Unpacking the notion of “creole technologies” by attending to an encounter of a dialect and an artifact, historian On Barak describes how a confluence of telegraphy, shipworms, colonialism, and imported Malay rubber transformed the Arabic language into its modern form through channels of multi-directional transmission. Such channels redirect also the narrative that suggests technologies usually diffuse from the global north to the south.
The combination “creole technologies” is a thought-provoking invitation to mix up the stability, Eurocentrism, and insularity of “technology,” implicitly posing the fruitful question “what happens when familiar technologies encounter foreign contexts?” Yet simultaneously, this formulation runs the risk of reproducing a diffusional model of technological globalization, according to which a technology originates in one place and then travels elsewhere. While this may very well be the case, during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was conventionally assumed that this departure point was usually in Western Europe or North America, from where technologies then belatedly traveled to the global South.
This piece seeks to trouble a conventional set of assumptions, which include this idea of diffusion, as well as other orthodoxies about the spheres of “technology” and “language” (from which the notion of “creole” emerges). To do this, let us take up a supposedly pure technology and an immaculate mother tongue, a device and a language, which came into contact in mid-nineteenth-century Egypt. What follows considers the telegraph – that emblematic nineteenth-century technology of language transmission – vis-à-vis “modern standard Arabic.”
While land telegraphy was advancing rapidly in Europe and its colonies, communication across water stalled. Successful underwater telegraphy was the result of a combination of European and colonial materials and knowledge. Effective insulation was made possible with the “discovery” in the 1840s of gutta-percha, a material used in Southeast Asia for centuries. Gutta-percha (“Percha rubber” in Malay), a natural latex produced from the sap of trees native to the Malay Archipelago, is waterproof and thermoplastic (malleable at high temperatures but solidifying under pressure and in the low temperatures of the ocean bed). These properties made it an excellent electrical insulator, making possible the first successful transmissions of long-distance electrical signals underwater, including the 1851 connection of England with France and later with the rest of Europe. Indeed, Europe was glued together with Asian latex.
The 1850s also saw an attempt telegraphically to connect Europe and India via Egypt and the Red Sea. But the warm, salty water of the Red Sea degraded the cable’s wrappings, exposing it to marine borers such as the “formidable Teredo navalis,” a tunneling shipworm with an insatiable appetite for gutta-percha that quickly ate through the insulation. The teredo was an active, if invisible, participant in the project of European colonialism as well as in a colonial project of its own. In an age of colonial expansion that depended on wooden ships, the teredo, whose diet was based on driftwood, traveled all across the globe, drilling their way through colonial fleets and establishing their own colonies in submerged wooden structures, from ships to docks and dikes, for which they were nicknamed “sea termites.”
After centuries of this pattern of traveling, it is hard to establish the teredo’s exact origins. One assumption is that the worm originated in the Indian Ocean, traveling to the Mediterranean with Dutch ships returning from their Southeast Asian colonial possessions (from where gutta-percha also originated). As the Dutch fleet transported human colonists from Europe (exactly the context for the emergence of other phenomena that came to be called “creole”), it carried stowaway nonhumans back home too.
The worm’s appetite for gutta-percha and its formidable drilling techniques played an important part in the failure of the first attempt at intercontinental telegraphy at the end of the 1850s. The next telegraphic connection was much more successful. During the 1860s, Egypt became a telegraphic hub connecting Europe and India via a Malta to Alexandria cable and a Red Sea cable between Suez and Karachi. The new intercontinental connection factored in the teredo in various ways. Second-generation cables were much thicker and more durable, as they included a teredo-proof iron coating, which also made them much more expensive. As the result of the failure of the first attempt, which was subsidized by the British government, the second Red Sea telegraph had to be privately funded. One way to finance its deployment and underwrite the higher costs of the new cables was the establishment of news agencies, which sold telegraphic information to clients along the lines . The presence of news agencies such as the Reuters office in Alexandria, which opened in 1865, was among the key conditions for a series of changes in the Arabic language—the emergence of that which today we call Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
The telegraph was clearly a hybrid product of expertise, materials, and environmental challenges that were both Eastern and Western, human and non-human. If we’ve ascertained that technology may be creole already before it goes anywhere, let us now examine language – the sphere to which the notion of “creole” belongs, in order to appreciate how this domain may be technologically assembled. To do this we must follow the cables to Egypt and then up the Nile.
