Woes of Arabia

(This article was originally published in Jordan’s Living Well magazine)

“So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people. Greedy, barbarous, and cruel…”

The first time I heard the above quote by Peter O’ Toole, playing T. E. Lawrence in the epic film by David Lean, I was outraged at the racist tone in this sweeping denunciation of my people – filmed on my turf, in Wadi Rum, no less. How arrogant, I fumed. You see, I always believed that any generalization of whatever nature is by definition prone to mistake, the larger the subjects under judgment, the less accurate the statement is likely to be.

Indeed, any sentence that begins with “ The Arabs are this…” or “The Africans are that…” is at the outset condemned to fallacy. To think in such terms, although very tempting as a simplification of complex phenomena, is nothing short of a foolish dive into the abyss of falsehood. Not only because these pronouncements of opinion are manifestly racist in nature, and we are not supposed to be racist in this epoch of political correctness, but more so because these opinions are most likely to be plain wrong. To lump a vast group of individuals, with different characters, upbringings, abilities, tastes, minds, environments, etc., and treat them as one unit by affording them uniform descriptions and predicting for them common destinies is an invitation for error. Racism is bad not just because it is immoral, but chiefly because it is based upon gross intellectual dishonesty.

However… but… nevertheless… (ah, it is amazing how these tools of the language allow you to go against everything you have just said and still sound credible), being an Arab myself, I think I can have a special license for self-analysis without causing too many storms. I hope. So, seating the Arabs, the whole lot of them, in that therapist’s recliner chair, I want to try to peer closer inside the components of our collective personality, if any. Yes, none may exist, as I already explained, but the only way to find out is by looking, is it not?

The first clue can be found in the manner in which we communicate, in the very words that we use. Let us take a random sample of a normal conversation between two Arabs. What do we say to each other? I will translate:

Arab1: When did you get back?

Arab2: By God (wallah) yesterday.

Arab1: By God? Then praise be to God for your safety (hamdillah assalameh).

Arab 2: May God keep you safe (Allah yesalmak).

Arab1: Tell me, how is your health?

Arab 2: Praise be to God. And you?

Arab1: We thank God, praise be to God. And how are the sons [not the daughters, the sons!]?

Arab2: They’re great. They send you their greetings.

Arab1: May God keep you safe. Are they here?

Arab2: By God, Reem got engaged last month and Mahmoud is in college, he is the first in his class (probably not true, but who’s checking!).

Arab1: By the life of God (bihyat Allah)? What God had willed, what God had willed (mashallah, mashallah). May God keep them for you.

Arab2: May God keep you. May God prolong your age.

Arab1: So, we’ll be honored if you could join us tonight, we’re having a small dinner?

Arab2: May you be safe (teslam). God willing, we’ll be honored.

Arab1: The honor is ours. We shall be expecting you.

Arab2: If God willed, we’ll be there at eight.

Arab1: See you then. With safety.

Arab2: May God keep you safe. Peace.

Arab1: Peace.

Arab2: Lots of peace (salamat).

Or something like that.

Anyway, I know that it never sounds like this in Arabic, but it’s worth hearing ourselves in another language to get a detached view of the origins of our tools of dialogue, which we use today without too much thought and with the best of intentions. And by God, do we use the name of the Lord in vain, or what?

I am not making any judgments here, good or bad, but it is fascinating to contrast this cultural mode of conversation against the backdrop of political and social realities in the Arab world. And here comes the relevance of the above quote by Mr. Lawrence. For an outsider, the conversation above is so saturated with proverbial goodwill and pacifist purity that one is excused for thinking that those who talk this way belong to a fictional race of saints and angels; a people so devoutly peaceful that they cannot utter a word without inserting a prayer for the harmony and wellbeing of mankind. But reality is very different, isn’t it? Take a Google Earth view of the Arab world, and what do you find? Sadly, the picture drips of blood, it is actually nauseating beyond description. The diagnosis is that of a millennia old epidemic of tribe fighting against tribe for the most pathetic of reasons.

Believe me, it is not about religion when Sunnis suddenly discover that they hate the Shiites in Lebanon. It is purely tribal, the old story of following the leader of the clan, right or wrong. Although triggered for obvious ulterior motives, this fictitious divide is enthusiastically endorsed by unsuspecting participants. Even in one of the least turbulent countries, Jordan, there was this year yet another one of those recurring university mass brawls, where knives and other weapons were used by young students overloaded with testosterone, fighting so viciously along tribal lines for the most idiotic of causes. Where else does this happen in the world in a place of learning, please do tell me? They may not be too significant, but these little student wars say a lot about a persistent tribal mentality that is still plaguing this nation.

Again, the above sample conversation sheds an important light on this very intriguing dichotomy between the values that we espouse and preach and between the contrasting cruelty which we often practice. For example, I’ve always wondered how the same person who would otherwise be irrationally generous and exaggeratedly hospitable in certain conventional situations, would suddenly turn into the vilest of creatures, devoid of any charity or manners, when it comes to something as trivial as allowing your car to pass before his own. The same over-inflated ego that led the earliest Arabs go to war for decades over a horse race suddenly sets in, erasing all residues of kindness or compassion. Your car shall not pass, you can hear him vowing, even if I have to annihilate all the drivers in the world. Praise be to God, you cannot help say a prayer, the Dahis and Ghabraa mentality is alive and well. We’re still as hot-blooded as ever.

Oranz, as the Bedouins used to affectionately call him, saw this endemic tendency and wrote about it, but he was more concerned with a political objective against the Ottomans than he was with curing our ills. Today, the fact remains that, from Baghdad to Algiers, more Arab blood has been spilled by Arab hands than it was possible for our colonial tormentors to replicate. Yes, foreign powers never showed us any mercy – and this is how foreign powers usually behave – but it was us who ultimately dug our own graves. The sad fact is that almost all of the killing done in Iraq today is perpetrated by our own flesh and blood. Not only in Iraq. The recent scenes of Palestinian factions killing and kidnapping each other in the streets, undermining decades of legitimate Palestinian struggle, is just another shameful episode in the long saga of the gradual disintegration of the Arab civilization. I could not help, while watching these pitiful images, muttering the words of Major Oranz: A silly people, a little people. And for what? Shame on us.

The patient is getting edgy in his chair, but the session is not over yet. For the Arabs are not only hung up on tribe and pride. I ain’t no Freud, but if good old Sigmund thought that sex had everything to do with everything, then he should have visited Arabia for a historic moment of vindication. The contradictions inside the average Arab mind between an outward proclamation of chastity and an actual obsession with carnal pleasures defy any logical analysis. But it would also consume countless pages and would arouse, among other passions, needless controversies. Which is why I would leave it at this note for now.

A final word needs to be said. Many years ago, I wrote an article about the randomness of the massacres in Algeria following the cancellation by the government of the elections where the Islamists were poised to rule. In that dark episode of Algerian modern history, nearly 200,000 people were killed, mostly with knives and swords, and whole villages were wiped out in the dark of night by monsters whose cruelty was unrivalled in history. Because my judgment was harsh on the apathy of the Arabs who weren’t even bothered that such killings were taking place (as the perpetrators were not easily identifiable foreign forces), a few months later, I found the same article published in the Jerusalem Post, without my permission or knowledge. I hope that the above would not be used again by apologists for the racist state of Israel. Otherwise, as the Arab tribal mentality goes, “me and my brother against my cousin, and me and my cousin against the stranger.” Or something like that.

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