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 The Oxford dictionary defines the Arab simply as “a native of Arabia,” but in this it is at least a thousand years out of date.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.
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 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.
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.