It’s rare to find a place where old dialects die hard, but in the Musandam Peninsula Swati Basu Das finds a community with its own distinct tongue that has survived generations, and isn’t going away anytime soon.
Described as the “Norway of Arabia,” the Musandam Peninsula offers up the azure waters of the Arabian Sea amid steep facades that rise a few thousand metres above the ocean.
A three-hour trip by ferry from Shinas harbour to Khasab is a voyage to be treasured. A dramatic landscape located on the Strait of Hormuz known for its fjords, crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life, this diving and snorkelling spot is an enclave where its century-old civilisation is as unique as its topography.
A traditional dhow cruise from Khasab harbour offers a closer view of the majestic khors/fjords of this peninsula that jut into the vastness of the mesmerising ocean.
The Al Dhahhori, Al Shehhi and Al Kumzari tribes dwelling in three significant fjords of Khor Shem, Khor Najd and Khor Ghob Ali and the Kumzar village, are living proof of a particular style of survival.
Accessible only by boats, the thousand-year-old villages located in these inlets have a population estimated to be between 500 and 5000, depending on the size of the communities.
Sustaining their livelihoods by fishing, farming or herding, the dwellers here follow the traditions that are true to their land, heritage and neighbouring countries.
So, what makes Kumzar distinct? Of course, it’s the language that has made the Kumzari tribe stand out not only in Oman but across borders.
“A different language is a different vision of life.” This quote from the legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini is verifiable in this northernmost tip of the Sultanate of Oman.
Welcome to Kumzar – a land of linguistic distinction.
Apart from being the ordinary countrymen to the land where they were born; members of the Kumzari tribe have a robust ethno-lingual base that predominantly is non-Arabic.
Often termed as Oman’s last village, it leaves an impression on anyone who visits this quaint and languorous hamlet. Heavily guarded by high rugged terrains from all three sides, and with fishing boats anchored along its shore, Kumzar is like a pearl on the bay. Its denizens depend mostly on fishing and farming. Summer is when Kumzaris vacate their village and move to Khasab to escape the scorching heat. Winter is the time to taste some fresh figs from their orchards or trek through the village and follow the mountain trails or go fishing.
It’s not only its natural charisma but the settlers of Kumzar who, over the centuries, have made this part of the Gulf pre-eminent.
So, what language do Kumzaris speak? What could be its possible lingual history? No, the journey of this dialect isn’t entirely out of the blue.
Remember, Oman is a seafaring nation. Be it the ancient trade routes or the fables of Sindbad the Sailor or Ibn Battuta the explorer; sea routes to Oman have greeted travellers and even embraced traders from faraway lands since time immemorial.
Lathifa Kumzari, who lives in Kumzar, says: “Many traders from Europe and even the Far East have ventured to this land and found it a good trading spot.
“The presence of natural water in the mountains of Kumzar was a blessing for the weary travellers who halted here.
“Over time, the land captivated them, and many among them settled here. Hence their culture and even their languages made a mark in our present-day life, making it unique.”
Thus, the Kumzari language came into existence with loanwords from people sailing here from different nations.
A tribal dialect – Kumzari – contains ‘stolen’ words from people sailing to this khor from different nations, influencing the dwellers who currently claim to own words that are a fusion of English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, German, Indian, Arabic and even Japanese. That’s a linguist’s bouquet!
“Yes, we speak a language that is not Arabic but is pure ‘Kumzari’,” says Lathifa.
“Kumzari is a language which is only spoken in Kumzar and nowhere else in the world. Most importantly it is not written and is just colloquial.”
It can be termed code-switching (mixing two or three languages from various other languages) usual among multilingual people, which most experts believe are a common psycholinguistic phenomenon.
A few ‘stolen’ words in English like ‘chocolate’ that passes through Spanish, ‘thypoon’ which has a Chinese influence or even ‘lemon’ which is an Arabic term ‘laymuun’ found their way into the dictionary.
Similarly, the word ‘better’ is a common term used in Kumzari without any significant variations.
Lathifa says: “In case of a numeral, we utter them in English and not in Arabic. That has become the Kumzari way of saying numbers. ‘Namto kah’ (what is your name?) is Indian.”
Is there a risk of it becoming extinct?
Although it’s not a written language, Kumzaris believe the style of it will stay forever, says Lathifa.
Though learning Arabic is mandatory in schools and for a printed format, the beauty of the Kumzari tongue is colloquially well-maintained.
“These are words that have been passed over to us by our ancestors without any external threats,” says Lathifa. “The language has not changed its form. It will be passed on by us to our children and so on. Trust me it’s not vulnerable. It will remain forever.”
Wherever you are from, your visit to Kumzar and your encounters with Kumzaris may present to you your native tongue as they speak.