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SALEEM, 'Arabi' Saleem to be precise, is well-known for his Arab paternity in Kozhikode's poverty-stricken Muslim quarter—consisting of crowded alleys leading to a scruffy street running alongside the beach of Mukhadar. For all the wrong reasons though. Saleem's 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 for the rest of their lives. Often, the Arabs decamp when their wives are pregnant and rarely return. No official figures exist for the women and children who represent the debris of Arabi kalyanam (Arab wedding) endemic to Kozhikode.
These shortlived marriages continue, feeding on the poverty and lack of security and education among the local Muslim population. The collapse of the timber and spice trade has choked the flow of Arab traders into Kozhikode to an extent. But the rehabilitation of hundreds of women and children trying to pick up their shattered lives in the backward pockets of the district remains a grave problem.
The survival options open to them range from working as housemaids in Kozhikode and the Gulf countries to toiling as daily wage labourers at construction sites. The more desperate among them turn to prostitution. These abandoned women lead low-profile, near-destitute lives in Mukhadar, Pallikandi and Kuttichira, congested pockets of the city where visiting Arabs—deckhands and merchants—flocked for decades in search of sex and companionship.
The Arabs 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. Not all Arab grooms abandon their spouses. A few have proved to be good husbands and fathers and the more prosperous among them have even displayed altruism by setting up hospitals and colleges.
The Arabs—a generic term encompassing residents of Iran as also the Gulf countries—have one thing in common: their incongruity in the local milieu. They parade around in their traditional robes and headgear, incapable of uttering a word of Malayalam.
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 even rudimentary verbal communication with one another impossible. The farce turns tragic when the visitor's visa runs out and he must head back.
The economic incentive behind Arabi kalyanam depends on the local exchange rate. A transiting deckhand on a cargo vessel 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 16 years ago. Fatima raised her 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, Hairunisa, wants to see her father. "I don't even have a photograph to show her," laments Fatima.
Or take the case of 24-year-old K.K. Najma of Champad who has now moved the court charging her Arab husband Mohammed Isa Hamudi of the Sultanate of Oman with "harassing and cheating" her. Najma says a brother-sister duo brokered her marriage with the 52-year-old Oman-based businessman. The brokers took Rs 25,000 from her family and the marriage was registered on February 14, 1999. A month later, Hamudi left for the Gulf saying that he would return with a visa for Najma. He never returned.
Saleem is also one among those who bears the brunt of this practice. He earns money, loading and unloading trucks at the market, to look after his siblings. His mother is a sweeper at a Gulf hospital. "It's hard to run a family at my age. The lack of experience is a handicap," he notes, his voice choking.
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.
Household after household unfolds a saga of desertion and the struggle to survive. There're bizarre tales of incestuous mix-ups, when an Arab sailor picks up a bride and discovers she was begot by his father.
But hope dies hard. So, women and children left behind by men in flowing robes, romping through their lives like plundering sheikhs, still scan the Kozhikode horizon for signs of an approaching dhow.