Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Sumit K. Mandal (review)
- Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies
- Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies
- Volume 6, Number 2, 2019
- Additional Information
Mashriq & Mahjar 6, no. 2 (2019), 182–185 ISSN 2169-4435 SUMIT K. MANDAL, Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Pp. 257. $105.00 cloth, $40.99 paper, $33.00 e-book. ISBN 9781107196797. REVIEWED BY MICHAEL LAFFAN, Department of History, Princeton University, email: firstname.lastname@example.org Sumit Mandal’s elegantly written book has been a long time coming, and it will find a warm welcome with scholars of the Hadrami diaspora of Southeast Asia and the wider Indian Ocean world. Writing a history of a once “creole” community memorialized as having a boundless ability to integrate in royal courts and coastal towns, from the Swahili Coast to the Moluccas, Mandal shifts his more discrete account into a depiction of the early nineteenth century era of shippers and peddlers, the so-called “fathers of boxes” (aba’ al-banakis) moving their wares from Javanese docks to doorways. Indeed in the interregnum prior to the return of the Dutch to Java after 1816, Arab vessels had once more thronged to the web of ports that had been dominated by the East India Companies and their Chinese compradors. Even if the Dutch and the English would reassert their dominance in the ensuing decades, Mandal tracks an ironic shift by the middle of the century, as relatively constrained Arab mercantilists profited under European rule. Some became large scale businessmen with opportunities for freshly migrated friends and kin alike, obtaining land while networks of trusted middlemen pushed further into the hinterlands, earning reputations among the Dutch as usurers and tricksters of supposedly credulous natives. Yet others became trusted hands, ready to plant their capital as much on Dutch Java as in neighboring British Singapore. Mandal even points to the growth of several Arab-owned limited-liability building companies by the end of the century. These would only proliferate into the 1920s, their names being familiar to anyone with Arab heritage in Indonesia today—whether highborn sayyid or less august shaykh, as they were increasingly divided. Reviews 183 Mandal offers a nuanced treatment in tracking the emerging salience of this distinction into the twentieth century rather than retrospectively casting these categories as primordial. Indeed, he demonstrates how such distinctions became more forcefully asserted as the Dutch colonial state sought to contain and categorize its Muslim subjects with the shift to metropolitan rule, recognizing the utility of appointing spokesmen and captains to serve its own interests. In this process, “Arabs” shifted from being members of a more amorphous and foreign “Moorish” community, and emerged as seemingly natural leaders of Muslim communities, albeit as leaders subject to draconian pass and residence laws applied as they were, to so called “Foreign Orientals” (Vreemde Oosterlingen). While information is often scarce before the middle of the nineteenth century, when a great many of the people classified as Arabs could be as much Malay or Javanese as foreign, Mandal tracks the rising leadership that was often, but not exclusively, sayyid. This is not to say that these new economic lords were necessarily of the same lineage of those “Lord Sayyids” of Malay literature. Rather they were an increasingly modern elite, with properties on both sides of the Indian Ocean, and often non-sayyid neighbors who had profited from a share in their claims to Arabness. Yemen’s Tarim Valley is, after all, a relatively small social place, much as the Dutch forced Arabs of whatever share of the Prophet’s birthright into cramped cantonments in the coastal cities of “their” Indies. Whereas others have long looked at the histories of the contestation between sayyid and nouveau-riche shaykh, less attention has been paid to how the Dutch managed and racialized the parameters in which they could operate. In this regard, Mandal offers an absorbing study worth comparing with what happened under the British, though he has a curiously bifurcated view of British “scholar merchants” like Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1926) and later Dutch “scholar bureaucrats” such as the Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936). And while the latter was indeed erudite and arrogant, especially when pouring scorn on contemporaries like L. W. C. van den Berg (1845– 1927), who studied the Arabs of...