Not So Grand Illusions

The Shaping of the Arabs: A Study in Ethnic Identity

by Joel Carmichael
Macmillan, 407 pp., $7.95

The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958

by Patrick Seale
Oxford, 366 pp., $7.20

The Arab Cold War, 1958-1967: A Study of Ideology in Politics (Second Edition)

by Malcolm Kerr
Oxford, 169 pp., $1.70

For quite some time now, the Arabs have been making a considerable noise in the world. Chanceries, academics, and newspapers are alike preoccupied with Arab grievances, demands, and aspirations. From small beginnings thirty or forty years ago, the Arab question has become an industry similar to that of electronics or space technology. But they have also become a bore. Fifty or a hundred years ago an author who felt drawn to Middle Eastern subjects had a tremendous variety from which to chose: Barbary corsairs, belly dancers, fanatical Mussulmans, sultans, pashas, moors, muezzins, harems. Now, in a decidedly poorer exchange, it has to be the Arabs.

By Arabs of course we do not mean the lively and interesting denizens of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, or Baghdad. We mean rather the collective entity which writers of books manufacture and in which they manage to smother the charm and variety of this ancient and sophisticated society. This collective entity is a category of European romantic historiography, and judged by its results, it is not a felicitous invention; for as they are described by their inventors the Arabs are a decidedly pitiable and unattractive lot: they erupt from the Arabian desert; they topple two empires, while making grandiloquent speeches in their rich and sonorous language; but all too soon the rot sets in, materialism and greed erode their spirit, and their caliphs change from lean puritans into fat voluptuaries. After that, it is all up with them: they are engulfed and enslaved by the Turks, hoodwinked by the British, colonized by the French, humiliated by the Jews, until at last they rise up again to struggle valiantly against Imperialism and Zionism under the banner of Nationalism and Socialism.

The ultimate insult is that the victims of this European travesty have accepted this caricature as a true picture of themselves, and as nature is said to imitate art have, in the process, come in fact to behave like it.

As may be gathered from the title of his book, Mr. Carmichael recognizes this story for the European concoction that it is. He argues, in fact, that only now, because of the wide currency which modern methods of propaganda and indoctrination have ensured for this myth, has an Arab collective identity, shaped and sustained by it, begun to emerge. He writes (p. 309):

It was in fact the Western habit of referring to Arabic-speaking Muslims, at least in the Middle East outside of Egypt, as “Arabs” because of their language—on the analogy of German-speakers as Germans, French-speakers as French and so on—that imposed itself on an East that had never regarded language as a basic social classifier. It was natural for Europeans to use the word “Arab” about a Muslim or even a Christian whose native language was Arabic; they were quite indifferent to the principles of classification in the East. The oddity is simply that this European habit became the very germ that the contemporary Arab nationalist movement has sprung from.

Mr. Carmichael’s purpose…

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