Ismaili Diary: A rare 100 year old family photo fills in a few blanks of Ismaili Khoja history in East Africa

Author Zahir Dhalla’s Preamble: Khojas, and Indians in general, were not known for keeping personal journals. Thus, there is a dearth of records documenting our history. However, the practice of keeping family photo albums was quite widespread. Photos can fill in some of those blanks, provided someone can tell the stories behind them. This would be a valuable series, people digging into their memorabilia and writing the stories behind them. Below then, is my attempt to do so, hoping it can also serve as one of the templates that others may want to use or adapt as preferred.

Huseinali Harji (with sword) historical Zanzibar wedding photo
Photo 1: Huseinali Harji (with sword) wedding photo. In the Ismaili Club’s courtyard, Zanzibar, early 1920s. It used to be the British Club where Dr. David Livingstone stayed in the late 1860s. Photo: Safder Alladina, Zerabai’s {10 in photo} youngest son. Captioning: Marhum Kassamali Tejpar, Roshan’s {3} husband. Please click on photo for enlargement.

By ZAHIR K. DHALLA

Gulamhusein Harji Sumar Walji Jendhani* was a pawn broker in the Soko Mahogo neighbourhood of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Gulamhusein had a large brood, as was common at the time, of 9 sons and 3 daughters, by three wives, the eldest son, Ali {17 in top photo}, being my paternal grandmother Sakarbai’s {16} father. This wedding photo is of Gulamhusein Harji’s third son Huseinali’s marriage to Rukiya.

{1} Hassanali (Hasina){2} Saleh{3} Roshan Abdulhusein Alidina Saleh (Mrs Kassamali Tejpar)
{4} Hamdu Wali Dilgir{5} Badru Ali Harji{6} Kasu Ali Harji
{7} Mohamedali Ali Harji{8} Abdulmalek Ali Harji{9} Gulibai Hassina Harji
{10} Zerabai Hassina Harji{11} A G Abdulhusein{12} Sherbanu Hassina Harji
{13} Hussein “Tumbo” Harji{14} Kanu{15} Rahim Husein Dilgir
{16} Sakarbai Ali Harji{17} Ali Harji 
A guide to individuals in the annotated wedding photo. Dilgir {4} composed the Ismaili anthem.

These are their stories:

All elders and a few toddlers are wearing hats, while youngsters are bare headed, the groom and his eldest brother Ali {17} are wearing ceremonial turbans. By the 1950s, hats were no longer in vogue!

Of the Gulamhusein’s nine sons, Haji (see photo 4, below) and Noorali “Mamma” are not in the above wedding photo. “Mamma” chacha is possibly in the photo, just unidentified.

The Harjis spent, all told, a couple of decades or so in Tanga, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where at one time they ran a grocery-wines-spirits store called Planters Store. All then left Tanga: Ali {17} going to Mombasa; Haji to Lushoto (see photo 4 below); Hussein {13} to Dar es Salaam; Saleh {2} taking over the grocery business under the name Korogwe Stores, with a branch store in Korogwe, a small town west of Tanga — he also ran a petrol station in Tanga; and Huseinali (the groom) running a chai, toast, maandazi, etc. restaurant called “Karaketa” at the Korogwe railway station, which his widow Rukiya ran after his death.

Story continues after photo

Khoja Ismaili family photo, Tanga, Tanganyika.
Photo 2: Khatibai and her three sons, right to left, Mohamedali {7 in top photo}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8}, Tanga, early 1950s.

KASU {6}: Younger half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, his is a touching story.

His mother Khatibai (nee Jiwan Lalji, Itmadi, of Zanzibar), a most beautiful lady, became demented (during WWII) and was hospitalized in Nairobi. Her three sons, Mohamedali {7}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8} (in decreasing order of age; see photo 2, above) conferred and decided that they would buy a native bride in Tanga for Kasu, who would settle there as a fishmonger. His bride, Chausiku, was a fine lady, devotedly looking after Khatibai. Khatibai, despite her condition, could always remember faces. Whenever we visited her, she would smile at each one of us, lighting up the whole room! When both Kasu and Khatibai passed away, Mohamedali sent support money to Chausiku. Before he passed away, he instructed son Zul (a fine guitar player in Nairobi, now in Tri-Cities, British Columbia, Canada) to continue support payments, which he did until one day he received a letter from Chausiku’s family, informing him that she had passed away, so not to send support money any more!

ABDULMALEK {8}: Youngest half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the youngest of Khatibai’s sons. There was a comical vignette he told me: In 1940, he and three friends decided to enlist in the army (WW II). Mother Khatibai was against it, while father Ali {17} was okay with the idea. They headed for Nairobi for interviews, and along the way one of them dropped out! In Nairobi, someone questioned them as to what they thought they were doing: Didn’t they know they would get only black tea and burnt roti?

