1 September 2007
What is the Middle East, anyway? In the Middle of where and East of where? My Jordanian colleague posed this question as I resorted to the usual generalisations to describe a geographic area so diverse in culture and history. This is as important a point now as it was when Edward Said, the late Palestinian academic, tackled it in his influential book Orientalism first published in 1978. Said had argued that old fashioned colonialist Orientalism served only to create and reinforce negative views of the Arab people and the Arab world. We are taking Arab history away and replacing it with our own versions – as it relates to and is important to the British, French and the Americans.
As we cling to old clichés and stereotypes that hark back to the time of Lawrence of Arabia we are missing the opportunities to learn and understand about contemporary Arab culture in all its exciting forms. In my first Arabic class my teacher rolled her eyes as we told her we were studying Arabic because of the politics in the region. "Arabic language has nothing to do with politics," she exclaimed defiantly, "…can we not learn about the people and the culture and leave the politics out?" At the time I was somewhat perplexed, the only Arab world us political science students knew was the one we had been introduced to through its political conflicts and wars. Our teacher, a Muslim from Sarajevo and refugee in America, was certainly not living in blissful ignorance of the effects of politics on people.
Ten years ago I arrived for my first visit to the Arab world, Jerusalem. I struggled with a heavy suitcase at five thirty in the morning in search of a taxi to take me to Ramallah. The streets were deserted except for the small gathering of Arab labourers who were hoping for a day's work. They were wearing traditional headscarves favoured by many older Arab men. I wondered, should I cover my hair? Are they looking at me? They were, as I looked like a crazy foreigner on an empty street! At the time I had just completed a year’s research into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But my own 'Western' conditioning had planted a faint fear of other.
Fed on a diet of bad news about the Iraqi wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese-Israeli war for so long, we cannot think of Arabness without thinking of war, terror, conflict. These images of the Arab world dominate my family's thoughts each time I travel and yet they bear absolutely no resemblance for me to the glorious cities I visit and the experiences I have.
Should we judge the people by the actions and inadequacies of their political masters? Do we want to be judged on the past or present record of our governments? The people I met in bustling cafes, bars and nightclubs in Damascus, Beirut and Cairo want to get on with their lives as we do. They are working two or three jobs to cover the fees for their children to complete high school and go on to university. Family is central and it is a delight to see. Syrians celebrate life by going to restaurants that serve food in huge quantities. Tables full of meats, salads, breads and then fruits and Arab sweets washed down with Arab teas and conversation extended as the water pipe is smoked. In Beirut, café culture outlives all the wars and normal life picks up as soon as it is physically possible. I can picture my family and friends there too, being monumentally surprised by the fun to be had and the beauty to behold in these Arab cities.
As home to the three monotheistic religions it would be strange if religion did not hold a special place in the Arab world. You cannot fail to be in awe of the majesty of the mosque in Sana'a built during the life of the Prophet Mohammed and sense the history in the great mosque in the old city of Damascus. As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approaches, practising Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk and even those that aren’t so pious will make a special effort during this holy month. All the better to enjoy the evenings as the fast is broken and its time to kick back and relax until dawn breaks and the fast starts again.
I now understand my Arabic teacher's sentiment much more clearly.