This post appeared in The National Interest on February 17, 2011.
Countering close to a century of thoughtful Arabic intellectual output tolling the knell of Arab nationalism, Western “Arabist” romantics still cling to this ideology’s obsolete models, still advance its outdated principles, and still speak its archaic language. And as, at last, Egypt breaks its chains of servitude and ventures to chart a new national course, away from the desolation wrought by Arabism, unreformed Western demagogues dust off their musty old playbooks and defiantly spout the “rebirth” of Arabism. If Arab nationalism is dead, “Egypt is trying to revive it” came recent dispatches from the West. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, suspected by many to soon pounce on Egypt’s burgeoning freedom, was wise and cautious enough to refrain from such indiscretion and curb misplaced celebrations. Yet displaying clumsiness reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s own graceless fall from grace—Mubarak himself being one of the last remaining avatars of Arabism—indecent Arab nationalists, still unconvinced of their own multiple past deaths, show no misgivings about rushing to claim the fruits of someone else’s rebirth.
After all, if we are to believe the Arabists, there are no non-Arab “others” in the Middle East, and there are no cultures, languages, or narratives beyond those of Arabs. Turkish-speaking Syrian writer Sati’ al-Husri (1880-1967), the intellectual fountainhead of linguistic Arab nationalism, was adamant in this regard and disquieting in his advocacy for a compulsory Arabism. He wrote that every person who spoke Arabic was an Arab; that every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker was an Arab; and that under no circumstances should conscientious Arabs accept the wishes and narratives of those who cast aside their assigned Arabness. “You are an Arab if I say so!” preached al-Husri.
Ominously negationist as this dictum might be deemed in a Western intellectual context, it causes nary a stir in the consciousness of those friends of Araby still besotted by the Arabist elixir: “one Arab world from the Gulf to the Ocean.” Personal freedoms, freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, compromise, and respect of others and of the “other’s” narratives and rights seem to matter little, and can be sacrificed on the altar of Arabism. To have the Arab nationalists describe it, Egypt’s February 11, 2011 was not about freedom, food, and finances; it was about redeeming Egypt’s Arab identity and avenging Arab nationalism’s past failings.
Yet in spite of the lip-service and histrionics, Arab nationalism was never the strong suit of Egyptians; at least not the Egyptians outside the gilded gates of the military and the autocrats. For the average Egyptian, Arabism remained extraneous and superficial at best, pragmatically, not ideologically driven. Until his dying day, Taha Husayn (1889-1973), considered by many the doyen of modern Arabic literature—and for some time the Arab nationalists’ and Sati’ al-Husri’s bête noire of choice—scorned the faintest notion of an “Arab Egyptian” identity. He held Egypt’s roots to be Pharaonic, not Arab; maintained Egyptian culture and mentality to be closer to the ways of modern Greeks, Italians and Frenchmen than to those of Arabs; and considered his own use of the Arabic language to be immaterial and irrelevant to his Egyptian authenticity. Husayn even claimed the Arabic language, his own literary medium, to be an exogenous intruder and a foreign speech-form to the majority of his countrymen. No Egyptian speaks Arabic, he wrote; not at home, not at school, and not on the streets: “Egyptians everywhere speak a language that is definitely not Arabic, despite its partial resemblance to it.” And Husayn was hardly the odd man out in this debate. One of his contemporaries, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963), urged Egyptians to hold fast to their Egyptianness; to not dilute their proud identity into the Arabness of their neighborhood; and to never lend allegiance to any other fatherland beside the Egyptian fatherland.”
There were others still, besides Husayn and al-Sayyid, in Lebanon, in Syria, and Iraq; Middle Eastern intellectuals who celebrated diversity, and poured sharp criticism on the Arab nationalist ethos, on its illusions of authenticity, on its imagined particularism, on its fear of diversity, and its lack of introspection. Arab culture, claimed Syrian intellectual Adonis (b. 1930), is one “completely closed on itself,” utterly incompatible with modernity and loath to the Middle East’s richly textured multiple identities. In one of his recent French-language works, Adonis claimed that advocates of Arabism embrace “a closed, resentful, repetitive kind of culture, where there is nary an opening to the outside, where the only ‘other’ is Evil, Hell, Satan […] and where distinctness and plurality are rejected out of hand.” Adonis goes so far as to proclaim the Arabs “in a phase of extinction […], facing a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that is obsolete and outmoded.”
Embracing the Arab nationalist narrative, to the neglect of other, equally legitimate perspectives, seems so out of touch with the realities of the modern Middle East and so out of step with the aspirations of its ancient rejuvenated peoples; Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Why can’t the emancipation of Egypt be claimed to the Egyptian people? Why should February 11, 2011, this profoundly moving moment in modern Egyptian history, be seized by peddlers of spiteful, domineering, and reductive nationalisms? Why do the friends of Arabism insist on foisting its corpse upon the shoulders of those advancing the cause of life, not legend; Egypt, not Arabia? “He spoke our language, he spoke our language” came the primal cries of young Tunisians taking their despot to task. What they meant was not that Ben Ali had bowed to their demands and renounced his throne, but rather that he had finally addressed them in their native vernacular language: in their spoken Darija as opposed to the atavistic Modern Standard Arabic; a stilted, highly stylized linguistic ornament that had become the emblem of Arabism and a tool of despotism and cultural suppression; the linguistic preserve of a few, in the main intellectuals and demagogues, shut out from the masses who spoke other languages altogether.
A number of stories coming out of Egypt corresponded to the Tunisian narrative. On the eve of Mubarak’s abdication, Egyptian feminist and liberal thinker Nawal Saadawi quoted a Tahrir Square youth complaining about the beleaguered President’s inability to speak the language of young Egyptians. She lambasted him and his retinue for being alien to the language of emails, Tweets, Facebook, and SMS. In addition to being an indictment of the wardens of Arabism and their ossified linguistic norms, this was advocacy on behalf of spontaneous speech forms and nimble modern modes of communication.
In the end, it was this very “linguistic humanism” that became the game changer in Tunisia and Egypt. A game changer that signaled not “the rebirth of the Arab nation” as some ideologically driven commentators rushed to proclaim, but the birth of brave new nations. The autocrats finally surrendered to the will of the people not because they have renounced brutality—Arab nationalism’s stock in trade—but because they could no longer fight new concepts and novel ideas in their midst, with their old, aphasiac, dilapidated language.
In a metaphor borrowed from early 20th century Coptic reformer Salama Musa (1887-1958), Egyptian writer Chérif Choubachi compared the users of Arabic to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling toward modernity and progress.” Writing from the vantage point of a post-Mubarak Egypt, Choubachi might have added Twitter, Facebook and SMS to the trope; new languages transforming the Middle East and Middle Eastern identities. The surrealism of the Interior Ministry’s “goon squads” storming Tahrir Square on camelback, armed with swords and slingshots, was not lost irony: the old resisting the new with spent-out ammunition and worn-out notions speaks to the depravity of those who still won’t “go gentle into that Good Night.”