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An Arab Renaissance?

This is a repsonse to Amre el-Abyad that began as a comment to my last post. I didn’t finish it last night because I got tired. Now that I look at it again, it seems to me that it deserves a post of its own. I’ll admit that it’s a jumble of ideas for which I can’t quite find a conclusion. It began as a reaction to Amre’s claim that Iran wants to “de-Arabize” Iraq and is gloating over the suffering there.

— • —

Amre, I’ve checked your blog as I promised to do. I certainly don’t agree with everything you say, but I enjoy the spirited way with which you express your views. I understand that you’re driven by a passion for the Arab cause which you feel in your blood. You want to see your culture reawaken to the greatness you know it contains. Of course, we all want that for the cultures we are a part of.

I like the way you describe yourself, so I’ll repeat it here:

    I have quite rightfully earned the reputation of a trouble maker and one of Cairo’s eternal problems……I wish I could deny it… But unfortunately I can’t! somehow I do enjoy it….. Going against the establishment is the only thing that makes me feel alive. Peace is synonymous with death for me! […] I have always been stronger than my problems……..But that is not enough for me……..I need passion and anger into my lungs. Otherwise, I would suffer from breathing problems…..

I can’t help liking you when you say this, because troublemakers can be a good thing, and because you know yourself well enough to say it.

You go deep into the historical basis for your views, and you raise some complex issues from the past. You point out that the Iranian version of Shiism is infused with Persian nationalism. In some sense it is a continuation of Zoroastrianism, which many Iranians view as a precursor to Islam. This makes sense to me, and your point about the bond between Persians and Jews going back to ancient times is true as well. It was Cyrus the Great who conquered Babylon, released the Jews from their second bondage (the first was in Egypt), and allowed them to rebuild their Temple. Many Jews at the time saw him as the Messiah.

Clearly the Middle East is a complex place, whose stories can raise passions even after thousands of years. Arabs and Persians have been interacting since history began. Ancient Elam sometimes dominated Mesopotamia, and was sometimes dominated by it. Later, the two great civilizations were often united in a single empire, whether Persian (e.g. the Achaemenids) or Arab (e.g. the Abbasids) or foreign (Alexander the Great or the Seljuk Turks). You mention that the Persians borrowed much from their Babylonian predecessors, and I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also true that in the Islamic Golden Age, many of the greatest thinkers writing in Arabic were actually Persian.

Islam restructured Arabia and allowed it to conquer the Sassanid empire, which ended Zoroastrianism as a state religion. Persia converted to Islam, but retained many of its earlier myths and traditions. I agree with you that this helps to explain the popularity of Shia Islam as a form of Persian resistance to Arab dominance. However, Shiism also played a role in North Africa, including Egypt. I don’t need to tell you that the Fatimids, a branch of Shia Islam, founded Cairo and dominated Egypt for 200 years. Back then there were no real frontiers between nations. Spheres of influence flowed back and forth across the land.

Every nation on earth has been both oppressor and oppressed. History can be used to argue any side of any story. Rather than take sides, we should embrace the whole complex picture. We can and should be inspired by our past, its forms of greatness, the sacrifices people made. But our current era is unique. We live on a planet that is smaller and more fragile than ever before. Unless we stop saying “mine” and learn to draw on the best from all cultures, the future of humanity is at risk.

What is an Arab? I admire your courage in wanting to forge a single identity out of a complex and fractured past. But is Morocco, for example, an Arab country? You said you feel a common bond with Moroccans, but many of them feel closer to Spain than they do to Yemen or Dubai. Some Moroccans call themselves Arab, others insist that the Arabs are occupiers. Most feel they are simply Moroccan. I imagine we would hear the same thing in other parts of the Arab world. There are Arab fishermen, Arab nomads, Arabs who live in cities. Are they all the same? I’m impressed by your ambition, but Arab identity is like the wind.

Despite all I’ve said, I think I want an Arab renaissance as much as you. For too long, Arabs have been absent from the world stage, except in caricature form as oil-rich princes or religious fanatics. As a result, the world is out of balance. Brazilians, Indians and Chinese all have their place, but Arabs are pushed aside. I blame this on the lack of Arab democracy. I think America should take its thumb off the scales, get out of Iraq, stop aiding Israel, and stop blocking Iran. This will force the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians, Turks and Iranians, and of course the Iraqis themselves to work together. The problem is, this will only work if the Arabs have leaders with a popular mandate. Once democracy takes hold in the Arab world, the balance of power will fall into place. Yet democracy without stability could make things worse. How to begin?


