The suffering integral to the state of slavery can be difficult for most people to contemplate, either because owning other people seems too alien or distant to command immediate attention, or because modern contractual enslavement is so prevalent that we struggle to comprehend the nature and extent of our own complicity in it. Thus, while academic treatments of slavery in the early modern and modern Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds may make compelling arguments that as an institution, slavery has been and continues to be constitutive of the social and economic fabric of our societies, discussing slavery’s continued presence and ongoing legacies in light of structural inequalities and racial prejudice is challenging in a supportive social environment. In a hostile environment, on the other hand, the subject is usually avoided or silenced. What is true for individuals is even more so for modern nations: precisely because all of them — to varying degrees and in different forms — have economic roots in slavery and have social and political elites who benefited from slavery— and in the case of contractual enslavement, continue to benefit from it. How a nation represents its relationship to slavery is politically and aesthetically problematic.
All of this is to say that when I traveled with students from New York University Abu Dhabi to Doha, Qatar this past May to visit the Bin Jelmood House — a museum devoted to the history of slavery in Qatar, where it was only abolished in 1952 — I was intensely curious to see how in fact the museum approached the subject. The existence of the Bin Jelmood House itself was already noteworthy for an American, seeing that the United States of America has no national museum dedicated to its own history of slavery, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which does directly address slavery and its legacy, only opened its doors in the Fall of 2016. The location of the Bin Jelmood House is also significant: as one of four historical homes restored to house museums that addressed central aspects of Qatari heritage, it is situated in downtown Doha immediately adjacent to Suq Waqif, the heavily restored market area that is a major tourist attraction. Unlike the other three museums maintained by Msheireb Properties — itself owned by the Qatar Foundation — the Bin Jelmood House, named after the slaveholder who owned the house in the 1940s and used it to house and sell slaves — approaches an aspect of Qatari history considerably more controversial than the stories of oil exploration, Qatari nationalism, and local material culture that the other three houses present. From what I had read before visiting, and what is more remarkable still, the Bin Jelmood House explicitly connects the institution of slavery that ended in the Gulf in the middle of the twentieth century with the challenges faced by many contractual workers in the Gulf today who are caught in cycles of debt that are rooted in exploitative recruitment fees in sending countries and weak labor regulations in receiving ones.
The class I took to Doha was a methods seminar in the Arab Crossroads Studies program at NYUAD, a class meant to provide students with an understanding of how to formulate a research question that they would subsequently pursue for their senior thesis. I had hoped that the Bin Jelmood House would provide us with a productive and insightful case study of how a public institution in the Gulf grappled with a difficult matter and dealt with complex historiographical issues. This it did.
The permanent exhibition of the museum follows a series of subjects: 1) an introduction to slavery in the Indian Ocean world, 2) the history of slavery in Qatar and its legacy following its abolition, and 3) the nature of modern day slavery in the form of contractual enslavement. The exhibition itself consists of a series of rooms with panels in English and Arabic containing photos, video installations including documentary footage, animations and historical reenactments as well as traditional interview segments with scholars. While the exhibition grapples openly with Qatar’s own legacy of slavery and its current reliance on a large population of contractual workers, it also works to contextualize Qatar’s experience within regional and global histories of slavery and exploitation. As the plaque at the beginning of the exhibition puts it:
Slavery has existed in nearly every part of the world at one time or another. The story in Bin Jelmood House is part of that long history. It is also part of the less well-known but older story of slavery in the lands around the Indian Ocean, a region where the experience of slavery was different in many ways from the better-known Atlantic Ocean trade. Under the auspices of Her Highness, Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, and in line with Qatar National Vision 2030, Bin Jelmood House exists to promote reflection and conversation on important truths about historical slavery in Qatar and the critical issue of contemporary slavery around the world. This heritage house is a place of learning, dialogue and reflection. The subject of slavery is not an easy one to talk about. We encourage you to explore the story being told here and hope that you will be enlightened by what you discover.
The first section of the exhibition provides something of a potted history of global slavery and the various forms of slavery in the Muslim world, noting the influence of Islam in providing rights to slaves and encouraging emancipation. Slavery in the Indian Ocean world is differentiated from that of the Atlantic world by being much more diverse in kind, not directly linked to ethnicity, and with some notable exceptions not represented by plantation slavery.
The exhibition then moves to the nineteenth century and Qatar itself. As the Gulf became increasingly connected to a global economy, Qatar experienced an increasing demand for its pearls, which it met by importing substantial numbers of slaves. At the beginning of the twentieth century, out of roughly 27’000 inhabitants ca. 4’500 were enslaved East Africans. The display shows clearly, including through a historical reconstruction video of what pearling had been like for slaves, that the industry at the heart of the history and heritage of the contemporary Gulf would have been impossible without slavery. The horrors of what this entailed is brought home through an animation told in first person (in Arabic with English subtitles) from the perspective of a young woman captured in East Africa and brought to Zanzibar, from where she is sold onwards to Muscat, only to be sold again and forced to walk to Doha, where she is sold a final time to work in a Qatari home. Along the way she is forcibly separated from her husband and children, longs for her homeland, and struggles to preserve a sense of control over her own soul while others buy and sell her body. Moving from the anecdotal to the structural, a panel tells us that by the beginning of the twentieth century 2-3’000 slaves a year were being brought into the Gulf, most via Oman, from where they were taken to slave markets farther north in what is modern Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.
