On Arabs and Arabness

by Nasser Rabbat
As identities go, Arabness is one of the most complex, varicolored, and historically and politically contested designations. Millions of people believe in it, swear by it, and yearn for it, yet no one can conclusively define it. It is supposed to denote a nation, yet there is no inclusive political entity that currently engenders it. Nor has there been any in the past, except for disappointingly short periods and in exceedingly limited geographical extents. Today, twenty-two countries which are members of the loosely organized Arab League officially profess their adherence to pan-Arabism while each pursues its own national goals. 

Arabness is believed to have existed since time immemorial, yet there is no clear-cut historical trajectory that carried it through time or distinguished it from parallel and overlapping identities, the most prominent among them being Islam. In fact, many consider it so historically intermingled with Islam that they advocate for themselves a supranational Islamic identity, using an Arabic qualifier primarily to distinguish themselves from other Muslims. Arabness is also seen as an overarching cultural quality, yet there are no prevailing traits that can be exclusively attributed to it other than the Arabic language. And that too owes its survival primarily to the fact that the Qur'an (Koran), Islam's sacred text, was revealed in what was the language of seventh-century northern Arabia and has remained unchanged since then. Arabness, nevertheless, is real and palpable. It lives somewhere between the minds and hearts of millions of people both in the countries usually called Arabic and among Arab expatriates elsewhere. It occupies multiple and sometimes conflicting registers in their memories and invariably stirs their most impassioned emotions when evoked. Some fervently believe in it and revere it as the major, if not the only, defining parameter of their political and social being. Others see it as a myth and vehemently deny it any normative role in their lives or their histories. And in between stands a majority of people emotionally accepting Arabness as an integral part of their identity without any exclusive ontological commitment to or against it. They recognize it in the ways it affects their outlooks on the world and colors their feelings, hopes, and fears. They see it in their facial expressions, hand movements, and body language. They hear it in the deep guttural sounds that characterize their language, especially that unique, unaspirated consonant which gave their language its proud epithet: lughat al-dhad, the language of the letter dhad, which does not exist in any other language. They feel it in their powerfully expressive poetry and in their modal and melodious music and singing. And they taste it in their mildly aromatic and richly garnished dishes, their tangy spreads and dips, and their strong and bitter coffee spiced with cardamom. Conversely, Arabness, beside its classificatory meaning as the national identity of the Arabs, carries for Europe and America a slanted perception rooted in mostly negative and derogatory notions rather than in a historically informed and ideologically and intellectually balanced understanding. Thus, Arabness often conjures up images of dirty-looking, menacing, dark and bearded men; completely veiled yet paradoxically voluptuous women; vast deserts where camels roam and oil rigs dot the skyline; crowded and dusty cities with tortuous and winding alleys where mostly wicked surprises lurk at every corner. In the current political discourse, Arabness is usually equated with backwardness, fanaticism, ineptitude, and outward hostility to the Western world and its touted humanistic and enlightened principles of democracy, freedom, and economic and social openness. This is a construct steeped in the mutual mistrust that marks the modern relationship between the Arabs and the West, especially after the West's conspiratorial involvement in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 despite adamant Arab opposition. Its recent causes can be found in colonial and post-colonial encounters, in devastating wars of independence and liberation, and in the Arab-led oil embargo of the early 1970s. But its original roots go back to the much earlier encounters between "the Arabs" and other ancient Mediterranean civilizations, primarily Hellenistic and Roman, which were ultimately claimed by Enlightenment Europe to be the sole forerunners of the Western civilization to the exclusion of all other legitimate heirs. Early History History, however, tells us otherwise. To begin with, the term Arab appears in the annals of civilization from the beginning of the first millennium B. C. E., when the nomadic `Aribi of the upper Euphrates interfered in the affairs of the Assyrian empire and consequently earned a reference in its records. In the following centuries the references multiplied when various tribes of the `Aribi, who inhabited the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia and its extensions north into Anatolia and south into Arabia, played decisive roles in the rise and fall of many regional kingdoms. By the time Alexander the Great arrived in the Fertile Crescent in 330 