Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Arabism; An Orientalist Trope?

Arab nationalism and the post-WWI order it imposed on the Middle Eastern mosaic is another Orientalist trope says Shlomo Avineri in this recent Haaretz piece.

Not tooting my own horn--okay fine, I am--but this is something to which I have alluded repeatedly earlier this year, when every other Middle East expert and their sister kept tripping over themselves heralding a so-called "Arab Spring," and an "Arab Re-Awakening." Back then I wrote--and today I still believe--that
the dismantlement of the "anciens régimes" in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, point to a defrocking of the Arab nationalist order, not its "rebirth"; [signaling] the emergence of new nation-states, not the mending of an old ideology. Much has been written [...] about the region's turmoil bearing the markings of Eastern-Europe-1989. The comparison is tempting. However, it is not unlikely that future historians might revise this parallel and re-christen this year's momentous events as the early stirrings of a Middle Eastern "Peace of Westphalia"; the breakup of the imperial [and I dare say an imperialist] Arab (dis)order and the birth of new free nations. Eastern-Europe-1989 did not only bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain; it raised a Velvet Curtain to reveal the birthing of new nations. Not Egypt, not Libya, and not Tunisia; Sudan is the glimpse into the future of the Middle East.
Maybe this is wishful thinking--and I admit my analysis is not ideologically innocent, I am sympathetic to minority rights and minority narratives in the Middle East--but all indicators seem to validate the Sudanese model. To wit, Hebrew-U Political Scientist Shlomo Avineri wrote today that "the independence of Southern Sudan [and I would add the impending fragmentation of Libya and Syria] reflect the failure of Arab nationalist ideology to impose solidarity and uniformity upon complex, multiethnic societies."

Avineri, whose work is ordinarily seated snugly to a "left of center" well disposed to "Arabist causes", wrote that in a sanctimonious "international community that sticks to its principles" the Southern Sudanese should have achieved their independence long ago, without the oppression and the blood-tribute exacted by "the Arab and Muslim Sudanese leadership" whose stock in trade remains an unforgiving Aflaquesque Arabism.

But Sudan is only the most obvious (and fashionable) "modern" example. Otherwise, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, among others, are likewise modern creations--mainly the product of flimsy British cartography, heedless of the complex, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot societies that have defined the Middle East for millennia, even at the height of the more recent Arab and Muslim ascendancy in the region. The modern Arab nationalist order wrote Avineri
which presented these new countries as an integral part of the Arab world [...] reflected reality only in part, but for several decades served as a powerful device for oppressing minorities--Kurds in Iraq and Syria, non-Arabs in Sudan. Even the constant pressure on Lebanon to accept pan-Arab policy, at the expense of maintaining its unique character as a mutiethnic, multireligious society, is part of the attempt to force an Arab national identity on a pluralistic, complex society.
The fledgling republic of Southern Sudan might be signaling the end of the reductive, repressive Arab nationalist order argued Avineri; a prelude to a new map of the Middle East, and the beginnings of the dismantlement of an imperial idea obsessed with enforcing solidarity and uniformity where diversity and multiplicity once reigned. Echoing what I advanced in a series of essays in The National Interest earlier this year, Avineri wrote today that
As can be seen from the experience of Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the communist regimes not only gave rise to democratic alternatives, but also led to a reawakening of national movements once suppressed by communist ideology...
Again, this is the glimpse into the Middle East's future!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A BDS of History in Israel

The longer I stay here, the more I realize how much the Lebanese and Israelis share in common; geographically, culturally, politically, and ethno-religiously. Israel and Lebanon also share much in that those in their societies who are advocating for complex, expansive, spacious identities—recognizing the “otherness” of “the Other”—appear to be on the losing side of history.

In the early 1940s, speaking of the “Lebanese paradox” which, in its cultural and linguistic diversity represented a microcosm of the modern Middle East, Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha wrote that:
Conquerors and their conquests have all come, gone, and faded away; yet the Lebanese have remained. Lebanon [and by association the entire Levantine coastline] is the meeting-place into which peoples flock and assimilate regardless of their origins. It is the crossroads where varied civilizations drop in on one another, and where bevies of beliefs, languages and cultural rituals salute each other in solemn veneration. We are above all a Mediterranean nation, but a nation, like the Mediterranean itself, discerning and sensitive to the stirring music of universal poetry.
This is the essence of the Israel that I have come to know these past few years; a state of the Jewish people to be sure, but a diverse human and cultural space composed of Jews, Arabs, Christians, and others; a mix unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East; a space with topologies, climate-systems, histories, languages, and geographies favorable to diverse cultural and human compositions, synthesizing centuries of intellectual, linguistic, and ethno-national intercourse and traffic.

