RAQABIYYA, or Neck Tax
Granny, chewing a date, transmits
her soul, then presses it between
the baby girl’s lips.
“[They] suffer from the tyranny of their masters
more keenly than language can express,”
observes Captain Robert Taylor of the East India Company
as he passes over our homeland
like smog, the dull weight of his judgement unsettling
our bones. Granny, holding the stone
in her bite, soothes the pulp along the infant’s tongue.
Granny and the infant share a sweet smile,
Dad’s in prison, the bars, his
its consonants wound around
his neck. The keepers at the archives will fussily record
the Sheikh trading our ancestor’s cadaver for a penny.
Granny deposits the stone in a grave,
tended to a garden. Shhhhh,
she says, shhhhh. She stays,
Fatima ya Fatamtam ya rabi’at gawm
Fatima, our Fatamtam,
her face like a springtime bloom.
She went to sell our yoghurt,
she went, now twelve days gone.
Was she taken by a foreign man,
or kidnapped by a lord?
Mum, pitting the date, saves
the sweet flesh. Her daughter
shares a lullaby. Dad’s without
citizenship, his prison,
an anti-terror law fit for the current century.
Daughter, expectant, consuming a date
whole, carrying, past the record keepers, the stone.
Raqabiyya, or Neck Tax has been published in the past month in the latest anthology by Young Identity, titled “Ecosystems of Fury – The Scalpel and the Sledgehammer – Myth Restoration”. The first draft of the poem was scribbled out in a 5 minute freewrite exercise in February 2020; it was only much later, when the invitation to submit work came, that this poem came together. It’s one of my favourite pieces to come out of the past year (and I’m grateful to my editor Roma Havers, who guided me through a very fun editing session — and it’s rare to call editing fun).
The poem is about a few things quite important to me, all centred around history. Who’s telling our stories?
The Title – Raqabiyya
Raqabiyya is the name of an arbitrary tax that was levied on the Baharna peasantry by their lords. It, along with sukhra (forced labour), made peasant life unbearable. I’ve written about this way back in 2013, when I first started reading the British archives. In December 1921, so nearly 100 years ago, a deputation of Baharna arrived at the British Agency demanding help to end this injustice; the chain of events would lead to the abdication of the ruler in 1923. One of the records is this horrifying litany of abuses, which included abduction, rape, and financial exploitation of village men, women and children.
When I first learned about Raqabiyya, I called it ragabiyya, the qaaf becoming gaaf in my Bahraini dialect. A family member corrected me. “Not ragabiyya. RaQabiyya.”
“Why not ragabiyya?”
“You just don’t with that word.”
As if this word did not deserve to be pronounced in our mother dialect.
The Quote by Captain Robert Taylor
In 1818, a colonial agent by the name of Captain Robert Taylor wrote a lengthy record detailing the many states of the Gulf, which the British called the ‘Pirate Coast’ because the seafaring Arabs would sometimes disrupt the trade routes to India (by 1820, Britain would force the ‘Pirate Coast’ and Bahrain into submission through a very literal example of gunboat diplomacy, razing Ras Al-Khaima to the ground and forcing the Arabs into treaty relations. I’ve written it about previously here.)
Of the Baharna, my ancestors, Taylor writes: “The Chiefs of the Beni Itbah, a foreign tribe of arabs from Grane (or Koweit), have governed its aboriginal inhabitants for more than thirty-five years with absolute power … The aboriginal inhabitants, now subjected to a foreign power, suffer from the tyranny of their masters more keenly than language can express.”
This quote has stayed with me in all the many years since I read it. It is a disturbing, momentary reference to my ancestors (the ‘aboriginal inhabitants’), and skimmed over far too quickly. Yet oral family history does capture the suffering keenly. Stories of the ancestor born in Tubli to such poverty they migrated to Qatar, returning to Bahrain as an adult after the the end Raqabiyya and Sukhra in the 1920s. Other ancestors who had to flee to Basra and beyond. Debtors prisons and humiliation.
(Not all of life was suffering – I’ve just been reading the sarcastic poetry of Sa’ida bint Nasser, a witty woman who lived in the mid-19th century. Her rhymes included everything from conversations with date palms to a show of solidarity with a bed-wetting wife threatened with divorce. I mention this because our history shouldn’t be solely defined by traumas).
I’m drawn to this quote because it is the earliest references to the Baharna that I’ve read in the colonial records. It helps me understand my history. But it also reveals a lot about the colonial officer who wrote about it – he, who can write a book’s worth detailing the economic and political makeup of Oman, Bahrain and every emirate in between, lacks the vocabulary to explain the peasant and working class lives of the people he witnessed.
The Folk Poem
I translated Fatima ya Fatamtam in the summer last year after I first came across it. As with any folk poems, there are multiple variations, but this is the one that came down to me from my locality (Bani Jamra).
I’ve been collecting more folk poems since then and have more I wish to eventually share. What is striking about these poems are:
1 – They are often in a female voice. Although we don’t know the original poet, her voice is powerfully heard.
2 – They express the “the tyranny” more keenly than Robert Taylor’s colonial language ever could.
There are many of these poems. A large number of them are about the danger of women being kidnapped by aristocrats (as we know, from this record, was a real and recurrent threat).
Female and Male Voices
History tends to centre male voices over female ones. The historical record is made up primarily by the writings of men, focused on the issues of men. Yet the history of our emotional experiences, that is so often retained by women. In this case, it was captured in folk tales by women, passed down by mothers to their daughters; a chain of oral repetition. Fatima ya fatamtam is not a historical record in the sense that it tells us that “On such a date, a girl called Fatima, on her way to the market, etc…”. But it tells us that such things did happen, and that they happened with enough regularity that variations of this poem were told from the northwest coast of Bahrain to Sitra island.
In this poem, the female voice passes from ‘Granny’ to ‘Mum’ to ‘Daughter’ whose is ‘expectant’. The female voice is enduring – sidestepping the male stories and histories of trauma, not entirely safe herself, but passing on a record of her own which goes ignored past the record keeper.
I wanted to centre these stories in the poem. In a way, this poem acts as a personal manifesto, of my movement away from the study of history to the study of literature. And my efforts to ‘decolonise’ in practice – I’m committed to decolonising education, and what does that mean? It means raising folk stories like this to the same (or greater) level of importance to the standardised, elite, male historical record.
‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’ 23, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/R/15/1/732, in Qatar Digital Library https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100022870191.0x00003d [accessed 15 April 2021]