Barkas: A Slice of Yemen in Hyderabad

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Hyderabad’s Old City has a page still bookmarked to a chapter from the Nizam’s Hyderabad, one that is distinctly Yemini. In a neighbourhood called Barkas, the men are dressed in lungis (a printed wraparound cloth) and ghatra (Arab traditional headscarf); shop signs are in Arabic; and delicacies such as mandi and kabsa are savoured.

Although urbanisation and globalisation swept through Hyderabad a long time ago, Barkas is delightfully old world. The word ‘Barkas’ itself is a clue to the neighbourhood’s Yemini past. A local corruption of the English word ‘barracks’, Barkas is where soldiers who served in the Nizam’s army once lived, that is, before India gained independence.

One of the identities of Barkas is its labyrinthine bylanes
One of the identities of Barkas is its labyrinthine bylanes | Author

Although various communities of Arabs began settling in Hyderabad during the reign of the Qutub Shahis in the 16th century CE, people from Yemen started filtering in from the time of the third Nizam of Hyderabad, Sikandar Jah, in the 1830s. The first of the Yeminis to arrive were men from the Chaush community, descendants of the Hadhrami. They, in turn, were military men from the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. As you may have guessed by now, they lived in the barracks.

Members of the Chaush community were, in fact, invited by the Nizam to join his army as they were known for their fierce loyalty. Those were tough times, when rulers were surrounded by enemies, and friends did not hesitate to stab you in the back. Chaush soldiers were a safe bet.

After the arrival of the Chaush community, people from other Yemini tribes started to arrive in Hyderabad, from clans such as Al Saadi, Al Nahdi, Al Yamani and Al Aidroos. Some of them made it to high-ranking positions in the Nizam’s Army. “One of the most notable names is Major-General Sayyid Al Aidroos. He was the last commander-in-chief of the Hyderabad State Army in 1948,” says Anuradha Reddy, convener of INTACH Hyderabad. “It was General Al Aidroos who surrendered to the Indian Army in September 1948.”

Back to their roots

In 1948, the Nizam’s army was disbanded and Arab troops in Barkas were rendered jobless. Still, they hung on, as their ties to Yemen were tenuous, at best. They considered India their home. In the 1970s, many migrated to Gulf countries, especially to Saudi Arabia, where the oil boom presented job opportunities. Often, the entire family did not migrate, and money was repatriated to India, lifting the socio-economic status of the Hadhrami families in Hyderabad, reveals Shibghat Khan, founder of Deccan Archive, an organisation that documents Hyderabad’s history.

Over the decades, most residents of Barkas lost contact with their Yemeni relatives. Finding work in the Gulf not only allowed them to get back on their feet but also helped them reconnect with their roots. Many tracked down relatives, using the names of their tribes and revived forgotten links.

Distinctive Culture

Yemeni men clad in their traditional lungis or wraps with geometric patterns, selling harees at a restaurant
Yemeni men clad in their traditional lungis or wraps with geometric patterns, selling harees at a restaurant | Author

The attire of the Yemini people of Barkas is very distinctive. As part of daily wear, they don a lungi, usually with geometric patterns. It's called a sarung. “It is a mark of our tradition. A sarung can cost anywhere between Rs 600 and Rs 30,000. They are mostly imported from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East. The softer the sarung, the more expensive it is. The price also depends on its design and pattern,” reveals Khalid Bin Mohammed Bahattab, who runs a restaurant called Al Saud Bait Al Mandi in the locality.

Sporting the traditional sarung, Nayeem Bin Ali Bakooban (left) chats with restaurant owner Khalid Bin Mohammed Bahattab, at the former’s grocery shop in Barkas
Sporting the traditional sarung, Nayeem Bin Ali Bakooban (left) chats with restaurant owner Khalid Bin Mohammed Bahattab, at the former’s grocery shop in Barkas | Author

The traditional footwear is the arba chappal— sandals with a thick sole, with two horizontal straps running across, and a metallic buckle.

Women, on the other hand, are seen only in burqa. “They are mostly confined to the home. You won’t see them visiting the market or walking through a crowded street. Even when they step out, they are covered from head to toe. They travel by car with the windows pulled up,” adds Bahattab.

Traditional Delicacies

Harees, savoury on the left and sweet on the right
Harees, savoury on the left and sweet on the right | Author

In Barkas, Yemini restaurants ladle out a delicacy called harees, which is similar to haleem, a Ramzan-special meat stew. There’s a sweeter variant called meethi harees. Sayweed Sarwar, who runs a shop named Arabi Harees in Barkas, says harees is available for 11 months a year. “We are shut during the month of Ramzan. While for haleem, a lot of masalas and lentils are added, harees is prepared using only whole wheat, meat, pure ghee, cinnamon and cardamom.

Most roads in the Barkas neighbourhood are lined with restaurants serving mandi and kabsa, both meat dishes served with rice the traditional way, with diners sitting on the floor and eating from a large, common plate.

Bahattab says: “As part of our joint family tradition, we sit together and eat together. Mandi is part of that tradition. Earlier, it is used to be a home-cooked meal, but in the last 15 years or so, it has become commercialised. Now, groups of friends or families visit restaurants serving mandi and eat from the same plate.”

Among the popular sweet dishes here is aseed, whose primary ingredients are dates, saffron, pure ghee, and wheat flour. “This is a dish that requires a lot of elbow grease,” he laughs!

Sulaimani chai
Sulaimani Chai | Author

There are many tea stalls, too, selling qahwa, typical Arabic tea sans milk. It is also called Sulaimani tea, a spiced black tea sans milk. “Qahwa has health benefits and is an excellent digestive. It is brewed with coffee beans, dry ginger and cinnamon, among other spices. Sulaimani tea is brewed to a golden colour with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and tea leaves,” explains Mohammad Bin Salaam, a tea-seller.

A tea stall selling qahwa and Sulaimani tea
A tea stall selling qahwa and Sulaimani tea | Author

Yemini residents of Barkas say they still live in traditional joint families. However, unlike earlier, their homes are large as the community has prospered over time. Those who settle overseas have migrated to countries other than those in the Middle East.

Barkas still bears a strong the imprint of Arab culture and way of life. “Our forefathers came here to protect the Deccan and the Nizam, so loyalty is in our blood. We take pride in our khaterdaari (hospitability). There was a time when Barkas youth used to indulge in violence, but all that is in the past. We believe in one thing — pyaar do, pyaar lo (give us love, get love in return),” smiles Bahattab.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aveek Bhowmik is an independent journalist with 20 years of experience. He is an avid traveller and passionate storyteller, who likes to write about heritage, lost traditions, local communities and food

Cover Image: Jama Masjid, Barkas

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