The hidden world of the kumzaris

It is inhabited by an estimated 4000 people — a cove so small and remote observers describe it a village frozen in time. Located at the northernmost part of Oman, it strategically overlooks the straits of Hormuz and for generations have seen multiple visitors — from the Portuguese, to the French to Indians and if a Dutch expert who came to study the language some years back is to be believed, a total of 45 unique languages has amalgamated into the dialect (known today as Kumzari) perhaps providing a little bit of explanation to how diverse the nationalities that have visited its shores in the last 70 perhaps even 100 years or longer.

The living condition in Kumzar is challenging. For three months every summer, all of its residents leave the village making it a ghost town. The Kumzaris spend the next twelve weeks in the nearby Khasab waiting for the heat to die down. The rest of the year, they are content in their own piece of paradise with but only fishing serving as their main source of income.

Even the cooler months are filled with difficult ordeals. During rainy days, the whole village is flooded and without proper village plan and drainage system, the residents build over and over again whenever something is destroyed by the elements — waves and strong winds included.

The village can only be accessed via the sea. Upon reaching its shores, one will be welcomed by buildings that have seen better days. A mosque that sits at the heart of the village is its main landmark. It is surrounded by about 50 other structures each with differing age, some built 40 years back or older. Because of its small space, growth has been curtailed. There are no more places to build and this has posed a challenge for its still growing population.

While seemingly cut-off from the rest of Oman, it has small stores that sell food and other basic items. They import most of what they need by boat from the nearby Khasab with some residents making at least two trips a week to the neighbouring coastal village for supplies.

Electricity didn’t come to the island until the early 80s and thankfully, the residents here have now better access not only to technology but education with some of its younger residents moving to bigger cities to pursue higher education.
While some young Kumzaris had left behind the hard life in this cove, they still find the time to visit families and relatives maintaining high respect for tradition and their roots.

A dying language?
In 2012, AFP correspondents visited Kumzar to check out the condition of its residents then threatened by the Iran-US diplomatic problem.

They noted its remoteness and described its residents “cut-off from the rest of the world” hinting that it is both a gift and a curse.

They interviewed Zaid al Kumzari, one of the island’s residents who said that “We’d been leaving like this for years in Kumzar. People spend their whole lives in the sea and earn their living from the sea.”

Mohammad Abdullah, another resident, explained to them that Kumzari as far as they know is a mix of Portuguese, French and Indian words.

“A Dutch expert visited us a few years ago. He stayed for a month until he learned to speak our language. He told us that our language is a mixture of 45 languages,” he shared with the team.

To this day, no one, not even the residents, knows definitely how their language came to be. A mix of Indo-European and Arabic language, it is for sure an evolving one with one of the residents explaining in another news interview that “book” is also pronounced as “book” in Kumzari.
Kumzari doesn’t come with an alphabet. Not one of the residents knows how to write it down. It is a language that is only passed orally which is why linguists are afraid for its future.

As AFP reported, a Canadian linguist was so worried of Kumzari dying down that the expert decided to write a Kumzari dictionary to try to immortalise the language that for centuries has only been passed down orally.

With the advent and access to technology, the threat is even greater and without proper support or conservation efforts, it may become the case in the next few years.

Still Oman
While the language may be different from the rest of the Sultanate, the Kumzaris are still evidently Omanis to the core.

Here, the villagers take pride in their customs and traditions and wearing traditional Omani clothes, same as anywhere in the country, is a highly valued must.

The skill in fishing is passed down to the younger Omanis who also take pride in their mastery of the tumultuous, unpredictable sea.

Marriage ceremonies and other events are almost a whole neighbourhood affair where the men dance on the street emulating folk dances other tribes and villages in the Sultanate do so well.

As Ali al Kumzari, one of the residents who moved away from the village shared in an interview by a Middle East reporter, “In Kumzar, it’s all about fishing, there isn’t another job. Some people go but they also come back. I am not sure exactly how many years but my family have been in Kumzar maybe 100 years. I know six generations at least. And many still stayed.”