Part of their enlistment interview was an examination of their education:

Q. 7 + 5? A. 11. Wrong.

Q. 14 + 9? A. 22. Wrong.

They all came up short and were told, “All you Mombasa guys are hopeless” and were given tickets to return home. Actually, Abdulmalek’s whole class in Mombasa had failed Cambridge, except for one solitary student! Abdulmalek returned to working at his old job at Fatehali Dhala Grocers for 60 shillings a month, filling candy jars, opening and displaying crates of fruit from South Africa. Once he was in the middle of enjoying a nice peach from South Africa, when in walked Count Fatehali who remarked, “It is good that you are tasting and approving these fruits because only then will customers buy them!”

ALI {17}: Father of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the eldest of the 9 brothers, born in Zanzibar in c1890. In the late 1920s, he worked at a cotton ginnery in Entebbe, Uganda, alongside my paternal grandfather, Gulamhusein, Ali’s son-in-law to be. His last job was as a detective with the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in Mombasa. He was engaged by the head of the department, an Abdallah Mzee. But soon Ali crashed his motor bike, badly hurting his leg. He retired! Before he died, he told youngest son Abdulmalek {8} that he would be reborn as his son. Sure enough, within a year of his death, a son was born, Gulamali, named by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III. Gulamali would go on to play up his grandfather role to maximum advantage –- yes, he was untouchable!

Story continues after photo

Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.
Photo 3: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.

GULIBAY {9}: Lady Gulibai, first cousin of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, was very well known in Nairobi. She married Ramzanbha of the K. B. Jamal family, owners of Tropicana bistro on Hardinge Street (now Kimathi Street), as well as of Keby’s restaurant further north of Tropicana.

SAKARBAI {16}: My paternal grandmother was very independent, not wanting to be a burden on anybody, even in death, for she had a small briefcase under her bed, which she showed everyone over time, containing everything necessary for a funeral and its rites: a shroud, cotton wool, holy water tablets (made from the earth at the well of Zam Zam), rose water, etc plus enough money for the prayer plate! Her independence also showed in how she addressed my paternal grandfather, her husband: she called him Dhalla, something unheard of in those days when a wife never called her husband by name, resorting to something oblique like “Are you listening?” or simply “Listen then”.

ZERABAI {10}: Born in Zanzibar, she moved to Tanga when she was 12/13 years old. She lived in Tanga the rest of the time until moving to Vancouver. She married Shariffbha Aladin Giga Patni. The Aladin clan adapted this name to a Muslim one: Alladina. This was around the time of the Indo-Pak hostilities after the partition. The Patni refers to people of the town of Patan in Gujarat, India, it having been built on the banks of the mythical river Saraswati.

Zerabai too, like her grandpa Gulamhusein Harji, had a large family of 5 sons and 3 daughters. She herself was of a large family; she was the eldest of a brood of 4 brothers and 6 sisters. When her mother, Khati Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji, died while most of her children were still growing up, her uncles Saleh {2} and Haji  stepped up and adopted all the young ones, each picking up 4 children! Zerabai herself was married off to Shariffbha when she was in her early teens.

BADRU {5}: He was the younger brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}. He and his family lived in two places, in Tanga first, where most of his children were born, then in Mombasa.

Story continues after photo

Photo 4: Chacha Haji with adopted children Sherbanu, Gavar and Dolat, Lushoto, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), c1930s.

Any still around? To my knowledge, none of the identified people above are alive today, although Gulibai’s {9} younger sisters, Dolat (in photo 4 above), and Lily are alive and live in Vancouver and Toronto respectively. The Harji clan today is huge, of several hundred!

Readers may be interested in viewing a collection of Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam, and learn more about Gulamhusein Harji Sumar.

Date posted: April 23, 2020.
Last updated: May 1, 2020 (added 1905 historical photo in author’s footnote, see below).

_____________________

* Author’s footnote: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar (father of the groom, with the sword in the wedding photo) was a member of the first Supreme Council for Africa, 1905, Zanzibar. Itmadi Jiwan Lalji (father of Khatibai, photo 2) was a member too. Please see Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam.

Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji (maternal grandfather of Zerabai, number 10 in the wedding photo) ditto.

All the above three are also in the classic photo of Imam Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III with the Supreme Council; see photo 5 below.

Aga Khan III 1905 Zanzibar historical photo with Ismaili leaders
Photo 5: Zanzibar 1905 — Aga Khan III, 48th Ismaili Imam, with Ismaili leaders. BACK ROW (left to right): Mohamed Bhanji, Gulamhussein Harji Sumar, Mohamed Rashid Alana, Ali Valli Issa, Gulamhussein Karmali Bhaloo; CENTRE ROW (left to right): Peermohamed Kanji, Visram Harji, President Varas Mohamed Remtulla Hemani, MAWLANA SULTAN MAHOMED SHAH, HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN, Varas Salehmohamed Kasmani, Fazal Issani, Gulamhussein Bhaloo Kurji; FRONT ROW (left to right): Mukhi Rajabali Gangji, Varas Kassam Damani, Varas Janmohamed Hansraj, Rai Mitha Jessa, Juma Bhagat Ismail, Itmadi Jivan Lalji, Salehmohamed Valli Dharsi, Janmohamed Jetha, Kamadia Fazal Shivji. Photo Credit: Nashir Abdulla Collection, Ottawa, Canada. Please click on photo for an annotated version.