Alas, this diverse, pluralist—and yes, democratic—Israel is losing ground to a rigid, reductive, exclusivist Arabist interpretation of history. The model here is one not unlike that of the “association of minorities” that was pre-1975 Lebanon. What’s more, the scenario that has led to the dismantlement of the Lebanese “federation of ethnicities” might very well be lurking in Israel’s future. It is a discourse that—to use the language of Syrian thinker Adonis—is constructed upon a negationist ethos; an instinct that rejects the non-Arab “other” and refuses to “reflect on the other” in language, history, temperament, and social habits.

Here is how Israel is validating the Arabist interpretation of history—and I’m not dramatizing here; this is serious stuff!

The municipality of Rahat, a Bedouin township in the Negev, boasts a rich public library featuring thousands of Arabic-language volumes treating topics ranging from linguistics, to Koranic studies, Arabic literature, history, sociology, and culinary arts. So far so good, yes? No! Strolling down the “Arab History” aisles, I picked up Muhammad Muhammad Hassan Sharraab’s “Dictionary of the Counties of Palestine ” (Second Edition, Amman, Jordan: Al-Ahliyya Publications, 2000.) Flipping through the pages, I come to Chapter Three (p. 31), titled “The Ancient Inhabitants of Palestine.” The title itself was tantalizing—given that in my neck of the woods “Ancient” ordinarily referred to a pre-AD70 Era, when “Palestine” had not yet come into being—let alone had the term “Palestine” been invented. But the anachronistic terminology was fascinating enough, so I read through the chapter, and I provide a translation of its most notable passages below:
The Canaanite Arabs were history’s first people to have inhabited Palestine. This is attested to by a prominent historian [no name or reference are provided, of course] who said that ‘the opinions of the gifted jurists from among the luminaries of practice and knowledge are unanimous in that the Arabic-speaking peasants of Palestine are the descendants of the Pagan tribes inhabiting that land prior to the Israelite conquest.’ Their feet are deeply rooted in the soil of Palestine, since the remotest history. Indeed, since the very dawn of time peoples of the Semitic Race have inhabited Southern Syria—that is, Palestine—following a series of migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula and beginning around the year 3500BC. Based on this, we can confirm that the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years.
Now, aside from the fact that the so-called “[Semitic] migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula […ca.] 3500BC” are corroborated by no known archaeological or historical record—they are in fact based on the more recent 7th century Muslim conquests of the Levant, retrojected into an unknown past—the text exudes ideological puffery (in the garb of a serious etymological dictionary.) For one, the Semites are not a race, and the term “Semitic” refers not to peoplehood, but to a group of languages (including Arabic and Hebrew) that are as “related” to and as “distinct” from one another as French is “related” to and “distinct” from English and Rumanian. Secondly, despite the modern Arab nationalist cant, not all of the tribes emerging out of the Arabian Peninsula were necessarily Arabs. Furthermore, Arabs and Canaanites are two distinct peoples, making use of “related” but “mutually incomprehensible” languages—that is to say distinctly Arabic and Canaanite languages—that no serious “gifted luminary” can subsume into a single label. And finally, it is surprising that “the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years,” and yet left us no written or archaeological record of their presence. Indeed, the peoples of the Levant—“Palestine” included—had been “literate” since at least the 13th century BC; the Hebrew Bible tells us so; so do Ugaritic literature and Phoenician records. Yet the Arabs who “had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years” seem to have bucked the Canaanite and Hebrew Alphabets despite Sharrab’s claim that “the Canaanites were a Semitic race of Arabs.”

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the translation. For those interested, I've included an image of the Arabic text below, and I’ll post the rest of the translation once I'm back in Boston and have more reliable internet. For now, it’s interesting to note that this narrative is reminiscent of the great Edmond Rabbath—one of the chief intellectuals of Arab nationalism—who, with much swagger and gravitas (ahem, and with a straight face) advanced the claim that “Canaanite and Hebrew were dialects of Arabic,” and by inference, that both “Canaanites and Hebrews were lapsed Arabs that should be brought back to the fold.” Very Aflaqesque, no? But more importantly, this is the history that the "racist intolerant apartheid Jewish state" is allowing in the Bedouin School System. A BDS from within.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'm a Christian Too; Welcome to Israel

This post was picked up by the National Interest and published, on August 8 2011, under the title Shalom, And Welcome to Israel!

From the outset, at El-Al’s JFK security counter, Israel had already begun shattering stereotypes. My “cross-examination” took roughly five minutes even though I was told to expect a grueling five-hour interrogation. This was my first time flying El-Al, Israel’s flag carrier.

