Ranging from Arabia to India and Southeast Asia, Engseng Ho explores the transcultural exchanges—in kinship and writing—that enabled Hadrami Yemeni descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad to become locals in each of the three regions yet remain cosmopolitans with vital connections across the ocean. At home throughout the Indian Ocean, diasporic Hadramis engaged European empires in surprising ways across its breadth, beyond the usual territorial confines of colonizer and colonized. A work of both anthropology and history, this book brilliantly demonstrates how the emerging fields of world history and transcultural studies are coming together to provide groundbreaking ways of studying religion, diaspora, and empire. Ho interprets biographies, family histories, chronicles, pilgrimage manuals and religious law as the unified literary output of a diaspora that hybridizes both texts and persons within a genealogy of Prophetic descent. By using anthropological concepts to read Islamic texts in Arabic and Malay, he demonstrates the existence of a hitherto unidentified canon of diasporic literature.
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Mahmood Kooria Itinerario, Vol. Two years later we reconnected for a conversation about his career, the study of diasporas, the legal history of the Indian Ocean world, and his fascination with inter-Asian connections.
He was previously professor of anthropology at Harvard University and senior scholar at the Harvard Academy. You were born and brought up in Penang, a city built on its transnational and multiethnic maritime roots. Did this inform your childhood and later intellectual journeys?
The ruling party was a combination of race-based parties. But actually in Penang itself, the situation was quite different. There were Penangite Chinese, who are called Baba or Peranakan, descended from Chinese mixed with locals. You also had a lot of Indian Muslims, who became Malay. Many people who were known as Malays in Penang were not in fact of indigenous descent, including some of the top politicians such as Anwar Ibrahim, and Mahathir Mohamad in Kedah. There were many cases where Malay women were Chinese who had been adopted by Malay families, or where people who were quite Chinese-looking were of mixed descent.
Also, in each town of Malaysia, especially among the Chinese, one dialect dominates the others. In Penang it was Hokkien, which the Indians and the Malays also spoke. Penang is what I now know to be a typical port-city emporium in the Indian Ocean.
That is the experience I grew up with. The other thing about Penang is that it is an island with nice beaches. Every holiday we went camping by the beach, and in school we built our own kayaks from wood. I grew up swimming and I was a competitive swimmer. I suppose later on in my career those two things came together: the multiculturalism of Penang and the experience of the sea.
In the mids, you moved to the US for your undergraduate studies at Stanford University. How was the experience of encountering a completely distant and different land? Did you feel yourself being part of a diaspora at the time? When I went to the US my idea was to study for four years and then go back home.
I used to love building things from scratch or from bits and pieces of broken toys, so I thought I would be an engineer. The main goal of going to university abroad was to be able to make a living and have my parents stop worrying about me. Engineering was good because it combined my interests and theirs. But none of that happened. When I went to college, I had never thought of myself as very studious.
But one thing that I found interesting was to read people like Durkheim in classical sociology. It was a shock to me that people wrote books about things that I knew and had been thinking about for a long time.
Growing up in Malaysia, ideas and intellectual life were quite marginal to me. It was a commercialised place, business is big there. The world of ideas was therefore stunningly new to me. Initially I was also interested in psychology. I wanted to understand people and I thought psychology was the solution. It gave me a very strong sense of the intellectual history of Western thought. It was just mind-opening and gave me a real sense of the con- textualisation of ideas. That somehow seemed a useful way to think about things which were happening in a completely different part of the world.
How then did this thought process lead to an intellectual transition? After all this intellectual stimulation I was no longer interested in doing engineering, and I ended up taking a lot of other classes—I actually took all the classes on Marxism offered on campus.
Most of those classes turned out to be in anthropology. I also did a lot of courses in economics and the history of economic thought. I added a few more classes in micro- and macroeconomics, and that lead to majors in both economics and anthropology. But I must say that what I liked in engineering was the systematic thought: you put many pieces together and if you do it well, things work. I used to build little toys with electric motors. Anthropology and economics are actually very much like that as well.
