The memory of slavery in the Gulf is that “naughty little nut” that, once brought out into the open, changes perceptions of the past and present. Vassanji’s novel recounts the story of an Indian merchant from Zanzibar haunted by the search for his son born to an enslaved African woman. Like in the novel, memories of enslavement are often silenced and yet suffuse everyday life in the Gulf. As governments across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries memorialize a maritime, pre-oil Indian Ocean past as part of their nation-building projects, the Bin Jelmood House—a museum in the heart of Doha—stands as a potentially subversive space. The museum forces visitors and Gulf residents to reckon with slavery and the exploitation of labor, in the past and present. Yet the larger context around the museum begs the question: How are national imaginaries produced and deployed in the international arena through museums and heritage projects and do they illuminate or obscure historical and contemporary injustices?
“Memory, Ji Bai would say, is this old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for anymore…Now you feel this thing here, you fondle that one, you bring out this naughty little nut and everything else in it rearranges itself.” – M.G Vassanji, The Gunny Sack
Over the past 20 years there has been an efflorescence of museums established in the Gulf. Many of these sites harness histories of the Indian Ocean dhow trade and pearl economy to project a romanticized image of the Gulf as a crossroads of Indian Ocean connectivity (such as the Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort). The past here is narrated as a precursor to a present and future where port cities such as Doha and Dubai are cosmopolitan centers of global free trade. The Bin Jelmood House sensitively explores the underbelly of this cosmopolitan past and present. The museum seeks to raise awareness about human exploitation and acknowledge the contributions of formerly enslaved people. It focuses especially on enslavement in the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean, carefully bridging conversations about slavery, race and Islam through history and contemporary forms of bonded labor, human trafficking and the exploitation of migrant labor in the Middle East and beyond.
The museum, opened to the public in 2015, is one of four heritage houses owned by Mshereib Properties in downtown Doha. It was built under the patronage of Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, the mother of the current emir of Qatar and founder of the Qatar Foundation. The white-washed building on the site of a former slave merchant’s house is reminiscent of merchant houses across the Indian Ocean, especially in Zanzibar, Mombasa and Lamu on the Swahili coast. The architecture is a physical reminder of the larger networks involved in the slave trade to the Gulf from the nineteenth century onward. Beams made of mangrove poles—likely from East Africa—hold up the ceilings of the house where enslaved Africans and others were once sold in the courtyard below.
The museum opens with a gallery on the ancient history of slavery across the world. It then delves into the history of enslavement in Qatar and the Indian Ocean, histories of integration, manumission and abolition as well as forms of modern slavery and a reassessment of the kafala, or sponsorship, system for migrants to Qatar and other parts of the Middle East. A special exhibition on DNA, “Journey to the Heart of Life,” focuses on genetics, the mixed ancestry of Qataris and histories of migration to show how race is a social construct, thereby countering “scientific” racism. The galleries on histories of slavery in Qatar and the Indian Ocean are especially powerful as they draw on the work of historians such as Gwyn Campbell and Matthew Hopper who carefully distinguish Indian Ocean slavery from the Atlantic form, which has been dominant in theorizations of enslavement.
Indian Ocean Slavery
Slavery in the Indian Ocean was no less violent than that across the Atlantic. But different conceptual tools are required to understand the specific forms of patronage relations, enslavement, Islam, abolition and race in this particular context. Unlike chattel slavery in the Atlantic world, there were multiple forms of servility in the Indian Ocean, including concubinage and domestic slavery where the enslaved person had a certain legal status and rights (such as that of marriage). In the Indian Ocean, the lines between enslaved and free labor were blurred—in some cases, the enslaved became a part of a household, although with a lower status. Social mobility was also possible, with some enslaved men becoming prominent leaders and even rulers of Caliphates such as the Mamluks. Enslavement was not always linked to race and anti-Blackness in the same way it was in the Atlantic because until the thirteenth century most slaves in the Arabian Peninsula were from Eastern Europe and Persia. Even at the height of slavery, Africans did not make up the majority of the enslaved population. Yet, the slave trade from Africa and the Makran coast to the Gulf increased in the nineteenth century, in response to transformations in the global economy.
In 1863, Sheikh Muhammed bin Thani of Doha, Qatar lamented the growing dependence of the region on the vagaries of global markets and said, “We are all from the highest to lowest slaves of one master, [the] Pearl.” Rather than viewing slavery as endemic to Islamic societies—as Orientalist, Western depictions of enslavement in Arabia often do—Matthew Hopper argues that the slave trade from East Africa and the Makran coast of Baluchistan to the Arabian Peninsula grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to meet the growing global demand for pearls and dates. Large numbers of enslaved Africans and Baluchis were brought to the Gulf where they dove for pearls, harvested dates and worked in households. Labor was grueling but the distinction between free and enslaved labor was muddy. For example, during pearling season both free and enslaved pearl divers would work long hours free diving 50 to 80 feet underwater to collect oysters that had approximately a one in five chance of containing a pearl. The work was dangerous. Many divers had ruptured eardrums and suffered from skin and respiratory problems as well as blindness. While enslaved pearl divers worked for their masters, divers who were free were often entrenched in cycles of debt and endured working and living conditions similar to those of the enslaved. Moreover, while a large proportion of divers were of African descent (both free and enslaved) Baluchis, Arabs and Persians also dove for pearls.
