On the site of a former slave trader’s house in Doha, a museum has been erected to talk about its unspeakable past.
In an old sleek house in downtown Doha, a small chamber displays the video testimony of a local woman talking about how her grandparents were brought to Qatar as slaves and persecuted. The house is not an ordinary one for it belonged to a slave trader who, less than a century ago, held and sold slaves in its courtyard.
The testimony is one of the many other stories exhibited on the walls of the house, which has now been turned into a slavery museum. Named ‘Jelmood’ —meaning ‘rock,’ a reference to the rock-like heart of the slave trader— the museum is the first establishment in the region dedicated to exhibiting the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, a tradition that existed as recently as the early 20th century and involved various Gulf countries.
“When we talk about the history of slavery in the Middle East, we don’t have an institution that focuses on that,” said Dr Hafiz Ali Abdulla, Director of Msheireb Museums, which operates the Bin Jelmood House.
The museum, which officially opened in 2015, is one of the four historic houses transformed by Msheireb Properties, a subsidiary of Qatar Foundation. The four houses highlight different aspects of Qatar’s sociocultural development and heritage, namely architectural history, domestic Qatari life, and the rise of petroleum industry. Bin Jelmood House, the largest of the four, focuses on the contribution of enslaved people to the development of Qatar.
The house features exhibitions ranging from the sources of enslaved people to the role of Islam in regulating the institution, and from the integration of enslaved people into society to the eventual abolishment of slavery.
Back in the chamber, the video testimony goes on to describe the inhumane treatment of slaves and how oppression continued for several generations, shining a rare light on a subject that is hardly ever brought to public discourse for its extreme sensitivity.
“It was tough to convince people [to share their stories]. Their first instinct would be: ‘Why do we need to talk about this buried history?” explained Dr Abdulla.
According to Fahad Al Turky, Exhibitions Manager at Msheireb Museums, the museum curators had to work almost secretively before the launch of the museum, not only for confidentiality purposes like any other museum but also because they needed to be keenly aware of the sensitivities of the topic. The subject’s emotional connection to people in Qatar also meant that they had to be very careful about the framing of the story so as not to hurt people’s sentiments and to accurately showcase the contribution of enslaved people to the society.
The idea of a slavery museum came about when the presence of a former slave trader’s house was discovered during the rebuilding of Msheireb Downtown Doha, a district based on modern urban planning and sustainability. Dr Abdulla noted that it was the support from Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of both Msheireb Properties and Qatar Foundation, that made this museum possible as she wanted to use it to educate people about an important period of the country’s history.
Slavery is about more than any one person or country. It’s a situation that has existed for thousands of years. We are trying to elevate the situation to just more than blame so that it becomes more about the need to find how we can support and raise awareness of the issue.
“We thought the house could be a great asset from which to explore and tackle a very important and essential aspect of history, and to find a way to educate the young generation about the past and roots of slavery in the world,” said Dr Abdulla. “Once the people understood the mission of the museum, they said: ‘This is something we need to educate others.’”
While numerous museums in the West shed light on transatlantic slavery, the Bin Jelmood House aims to raise awareness not only about the history of Indian Ocean slavery but also about its evolution into ongoing human exploitation around the world. The museum doesn’t fall short of addressing the controversial topic of modern-day slavery in the Gulf. It displays pictures of migrant workers from Qatar and other countries to highlight rigid employment policies of what it calls “contractual enslavement.”
“This is something that Qatar is known for, which is being honest and being transparent. And this is the strength that the museum has: the honesty and transparency,” said Dr Abdulla.
Today, while many nations shy away from openly acknowledging their past involvement with slavery and human exploitation, Bin Jelmood House—and the Msheireb Museums quartet as a whole—is a bold undertaking by Qatar to reckon with its past in order to shape the future.
“Slavery is about more than any one person or country. It’s a situation that has existed for thousands of years,” added Al Turky. “We are trying to elevate the situation to just more than blame so that it becomes more about the need to find how we can support and raise awareness of the issue.”
The Msheireb Museums team has launched various programs in collaboration with local and international schools in Qatar to educate both the students and teachers about the topics it is addressing. Their work has been recognized internationally, including the awarding of the Best Educational Practice Program by the Committee for Education and Cultural Action (CECA), a committee of the France-based International Council of Museums.
It has also collaborated with the US Embassy in Qatar to enhance the outreach of the US government’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which talks about the trade of humans for forced labor, sexual slavery, and other exploitative purposes.
The video testimony echoes the purpose of the museum, ending with the woman talking about how Bin Jelmood House is an “outlet for each and every human being who carries deep within him the scars of pain and suffering, and the heavy burdens brought up by such racism.”
“[This museum] is an invitation for everybody to research, to learn more, and to contribute to the conversation,” said Dr Abdulla. “For us, the idea is to have a living museum and living heritage.”