Looking Through a Creole Lens: Moving Beyond Race Categorisations and Towards Transnational Histories

Did you miss our book discussion on Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Dr Sumit K. Mandal? One of the discussants, Afra Alatas penned her thoughts on this publication and adds a personal touch by reflecting on her own heritage.

On my last trip to Kuala Lumpur in July, I was invited to be a discussant at Imagined Malaysia’s discussion on Sumit Mandal’s latest book, ‘Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World’. Dr Sumit himself, and another discussant, Mayang Al-Mohdhar, were also present.

Before properly commencing my reading and preparation for the discussion, I was curious as to why the title was Becoming Arab and not Being Arab. However, my curiosity was quickly satisfied when the author revealed the historical circumstances which resulted in the use of the word ‘becoming’. 

The first factor has to do with Dutch racial categorisation in nineteenth century Java. In his book, Dr Sumit focuses on Hadramis who have been coming to the Malay world since at least the 1500s. As a result of their long history of interaction with the region, these Hadramis had begun to assume creole identities which were neither exclusively Hadrami nor local. Dr Sumit thus refers to them as creole Arabs. 

However, with the advent of Dutch crown rule in nineteenth century Java, the Hadramis there were subjected to Dutch policies, and came to be categorised as simply ‘Arab’, thus reflecting the attempt of the Dutch to erase their creole histories and identities. It is therefore in this first sense that the Hadramis became Arab, as their identities were constrained. 

Yet, while this might have been the desire of the Dutch, Dr Sumit uncovers what he refers to as the “disjuncture between colonial fantasies at the centre and hybrid social realities at the margins”, in the sense that these histories and identities were never completely erased. 

While these identities might have been tightened and constrained, Hadramis responded to racialising policies through their own advancement of a modern Arab identity, thus defying the racial categorisation. It is therefore in this second inter-related sense that I understood how the Hadramis became Arab. 

Dr Sumit Mandal (extreme left) donating a copy of his book, “Becoming Arab” to Imagined Malaysia. From right to left: Imran Rasid, Afra Alatas, Mayang Al-Mokhdar and Dr Sumit Mandal.

As a student of History, an important aspect of the book which I appreciated was the fact that it focuses on the nineteenth century, a period in Indonesian history which we often forget. Either that, or we tend to remember that period only for the Cultivation System. 

However, by bringing attention to the nineteenth century and the development and intensification of Dutch racialising policies during this period, the book not only allows readers to understand the period from the top-down, but also sheds light on reactions from the ground, in the form of the shaping of a modern Arab identity as a response to these policies. 

This way, the book also sets the context for the developments in twentieth century Java, a period which we tend to be more familiar with. 

Ironically, yet another point about the book which I appreciated was the inclusion of a valuable amount of statistics, whether it was within the text, or in separate tables. This was especially helpful and informative in the first half of the book as the statistics really prove the extent of Arab wealth, influence and presence in Java, as well as the reach and impact of Dutch policies. 

The reason I say this is ironic is many times I have been guilty of almost naturally glossing over tables and statistics when I come across them in my readings, because I tend to be more engrossed in the text and often find numbers hard to absorb. As Dr Sumit rightly said during the discussion, numbers can be hard to work with. Yet, his provision of statistics and tables was not overwhelming but was in fact highly informative. 

However, as intriguing and thought-provoking as the book was, and as Mayang passionately expressed, we were left desiring to know more. One of the points which Mayang raised was that she wished there had been more information on how exactly the natives interacted with the Arabs and how they responded to Arab leadership over them. 

In discussing the emergence of a modern Arab identity, Dr Sumit demonstrates how this modern identity was heavily centred upon the genealogical prestige of the Arabs (or Sayyids, to be more specific), which allowed them to assume leadership over the native Muslims. This later evolved into a paternalistic relationship. 

As a result, the third part of the book which discussed the Arab response to Dutch policies was heavily focused on the perspective of the Arabs themselves. While it was consistently emphasised throughout the book that there was always interaction and inter-mixing between the Arabs and the natives, it would have been more enlightening to know more about the nature of their interactions and to have a more in-depth understanding of how the natives perceived the Arabs. 