Just as the slave trade increased in response to global market trends, the end of slavery resulted from a decline in demand for dates and pearls, the burgeoning oil economy and abolitionism. Even prior to abolition, however, many enslaved people escaped and sought manumission by appealing to British authorities in port cities such as Bahrain. In some cases, those who were freed returned to their former masters, both prior to and after abolition, to renegotiate the terms of their labor and continue their relationship in a new form. In the years leading up to abolition in the twentieth century, Qatar’s economy was slowing as dates grown in California and cultured pearls from Japan brought down prices worldwide. The population of Qatar decreased in this period as people sought opportunities elsewhere in the region. The burgeoning oil economy also initially relied on enslaved labor, with wages remitted to owners. Slavery was ultimately abolished in many parts of the Gulf in the twentieth century—as late as 1952 in Qatar—and former masters were compensated for manumitting the enslaved. As Ahmad Sikainga, Matthew Hopper and Aisha Bilkhair Khalifa have shown, many formerly enslaved people took on the names of their former masters and continued to be part of their households and extended kin networks. Formerly enslaved people also became citizens of Qatar in 1961 when an act was passed to grant citizenship to all those who were resident in the country since 1930.
From Enslavement to Labor Exploitation
While public discourse in the Gulf suggests that those of slave ancestry were assimilated into the national fabric of the different states, older forms of dependency remain. Yet the afterlife of slavery has been relatively understudied. Further research on the intersection between enslavement and racism in the Gulf is required, especially about how Western notions of race and anti-Blackness articulate with racial formations in the region, particularly after the nineteenth century. Scholars such as Aisha Bilkhair Khalifa show that traces of enslaved pasts remain across the Gulf—in music, ritual practices and the associations between Blackness and slavery. As Khalifa argues, race continues to matter in the Gulf, although it is determined less by skin color than by paternal origins, which led descendants of enslaved people to seek assimilation into Arab social structures by taking on the clan names of their former masters. Historians such as Khalifa and Hopper have argued that, unlike in the Atlantic, those of African descent in the Gulf largely did not have a diasporic consciousness or a desire to return to the continent of their origins and instead they became part of local social structures and kin networks. In public memory then, this history of enslavement has often been buried, although traces can be heard in music such as the laiwa with its origins in pearl diving and the tambura, which acquired African influences through the slave trade. Both these forms have now become part of national musical heritage projects across the GCC.
Exhibits at the Bin Jelmood House not only trace this history of enslavement using photographs, maps and various archives, but also through video and sound installations that reimagine the anguish of enslaved people through their violent experiences of slave raiding, movement through caravan routes on land and voyages across the ocean. Videos of the physically and emotionally challenging work of diving for pearls and the debt bondage associated with it, even for free labor, as well as depictions of anonymous hands cleaning pots and working on plantations cover the walls. These installations point to the invisible nature of forced labor, whether in the past or present, and remind visitors that the lives of those who labored in these conditions are still largely unknowable.Oral interviews with Qataris of enslaved ancestry, such as the famous actor and singer Fatima Shaddad, highlight how the history of enslavement is not forgotten, despite the desire of many Qataris from enslaved origins to escape their low status. The museum brings these histories to the fore and creates links to current forms of human exploitation.
The last galleries of the museum gesture to the abuses of the kafala system, which is used in the Middle East to employ migrants who are often exploited as workers with few legal rights. A final room of the museum asks visitors to raise a hand, take a selfie and read a pledge to reject slavery in all its forms—an especially significant act given that most households and businesses in Qatar continue to rely on migrant labor and over 88 percent of the Qatari population in 2017 consisted of migrants. The selfies are then projected on a wall to mark a collective promise to be more conscious of enslavement and labor exploitation, thus critically and creatively making the Bin Jelmood House a nodal point for contentious debates on issues of migrant rights in the region.
But is this site of public memory fulfilling its subversive potential given the larger context in which the museum stands? Some reports suggest that the Bin Jelmood House was built in response to growing criticisms of Qatar’s record of human rights violations, especially as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2022. Critics argue that the museum is yet another instance of a Gulf nation seeking to polish its image on the world stage to distract attention from abusive treatment of migrant workers in the kafala system.
What then is a visitor to make of the museum’s nuanced approach to histories of human exploitation, especially in the Gulf? While the history of enslavement and racial formation in the Gulf needs to be placed within the context of global demand for resources such as pearls, dates and oil, the museum also situates the contemporary exploitation of labor in the Gulf within a global context. One of the last rooms of the museum links the plight of South Asian construction workers in Doha to that of migrant labor in the United Kingdom and the United States, suggesting that the exploitation of human labor today continues to be fraught terrain in the Middle East and also in the Global North, although on different scales. This framing can be viewed as part of attempts at “museumwashing”—where the severity of Qatar’s human rights abuses are diminished through a comparison with the strife of migrant workers everywhere—but at the same time, it can perhaps be a starting point for a conversation about human rights abuses in different contexts. As the museum demonstrates, the shape of racism and labor exploitation in the Gulf are best understood through an examination of its specific historical and geographic context. Indeed, amid the shiny new museums of the Gulf, the Bin Jelmood House stands out precisely because it grapples with the often silenced history of race and enslavement in the region. While this history may be used strategically by the Qatar government as it responds to global critiques of its human rights record, the Bin Jelmood House has also succeeded in prompting further research on histories of slavery and race in the Gulf. In this way it has become a prime example of how museums built by states can be used by curators and scholars to begin critical conversations. The memory of enslavement in the Gulf can led to a rearrangement of understandings of race and labor in the present. What this rearrangement might look like, however, remains to be seen.
[Nidhi Mahajan is an assistant professor in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Fatima Mernissi Postdoctoral Fellow in Social and Cultural Studies at The Africa Institute, Sharjah, UAE.]
 M.G. Vassanji, The Gunny Sack (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2009) p. 3.
 Matthew Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 9.
 Aisha Bilkhair Khalifa. African influence on culture and music in Dubai. International Social Science Journal, 58/188 (June 2006).