Like submarine cables plagued by “sea-termites,” overland telegraphs were affected by many things, from cut-offs due to river floods to peasants removing the poles from their fields. Consider the effects of the Nile. Significant sections of the Egyptian telegraph system ran parallel to the river that connected most population centers. Prior to 1881, it was customary for the various provincial authorities to send telegrams to Cairo concerning the water level of the Nile. From there, daily telegraphic reports about the condition of the river were sent to all provincial engineering departments, which prepared for the annual inundation. The 1880s were years of dire financial insolvency. Accordingly, from 1880, use of the telegraph was limited to time-sensitive matters. From 1881 on, the budget allocated to Nile-related telegraphs decreased significantly. The same year also saw special decrees to make sure that only the most important Nile reports, written in the most cost-effective style, would be wired. According to other decrees, telegrams that contained superfluous words and long expressions delayed their transmission and resulted in high costs. Senders were instructed to use abbreviations and dense expressions to fit the medium of telegraphy. This was especially the case after the 1882 British occupation of Egypt.
Language was responding to changes in the political climate at the same time as it responded to the river level. As the Nile overflowed, telegraphic language had to become more abbreviated and condensed. During years of exceptionally high flooding, such as 1883, the rising river doubled the telegrams that flowed from the provinces to Cairo, straining the capital’s drained coffers, and provoking a flurry of calls for terse language and an economy of style. Indeed, in times like this, the excessive number of telegrams also caused delays in the various telegraph offices—a problem seen as a further cause for stylistic abbreviation. In 1884, the Ministry of Finance discovered the magnitude of the sum spent by the provinces on Nile water-level telegrams during the inundation of 1883. It dispatched a decree forbidding long telegrams. The decree also limited the number of telegrams each province was allowed to send, stipulating, “It is necessary to use abbreviation and make sure the content is condensed and clear, limiting the number of words as much as possible so that the coffers will not be burdened with further fees.
The connections of telegraphy with the emergence of new written registers, the political implications of such connections, and even the camouflage of the telegraph’s traces are all revealed in the life and work of ʿAbd Allāh al-Nadīm. Al-Nadīm is generally considered the progenitor of the Arabic short story and a pioneer of the new modes of expression that gave rise to the Arabic novel. Though al-Nadīm’s career as a telegrapher is mentioned in several biographies, its impact on his writing has not attracted scholarly attention. But consider this June 1881 programmatic editorial in his journal, Al-Tankīt waʾl-Tabkīt (Humor and Criticism):
I am urged by a sense of duty and patriotism and by love and care for you, O speaker of the Arab tongue, to introduce this simple journal. It is a literary and reformative magazine, which introduces wisdom, literary anecdotes, proverbs, jokes and other entertaining and useful items to you in clear and simple language; which does not earn the derision of the learned, nor compel the simple man to seek help in order to comprehend it. […] It shuns verbal embellishments, avoids figurative adornments, and refrains from attracting attention to the eloquence of its editor, for it relies on everyday language and familiar concerns
The endeavor to create a simple language devoid of verbal embellishments, the refusal to use language as an emblem of expertise, the shunning of an idiom that draws attention to itself rather than to its object—all bear the mark of telegraphy. Yet even as he borrowed almost word for word the language of the decrees he applied as a telegrapher, as a staunch critic of European technology and opponent of the wholesale adoption of Western styles, al-Nadīm did not theorize the telegraph as a driving force of linguistic change. Unlike a group of Egyptian writers who boasted about their “telegraphic style,” he preferred to regard his language reforms as a return to the pure Arabic of the ʿAbbasid “Golden Age,” a pure idiom devoid of “artificial” embellishment. With al-Nadīm, Arabic embraced and then concealed its telegraphic origins and influences, masking itself as an authentic idiom rooted far away in the past. Al-Nadīm is thus able to offer us not only an account of “creole technologies,” but also some insight into our own blindness to the hazards of such a conceptual language.