Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Killing the Levant, Rekindling the "Arab World"

In 1999, long before the fitful rise and fall of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” former Arab-nationalist author and public intellectual Hazem Saghieh published a scathing critique of Arab dogmas, delusions, and political discourse. He named his book The Swansong of Arabism. It was a work of painful and honest introspection, in which the author called for casting aside the soothing jingles of “Arab Unity” and discarding the assumptions of “Arab Identity,” urging his former comrades-in-arms to let go of, and bid farewell to the corpse Arabism. “Arabism is dead,” wrote Saghieh, and Arab nationalists would do well bringing a healthy dose of realism to their world’s changing realities: “they need relinquish their phantasmagoric delusions about ‘the Arab world’ [… and let go of their] damning and outmoded nomenclatures of unity and uniformity [… in favor of] liberal concepts such as associational and consociational identities.”

Arabism and unitary Arab identity—“philosophies of compulsion, coercion, and exclusion” in Saghieh’s words—have rained disaster on the Middle East of the past hundred years; yet their ideologies persist as lodestar to many an irredeemable nationalist, and their illusive terminologies remain the dominant prism through which some insist on defining the Middle East. Liberal, multi-ethnic, polyglot models such as those of Switzerland, Belgium, or India, complained Saghieh, “elicit nothing but contempt from Arabists still infatuated with overarching domineering pan-identities.” Diversity frightens the Arabists he claimed. To wit, Lebanese militant scholar Omar Farrukh wrote during the second half of the 20th century that it is irrelevant should Iraqis deem themselves a hybrid of Aramaeans, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Indians, and others still: “They still are Arabs, in spite of their racial diversity,” even in spite of themselves, “because the overriding factor in their identity formation is the Arabic language.” Likewise, Farrukh stressed that the inhabitants of today’s Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and elsewhere in Northern Africa, may very well be a mix of Berbers, Black Africans, Spaniards, and Franks; “but by dint of the Arab nation’s realities [sic.?] they all remain Arabs shorn from the same cloth as the Arabs of the Hejaz, Najd, and Yemen.”

More recently, Palestinian public intellectual and journalist Rami Khouri suggested proclaiming “the death of the ‘Levant’ label” as a referent to the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. His rationale was that the “revolts across much of the Arab world capture the fact that Arab citizens are now in the very early stages of rewriting their own history and crafting their own national narratives.” Consequently, those citizens’ physical and geographic space, argued Khouri, deserved nomenclature reflecting the nature of their world and the mood of their revolts. The “Arab world” was a more apt term to describe Egypt, Syria, and their Mediterranean bailiwick claimed Khouri; “Levant,” on the other hand, was a linguistic, perceptual, and geographic throwback to a hated “colonial era,” which the current upheavals seem bent on erasing. Yet Levantines could not disagree more with Khouri's oversimplifications; most see themselves not as colonial inventions, but as sophisticated, urbane, cosmopolitan mongrels, intimately acquainted with multiple cultures, skillfully wielding multiple languages, and elegantly straddling multiple traditions, identities, and civilizations, including those of Khouri’s vaunted Arabs.

Yet, oblivious to the realities of the Levantine Near East as a crossroads and a meeting-place of peoples, histories, languages, and ideas, Khouri seems hellbent on snuffing out diversity in the name of Arab uniformity; as if Arabism’s resentful history of the past hundred years had not yet been sanguinary enough, repressive enough, or negationist enough. “History beckons to the Arabs,” wrote recently Syrian thinker Adonis,
to put an end to their culture of deceit; for, [the] states of the Levant are much greater, much richer, and much grander than to be reduced to slavery for the benefit of Arabism […] and no amount of cruelty and violence emanating from Arab nationalists will change the reality that the Middle East is not the preserve of Arabs alone.
Yet Khouri somehow deems it fitting to slay Adonis’s Levant—the Levant of millions of Adonises—on the altar of a spent ideology and an “Arab world” that no longer obtains. Never mind that in this year’s Middle East uprisings not a single banner was raised in the name of an “Arab world,” not a single candle was lit in the name of an “Arab world,” not a single slogan was intoned in the name of an “Arab world,” and not a single victim (mauled by the cruel killing machines of writhing Arab nationalist regimes,) not a single victim self-immolated for the sake of an “Arab world.” Still, the indecent champions of a moribund “Arab world” have no shame piggybacking on the sacrifices of those seeking freedom from the brutality and servitude of a hackneyed and dessicated ideology.

Nearly a decade before Khouri’s delusional exhortation to rename the Levant, Nizar Qabbani, an Arab nationalist with impeccable credentials, was announcing the death of his Arab world, not the Levant; and he was inviting incorrigible nationalists to join him at the wake. Eulogizing an anthropomorphic “Arab world,” Qabbani wrote:
… This is the end of dialogue […] My language has despaired of you: and I have set fire to my clothes, and I have set fire to your language and your lexicons. I want out of my voice; out of my writings; out of my place of birth. I want out of your cities of salt, your hollow poetry, […] and your tedious language and silly myths and lore. I have had enough already of your hallowed idiots and your lionized impostors. I have despaired of your skins; I have despaired of my nails; I have despaired of your impenetrable wall.
Perhaps Khouri, and those like him, still romancing outmoded delusions about some uniform, unified, reformed “Arab world,” would take heed.