Arab Identity and Culture through Romanian Eyes

Article excerpt

ARAB IDENTITY AND CULTURE THROUGH ROMANIAN EYES Nadia Anghelescu, Identitatea araba: istorie, limba, cultura. (Arab Identity: History, Language, Culture) Iasi: Polirom, 2009, 442 p.

Keywords: Arab, Islam, culture, civilization, cultural identity, Bedouin, al-Jahiz, Nahda.

Nadia Anghelescu is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bucharest, where she specializes in Arab Anthropology and Linguistics. She is a leading academic expert in Arab culture, and this volume continues the inquiry begun in her 1998 book Limbaj si cultura În civilizatia araba (Language and Culture in Arab Civilization), which was well received internationally as well as in Romania. Her current book attempts to make her work accessible beyond academic audiences and reach a general audience interested in the problems of Arab civilization. She does acknowledge the difficulty of covering the whole range if issues in such a small study, and this book presents only an introduction to the extremely complex issues involved.

The author uses a wide range of sources. The book represents scholarship published after World War II, including the most recent literature. Most of them are in Arabic, although Western literature is included, notably French, but studies in English and Italian as well. Few of her sources are Romanian, and she shows a broad knowledge of the international periodical literature, including journals like Studia Islamica, Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, The Canadian Journal of Research and Semiotics.

The complex and sophisticated narrative seeks to present the extremely diverse problems of Arab civilization. Significantly the author is first of all a Philologist. Her interdisciplinary approach emphasizes primarily the Arabic language and cultural habits. In addition she uses historical data well, albeit in a secondary role compared to her anthropological emphasis. Only occasionally does she delve into chronological presentations of historical events.

The book is structured in twelve paragraphs, each in tern with sub chapters. Every chapter focuses on the problem identified in the title, but the majorities of problems are not fully developed in single chapters and overlap into others. The first chapter, called Arabii din vechime (The Arabs Since Antiquity) deals with the definition of the Arab population and the nature of Arab ethnicity before the appearance of Islam. Three short subchapters treat matters like socio-anthropologic differences between sedentary Arabs and nomadic Bedouins, definition of the term Arab, and the names by which other nations (Greeks, Babylonians, first Christians etc) referred to Arabs.

The second chapter, Începuturile Islamului si cuceririle arabe (The Beginings of Islam and the Arab Conquest) is also divided to three subchapters. It pays relatively little attention to the person of the Prophet, but provides a very good synthesis of the geographical-political context for conquest. It also contains a socio-anthropological and military analysis too, exploring the causes and circumstances of the rapid Arab conquest of very large areas. The Arabizarea teritoriilor cucerite (Arabization of Occupied Territories) is the largest subchapter and is concentrating language as a tool of Arabization,

Chapter three is called Arabii si Straini În Imperiul Arabo-Islamic (Arabs and Foreigners in the Arab-Islamic Empire). It deals with the issues of the Arab-Islamic world after Mohammed's death : the question of collective Arab identity, the definition of foreigners, and the integration of these foreigners, with a very good case-study which focuses on the so-called al-shu subiyya, a concept which defines the cultural struggle of non-Arab ( especially Persians, but not only) Muslims of the Empire.

The fourth chapter concentrates on the personality and work of al-Jahiz. It bears the characteristics of a biographical work and its title is Discursul de autolegitimare : al-Jahiz (Discourse of Self-legitimization: al-Jahiz). …