Book review: Ibtisam Al Habsi and Her Zanzibar Court


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By Faris Al Juma

This fascinating book by David Greenslade is divided into two halves. The first section described the life story of its subject while the second is a collection of short sayings and proverbs. The main character collected these fascinating sayings during a life-long wandering from country to country.

The subject of the book is a woman and her family. The main character, Ibtisam Al Habsi, was forced to leave her home in Zanzibar at the start of the twentieth century. From there she moved to Yemen, India, Singapore and then to Brunei. Finally in the 1970s, Ibtisam and her family, like many other Omanis, settled in Oman. 

This book is about her life and its first half gives a lot more detail of how the family overcame many hardships and managed to become wealthy and prosperous. When they were living in then princely state of Deccan, civil war broke out between New Delhi and Hyderabad. 

Later on when her family moved to Singapore, houses and belongings of Arab merchants were attacked during ethnic riots. Despite the grave challenges while living in India and Singapore, Ibtisam and her family continued their life as traders. The narrative of their progress from Zanzibar to Oman, spanning around 100 years, is told with great clarity and detail.

Curious moments such as buying a Hammond organ, learning to use a gun, taking an airplane for the first time and using the telephone for the first time have been described by the writer in style. These narrative details take place within a much larger context of international turmoil and change. 

Ibtisam and her family are personally swept by huge upheavals that took place in South Asian and South East Asian countries during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Finally, their story reaches the 1970s and Omani readers will recognise the experience of their return to an Oman where everything changed for better from 1970 onwards.

The subject of the book is Ibtisam who is an extremely determined and resourceful woman. Her daughter, Maryam, narrates the story. The family were never poor but were often in danger. The book tells the story of their survival in the most intriguing way, treating all situations objectively while avoiding melodrama.

The drama of the work comes in a very unexpected form. Ibtisam, her sister, their children and staff often entertained themselves and others by performing at wedding parties, festive occasions and festivals. 

The second half of the book about Ibtisam Al Habsi is a collection of 'sayings'. These sayings take the form of song lyrics, proverbs and poems. The narrator collected these sayings and the author of the book has re-created them in modern, contemporary English, making the book a real page turner. Here is an example of one of the sayings:

In the absconder's wake
employers thrash their passports

In these sayings, Ibtisam shows that as well as being an observer of society, she is also a keen social critic. Her life suffered many traumatic changes that she became free of social constraints and this is reflected in her behaviour, mindset and the use of language.

The author, David Greenslade, collected the material while teaching at a college in Nizwa. He met the family and friends of the family and interviewed them in Muscat and Adam. The result is a unique portrait of not only an individual but also of a vanished era.

The author of this book, Dr David Greenslade, is a British academic. He teaches at Cardiff Metropolitan University. He has written many other books and prize-winning essays. Before teaching in the Oman, he worked in the United States of America and Japan.

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