WKND Spotlight: Finding creole influences in Middle East
Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Ari Gautier on delving into a disappearing past
Academic Ananya Jahanara Kabir and writer Ari Gautier are beautiful, ignited minds who are researching our “disappearing and disappeared pasts”. Their digital outreach Le Thinnai Kreyol “enables encounters between artistes, intellectuals and entrepreneurs of disappeared or disappearing pasts, to build solidarities through sharing creativity and cultural heritage”.
The cultural cross-connect because of the Middle East’s long encounter with colonial Europe has deeply influenced our language, food habits and lifestyle. English and several Western European languages have seamlessly incorporated Arabic words in their everyday vocabulary. For instance, textile fabric names, such as cotton, damask, gauze, macramé, mohair, muslin and taffeta, all trace their origins to Arabic. Similarly, cuisine words, such as baba ghanoush, couscous, falafel, fattoush, halva, kibbeh, kebab, shawarma find a pride of place in Western European languages, thanks to Arabic via Turkish.
Kabir, professor of English Literature at King’s College in London, has done extensive research on creolised cultures — multicultural communities that came to the fore following the intermingling of local people and Europeans during the colonial era.
Gautier, who lives in Oslo, Norway, is a Franco-Tamilian author from the former French colony of Pondicherry in south India. His novels Carnet Secret de Lakshmi (2017) and Le Thinnai (2018) are a celebration of the dynamic encounter of diverse cultures — the germane thought behind Le Thinnai Kreyol.
“Le Thinnai Kreyol takes its name from ‘thinnai’, a verandah-like structure in Pondicherry homes where people hang out informally and exchange news and stories, and ‘kreyol’ is resistance through innovation and adaptability. While Ananya has been working with ideas of creolisation for a long time, ‘thinnai’ is the subject (and title) of my second novel. The trigger was certainly the pandemic. The idea of creating a virtual thinnai came after a friend of mine wanted to present readings of my texts during the first month of the pandemic. She dropped that idea, but it sat in my head: I wanted an international reach for my ideas by opening the thinnai of my book to the world,” says Gautier.
The initiative came into being on May 26, 2020 on Facebook amid the raging coronavirus outbreak. “We are a multilingual cultural platform. So far, we’ve hosted two full seasons of curated events (‘katcheris’) on alternate Fridays through Facebook live, and improvised conversation sessions (‘addas’) between ourselves every other Sunday. Our third curated season commences today. Since our inception, we have been invited to speak at events worldwide,” says Kabir. “Since we could not travel to meet each other, we decided to combine virtually Ari’s vision with my ‘Creole India’ project, and call the co-founded platform Le Thinnai Kreyol. We restore awareness of India’s creolised histories, which are eclipsed by various nativist, purist, and majoritarian agendas.”
Gautier was born in Madagascar, and moved to Pondicherry as a child. He left for France at the age of 16 and returned to South Asia years later. He’s been living in Norway since 2005. Kabir was born in Kolkata, and spent her formative years in Nagpur and Hyderabad. She moved to her hometown to pursue undergraduate studies from Presidency College before leaving for the UK.
Gautier and Kabir didn’t know each other before 2019 and neither have they met yet in person. “Our collaboration is a marvel of connection,” says Kabir. “Coming from differently marginalised backgrounds in contemporary India, we understand each other well. We connect through childhoods spent lost in books (in Ari’s case, French ones, in mine, English), and parallel relationships with Tamil (for Ari) and Bangla (for me).”
Creolised culture is on show in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. “Ananya and I are opening a new chapter where the Maapillas from Kerala and the Marakkayars from Tamil Nadu, historically Arab-influenced communities, are going to be more visible,” says Gautier. “It is a huge task of historical research, but we really want to do justice to the Arab contribution to creolisation in the Indian peninsula. We also have a new interest to connect the pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar with those of those of Arabian Gulf.”
“Look no further than Rai singers from North Africa, who exemplify the decolonising potential of creolisation as it gives rise to performative resistance,” says Kabir. “Francophony, modern technology, different layers of Arab culture, and the multicultural space of black Paris mingle in Rai music in ways that are deeply creolising.”
She recounts how her first encounter with contemporary Mena culture was Algerian singer Cheb Khaled’s song Didi. “I was watching this song in India on the new MTV channels. I was about to start my M.Phil at Oxford and all I could think of was going to Paris and dancing like the people in the video,” she reminisces.
Didi was a huge hit in India because people understood that word as the Indian didi (older sister) in several tongues. “Later in my life, I became a very big fan of the late Rachid Taha. His music is a powerful illustration of creolisation of Algerian Rai as it comes in contact with punk and other socio-economically marginalised genres. But his most poetic songs always contain stories of anterior creolisations, like his rendition of Mataouel Delil (the night is always long) by Oran exponent Ahmed Wahby, which concerns the janissary legacy in North Africa. The rendering of the classic Algerian song Abdel Kader by Khaled, Rachid Taha and another of my favourite artists, Faudel, enacts decolonisation of memory through performative resistance. Abdel Kader was an Algerian freedom fighter, leading the resistance against French colonisation. Interestingly, while I know of Abdel Kader through the dance floor, Ari remembers posters of Kader adorning many a Pondicherry thinnai,” she adds.
Kabir and Gautier are in the process of setting up an online magazine, Thinnai Revi (revi is a creole form of the French ‘revue’), which is likely to be launched by next month (February).