Striking here is that this frank representation of the violence of slavery does not stop at acknowledging what slaves suffered at the hands of Qataris and their participation in the slave trade, but follows the process by which some of these slaves and their descendants became Qataris themselves. This shift began with the collapse of the pearl market in the 1930s due to a combination of the Global Depression and the arrival on the market of the Japanese cultivated pearl. Slaves suffered during this period even as the number of slaves imported into the region dropped, and Qataris themselves left to look for work elsewhere (the visitor reads that Qatar’s population had dropped from 27’000 in 1919 to 16’000 in 1940). Looking for new employment possibilities for their slaves, some owners sent their slaves to work for the Western oil companies beginning to operate in the Gulf. Despite the risks, some slaves sought to flee their masters, the easiest way to do this being to head to the British Political Agency in Bahrain, where slavery had been abolished in 1937. Manumission of slaves became increasingly frequent in the 1940s and slavery was formally abolished in Qatar in 1952, in part due to increasing external pressure by Britain and the international community, in part due to the increasing oil and gas revenues that made it easier to pay for the work that slaves had previously done. So what became of the slaves themselves?
Some of them seem to have continued living with their previous owners, only now as employees. Others sought work in the oil and gas industry that was becoming increasingly important in Qatar and the Gulf region. Crucially, in 1961 Qatar passed a law granting permanent citizenship to non-Qataris who had resided in Qatar since the 1930s. The exhibition states that this resulted in hundreds of former slaves becoming Qatari, although considering the previous numbers mentioned, this leaves the question open of what happened to other former slaves. Still, with this integration of former slaves into the Qatari nation, the history of the slave trade becomes current and the visitor might well wonder whether discrimination exists within Qatari society against descendants of former slaves — an issue the exhibition passes over. Instead, in its last third, the exhibition turns to the issue of modern slavery in the form of contracted enslavement of migrant laborers.
While acknowledging the presence of contracted enslavement in Qatar and the Gulf more broadly, the exhibition takes pains to present the issue as a global one alongside the distinct but related phenomenon of human trafficking that involves some 2.5 million people globally, nearly half of whom are children. The production of commodities from clothes to cell phones within a global market, often in contexts with insufficient if not negligible concern for worker rights and freedoms has made all of us potentially complicit in labor exploitation, which at its most egregious involves contracted enslavement. The exhibition gives an overview of the steps that Qatar has taken against human trafficking and its contributions to the United Nations efforts in this regard, even as it also acknowledges the regional history of the specific form of human trafficking of young boys from South Asia and East Africa as camel jockeys, a practice Qatar outlawed in 2005 when it and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries introduced robots as replacements. The visitor is encouraged to think about steps that they can take with regard to their own consumption practices as well as thinking about ways to combat both contracted enslavement and human trafficking.
Leaving the museum, my students and I found ourselves back in the middle of downtown Doha, a city undergoing numerous construction projects, only some of which are associated with its controversial hosting of the upcoming 2022 World Cup, all of which are implicated to varying degrees in the system of contractual enslavement that the Bin Jelmood House had critiqued and contextualized. You could brush aside the museum’s displays and its attempts to honestly depict Qatar’s role in systems of enslavement past and present as little more than a distraction given the pervasive news coverage of the country’s current struggles with reforming its labor laws. Yet it would also be a mistake because the museum’s exhortation for its visitors to question their own involvement in systems of exploitation avoids triteness precisely because it is grounded in an awareness of the links between formal slavery and contemporary forms of forced labor. If we consider museums as interventions in communal memory and identity that attempt to produce new subjectivities in their visitors, then the Bin Jelmood House provides a valuable opportunity for Qataris and non-Qataris alike to contemplate the ways in which slavery and its multiple legacies are still with us today.
Janie Chuang, “Exploitation Creep and the Unmaking of Human Trafficking Law,” in The American Journal of International Law v. 108 (2014), 609-49.
Matthew S. Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi & Adam Hanieh (eds.), Transit States: Labour, Migration & Citizenship in the Gulf (London: Pluto Press, 2015).
Ian J. Seccombe, “Labour Migration to the Arabian Gulf: Evolution and Characteristics 1920-1950,” in Bulletin of the British Society for Middle East Studies, v. 10 (1983), 3-20.
Jerzy Zdanowski, Speaking with Their Own Voices: The Stories of Slaves in the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.
Human Rights Watch, “Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022,” Report, June 12, 2012. Accessed at https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/06/12/building-better-world-cup/protecting-migrant-workers-qatar-ahead-fifa-2022