Comment from amre El-abyad
Time: April 24, 2007, 13:25

Eatbees, I have to admit you have managed to encapsulate my own views in a more elaborate and consistent way then I’m.

You also managed to raise some very important questions that must be analysed and answered thoroughly, that’s if there ever going to be such a thing as an Arab renaissance.

First I want to put some historical facts in what I think is the right order. There is a consensus among almost all historians that the Babylonian civilisation has got precedence over the less developed cultures that evolved in the Iranian plateau. It is original in content and the main source of Persian culture. Elamites were Semitic people by the way. They seldom controlled Mesopotamia which never had an urge to dominate the barbaric Iran! The same argument goes for the greatest of all the ancients Egypt!

In my opinion the problems you raise when go out to define “Arabs” rise from linguistics you will face the same problems when try to define “west” or even Iranian identity who are the Iran? are they Turcoman, Packis, Arabs in Ahwaz or the remaining part desperately trying to link itself by a fictional chord to a dead and not very impressive past of a barbaric empire. Iranians only thrived under Arab dominance!

Arab fishermen, Arab doctors, Arab teachers are all Arabs……….. Nomadic Arabs are more of an anthropological piece of Art.

What springs into my mind there is that the level of continuity between ancient Arab civilisations and the contemporary Arabs (Pharoanic, Babylonian, Aramaic) is higher than any other people. Christianity , Judaism and Islam are the product of those cultures . The contemporary Arab culture is indeed, the integral sum of the local indigenous near eastern cultures, with a healthy variation and considerable differentials both of which are encapsulated by an overarching Arab framework

About the Fatimid “Arabic” dynasty ,well, was not Shiite in the modern sense. They didn’t have theological doctrine that is fundamentally different from the main stream Islam; they were mainly after the caliphate on basis of their claimed lineage to Ali. The safavid shiisim in Iran, on the other hand, is, indeed, a fanatic belief that is structurally skewed and fused with the so called “Persian” nationalism.

Arab identity is a solid fact manifested by a unique language that is not close to any alive living language, common culture, one blood and same enemies. What about the Indian identity of 1500 languages and different cultures? the Chinese identity of two major languages mandolin and Cantonese and about 40 minor languages. About Brazil I think they have structural problem and I don’t want to go into it for fear of being accused of racism.

I’m and environmentalist and an engineer so I you could say I have sense of the common destiny of this planet and what brings us together as humans. But I have to be pragmatic , I cant sing we all live in a yellow submarine while Iranians commit genocides in our beloved Iraq.

For instance, we have an Iranian family friends in Cairo who were less fortunate, my mother used to give them old clothes. My brother called the Iranian son of the family an Indian once. I quarrelled violently with my brother for that

I see a golden chance now for pumping in some spirit into the Arab body. The last great achiement Egypt did was the highly innovative and succeful war launched against Israel in 1973 that became a paradigm shift guiding the way lesser equipped armies of lesser developed nations should do. Now we have a cause that could bring the Arabs together which is liberating Iraq from Iran. In that matter our interests are partially and temporarily aligned with Americans.

If the Egyptian army in is sent to Saudi Arabia to secure an American withdrawal and wreak a fatal blow to Iran in alliance with Arabia and Jordan if it tries to interfere in Iraq, then it would resurrect the dormant and cynical feelings of Arabism among the unconscious Arab nations.

Seriously speaking, what is annoying me about Iran is that big mouth phenomena. Iran has tremendous oil and resources and still behind an oil resourcless country like Egypt who warred for 30 years stronger military powers like England, France and 3 years war with Israel (attrition and 1973), in terms of technological development, military efficiency and cultural and civilisation production. In Egypt we have 4 noble prize winners, we are inducers of a literary and linguistic Arab renaissance in 19th and 20th centuries, we manufacture gazelles and m1a1 and cars from A to Z , we payed a heavy toll of blood and spent the last pound of our treasury warring Saudi Arabia and mercenaries in Yemen to induce a real social and economic change in the Arab world, we have a history that by far surpasses the Iranian one., yet we don’t big mouth all the time like those strange Iranians.

I’m very aware and worried about the Amazigue Arab problem In Algeria and Morocco. On that I can tell you that An Arab renaissance would again make ARABIC MORE ATTRACTIVE LIKE IT USED TO BE 1000 years ago.