B. C. E., many of these tribes had already been settled for some time and had established their own principalities. The confluence of the imported Hellenic culture and the local "Oriental" ones-including that of the descendants of the `Aribi-was expressed through new hybrid forms in religion, knowledge, literature, and art. These forms prospered in places that later acquired mythical reputations as Hellenicized trading emporia-Palmyra, Petra, and Hatra-which played a crucial role in connecting East and West for centuries. Unlike many other people, such as the Germans and Anglo-Saxons, who started out nomadic and tribal and then became completely settled through a long and irreversible process of acclimatization to different conditions, the Arabs maintained a certain fluidity of movement between the urban and the transhumant modes of living, until the twentieth century. This was so precisely because their desert could not be effectively colonized before the advance of modern technology, and because it continually produced waves of nomadic tribes seeking to share in the resources of the city through migration, trade, or conquest. The Romans subjugated and Romanized most of these independent city-states, but had to accept the independence of their nomadic cousins. Christianity won over the majority of Arabs in the Fertile Crescent and made considerable forays into Arabia and Yemen in particular. By the sixth century Romano-Arabic cities, such as Bosra and Rusafa, boasted of some of the most magnificent churches and centers of pilgrimage in Christendom. Many Christian Arabs today can trace their ancestry to some of the Arabic tribes that settled these cities, including Ghassan, Tanukh, and Kinda. Arabness and Islam The Prophet Muhammad (570-632), the founder of Islam, was an Arab of the trading city of Mecca in western Arabia. So were his followers who swiftly conquered many provinces of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire and all of the Sasanian Persian empire in the seventh century C. E., absorbing many of their cultural traits into the nascent Islamic civilization. The spread of Islam in the next few centuries accelerated the process of Arabization already underway in the Fertile Crescent, and launched it into Egypt, North Africa, and parts of Iran and Central Asia. Arabization was directly accomplished through the movement of Arabic tribes from Arabia to the far-flung corners of the Islamic empire and their intermarriage with other peoples. Indirectly, it was advanced through the diffusion of Arabic as both the language of the new religion and its sacred text, and that of scholarly and literary discourses and the imperial administration. Soon Arabic superseded older languages in the countries we today call Arabic, but remained only the language of religion and its sciences in the rest of the Islamic world, such as Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Although the Arabs were the first Muslims and constituted the soldiers and rulers of the early Islamic empire, we cannot speak of an Arab nation within the framework of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad preached Islam as a universal religion whose adherents form an umma (a religious nation) which supplanted all ethnic and regional identities. The umma was subsequently organized along Islamic legal principles which saw the world as either belonging to Islam or outside its orbit. Arabness was thus presumably subsumed within Islam, although tribal pride and ethnic politics kept it a strong factor of affiliation and distinction throughout Islamic history, especially against other ethnic affiliations such as Persian and Turkish. But this feeling of Arabness never amounted to a clear national identity, for the notion of an Islamic umma stayed operative, albeit only theoretically and in a much truncated and twisted form until the early twentieth century. Moreover, it is anachronistic to speak of national identity, the way we understand it, before the modern times. Identities were, and to a large extent still are, configured in superimposed and sometimes conflated layers moving from the immediate and familial to the comprehensive, metaphysical, or abstract. The age of Enlightenment was to replace the top layer, which consisted of dogmatically believed religious or dynastic identities, with intellectually conceived territorial and national ones. Modern Awakening The call for Arab nationalism was first heard in the late nineteenth century in the Fertile Crescent under the influence of European, especially French, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas on national identity, which were promulgated by missionary schools in the wake of exasperation at the Ottoman empire's failure to maintain its antiquated supranational character. The early advocates of Arab nationalism were mostly Christian intellectuals. They did exactly what other nationalists had done elsewhere: they dug out and constructed from history and Arabic literature a modern argument for Arabness as Arab nationalism. The idea gathered momentum when all of the disgruntled elites in the Fertile Crescent accepted it as a means to counter the rising Turkification of the Ottoman empire. This soon developed into a political movement