You cannot visit the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, without feeling overwhelmed by the Orient - the smell, music, colour, and diversity of this vast and fascinating part of the world. In fact that one, particular place, SOAS, is where I spent the last three years reading and where I happened to be at a number of days ago when I skimmed through “Being Arab” by the French-Lebanese writer Samir Kassir. Who are the Arabs and what makes one Arab an Arab? Is language the major factor in determining who is and who is not an Arab? Maybe ethnicity or origin plays the leading roles? Where does the border of Arabism lie? I will tell you now that this article will not attempt to answer the questions above; the article will, however, ask you to question.
There are multiple attempts throughout history to define what ingredients are used to build the ‘Arab identity’ and how they, the Arabs as one organic, homogeneous identity, interact. Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 sent an entire expedition to Egypt to study how that particular part of the Orient mechanically operated; an attempt to study Egyptian culture, language, politics, economics, arts and such. The expeditions and scholarly studies, I would argue, have failed in defining who the Arab peoples are. Being an Arab is not wearing certain clothes or talking in a certain way or writing in some scribbling form, it is an identity - to say the least. Since one could consider it as an identity, would an American, or Chinese or French, living in some Arab state and communicating in Arabic with Arabs be considered as an Arab? Would a Syrian, or Kuwaiti or Moroccan, living in Spain and communicating in Spanish with Spaniards be considered as an Arab? Those are very interesting questions that I hope you would take a chance to discuss.
“Orientalism” by the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said of Columbia University who passed away in 2003 and who wrote his masterpiece in 1978 has reshaped Oriental Studies. In it, Edward Said argues that the West, or Occident or non-Orient, has deliberately been intellectually misrepresenting the East through a particular lens: inferior, uneducated and unenlightened, sexually-driven, uncivilized. The titling of the book would perhaps connote a study of the entire Orient, from India to China to the Middle East, for it implies so; Edward Said is criticized for singling out the other regions. Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics, who criticized Orientalism on several points but who has also spent time studying and reflecting on the 1978 masterpiece, not to mention a colleague and friend of Edward Said, defines the discipline as follows: “External authority and internal nationalism collude to create a timeless, and particularist, discourse.” Edward Said’s “Orientalism” will undoubtedly better your understanding of what constitutes the Arab identity. The Arabs belong to a certain civilizational space and time - like, say, the Chinese or English. One could not define an entire people through concrete traits or ingredients for there are numerous factors that should be taken into great consideration and analysis. History, culture, arts and politics - to name some elements - all add to the fruitful understanding of what makes a people the way they are. Unless you, the nationalist, disagree, Arabs are indifferent. What ingredients constitute your own identity?
By Bader Al-Dihani