About democracy ,well, it took Europe 400 years to transform into the contemporary state of western societies which some like to call democracy. Democracy is not god! But unfortunately the current discourse of democracy in the west is not different from my opinion from any other what thery like to call despotic or totalitarian ideologies.

I apologise for the long comment. But I don’t want to post in my blog as I need to attract attention of as much Arabs/Muslims as possible to my last post which have captured Iranian hypocrisy on the spot while in the mean time I felt an urge to reply to your beautifully written post.

Comment from Liosliath
Time: April 25, 2007, 15:27

“Some Moroccans call themselves Arab, others insist that the Arabs are occupiers. Most feel they are simply Moroccan.”

I think my husband identifies himself first as Amazigh, then as Moroccan. For him, it’s annoying to have someone refer to Morocco as an Arab country. I can’t speak for the rest of the Imazighen, though.

Comment from xoussef
Time: April 25, 2007, 17:46

as usual too many things i would like to say if it wasn’t of my weak language skills. Frustrating!!
I feel the same as your husband Felix, even if i don’t speak amazigh, which make me not truly amazigh.

Comment from Liosliath
Time: April 26, 2007, 09:32

Xoussef…you’re only “not truly Amazigh” if YOU believe that speaking Tamazight/Tachelheit/Riffi is necessary for…er, Amazigh membership. No one else can tell you you’re not a “real Berber!” :)

P.S. I checked with the resident Berber here, ha ha, and he says the same thing…Berber ancestry = you’re a Berber, at least in his eyes.

Comment from eatbees
Time: April 26, 2007, 13:04

@Amre — Sorry for taking a long time to reply, but I’ve been working on a new post that will go up soon. I like long comments because it makes me feel like I’m not the only one who talks too much! You’re welcome to leave them here.

When you say “Iranians only thrived under Arab dominance!” this is silly to me. Wouldn’t it be equally true to say, “Arabs only thrived under Turkish dominance!” I wouldn’t call the empire of Cyrus and Xerxes “barbaric” or “not very impressive” —it was the most impressive in the world at the time.

The point I was trying to make in my post is that these kind of disputes are silly because we can argue back and forth and never prove anything. At some time in history, the Arabs were slaves. At another time they dominated and had slaves. We could say the same for the Germans or the British. In my own blood there are certainly the traces of both conquerors and slaves. Can we please move beyond the need to dominate each other? There is only one form of identification that interests me, and that is “human being.” The rules we make should apply to all human beings.

“Nomadic Arabs are more of an anthropological piece of Art”—I like this. But the fishermen deserve a special category too, becauseArabs were masters of the sea before any other people (if you count the Phoenicians as Arabs). They went as far as the Malabar Coast of India, the Atlantic coast of Africa, and even Ireland.

“Arab identity is a solid fact manifested by a unique language”—except that Moroccans consider Arabic to be a second language, like French, that they learn in school, because it is quite different from their spoken language, derija, which is a kind of Arabic-Berber blend…the situation is like Catalonian, which is not a dialect of Spanish but a separate language…and I suspect you’ll find the same situation in other Arab nations. “…that is not close to any alive living language”—what about Hebrew? “…common culture”—yes and no; there are profound similarities and profound differences. “…one blood”—all humans have one blood! “…and same enemies”—a bizarre way to define a culture IMO.

I’m not saying there is no such thing as Arab identity, there clearly is. I’m saying that I can challenge it in the same way you did for the Iranian and Chinese identity. There has been too much confusion throughout history for any culture to call itself “pure” or “uniform.” In the end, identity is what the individual chooses, and isn’t just “blood” or culture but also religion, sexuality, class…. Imagine a Christian Arab geek who likes heavy metal. Is “Arab” the most important part of his identity or one of those other things? I would say it’s up to him.

I am for a strong Arab identity, adapted to modern reality—but not if domination of others is the price. I predict this emerging identity will be not one, but many.

Now here is where it gets a bit dangerous. You say: “Now we have a cause that could bring the Arabs together which is liberating Iraq from Iran.” I guess I would say good luck to you, because this is what the Iraqi people themselves want—though they also want to be liberated from the Americans, and remain free from domination by the Turks or even by neighboring Arabs. There are two often contradictory goals in Iraq, the desire for a unified Iraq and the refusal of each group (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) to fall under the domination of the others. I think the reality of how to solve this will be a federal system with a central government that is weak at the beginning, but designed to grow stronger over time, like in Bosnia. This will only happen when Iraq’s neighbors (Iranians, Turks, Saudis, Syrians, etc.) are comfortable with the plan and have reached agreement. It will never happen through a military victory of one side over the other. The Iran-Iraq war went on for years and changed nothing, except that both nations were poorer and there were millions of dead. Do you want that to happen again?

