Recent Indian Ocean Studies scholarship has tended to focus on the significant historical, cultural, and economic ties that have linked its diverse littoral communities together for centuries (Chaudhuri 1983; Bang 2003; Ho 2006; Sheriff 2010). Yet, much less attention has been dedicated to the dramatic reorganizations of the Indian Ocean world in the past few decades. The formation of new nation-states, Cold War politics, neoliberal privatization, and the War on Terror have all worked to restructure oceanic connectivity, creating both new fault lines and changing modes of interrelation (Prestholdt 2015). This paper critically examines one such fault line within the western Indian Ocean, that of rising tensions along the Swahili coast surrounding competing spatial imaginaries of belonging, identity, and national community. Specifically, I analyze from the perspective of space increasing expressions in Zanzibar and Mombasa of political marginality, cultural separatism, and the pertinence of being wapwani (“people of the coast”) as opposed to wabara (“people of the continent/mainland”) in the contemporary geopolitical climate. As such, these expressions are intimately bound up in contested geographic visions of the nation and the past, inflected by varying waves of histories of trade, diaspora, imperialism, and slavery across the western Indian Ocean. Informed by months of preliminary research, including participant observation and informal interviews, this paper critically explores how space serves as a useful analytic to better understand contemporary identity politics along the Swahili coast.
Tawfiq Alhamedi is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at UCI. His research is based in East Africa and the western Indian Ocean, engaging themes of belonging, citizenship, and memory along the Swahili coast. Crossing the boundaries of African and Middle East Studies frameworks, his dissertation project intends to employ an Indian Ocean lens to provide an ethnographic account of how Tanzanian communities of Hadhrami-descent (living in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar island) engage, contest, and seek to rewrite state and local narratives of Arabness and community in East Africa.