Like Mayang, I was also interested in the granular details. From the book, we know that there was an elite minority of the Arab community who decided to make their grievances known to the Dutch. However, I wanted to know how the rest of the Arab community- the poorer Sayyids and the non-Sayyids- felt about Dutch rule. While we know how they felt about Sayyid domination, we are not very aware of how they perceived and responded to Dutch rule. 

Could they and did they express their grievances regarding Dutch rule? Were there any platforms for them to do so? Were the elites in any way a voice for the masses? 

I was also curious to know more about levels of literacy. In the shift towards pergerakan, or ‘movement’, the Arabs were not only inspired by the periodicals that were published in Istanbul, Beirut, Egypt and later on, Singapore, but even set up their own press by the 1850s, with the peak of its expansion in the 1910s and 1920s. 

Arab-run printers and publishers emerged in Surabaya and Batavia, facilitating the publication of several periodicals, touching upon a range of topics such as education, theology, pan-Islamism, and the war in Europe. 

While some of these periodicals were catered to a broader readership, others were not. What I was particularly curious about, however, was the level of literacy among the Arab and wider Muslim population. 

How vast was the reach of these periodicals which were a means to advance the modern Arab identity, and to what extent were Muslims actually receptive to them? To what extent did these periodicals actually spur political mobilisation in the move towards pergerakan

But, alas, not all questions can be answered. The writing of history requires one to glean information from sources and the sources which could provide us with such information are not always available, or may not even exist.

Bringing the discussion closer to home, the book also addresses how racial categorisation was not just exclusive to the colonial period, but in fact has continued in modern nation-states today. 

Despite the initial pursuit of equality as a characteristic of anti-colonial nationalism, the leaders of newly independent nation-states reproduced a similar colonial thinking in order to govern their people. In turn, this led to the erasure of the historical presence, identities and contributions of creole communities in their countries. 

Furthermore, it has led to a narrow understanding of race and identity, as people are boxed into these neat categories. Malaysia is not an exception this, and we spent a considerable amount of time during the discussion talking about the social and political implications of such thinking in Malaysia. 

Thus, a question was posed to me during the discussion: “how does it feel for you to be a creole in this part of the world?” Being a Malaysian of Arab and Iranian ethnicity growing up in Singapore definitely attracts a lot of curiosity, and consequently, confusion and/or surprise. I responded to the question by recounting my experiences in both Singapore (where racial categorisation also exists) and Malaysia. 

On the one hand, in Singapore, the first question that I am often asked by Singaporean university mates is whether I am an exchange student. This leads to further questions concerning my race, after which they express their lack of knowledge about (a longstanding) Arab presence and history in Singapore. 

Does this lack of awareness and confusion about my multi-layered or creole identity stem from the fact that many Singaporeans are so used to looking at society in terms of the ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’ (CMIO) categorisations? 

On the other hand, in Malaysia, people often express shock that I am Malaysian, and that I can speak Malay: “Where are you from?” “Malaysia”. “No, where are you really from?” “Dari Malaysia”. “Huh? But what’s your race?” “Half Arab and half Iranian”. “Ohh patutlah muka lain”. 

Is it so surprising that someone of mixed ethnicity like me could be Malaysian and speak Malay? Is this not the reality of creole histories and identities? What is the understanding and state of multiculturalism in Singapore and Malaysia?

All these questions, comments, and expressions of confusion and surprise of which I- and I’m sure many others- have been at the receiving end certainly prove the problems and ramifications with racial categorisation. 

It is therefore a valuable and pertinent contribution that Dr Sumit has made with his book as he casts doubt on racial categorisation in the governance of modern nation-states. 

He calls for an understanding of modern nation-states through a creole lens, by examining the history of inter-connectedness and hybrid identities. 

Thus, it is for this reason that I believe the book would be applicable to not just students of History or those interested in Indonesia or the Hadrami diaspora, but anyone who has an interest in issues concerning identity, globalisation, and multiculturalism, as well as looking into and beyond state policies and categorisations.

*Afra Alatas has just completed her Bachelor’s degree in History at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where she wrote her thesis on the history of the management of religious harmony in Singapore. She will be starting her Masters degree in the Malay Studies department at NUS this August. 

Photographs © Wong Siew Lyn