Book festival turns the spotlight on Indo-Arab cultural relations
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette May 4 2009
Cultural relations between India and the Arab world, which stretch back several millennia, are entering a dynamic new phase thanks partly to an intensive wave of translations of Arabic and Indian books. This was one of the main messages emanating from a seminar on Indo-Arab Cultural Relations held at the recently-held London Book Fair (LBF).
The seminar was organized by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, whose general secretary, Rashed Saleh Al-Oraimi, also attended the Fair. The Award was launched in 2006 by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and it had one of the highest-profile Arab presences at the LBF via its exhibition stand and the seminar.
Ali Rashed Al-Noaimi - a member of the Award’s advisory council and an academic at United Arab Emirates (UAE) University - noted that the subject of the seminar was of particular relevance given that the ‘Market Focus’ of this year’s LBF was India while last year it was the Arab World.>
“We believe there is a strong relation between the Arab world and India back in history, and that relation is built on common interest, especially on the cultural side,” said Al-Noaimi in the seminar’s introductory remarks. He spoke of “a common culture of which both civilizations are proud, and which can be a model to the rest of the world of how different cultures and different civilizations can build a relation based on collaboration and not confrontation.”
The Bahraini scholar and journalist Abdulla Elmadani also attended the seminar and noted in his seminar paper that, in the opinion of some archeologists, Indo-Gulf interactions can be traced to the third millennium BC. The evidence for these early links include the artifacts of embellished pottery and sea shells recovered from the Harappa in North India and those of the Dilmun civilization of Bahrain and the Magan civilization of Oman.
Elmadani has conducted many academic studies on Indian and Asian issues. The board of the Bahrain India Society, launched in December 2008, has granted him honorary membership in recognition of his valuable contribution to the development of greater understanding between the people of the Gulf and of India. In his paper he gave a historical overview of Indian-Gulf cultural interactions and their impact on languages in both areas.
One of the three ancient trade routes between India and Europe passed through the Strait of Hormuz and up the Gulf on to Mesopotamia and Aleppo. “With the advent of Islam and its expansion beyond Arabia, Indo-Gulf contacts deepened, and with the inclusion of parts of India into the Arabic/Islamic Empire, the relationship branched out into fields other than commerce,” notes Elmadani. “Many scholars identify the medieval period as the golden age of Indo-Arab relations, since it witnessed enormous mutually beneficial exchanges in different fields.”
According to him, in the days of British dominance over the Indian sub-continent and the Gulf, the latter became politically, economically and administratively similar to India, “particularly as the British Indian government decided its fate and all of its affairs from Mumbai.”
“These long, intimate, rewarding, and multi-form historical relations between the two nations and peoples must constitute the basis on which present and future cooperation is planned and built,” Elmadani concluded. He argued that these relations should be used today “in shaping and reinforcing certain, if not all, foreign policy decisions made by either side towards the other as their shared legacies do not include such irritant factors as territorial disputes, ethnic hostilities, or political rivalries.”
Another speaker at the seminar was former Indian diplomat and professor Zikrur Rahman, who was at one time posted to India’s consulate in Jeddah. During a 35-year diplomatic career he held various postings in the Arab world in countries including Syria and Lebanon, and his last appointment was as the Ramallah-based ambassador of India to Palestine.
Rahman is now director of the India Arab Cultural Center at the Jamia Millia Islamia (National Islamic University) in New Delhi, and a professor there. The center is still young; its foundation stone was laid by the then Saudi ambassador to India, Saleh Mohammed Al-Ghamdi in February 2007. However, it has already shown a high level of activity in organizing Arab-related cultural events and in fostering translation projects.
Professor Rahman observed that during the caliphate of Omar, Indian traders were mentioned in Arabic literature. The Umayyad caliph Hisham Bin Abdel Malik initiated the translation of a number of works from Sanskrit to Arabic, which included a major work on astronomy and mathematics - “Brahma Siddhanta” - which was translated under the title “Sindhind”.
In the Abbasid period the translation of books from Indian languages into Arabic and vice versa flourished. Professor Rahman gave numerous examples of Indian epics, stories and works on science and art that were translated to Arabic at this time.
After the Abbasid period, literary interactions declined. But the cultural renaissance known as An-Nahda in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th century led to a renewed encouragement of translation of Arabic works into Indian languages and of Indian books into Arabic. Works by personalities such as Rabindranath Tagore and Allama Muhammad Iqbal were translated into Arabic by scholars from Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. “This continued until, say, the 1950s. After the 1950s, suddenly the interaction stopped,” remarked professor Rahman.
Professor Rahman added that the past 50 years has seen an “unfortunate” gap in literary interactions which the India Arab Cultural Center is now trying to help fill. “There are so many Arab writers whose writings are not available in Indian languages,” he said. “We need translations in Hindi and in Urdu which can go to millions and millions of people.”
His center has been collaborating with Kalima, the major project for translation into Arabic which, like the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, is an initiative of the ADACH. “We identified a large number of books by modern Indian writers to be translated into Arabic,” he indicated. The books include “The Argumentative Indian” by the Nobel prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen; “The Shade of Swords: Jiihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity” by M. J. Akbar; “Moderate or Militant: Images of India’s Muslims” by Mushirul Hasan; “Being Indian” by Parvan K. Varma, and “Nehru: The Invention of India” by Shashi Tharoor.
Qalam, another ADACH project, is helping translate Arabic works into Hindi and Urdu. “We selected six books of Arab women writers, and these are now being translated,” added Rahman.
Professor Rahman also sees a need to focus on Arabic manuscripts. “You will be surprised to know that before I came here I went to a library in India where there were 30,000 Arabic manuscripts which are totally unpublished and unedited,” he remarked. “According to a rough estimate there are three million Arabic manuscripts in Indian libraries.”