blurs of identity

What is an Arab….

You cannot tell him by his face, or his dress, or his manner, or his religion, or even his color. He may live anywhere from the eastern deserts of Iraq to the Atlantic shore of Morocco. He may be enveloped in white draperies in Abu Dhabi, tarbooshed in Alexandria, burnoosed in Tangier, respendently mod on the boulevards of Beirut or Cairo. He may be a Roman Catholic, a Druse, a Copt; a Maronite, a Berber, a Black, a Tuareg; he may look as African as Desmond Tutu or as European as Prince Charles. His wife may be utterly emancipated, or veiled from head to foot in the black draperies of purdah. The Oxford dictionary defines the Arab simply as “a native of Arabia,” but in this it is at least a thousand years out of date. Being an Arab now is not just a geographic predicament, nor even an ethnic state; it is more a philosophical proposition: you are an Arab, it seems, if you believe that you are an Arab- or even, perhaps, if somebody else believes that you are.

Caravan of pilgrims to Mecca. Miniature from Maqamat of al-Hariri, Baghdad, 1237.—to read more or purchase this print:

This blur of identity is fundamental to the Arab consciousness, and the history of the Arab peoples has been a perennial struggle to resolve it- an alternation of certainty and confusion, self awareness and doubt. Since the seventh century the Arabs have repeatedly tried to convince themselves, and the rest of the world as well, that Abraham, the condition of being Arab, is not just an academic and historical abstraction but a political fact: that there is such a thing as an Arab nation, transcending frontiers and binding within a single secular loyalty all who feel themselves to be Arab.

For centuries at a time history seems to have discredited this claim, as one half of the Arab world squabbles helplessly with the other, or the whole crumbles in impotent decay; but there are two periods in which the idea of a true Arab unity has come close to fulfillment. The first period was that of the Islamic empire, which dominated the Mediterranean world between the decline of Byzantium and the Renaissance in Europe. The second period is perceptibly, if debatably, our current scenario.

—The Samu incident began on Nov. 11, 1966, when an Israeli patrol close to the Jordanian border encountered a Fatah-planted landmine that killed three soldiers. Israeli leadership responded to the Fatah attack with a rapid, small-scale military incursion into Jordan’s West Bank on Nov. 13. Approximately 600 IDF troops and a dozen tanks crossed the border to the town of Samu, where they dynamited a few dozen houses and public buildings (estimates of the damage vary widely).
More on this topic
Israel Modern History
The Six Day War
Arab-Israeli Six Day War – a Revisionist View
Israeli leadership’s rationale for the attack was that Samu’s villagers would demand that Jordan’s King Hussein take action against Fatah to protect Palestinian civilians from further Israeli retaliation. Angry Palestinian citizens of Jordan did criticize King Hussein heavily for failing to protect them. However, their anger led them to support Fatah’s attacks rather than oppose them.
The Samu incident caused great anti-Israeli anger in the Arab media. It also stalled the secret normalization negotiations taking place between Jordan and Israel. It is thus one of the key incidents leading toward the six day war.
Read more at Suite101: Causes of the Six Day War |

The Arab community is so ill-defined, so diffuse, that we speak of it as a world of its own- the Arab World, a generic term we apply to no other people. Even this means different things to different observers. It can be argued for example, that the whole of Islam is Arab to a degree-Arab in the origin of its faith, Arab in many of its manners and emotions: There was in the early 1970′s an incident in Kashmir where students burned the  Anglican church of Srinagar in protest against the existance of Israel as an early example of the politicization of Islam is deeply affected by Arab values.

—During the time of Turkish rule, at the beginning of this century, one of the biggest uproars that ever occurred around the Temple Mount took place. It was the ill-fated Parker expedition. Captain Montague Parker organized an expedition to Jerusalem to find a $200 million treasure that was supposedly hidden underneath the Temple. A Swedish philosopher named Valter H. Juvelius thought he found a coded passage in the book of Ezekiel that gave the location of this lost treasure. Since digging was not allowed on the Temple Mount Parker and his group had to content themselves with digging around the area. After months of digging around the Temple Mount no “secret passage” could be found. With their permit to dig about to expire Parker bribed the Turkish governor to let him and his cohorts secretly dig on the Temple Mount. Dressed in Arab garb the group came to the Mount at night and stealthily dug while it was dark. For about a week they continued this practice. However just when they began to excavate the place where they believed the treasure to be fate intervened. An attendant of the Mosque decided to sleep that night on Temple Mount. Hearing strange noises coming from the Mosque he decided to investigate. He came upon Parker and his illegal dig. Immediately the horrified Muslim took to the streets to reveal with sacrilege. This result was a riot:
On the morning of April 19, 1911, a crowd of angry Muslims, outraged at what they considered to be a desecration of the holy Mosque of Omar or the Dome of the Rock, rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem, quickly mobbing the entrance to the government citadel. The Turkish governor of the city, fearing for his own life at the hands of the crowd ordered troops to quell the disturbance. But the soldiers were unable to control the growing mobs, and by nightfall, rioting and mayhem had spread to all parts of the city.
Never before had an archaeological expedition ended in so violent an uproar.—Read More: image:

The Arabic script is used in languages as disparate as Malay and Swahili, and nearly all of us, wherever we are, use Arabic numerals to do our math and algebra. But within the wider conception of the Arab world is the heart of nations from North Africa to Asia including controversial Israel, which in Arab eyes remains as integral a part of the Arab world as any other. And if the Arab nation really does exist in embryo, then this is the it: the unmistakable unity of style, the same sounds from Baghdad to Marrakesh, the same architecture, the same sense of heritage, the same passions and temperaments. Culturally, the Arab world is at least as cohesive as Western Europe. One language, one predominant religion and a shared history to give all its people an instinct of brotherhood; and they talk to each other,wherever they are, like brothers, in terms of intimacy that imply an ineradicable comradeship. Throughout the Arab countries and individual Arab is halfway home- like an Englishman in Australia, or more pertinently, an American Zionist at the Western Wall.

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One Response to blurs of identity

  1. Parissa says:

    I think you somehow exaggerated about the homogeneity of Arab world. And also you forgot to mention the power relation which has separated that world of them because of gender based discrimination.

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