My Camera is Upset
My interest in photography grew stronger than ever after I moved to the Emirates. Maybe because it was sometimes forbidden fruit, coupled with the fascinating offerings the young nation presented, immensely ambitious and westward-looking, always trying to arrive at a compromise with its old ways. I had also recently bid adieu to my desk job and finally had the time to do the things that mattered to me. But one thing was for sure and to my disadvantage—the country didn’t take very kindly to camera-wielding culture vultures.
Prohibitive signs greeted me at almost every photoworthy spot—beaches, bridges and ports—and where there were no signs the embargo came in the form of sour looks or outright injunctions from security guards. At the local photography club in Abu Dhabi, members almost never presented pictures of their adopted country, except the occasional tribute to its unreasonably tall buildings; the submissions were mostly records of their holidays, studio-made portraits or scenes from places they lived in before coming to the UAE.
But so far I had failed to whip up much love for the cities’ superstructures, and my photography plans somewhat thwarted, I decided to take a trip with my favourite travel partner. One spring morning we rode a bus across the country’s northern border to the city of Khasab, and from there sailed on a dhow on the Strait of Hormuz, drinking sweet Omani tea, making small talk with wild dolphins, till we turned into the inlet that would bring us to the still remote village of Kumzar.
The Children of Kumzar
“Soora! Soora!” the children cried, eyes twinkling, cheeks fit to burst with giggles, saying the only Arabic words I would hear in their quaint little village.
Spoken solely in Kumzar and Iran’s Larak island and understood by no one else, Kumzari is the only non-Semitic language surviving on the Arabian peninsula. In its time as a popular rest stop for seafaring merchants passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the little Omani village of Kumzar developed a tongue like no other, as Farsi, Arabic, Portuguese, with a fair sprinkling of Urdu and English, came together to give Kumzari its unique charm and character.
But in this village where history has been passed down through oral traditions, no written records exist of the language’s evolution, and neither does it have a script to call its own, using Arabic letters instead to meet the demands of the modern world.
One would imagine a language so confined to its birthplace, unknown outside its bounds and surviving in a region where the emphasis on Arabic results in the neglect of its lesser-known cousins, is at considerable peril. In the only school in town, children learn not Kumzari, but Arabic, which many now prefer to speak after classes as well. It is the language that will help them integrate better in the cities that are all the rage these days—Muscat, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all within seven hours from their isolated village. Many have an eye on universities and lifestyles found farther west, in the UK and beyond.
It has been only a few years since television and the internet made their inroads into the lives of this fishing community, but the call of the world outside is strong, and it has the strongest hold on Kumzar’s children, who now know of umpteen things one can do besides spending every day of their lives trawling or harvesting dates. It is not surprising then to find that some of the graffiti brightening up the arid mountain walls of the village is in English.
“MAFIA GERATION,” announces one curious piece of work within minutes after you’ve entered the village, informing you boldly of the youth’s new aspirations. The vivid yellow walls of a few houses on which some children doodle their imaginations, are filled with amusing drawings, cartoons and short fiction, also in English. Two boys who are walking home from school, stop in my tracks when they see me taking pictures and promptly strike a pose, peace symbol at the ready.
But the elders of Kumzar are not apsit. They are confident their language will survive, and by way of evidence they mention that Kumzaris are fiercely loyal to their language and culture, and while many now go elsewhere to make their fortune or in search of new experiences, they always come back home.
But what is to be done about the children, most of them girls, who are asking for their photos to be taken? “Soora! Soora!” the chant continues, as my camera and I dither, sceptical, looking around for parent figures whose permission we could ask.
I have received my instructions on the boat itself. “Ma’am has to wear long clothes in the village,” our boatman said shyly to my travel partner, who then passed on the message to me, which I, sitting two feet from them, had already overheard. As I threw on a shalwar over my beach shorts and strapped on my camera, the second instruction was revealed, once again man to man and overheard by me. I was to avoid taking photos of the females.
It wasn’t difficult to make my peace with this embargo. There is much to do and observe in this isolated village, and I was happy to give my overworked camera a little stress relief as we began our tour of Kumzar. We walked through unpaved roads, lines of bright, charming homes leading us on, a goat here, a goat there, children returning from school, little groups of women gathered outside for a chat in the sun, men doing the same by their fishing boats. Construction workers, many of them from even smaller places in Pakistan, were laying new plumbing pipes all over the village. Kumzar’s only desalination plant was hard at work, but water is often in short supply—one more reason the new generation prefers to spend time in their more amenable family homes on the mainland in Khasab.
Acquainted with the ways of this city and the many tourists it attracts, the children now shouted even louder, putting on their biggest smiles or ponderous looks as they pleased, every time they saw the lady with the camera. And after searching their mothers’ faces for a while I saw that they were smiling too, and had relented, nodding at me to go on, let these exuberant kids have some fun after all.
If you’re more of a visual person, go for the photo essay instead.