_________

Zahir K. Dhalla is a retired GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and IT (Information Technology) freelance consultant in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of the University of Nairobi, Kenya (mapping science) and the University of Toronto, Canada (computer science). In addition to his non-fiction writings (see list below) he has also written many private biographies as family keepsakes. He is also the editor of Ismailis of Tanga.

Zahir Dhalla’s books available from Amazon: 

  1. My F-word Plan: How I Routinely Maintain Low Weight & Good Health
  2. Poetry: The Magic of Few Words (Definition and Some Poetry on East Africa)
  3. Nine Ginans of Nine Ismaili Pirs: A Brief History of Khoja Ismailis
  4. Learn Good Swahili Step by Step: A Complete Language Textbook in 3 volumes:
    • A Complete Grammar
    • Swahili-English Dictionary (5,750 words)
    • English-Swahili Dictionary (5,750 words)
  5. The Willowdale Jamat Khana Story
  6. Writing [Auto] Biographies: Demonstrated by author’s early autobiography
  7. From Kibwezi to Kensington: Sherbanu K. Dhalla’s Memories of East Africa
  8. My Tanga Days: 1950s & 60s
  9. Learn Urdu: اُردو: Read, Write, Speak, includes 4,000-word Tri-directional Dictionary
  10. Naked Eye Astronomy: How to Read the Heavens
  11. Two Short Stories: I. Happy Phoebe, II. Troglodytes
  12. Khojo Aawyo! The Khoja has Come! A Story of Migrations
  13. Editor: http://theismailisoftanga50s60s.blogspot.com/

Also, read Zahir’s piece in Simergphotos Bagamoyo Beach Landing, where Aga Khan III was the first Ismaili Imam ever to set foot on East African soil in 1899.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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5 thoughts on “Ismaili Diary: A rare 100 year old family photo fills in a few blanks of Ismaili Khoja history in East Africa

  1. Hello and thank you for posting this historical wedding photograph.

    The gentleman (#4) in the wedding picture who you have named as Hamdu Walli Dilgir is my father. His name is Ahmed Gulamhusein Walli (nickname Hamdu) born in 1902 in Zanzibar, son of Gulamhusein Walli Nathoo. The name Dilgir was a nick name that his uncle Fazal Walli Nathoo used. Dilgir, as he was commonly known was a gemolist and a poet and the composer of Hazar Imam’s anthem. His grandchildren today use the name Dilgir as their family name.

    Hamdu had six children and we are all still alive. Our oldest sibling Sultanali lives in London. My eldest sister Gulzar, married to Sadru Dossani of Moloo Brothers, Zanzibar, lives in Toronto and my other sisters Laila, Farida and Shamim live in Vancouver. My name is Azim and I live in Seattle, Washington.

    Thank you

  2. While reading this article and some of the family stories, the reference to the Tropicana and Keby’s restaurants brings back many memories of my Nairobi days of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Keby’s was situated on the Hussein Suleman (Virjee) Road later renamed Tubman Road. I used to walk by these restaurants many a time while going from the now Town Jamatkhana (the old Darkhana) to the Iceland Milk Bar that my family owned, located down the street. I recall some of the Jamal boys were in the same high school with me – Nairobi School, (the former Prince of Wales school) located in the Westlands/Kabete area, just down the road from the Aga Khan High School.

  3. I am Gulamali Harji.

    Abdulmalik and Dolat Harji are my father and mother. They are referenced in the article. As you can imagine, and not unlike many other large families of the time, there are good and less good stories about the various family members. My dad was very jovial and loved to tell jokes and stories that had a comical flavor. I have a couple comments with reference to the article and my father Abdulmalik :-

    1) The fruit that he was caught eating were grapes and not peaches. This story I recall well as my father often repeated it. It was his practice to walk by the fruit display stand and grab a couple grapes to eat while he continued to work. Count Fatehali Dhalla, owned this grocery store. Most of the prime customers were Europeans and of course South African fruits were a big draw. As was stated in the article, when asked by the owner what my father was doing, he promptly answered that he was sampling the fruit to which the owner, Fatehali Dhalla replied “Surely, if you didn’t sample and approve of the fruits why else would the customers buy!”

    2) The story about the boys (Mohamedali, Kasu and Abdulmalik) visiting Nairobi to join the army is true. Once they got there and enlisted they found the food and life not to their liking, so all the new recruits colluded to purposefully fail the entrance exams by writing incorrect answers to the math questions. Apparently, that worked to get them sent home.

    I verified this story with my mum (even though she is almost 94 she still has a sound mind and good recall of events). I had never heard of it before this article. Now I know. Thank you.

    Actually, Abdulmalik had a liking for numbers and was rather apt. Upon leaving Mombasa for Nairobi, he worked for The East African Airways and later at IPS as an accountant.

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