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Plundering Sheikhs

"This is not a place we like to come to especially after dusk." The taxi driver is uneasy as he steers through narrow crowded alleys, picking up curious glances along the way.

He stops on a scruffy street that runs alongside the beach at Mukhadar, a pocket of poverty on the outskirts of Kozhikode in Kerala, South India. Almost instantly, the car is ringed by a posse of young men. "What is your business here?" a twentyish chap with a turned back pea-cap asks grimly. "I'm looking for Arabi Saleem," I reply, sounding cheery. The crowd parts and Saleem steps forward. You realise then, surrounded by all that menacing brawn, that probing the Arab paternity of the local population in Kozhikode's Muslim quarter could involve collateral damage.

Saleem's relevance is that his mother, like so many local women, married an Arab whom he scarcely remembers ever having met.

Kozhikode teems with women who entered into wedlock with itinerant Arabs only to be abandoned and forgotten for the rest of their lives. Often the Arabs decamp when their wives are pregnant and rarely return to see their offspring. No official or authoritative figures exist for the women and children who represent the human debris of the practice of 'Arabi Kalyanam" (Arab wedding) which is endemic to Kozhikode.

These short lived marriages still occur, though on a lower scale than in decades past. The collapse of the timber and spices trade has choked the flow of Arab traders into Kozhikode. But the rehabilitation of hundreds of women and children trying to pick up their shattered lives in the backward pockets of Kozhikode remains a grave humanitarian problem.

The survival options open to them range from working as housemaids in Kozhikode and the Gulf countries to toiling as daily wage labour on construction sites. The more desperate among them turn to prostitution.

They lead low-profile destitute lives in Mukhadar, Pallikandi and Kuttichira, congested pockets of the city where visiting Arabs have flocked for decades in search of sex and companionship. The men were usually deckhands aboard the Arab dhows that anchored along the coast or merchants looking for timber and exotic spices to lug back to the Gulf.

They congregate at specific landing points erected on the beach and survey the human merchandise shepherded to the site by touts. The weddings are solemnised by local Muslim clerics. The broker walks away with his commission and the girls head for a spell of shortlived prosperity. Even today, any man in Arab gear is viewed as a potential benefactor, carrying a visa to prosperity for impoverished local women.

Not all Arab grooms abandon their spouses. Many have proved to be good husbands and fathers and the more prosperous among them have even displayed altruistic motives by setting up hospitals and colleges in the city.

The Arabs - whether from Iran or the Gulf states - have one thing in common : their incongruity in the Kozhikode milieu. They parade around in their traditional robes and head gear, incapable of uttering a word of Malayalam. They choose local Muslim women to marry but seek out fellow Arabs for company.

You can see them on any given day, perched in clusters on the parapet of a onetime temple pond in Kuttichira, gazing out at an alien landscape of shops and pedestrains. Closed and incommunicable, the Arab is "protected" from outside pressures by his wife and her relatives, who do what they can to keep his money circulating within the family. The domestic farce deepens when the Arab and his local spouse find rudimentary verbal communication with one another impossible without the services of a go-between, usually a relative with a limited repertoire of Arabic picked up from a brief stint in the Gulf. The farce turns tragic when the visitor's visa runs out and he must head back to his country.

The economic incentive behind Arabi Kalyanam hinges on the local exchange rate. A transiting deckhand on a cargo vesel or an elderly trader living on a disability pension in the Gulf offer the scope of a meal ticket for impoverished Muslim women on the mean streets of Kozhikode.

Fatima was one such Cinderella in search of an Arab prince. She thought she had found him when Abdul Mahmud, an Iranian deckhand, walked into her life. Four months into the marriage, Mahmud left her a farewell note. Between the lines, she read hope of his return.

That was sixteen years ago. Fatima raised a daughter, Amina, as she waited for her husband to show up. He did. As soon as she became pregnant again, he left. This time for good. No letters. No forwarding address.

Fatima works as a housemaid in Mukhadar. Her second daughter, Hainurisa, wants to see her father. "I don't even have a photograph to show her," Fatima says.

Despite their shabby track record, Arabs who come shopping for brides enjoy the goodwill of the local community. Even absentee fathers are often viewed with sympathy by the families they abandon. Arabi Saleem, star striker of the local football team, has fond memories of his Yemeni father who dropped out of sight sixteen years ago, leaving his mother and five children in the lurch. "He was duped by a friend," he recalls in his father's defence.

Saleem remembers his father as someone who came and went. "He was a man of heart. He left for the Gulf when my mother was pregnant. After my sister was born, he longed to see her and borrowed money to come down," Saleem reminisces. During that visit his father ran out of money and eventually had to be deported to Yemen. That was the last the family saw of him.

Saleem now manages the family on his earnings as a headload worker. His mother sweeps the floor in a hospital in the Gulf. "Its hard to run a family at my age. The lack of experience is a handicap," he notes, his voice cracking. His step-sister, from his mother's earlier marriage to a local Muslim, who died, does the household chores.

The tragic legacy and humanitarian cost of the practice of Arabi Kalyanam is best exemplified by Saleem and his "orphaned" siblings. His 10 - year-old sister has never known a mother's care. The family lives in a hovel in an overcrowded locality called Vattakundu, where clean water is a fictional resource. "If you dig a well here, you come up with slush," Saleem points out. If an absconding Arab can tear up a family's life, where can the victims turn for succuor? The local mosque? "No", Saleem replies. "There are people in greater need than us. The mosque must look after them first." Saleem wears his victimhood with grace and forbearance. What is his verdict on the institution of Arabi Kalyanam? "It's good and bad," he says. "There are Arabs who have disappeared after marriage and then returned to look after their families. It's all a matter of luck."

Household after household unfolds a saga of desertion and the struggle to survive. There are bizarre tales of oedipal mix-ups, when a transiting Arab sailor picks up a bride and discovers she was begot by his father.

The brokers, the only ones who sport a smile in this business, are the chroniclers of the trade, spreading stories of fairytale alliances. They will tell you the trade has fallen on hard times. The dhows don't anchor at Kozhikode as frequently as in the past. Now the action has shifted to Hyerabad in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

But the women and children left behind by the men in flowing robes and head gear, who romped through their lives like plundering sheikhs, still scan the Kozhikode horizon for signs of an approaching dhow.

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