The Delusion of an Arab World
> Franck Salameh
November 2, 2011
1999, long before the fitful rise and fall of the 2011 "Arab Spring," former
Arab-nationalist author and intellectual Hazem Saghieh published a scathing
critique of what he considered outmoded Arab dogmas and delusions. The
Swansong of Arabism, his book, was a work of painful introspection in which
the author called for casting aside the jingles of "Arab Unity" and
discarding the assumptions of "Arab Identity," urging his former
comrades-in-arms to let go of the corpse Arabism.1 "Arabism is dead," wrote
Saghieh, urging Arab nationalists to bring a healthy dose of realism to
their world's changing realities: "they need relinquish their phantasmagoric
delusions about 'the Arab world' [. . . and let go of their] damning and
outmoded nomenclatures of unity and uniformity [. . . in favor of] liberal
concepts such as associational and consociational identities."2
Arabism and related "philosophies of compulsion, coercion, and exclusion"
writes Saghieh, have rained disaster on the Middle East for the past hundred
years. Yet their ideologies persist as lodestar to many nationalists, and
their terminologies remain the dominant prism through which some insist on
defining the Middle East.3 Liberal, multi-ethnic, polyglot models such as
those of Switzerland, Belgium or India, complained Saghieh, "elicit nothing
but contempt from Arabists still infatuated with overarching domineering
pan-identities."4 Diversity frightens the Arabists, he claimed. To wit,
Lebanese militant scholar Omar Farrukh wrote during the second half of the
twentieth century that it is irrelevant if Iraqis deem themselves a hybrid
of Aramaeans, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Indians and others still: "They still
are Arabs, in spite of their racial diversity," even in spite of themselves,
"because the overriding factor in their identity formation is the Arabic
language."5 Likewise, Farrukh stressed that the inhabitants of today's
Morocco, Algeria, Libya and elsewhere in North Africa may very well be a mix
of Berbers, Black Africans, Spaniards and Franks; "but by dint of the Arab
nation's realities [sic.?] they all remain Arabs shorn from the same cloth
as the Arabs of the Hejaz, Najd, and Yemen."6
More recently, Palestinian journalist and intellectual Rami Khouri
rewriting-their-own-narrative.ashx> suggested proclaiming "the death of the
'Levant' label" as a referent to the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. His
rationale was that the "revolts across much of the Arab world capture the
fact that Arab citizens are now in the very early stages of rewriting their
own history and crafting their own national narratives."7 Consequently,
those citizens' physical and geographic space, argued Khouri, deserved
descriptive language reflecting their actual world and the mood of their
peoples. The "Arab world" was a more apt term to describe Egypt, Syria and
other nearby Mediterranean countries, said Khouri; "Levant," on the other
hand, was a linguistic, perceptual and geographic throwback to a hated
"colonial era," which the current upheavals seem bent on erasing. Some in
the region disagree with Khouri's over-simplifications and see themselves
not as colonial inventions but as sophisticated, urbane, cosmopolitan
mongrels, intimately acquainted with multiple cultures, skillfully wielding
multiple languages, and elegantly straddling multiple traditions,
identities, and civilizations, including those of Khouri's vaunted Arabs.
Yet, oblivious to the realities of the Levantine Near East as a crossroads
and a meeting place of peoples, histories, languages and ideas, Khouri seems
bent on snuffing out diversity in the name of Arab uniformity; as if
Arabism's negationist history of the past hundred years has not yet been
negationist enough. "History beckons to the Arabs," wrote Syrian thinker
to put an end to their culture of deceit; for, [the] states of the Levant
are much greater, much richer, and much grander than to be reduced to
slavery for the benefit of Arabism . . . and no amount of cruelty and
violence emanating from Arab nationalists will change the reality that the
Middle East is not the preserve of Arabs alone.8
Yet Khouri somehow deems it fitting to slay Adonis's Levant-the Levant of
millions of Adonises-on the altar of an "Arab world" that no longer obtains.
Never mind that in this year's Middle Eastern uprisings not a single banner
was raised in the name of an "Arab world," not a single candle was lit in
the name of an "Arab world," not a single slogan was intoned in the name of
an "Arab world" and not a single victim (mauled by the cruel killing
machines of writhing Arab nationalist regimes) sacrificed himself for the
sake of an "Arab world." Yet the champions of a moribund "Arab world" have
no shame piggybacking on the sacrifices of those seeking freedom from the
brutality and servitude of a spent "Arab world."
Nearly a decade before Khouri's delusional exhortation to rename the Levant,
Nizar Qabbani, an Arab nationalist with impeccable credentials, was
announcing the death of the Arab world, not the Levant; and he was inviting
irredeemable nationalists like Khouri to join him at the wake. Eulogizing an
anthropomorphic "Arab world," Qabbani wrote:
This is the end of dialogue . . . My language has despaired of you: and I
have set fire to my clothes, and I have set fire to your language and your
lexicons. I want out of my voice; out of my writings; out of my place of
birth. I want out of your cities of salt, your hollow poetry, . . . and your
tedious language and silly myths and lore. I have had enough already of your
hallowed idiots and your lionized impostors. I have despaired of your skins;
I have despaired of my nails; I have despaired of your impenetrable wall.9
Perhaps Khouri, and those like him, still romancing outmoded delusions about
some uniform, unified, reformed "Arab world," should take heed.
Franck Salameh is an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, Arabic and
Hebrew at Boston College and the author of Language Memory and Identity in
the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010).
1 Hazem Saghieh, Wadaa' al-'Uruuba [The Swansong of Arabism], (Beirut and
London: Dar al-Saqi, 1999), p. 9.
2 Saghieh, pp. 9-13.
3 Saghieh, p. 13.
4 Saghieh, p. 13.
5 Omar Farrukh, Al-Qawmiyya al-Fusha [Modern Standard Arabic Nationalism],
(Beirut: Dar al-'Ilm lil-Malaayeen, 1961), p. 161.
6 Farrukh, p. 162.
7 Rami Khoury, "Arabs are Rewriting their Own Narrative," The Daily Star,
Beirut, October 17, 2011.
8 Adonis, "Open Letter to President Bashar al-Assad; Man, His Basic Rights
and Freedoms, or the Abyss", As-Safir, June 14, 2011, No. 11911.
9 See Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The
Case for Lebanon, (Lanham, MD: Lexington B
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Wed Nov 02 2011 - 08:10:53 EDT