demanding the establishment of an independent Arab nation. Britain found, in supporting this movement, an opportunity to weaken the Ottoman empire against whom it was engaged in World War I. The politically naïve Arabs trusted the British, fought with them against the Ottomans (an episode romanticized in the West through the mystification of Lawrence of Arabia), and were rudely awakened at the conclusion of the war when they found their hard-won independence subverted and their lands colonized and divided between Britain and France despite all promises to the contrary. Under colonial rule, political activism in the Arab countries focused on resisting foreign occupation and encompassed a broad gamut of national doctrines ranging from the tribal and regional to the religious. Arab nationalism, hardened by its first disillusionment, became one of many competing ideologies, especially since some of which were supported and sometimes created by colonial authorities. But even the most regionally focused parties acknowledged the presence of an ideal Arabness somehow shared by all people in the Arabic countries, though they did not think it amounted to a national identity. When independence was finally won, it was almost always led by political movements that cleverly negotiated a middle passage between an out-and-out Arab unity, which was by then a powerful motivation for the masses, and national sovereignty. The post-independence Arab regimes established the Arab League in 1945 in pursuit of their goals of political and economic unity, but they simultaneously continued their local nation-building, sometimes in flagrant indifference to the preeminent goal of unity. This roundabout maneuvering was never more obviously deplorable than in 1948 when the nations of the Arab League failed to halt the establishment of the State of Israel by what was then portrayed only as Zionist gangs. The feeling of bewilderment and humiliation among the masses after that defeat and the painful loss of Palestine to the Jews led to the crystallization of a militant, populist, and ideologically deterministic Arab nationalism and brought to power a number of new regimes: in Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasir and his Free Officers; in Syria and Iraq, the Ba`th (Renaissance) Party; and later other revolutionary regimes in Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya. During the 1950s and 1960s, both progressive and conservative regimes alike manipulated one potent and simplistic principle which dominated the street and swayed the masses: Arab unity is the only means to liberate Palestine. They used the claim to work towards these two interconnected and popular goals to cover their otherwise corrupt and repressive methods. Perhaps owing to the power of self-delusion or hope, somehow the people tolerated them. But all hope was shattered after the defeat of 1967, when Israel single-handedly beat down the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and seized what was left of Palestine. Arab intellectuals spent the 1970s and 1980s picking up the pieces. They debated the reasons for defeat, rethought pan-Arabism, and prescribed remedial solutions. But further political and military disasters, from the civil war in Lebanon in 1975-76 to Desert Storm in 1991, exhausted whatever capacity was left in the regimes and the people to adjust their sight onto a new and refined national goal. With little fanfare, pan-Arabism effectively collapsed as a political ideology in the Arab world of the 1990s, although no viable alternative has taken its place yet. Looking Ahead Today, the freshest and most compelling perspectives on Arabness are coming out of the least expected quarters: Europe and America on the one hand and the Occupied Territories on the other. They are primarily formulated both by those evincing the most postmodern form of identity-the hyphenated one: Arab-American or Arab-European-as well as by those stateless Palestinians lacking one of the most basic components of national identity: a land to call home. Superbly sensitive poets like the Palestinian Samih al-Qasem and Mahmud Darwish, one living in Israel and the other in exile all over the world, are singing the glory of the people and the love of the land. The formidable Palestinian-American critic Edward Said is showing us how vigilant and socially engaged intellectuals can, against tremendous odds, make a difference and at the same time never lose their human compassion. And many Arab-American thinkers, poets, and essayists, like Gregory Orfelea and Ray Hanania, are challenging negative stereotypes of Arabs and re-mapping what it means to be an Arab in America today. Understandably, their constructs on the whole shun the rigid and exclusionary definitions of ideologized Arabism and postulate a romantic and politically modest yet culturally inspired postnational commonwealth of peoples who share language, traditions, tastes, and mindsets and who are working for the freedom and well-being of all Arabs and all oppressed peoples. Paradoxical as it may sound, it took the defeat of the narrow view on pan-Arabism for the liberating and humanistic Arabness to begin to shine again. 

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