Kumzar FC more than a match for endangered language

Kumzar FC more than a match for endangered language
11 min read
18 August, 2016
In-depth: Kumzari, spoken by a handful on the tip of Oman, is a language under threat. But one football team is fighting to save it, reports Quentin Muller.
Kumzaris ask themselves the importance of their own identity in front of Muscat [Sebastian Castelier]

Abdullah Hamed, with a wrinkled face and a cap firmly secured on his head, is crouching on the floor. In the shade, his goats are patiently waiting for the shepherd to move or make the slightest gesture.

But the 58-year-old will not feed them. Not yet.

The day before, he stayed up too late watching the news on television. The terrorist attack in Nice, the attempted coup in Turkey: he didn't miss anything. Next to him, Hassan Ali, wearing a hat backwards and nylon shorts, exchanges WhatsApp messages with his friends remaining in Khasab.

The scene could be the same in many villages around the world. But the two men are standing at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz, in the most isolated village of the Musandam Peninsula. Surrounded by imposing dry mountains and the sea, Kumzar is melting under the hot summer sun. Only about thirty Kumzaris stayed here to look after the herds and check the fishing traps.

The sun goes down in a village in Kumza, in the Omani
outpost province of Musandam [Sebastian Castelier]

The others, some 4,000 souls, went to Khasab following the annual summer migration. An opportunity to support the Kumzar Football Club, competing in the summer championship of Oman.

The event has a special flavour. The stakes are higher than in most soccer games, since Kumzar FC, more than any other Omani team, is fighting for its very identity - marked by a unique language distilled from 45 others, and by years of latent conflict with the other tribes of the governorate.

Abdullah Hamed is one of the village elders. He claims to ''know everything'' about Kumzar and its population. He remembers how the city used to be unique. "I was born at the top of these mountains. At the beginning, we only had one source of fresh water for the entire village. No hospital, no school, no electricity. Our village was only a crossing point for merchant seamen."

Fleets coming from the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Holland, India, Persia and many other European countries used to come and get fresh water supplies before leaving. "This village is special, just like our language, Kumzari. It is unique. In the few neighbouring villages, people speak only Arabic."

Is the fresh water source of the village behind the emergence of the Kumzari language? No one can attest to this, not even Hamed himself. "A long time ago, during World War II, the dates of the village's founding were written on rocks. But somebody removed them. So, one day, we asked the oldest village elder. But the only thing he knew was that the village already existed when he was born."

Khasab, on the Musandam Peninsula, lies at the northern tip of Oman, jutting out into the Gulf opposite Iran

In this context of unclear history, Kumzar is losing, year after year, a part of its identity, while the practice of its language declines.            

Erik Anonby, an associate professor in French and Linguistics at Carleton University in Canada, lived for a while in Kumzar to study the language.

"It is heading towards disappearance," he told The New Arab. "Kumzari people realise it is important to safeguard it, because they are proud of it. But many social realities are preventing them from it. They are surrounded by the Arabic language. Consequently, if they don't persist in practicing it, this language will disappear because they are in a minority.

"Before, they used to speak Kumzari all the time and spoke Arabic only outside the village or when they talked with strangers. But today, whether they are in the village or at school, they speak Arabic. Children necessarily use it at school. And when they go home, they turn on TV, which is in Arabic. All the media are in Arabic. The only exceptions are text and WhatsApp messages. They use Kumzari but write it in Arabic."

Ali Hassan's mobile phone keeps vibrating. The 20-year-old exchanges messages with his friends in Kumzari, but using the Arabic alphabet. He is part of this new generation, which is not particularly excited by the idea of helping the Kumzari language survive into the coming generations.

Only Kumzar FC, exclusively made up of locals, from the staff to the players to the substitutes, still constitutes a federating entity.        

Supporters pray together in Khasab stadium during half time of the match
between Kumzar FC and Al-Shebab of Khasab [Sebastian Castelier]

In a spacious room decorated with cushions and a large flat screen, some Kumzari men are gathered to discuss their club's upcoming game. A violent Taiwanese movie is playing in the background.

Some are drinking tea while eating dates. In the middle of this joyful din, Hassan Bourassad, a 28-year-old engineer wearing a dishdasha, insists on introducing his team. "The Oman's governorates league has begun. We often win it," he says. The man, who isn't pleased with the 0-0 draw after their first game, warns: "I didn't understand this result. Usually, we humiliate everybody. My guys are outraged."

Coach Mohamed Ali motivates the Kumzar Football Club squad [Sebastian Castelier]

In question: old tensions going back over half a century, which have yet to be resolved.

"The tribal leaders in the region were consulted for the purpose of demarcating the border between Oman and the UAE. The sheikhs in the biggest confederation of the Musandam (the Shihuh) spoke in favour of an attachment to Muscat, and thus to Oman," explains Marc Valeri, a lecturer in political science at Exeter University.

"The people of Kumzar, who largely belong to the Shihuh confederation, but to a relatively politically weak branch, had no say in it and opted to follow what had been decided in Bukha and Khasab by the most prominent Shihuh sheikhs. This resulted in tensions in Kumzar, but also in Dibba. They were soon repressed by the sultan's forces."

Closer to the Emiratis, the Kumzaris have little desire to remain under the authority of Muscat. But their desire of a Musandam distant from Oman was badly timed.

"It happened in the midst of the Dhofar Rebellion, which had been extending since 1968-1969 to the north of the country. Thus, some groups in the Musandam who were against the attachment to Muscat have been accused of being associated with the Dhofar Rebellion and with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, which was very present in the region - from Bahrain to Salalah - until the late 1970s.

