Oman’s rare language under threat in Straits of Hormuz
By staff - Sat Apr 14, 4:14 am
KUMZAR, Oman — Home to 4,000 people and overlooking the strategic Straits of Hormuz that Iran has threatened to close, Kumzar village has a thousand year-old language of its own that no one else on earth understands.
Nestled on the northernmost tip of Oman’s Musandam peninsula and hidden by spectacular mountains that plunge into the Gulf’s aquamarine waters, tiny Kumzar is a simple fishing village that is a haven for dolphins and teems with marine life.
But with the arrival of television and the Internet not many years ago, its people are very much aware of the growing speculation that their lives could be shaken by a war involving Iran, which lies just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.
These same outside influences are also threatening the survival of the ancient Kumzari language, a mix of Indo-European languages and Arabic, remarkable in that it is the only non-Semitic language spoken on the Arabian peninsula in the past 1,400 years.
For centuries, Kumzaris have had front row seats to history. They have witnessed and even assisted invading armies of the world’s great empires that have sought control of the Straits, a chokepoint crucial to global marine trade and through which most of the world’s seaborne oil passes today.
At first inspection, Kumzar seems entirely cut off from civilisation. But looking more closely one can see signs of the march of modern time in the past 10 years or so — besides electricity, running water, a school and a hospital, a helipad, satellite television and Internet access.
These new-found luxuries are a welcome change for the village’s resident teenagers, but according to experts, they are contributing to the extinction of their unwritten language.
“The schooling in Kumzar is in Arabic, and they get a lot of influence from the (United Arab) Emirates and Oman … so children don’t speak Kumzari as well as their grandparents did,” says Christina van der Wal, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has lived in the village.
The Kumzari word for oven is “forno”, likely picked up from the Portuguese who ruled the region in the 16th and 17th centuries, says Van der Wal.
“There’s a lot of vocabulary from Arabic and Persian as well but they have made it their own,” adds Van der Wal, who says Iranians and Arabs cannot understand it.
The word for “rod” is “qetub”, derived from the original Arabic word “qadib” and would be totally unintelligible to Arabs, according to linguist Erik Anonby, who has also lived in the remote village.
For ‘car’ they say ‘motor’, and like ‘raha’ (radio) and ‘apsit’ (upset) these words were derived from English, says Anonby, adding that there is “extensive marine terminology exclusive to Kumzari”, not found in any other language.
The two linguists are on a mission to save the dying language. Together, they are working on a Kumzari dictionary. Anonby is working on a spelling system, while Van der Wal is working on the grammar.
Meanwhile, satellite television and the World Wide Web have brought a source of entertainment for the youth who say life in the sedentary and geographically isolated village has always been somewhat dull.
“There wasn’t much to do around here except hike up the mountain trail,” says 15-year-old Jamayel as she walks through the narrow alleyways of the village.
“But now we can watch TV, we can search things on the Internet, we can listen to music online,” she says, adding that her favourite Western artist is the late Michael Jackson.
Her best friend Mariam dreams of becoming an architect and wants to renovate the poorly built village stone shacks in which most people live.
“This place has a a lot of potential,” she says. She plans to return to Kumzar and rebuild it once she gets her degree.
Despite Kumzar’s conservative Islamic culture, parents are sending their sons and daughters to the Omani capital Muscat and abroad for higher education.
Village resident Mariam Ahmad, a 34-year-old mother of three already has one daughter studying computer science. Ahmad was married at 13 and had her first child soon after.
“But we don’t marry them off so young anymore,” she says, as her husband nods in agreement.
“What’s the point of sending them to school for 12 years if they’re just going to get married,” he argues.
The Kumzaris are a proud people with a strong sense of history. Though they are Omani Arabs, they identify themselves as Kumzaris, descendants of Sheiks who ruled over the whole peninsula for hundreds of years, according to Van der Wal.
They are semi-nomadic. In the fall, winter and spring they fish and live in Kumzar. In the summer, they all move to the nearby port town of Khasab where they harvest dates.
They are also no strangers to conflict.
A short boat-ride from the village is a Omani military base on a tiny island that juts out into the Straits. Across the waterway, several islands host Iranian military bases where it is presumed mid-range ballistic missiles are stationed somewhere along the shores.
The Kumzari fisherman share the waters of the Gulf with American warships and aircraft carriers as well as Iranian and Omani military patrol boats.
“We will always be in the line of fire because we live on the Straits,” says a 31-year-old fisherman, who gave his name only as Zeid.
But as tensions escalate between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme, with Iran threatening to cut off the Straits if it comes under attack, the villagers seem unphased by the prospect of conflict.
“If there’s a war in the Straits… there’s nothing we can do about it,” says Zeid.
“So for now, we’ll keep fishing, and we’ll keep living because all the other stuff is out of our hands.”
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