The Word on the Arab Street

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Word on the Arab Street


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


IT is going to be a hot summer in the Middle East. There is always foment and ferment, fuelled by angry talk in the mosques and the cafes, but this is something different. There are some other important mutterings--the slightly smug 'I told you so' talk from the academic Arabists of the Western world, almost all of whom prophesied catastrophe as the outcome of the US's Iraq adventure. That catastrophe is now magnified after the stories and photographs of abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

The US has achieved a remarkable alchemical feat, making Arab unity out of Arab discord. Nobody has done it for long or over much of the Middle East before. Eighty years ago, T.E. Lawrence's genius was to weld a few Hejaz tribes into a biddable unit, but they were at each other's throats by the time they reached the gates of Damascus. The Baathist dream of Arab unity was an ironic joke within its first decade.

The notion of seething Arab tribalism became one of the axioms of US policy towards the Arab world. There is no possibility of real Arab unity against us, said the conventional wisdom of the State Department, because however much they dislike us, they will always dislike their neighbours more. And even if we are wrong about that, the policy went on, the Arabs are such fickle, childish people, that any pan-Arab feeling will evaporate in days. Islam, said the Department, can be dismissed. Its divisions are even wider and deeper than those in the secular Arab body. It is run by mediaevalists, and mediaevalists will never be able to understand guided missile systems. The religion itself is an artefact of poverty: it can always be drowned in Coca Cola or poisoned with burgers.

A foreign policy built on such crude, patronising stereotypes was bound to fail. And on the way to failing it was bound to conduct itself so shamefully that the gulf between the Arabs and the West (which is unfortunately and unfairly synonymous with the US to most Arabs), was widened.

Although one must be cautious about stereotypes, some things can validly be said about the Arab view of the world. It has always been quixotic, putting a high price on personal honour. It is easily affronted and inflammable. Love and hate are close companions. Hospitality is abundant. Memories are long, and time is elastic: the Crusades are closer than the Second World War. It is steeped in the logic of paradox, so that paradoxes are often seen as necessarily logical, and logic seen as deviously paradoxical. It is fiercely loyal and loyally fierce, but dangerously fickle. Its appetite for conspiracy theory is insatiable, but that is itself a curious symptom of a deep scepticism. About God, it is generally business-like and realistic. The shrug of joyful or resentful resignation is a commoner movement in Islam than a tug on the lanyard which will trigger the dynamite strapped round the chest. Even in the Islam of the most ascetic desert Muslims there is a strand of sensualism: even renunciation is desired because of its immediate or eventual material bounty. And when it comes to political heavens-on-earth, it is cynical and pragmatic.

It is the history and the paradox which the Americans have not understood. Americans are the most logical and literal and tidy-minded of people. They have, as a nation, no mental pigeon-hole for the news report which said that Shi'ites in southern Iraq were chanting, in one breath: 'Death to Saddam: Death to America'. And so it never got filed, and, for the same reason, will not be prevented again. Ignore whole categories, and whole categories come and blow you up. It is now, chronologically, just over one year since the statues of Saddam fell. It is nine hundred and five years since Baldwin's crusaders overwhelmed Jerusalem. The first is forgotten: the second is not. Be simplistic about chronology, and time will swallow you.

To take the backgammon chatter of Cairo's cafes as prophecy is simply stupid. But not to hear it is worse.

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