The airline’s security personnel were tough as nails; deliberate, methodical, invasive even, but supremely courteous. They wanted to know why I was going to Israel, what was the purpose of my previous visits, the names of the conferences I had attended in years past—at Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv—the names of some of my colleagues in Israel, my area of specialty, and the courses I taught at Boston College. It was all seemingly anodyne, and a legitimate line of questioning—albeit not the kind one would ordinarily expect when boarding a flight to Paris or Amsterdam. But I was not heading to either Paris or Amsterdam, and I came prepared for Israel’s rigorous border-crossing rituals.

I spent my childhood in the Middle East, in war-torn Lebanon to be exact. I am intimately acquainted with the predatory nature of my neighborhood. I also know how vigilant one must be to stay alive in my little piece of paradise. “If you’re not a wolf you shall be mauled and devoured by wolves” goes a popular Arabic adage.

But in the end I was cleared for check-in and boarding, in under five-minutes, and El-Al’s security personnel were apologetic for having kept me a tad longer than the Jewish colleagues accompanying me on this trip. In fact, I felt I was “harassed”—to use the term of my Jewish companions—far less than Israeli citizens; and at the time I hadn’t an inkling that what I was being subjected to amounted to “harassment.” I still don’t. Israel has won this public relations battle as far as I am concerned. But the icing on the cake came hours later, during boarding, when one of the security agents who had been scrutinizing me and my passport earlier at the airline counter declined to see the travel documents I had handed him. He waved me through with a friendly tap on the shoulder, quipping “I know who you are Franck, have a nice flight.”

The arrival in Israel was equally contrary to convention. Although I cannot say that on my previous trips I was “detained” or “harassed” by Israeli immigration, it always took me at least a half-hour of (overall friendly) questioning by the Shin Bet (Israel’s General Security Service) before being given the entry stamp. This time around I was not even singled out for questioning: it was only my “menacing” immigration officer-in-the-booth and myself. She greeted me with a broad smile and a friendly Shalom, and spoke to me in Hebrew—to which I replied with the little Hebrew I could manage. But the minute she opened my passport—and, I assume, saw “Beirut” as my “place of birth”—her complexion changed, her brow furrowed, and her smile stiffened into bewildered suspicion. And although she had tried to keep her composure and friendly disposition, it was clear that this was now serious business, and firmness was the name of the game. She asked all the routine questions: “why are you here?” “what’s the name of the conference you are attending?” “what courses do you teach?”, etc… Then came the more serious part:
--“Where are you from?” she inquired.
--“Andover, Massachusetts, USA,” came my answer.
-- (No, stupid,) “where were you born?” she probed tersely.
--“Ah, that ‘where are you from?’ Beirut-Lebanon!
--“How long ago was your last visit to Lebanon?
--“About ten years ago.
Then, after quizzing me on my father’s and grandfather’s names, she popped the question; the one she’d been itching to ask:
--“So, what are you; Muslim or Druze?” she queried.
--“Neither,” I said, “I’m a Maronite, from Mount-Lebanon!
Her face lit up, she looked me in the eye, smiled (again), stamped my passport, and blurted out “I’m a Christian too; welcome to Israel!” I smiled back, thanked her, turned around, winked at the colleagues fretting behind me worried that their “goy” companion was being mistreated by their tough co-religionist border-officer, and walked into Israel.

In the aggregate, it took the Maronite goy from Lebanon less time to get through the impregnable Israeli security “wall,” than it took my habitués Jewish companions who’d spent a lifetime travelling there. I tell this story because, to my mind, it reveals an Israel that is at great odds with the stereotypical “bunker-state” that it is often made out to be—both by its Arab rivals and its smart liberal Western-Jewish critics. At the very least, Israel is a complex, dynamic, enterprising society; a turbulent democracy perhaps, with flaws and failings aplenty, but a democracy regardless, trying to maintain itself as such—and as a refuge for Jews and other Near Eastern minorities—against tremendous regional and international pressures.

In a recent critique of Arab totalitarianism, Syrian thinker Adonis wrote that for nearly a century of Arab-Jewish antagonisms in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabism and its ancillaries
have attempted to submit the richness of the Levant to a single linguistic, cultural, racial, and religious identity, laying down the foundations of a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional culture; a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating, apostatizing, marginalizing, and obviating ‘the other’...

Israel is an experiment in the opposite direction—arguably a clumsy belabored experiment fraught with pitfalls and challenges. Yet it remains the Middle East’s only experiment in minority “self-rule” where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and others have equal rights before the law and enjoy the same individual freedoms of assembly, conscience, and dissent, without fear of retribution. It is certainly not Switzerland or Sweden. But judged by the standards of its own neighborhood—where non-Arabs and non-Muslims have traditionally not fared well at all—it remains infinitely better for one to be an aggrieved minority in Israel than a privileged majority in, say, Egypt, Syria, or Jordan.