In economics, what I liked was macroeconomics and how all the different parts, such as investment, consumption, and government spending, interact with each other. Classic anthropology used to be very systematic as well, with all the different dimensions of society, such as religion, politics, economy, and ideas, interacting in a living culture. I naturally went after those kinds of interactions. When I went back to Malaysia after graduation, I was visiting some friends at the National University of Singapore when I met a professor in the photocopying room.
He asked me what I was doing. It was nerve-wracking. After a while, I decided that I had spent too much time in the university, and that I should be outside. So I got a job in the government investment corporation and the central bank. I did that for about two years, and then decided to go back to university.
What did motivate you towards studying diaspora? The way I got interested in diaspora is very simple. I had the chance to do some summer research as an undergraduate and I went to one of my advisers, G. William Skinner, who was a well-known anthropologist of both China and the overseas Chinese. That sort of choice was quite typical for me: something I knew, which was to say Malays, but in a very different place that I did not know.
It was a contrast between familiar and unfamiliar. Through this research, I learned all sorts of things about this community, which did not sit quite right with the dominant racial views of the country.
They were proud to be British subjects, and they were Anglicised Chinese. That was strange when you think in terms of identity. I also collected materials from associations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen- turies. I found out that the best way to understand the strange situation of Baba being Baba and British is actually a historical one.
The research ended up being a story of the racialisation of Malaysia under British rule. Why did you then move away from the Malay-Chinese communities? I think there is a link between this Baba story and how I got into the Hadramis, because both communities were very similar. While studying the Chinese in Malay- sia, I was also looking at the Chinese across Southeast Asia as part of a larger diaspora.
In places like Thailand and the Philippines they integrated so well into society that many of them became political leaders and rulers.
In other places, like Indonesia, the Chinese were assimilating successfully until roughly the beginning of Dutch rule. Then the assimilation process was interrupted by colonial government, and Baba Peranakan emerged as distinct communities.
Something similar happened in Malaya. Later on with the arrival of totoks migrant Chinese in the twentieth century, you have a re-Sinicisation. In these processes, at one point people from abroad integrate and assimilate, at some other point they become a third or creole community, and at yet another point they become racialised again.
This was an analysis which William Skinner had put forward in his writings. It opened my mind up to all these different kinds of possibilities which exist either when you go back in the past or when you go sideways to a different country. In certain places like Malaysia they are considered Malay and are part of the elite, as descendants of the Prophet. In other places like the Philippines, they might be part of the Muslim groups who had been considered rebels ever since the Spaniards were there.
In southern Thailand, some might be associated with Muslim separatists. In Indonesia, the situation is more mixed. Some of them became sultans of polities like Pontianak and Siak. In other places or times, native politicians such as Sukarno would be unhappy with them as people who make use of religion for their own purposes. So the Hadrami Arabs were quite similar to the overseas Chinese, having all kinds of different experiences across the region. I wanted a way to compare and contrast their experiences with the Chinese, the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese in the region.
The Portuguese were also very well integrated in the Indian Ocean. Initially they felt that they were not climatically adjusted to the tropics. They became interested in tropical plants, which they ate, thinking to ingest as well the climatic and organismic elements of the region. They also intermarried with locals, thinking that their bodies would become acclimatised by intermixing with locals from the tropics.
The Dutch also intermixed until roughly about There was a lot of intermarriage between the Dutch and the natives. Other Europeans used to make fun of it as the Dutch going native. It was only in the nineteenth century that it became all racially oriented and more concerned with preserving their racial identity. In Southeast Asia, we see all these different diasporas meeting and overlapping. In your work there is a strict divide between the European colonisers on the one hand and Indian Ocean diaspora groups on the other.
Hadramis carried along their genealogies as well. In terms of a strict divide, if you think of independence in Malaysia and Indonesia, the Dutch were kicked out as foreign occupiers. Although a small minority considered the Hadramis as foreigners, by and large they were considered natives.