New Books Network

In the wake of the so-called war on terror we’ve become accustomed to racialized portrayals of the Arab as an inflexible and threatening other...

In the wake of the so-called war on terror we’ve become accustomed to racialized portrayals of the Arab as an inflexible and threatening other to the mores and ways of the non-Arab world. Although these portrayals are new in their historical contingencies and sociological particulars, the manner in which Arabs are represented today recalls an earlier period in Southeast Asia, when European colonizers cast Arabs they encountered there, and Arab men especially, as provocateurs of otherwise peaceable non-Arab Muslims. Yet as Sumit K. Mandal discusses in Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World (Cambridge University Press, 2018) this representation jars with the fluidity and hybridity of Arab identities in Southeast Asia, before and under colonial rule, and with histories of commerce and pacific relations that national historiographies have elided or effaced.

Sumit Mandal joins us for this New Books in Southeast Asian Studies interview, to talk about the power and limits of colonial racial categories; Hadramis, Sayyids and Sharifas in maritime Southeast Asia; modernity and cultural hybridity; the descendants of Arabs in the Malay world today; and, to share some ideas on how to succeed in rethinking, rewriting and publishing a longstanding research project.

Our congratulations to Sumit on learning that Becoming Arab is the winner of the 2020 Harry J Benda Prize of the Association for Asian Studies: to find out more about the prize, visit the AAS website.


Nick Cheesman is a Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.