“In that matter our interests are partially and temporarily aligned with Americans.”—As an American myself I think this is deeply unwise of you, because the Americans are the ones who destroyed Iraq in the first place, leading to Iran’s current strength. Do you trust them now to help you fix the problem? Aren’t you suspicious that they may be “playing” you, dividing Sunni against Shia in order to permanently dominate the Middle East? My advice as a friend is for Arabs to seek an economic and security alliance with Iran (and Turkey) and tell the Americans to go away.

“We have a history that by far surpasses the Iranian one, yet we don’t big mouth all the time like those strange Iranians”—Amre, this is what I like about you, you are a walking contradiction and proud of it! :)

About democracy—I agree that it is a concept we need to look at closely to see if it really means what it says it means. The West seems to think it has a monopoly on democracy, and it pursues the same policies in pushing this “product” on the rest of the world that it does in selling Marlboro or Coca-Cola. Requiring democracy to be in line with Western interests makes it a clever form of totalitiarianism—which explains why Nigeria or Egypt or Pakistan are considered troubled democracies, while Iran and Venezuela (which are both more democratic) are considered totalitarian states. The way I like to look at this is to do a thought experiment. If we really practiced democracy (one person, one vote) on a global scale, we could have a parliament where the U.S. has 300 votes, China has 1200 votes, Egypt has 80 votes, and so on. Imagine that this parliament could design economic, military and social justice policies that are binding on the entire world. I think the world’s priorities would look very different, which shows how far from true democracy we are in the world today.

“An Arab renaissance would again make ARABIC MORE ATTRACTIVE LIKE IT USED TO BE 1000 years ago.”—I want this to happen, and I think it can happen. It will require a bold, technically gifted, freethinking people who are never afraid to question themselves or authority. I just learned that Steve Jobs (head of Apple Computer) has a Syrian biological father, so he is technically an Arab! Maybe he could be the one to lead this Arab renaissance ;)

Comment from leblase
Time: April 30, 2007, 13:58

Sorry for a very short answer to your question, which is “How to begin?”.
First of all, by not ever blaming others for one’s failure to act.

PS It’s always a great pleasure to read you.

Comment from eatbees
Time: April 30, 2007, 17:03

@leblase — Since you’re here, maybe you could tell me your secret! Over at your place you make a speech about everything and nothing, show us a few pictures, and leave the room, wandering in and out over the next couple of weeks while people gather by the dozens to engage in a stream of witty, cultured, and occasionally perverse chatter. I realize that amiable discourse about the silly and the profound is a peculiar French talent, but how do all those people manage to keep the conversation going for such long stretches between posts? Do you have a hookah over there, or what?

Comment from leblase
Time: May 1, 2007, 08:03

eatbees ;-)
This chatter goes on and on because from time to time grace or depth strikes it , given by one of the commentators.
I know the site is blessed with open mindedness from exquisite people.
For some reason (I suppose the sense of humor is THE secret) rightists get along with leftists, Arabs engage in intercourse with Israelis, Iranian joke with Americans, philosophers with politicians, artists with engineers, laborers with actress.
All this is done in french language, even though from time to time we engage in other idioms; but people come from everywhere, since only half of them log in from France.
The easy-coming respect is also due to the fact that no one tries to convince anyone: there is room for everyone’s truth, even when the truth hurts.
So, I guess there is kind of a sense of gift and selflessness.
But it’s only my guess.

Comment from qunfuz
Time: February 10, 2010, 07:31

seems to me, eatbees, that you are too charitable to this racist, sectarian fool. I responded to him here:

Comment from eatbees
Time: February 10, 2010, 09:12

Since what motivates me about the internet is the chance to meet diverse people and have a real conversation, I try to give new commenters the benefit of the doubt, for at least the first couple of rounds — and that is what happened here. I probably go overboard sometimes, if I have time or patience, in the hope that I and the other person might actually learn something — but if the person is just arguing to score points or reinforce their prejudices, that usually becomes clear pretty quickly. I had a similar experience recently with a guy named Craig on my latest post.

By the way, I really enjoyed your recent article about Turkey that I saw on PULSE.

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