color “black.” The same root allows us to get the adjective “aswad,” as used to refer to the “Hajr al-Aswad,” the Black Stone set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba. Due to the fluid nature of the Arabic language, there are instances where the Quran uses the similar word ‘sawad’ to refer to any large collection. In Urdu, this has been further reduced to specifically refer to large groups of people. The Quran denotes wealth and large population by ‘sawad,’ with the leader of a large population subsequently being referred to as ‘al-Sayid,’ from where we derive Syed (leader). The word often refers to one who is rich and commands respect. In Pakistan’s vernacular, we find many instances where a majority population is referred to as sawad-e-azam.
It is therefore not surprising that African slaves brought to Sindh were called sidis. Along the way, we made ‘sheedi’ out of that and applied it to hoodlums. Assuredly, some sidis must have taken to bad ways, prompting this use of the word. But the root of ‘sidi’ means, and has always meant, ‘black.’ It is another way of saying habshi, which means negro in Arabic.
In ancient India, in times of lax central authority, principalities ruled by Sidis sprang up around the coastline. One such was Sachin in Gujarat, India; another was Janjira, on the Maharashtra coast. Thereby hangs a tale that is of special relevance to Pakistan.
The rulers of Janjira traced their origins back to Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia in East Africa) and joined forces with the first Mughal emperor, Babur. Nawab Ahmad Khan of Janjira (1879-1922) was descended from a Sidi dynasty from Abyssinia. The state of Janjira was under the suzerainty of the Bombay Presidency. The nawab had married into the distinguished Bohra Tyabji family in 1886, his 12-year-old wife Nazli attracting her sister Atiya Fyzee to her side in the state. Fyzee was a highly cultured lady with interest in philosophy.
It was an encounter in England—where she had gone to study—that has left a mark on Pakistan’s history. In an article for daily Dawn in 2014, Rafia Zakaria quotes Fyzee: “On the first of April 1907, (landlady) Miss Beck sent me a special invitation to meet a very clever man by the name of Mohammad Iqbal, who was specially coming from Cambridge to meet me.”
She accepted the invitation and found at the dinner table a “man of ready wit.” When she asked him why he had come to see her, he said, “You have become very famous in India and London through your travel diary.” The friendship was to last and is now preserved in their correspondence. The other person of note who was inspired by her was the famous biographer of Islam’s Prophet, Shibli Numani, who was supported financially in his educational ventures by the state of Janjira.
At Partition in 1947, Atiya Fyzee moved to Karachi at the request of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and was given land in what was then the new capital of the nation. She built a large house there, the Aiwan-e-Riffat, till she was mysteriously made to move into a hotel by the administration after 1950. After a protracted court case, she was allowed to return to her home. There remain no records of why she was forced to leave her residence in the first place.
Once Pakistan and India became two nations, the Sheedi of Sindh found themselves concentrating in the Lyari-Mangho Pir locality, where they had long since given spiritual significance to the crocodiles (mangho) of the area by accepting them as their mystical guides (pir) in a throwback to their African origins.
The crocodile shrine outside Karachi remains home to a well-known annual ritual. Dancing and chanting in Swahili, a language most modern descendants don’t even understand, hundreds of Sheedis assemble every year—though security threats had prevented its celebration for the past nine years, the mela returned earlier this year—in celebration of their ancient roots. Many of them admit they no longer know why it is held there, but want to follow in the steps of their ancestors, celebrating traditions that have survived centuries.
Today, Tanzeela Qambrani reminds us that the Sheedi of Pakistan have crossed another barrier in ensuring recognition for their community. Undoubtedly, their talent will take them further on this journey of self-realization.
From our Aug. 18 – Sept. 1, 2018 issue