"It is in this context that arrests took place in the Musandam, under the guise of 'fighting against communist terrorism'."

Although the water came down from the mountains during times of heavy rains, the sore spot remains. Hassan Bourassaf remembers the demeaning glances of the people from the city, the unpleasant remarks about the way they dressed, considered to be too close to the Emiratis, and the discrimination in hiring.

Even if the man acknowledges that it has since calmed down a little, inequalities still persist: "Some of our players had opportunities with leading Emirati soccer clubs... But the government got them into trouble with red tape reasons. At the end, they couldn't play in these clubs."

A researcher who insisted on remaining anonymous confirms that the authorities are suspicious of Kumzaris: "Their language is close to Farsi and they are geographically closer to Iran. This is why the government, after the Islamic Revolution, kept a close eye on the village amid fears that Iran could bring them around."

A few minutes before the kick-off, the Kumzar FC fans are hoisting their local orange flags. Long orange cloths are stretched across the stands of the brand-new 11,000-seat Khasab stadium, which opened just over a month ago. Men with loudspeakers and drums are already warming up the approximately 600 supporters waiting on the terraces for the game to begin.

Each jhas made an effort to dress up in orange. Younger fans are wearing shorts, while the elder ones pulled on their jersey directly over their traditional garb or embellished their massah with an orange turban. Nothing is left to chance.

On the side of the field, the referee is pacing. Not long now before the kick-off, and the official is anxious. "I hope tonight will be fine. Kumzaris are a special people… Even if they're Arabs just like us," he says. A few seconds before kick-off, the eleven players rush toward their supporters and face them. A Kumzari anthem is sung in the stand: another symbol of the village singularity. The moment is crucial and solemn. If the players lose the game against the Khasab Shebeb, they will be directly disqualified.

Diuaba Sahi is 18 years old, a faint moustache emerging upon his lip. In the stand, he is one of the noisiest supporters.

"This team is ours," he says". "All the players and the entire staff come from the village. They only talk to each other in Kumzari when they are on the field. It's a bit like Athletic Bilbao. They are a source of pride, because many of us are simple fishermen. Few go far in their studies, while the people of Khasab, who are mainly city dwellers, have more important positions. This necessarily creates a feeling of inferiority."

But the young man is quickly released: on the field, his team leads 3-0 at half-time. Faster, more energetic, thirstier, the Kumzar villagers are clearly dominating the game, both in the stand and on the field.

Hassan Bourassaf, another who came to watch the game, speaks proudly. "The others, all year round, they travel in air-conditioned cars, they honk in front of the shops to order something. It's easy. Meanwhile, we live far from everything, isolated, encircled by mountains, in a small village where the sun beats harder than here."

Indeed, the Khasab Shebeb mobilised only a small handful of dispersed and quiet supporters. After the break, people calmly file out of the stadium's prayer halls. Everyone has a smile on their  face. After a great pass from the captain, Ali Abdulrahim - the first Kumzari to become a member of the national team - the visitors take it one step further.

At 4-0, the Shebeb are not able to get back on their feet, but manage to save face when they score one goal late in the game. At the end of the match, the players come to their adoring public, clapping their hands together with their supporters in perfect harmony.         

Back in the changing rooms, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Mohamed Ali, the coach of the team, is reassured: "I admit I didn't sleep much these past few days. I had a whole people behind me. Because even if the only field where we can play is the schoolyard, the Kumzari people love football. We all have suscriptions to the sports channels, and many of our players learned playing soccer by just watching.

"Fortunately, thanks to the too-warm temperatures in our village, we have to migrate here to Khasab three months before the competition. I have a house here and a small dirt field where we can train."

Covered in sweat and still moved by the win, Ali Abdulrahim, the captain, says it is a "major victory" for his village.       

Osama Al-Kumzari shows his joy to hundreds of supporters [Sebastian Castelier]

A few hours later, on the other side of the city, Abdul Qader, 30, sips a lemon juice with mint while sitting in a restaurant at the entrance of Khasab.

He is one of the few Kumzaris who stopped travelling back and forth between the city and their village. A former English teacher in his town, he is now a supervisor for all the English teachers in the Musandam peninsula. He is able to tell the story of his language and its evolution better than anyone else, even if he doesn't know the date of its apparition.

"During the game, no doubt our players used secret combinations on the ground by speaking Kumzari together," he told The New Arab. "We used to do this a long time ago. Kumzar was a place where you could find economic exchanges, where peoples of many nationalities gathered and communicated with each other in a special language to guarantee a certain level of confidentiality about their deals."

The linguist refuses to admit this could one day disappear, but acknowledges that the language's decline is noticeable.

"It depends on the families. Some teach their children Arabic, others Kumzari and Arabic, or only Kumzari," he said.

"For example, my children only learned Arabic, but some of the members of my family only teach their children Kumzari. In the new generation, many don't teach their children the Kumzari language. Some don't want to do it because they think the children will learn by themselves since everybody speaks Kumzari in the family and in the village. This should happen naturally. For me, the priority is to teach my children English and Arabic."

Arabic, which is mandatory at school and exclusively taught in the only school in Kumzar, is taking an increasingly larger place in the local identity.

"Because of the government's policy, Arabic is the country's official language. Kumzari is specifically characteristic of the village and has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Omani authorities," says Abdul Qader.

The Kumzari identity is more at risk than at any point in its history.

Kumzar went on to win the country's Regional Cup, but it remains unknown how many more times the Kumzari colours and language will reach the heights of the mountainous desert landscapes of Oman.

Quentin Muller is a French journalist specialising in issues of the Middle East and North Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @MllerQuentin