3000 years of factual Arab history, and personal insights from this Oxford Brit who lived in Yemen for 37 years, translates classical Arabic, and clearly cares a lot. Huge and thorough but really wonderful for those with the interest. I loved his writing style and poetic asides. Read my notes here for a taste. What a great book.
Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen: These five countries contain half the population of the Arabic-speaking world.
That ‘world’ is home to 5 per cent of humanity, but generates 58 per cent of the earth’s refugees and 68 per cent of its ‘battle-related deaths’.
Sometimes it seems that only one thing unites Arabs, and that is their inability to get along with each other.
Sha’b: Collection, or union; also separation, division, or disunion. A nation, people, race, or family of mankind
Shared language is important to any ethnic identity.
It is an attempt to reverse the divinely inflicted disunity of Babel, that babble of misunderstanding that prevents people from coming together.
The first known ancient inscription mentioning Arabs dates from 853 BC.
The boy Muhammad was first recognized as a prophet in AD 582 – the precise mid-point between that inscription and now.
Islam began with such a flash that it tends to blind us to what was there before.
Peoples and tribes: hadar and badw.
The two systems, settled ‘peoples’ and bedouin ‘tribes’:
hadari, or ‘settled’, ‘civilization’, in the sense of people living together
badawi, or ‘bedouin’, apolitical society, a dynamic system in which people live beyond the civil polity, and in which the basic ‘institution’ is that of the ghazw or raid (or conquest or coup d’état).
While actual Bedouin are now a dying breed, there are still plenty of major players in the Arab game whose actions accord perfectly with that second, ‘bedouin’ system.
Wars are the worst of history, and civil wars are the worst of wars: they are waged not just within, but against civil society.
‘Raiding’ is a loaded word, but raiding is also an established institution, in that it is a long-accepted means for the redistribution, sometimes more equitable, of wealth.
The means by which it is pursued may not be regarded as acceptable in some peoples’ ethical systems, but, looked at coldly, they are rational: you have a surplus, I have a deficit, therefore I will take your surplus.
For Arabs, words, rhymes and rhetoric underlay power.
There are two connotations of arabness – the eloquence of the high Arabic language, and the turbulence of the people among whom that language developed.
True and lasting unity was impossible without absolute equality among tribes and clans of Arabia.
Becoming part of a larger unity meant ceding power.
To cede power to anyone stronger than you – other than the all-powerful God – was to admit defeat.
Time was measured in the names of ancestors.
A poet is the creator of the nation [Volk] around him; he gives them a world to see.
Poetry made Arabs morally and spiritually a nation long before Muhammad.
Language: In 1772, in some areas of France at the time, for example, to walk in any direction for a day was to become incomprehensible.
Muhammad gathered the Arabs together upon the word of Islam.
It was the paramount example of a paramount shaykh’s function – gathering the word.
It was the prime example of the way words can be used for the instant dissemination of ideas, and for the insertion of these ideas into minds.
Perhaps it is the supreme example in human history of how language, rather than simple Darwinian self-interest and physical strength, can win dominance.
The small but excruciating wedge driven into the heart of the Arabic world by the Zionist project, plus the simultaneous discovery that some of the blankest bits of the map contain some of the richest oil fields – and borders, and daggers, were drawn.
’Arabiyyah, the high language, is regarded by most Arabs as the most significant unifying factor of the Arab world.
The trouble is, even if people write in it, nobody actually speaks it. Nobody ever has spoken it as their mother tongue.
High Arabic is an imagined bond.
The reality is dialect, and disunity.
Arabs have never been united in speech, only in speeches.
The Arabic word for ‘politics’, siyasah, has nothing at root to do with living together in the polis, the city.
Siyasah is, in its first meaning, ‘the management and training of horses, camels etc.’.
‘Monsoon’ is from Arabic mawsim, ‘season for sailing’.
Arabia has been a place of comings and goings.
Humans in Arabia have often been in motion – and, internally, in commotion.
There is a plausible theory that the names of the two sons of Adam are cognate with Arabic:
Qayn, ‘metalsmith’ – the defining occupation of settled existence from the Bronze Age on.
Abil, ‘camel herd’.
Cain and Abel, the settled agriculturalist and the mobile pastoralist.
Sha’b, a people, is defined by place, not by kinship, and allegiance to a single chief deity.
In contrast, a qabilah, a tribe, defines itself not by shared residence in a particular area, but by an idea of kinship.
Part of the reason why the Arab experiment with the territorially based state, from the twentieth century on, has been so fraught.
For what is a state if not static?
Borders and wanderlust don’t go together.
One thing is immediately clear, and that is who Arabs were not: none of the peoples of the settled Fertile Crescent, the coastal fertile fringe or southern Arabia originally called themselves Arabs.
To the settled populations of the Crescent, the Fringe and the south, Arabs were clearly a people apart.
For persons of no fixed abode and no obvious pretensions to a written culture, they left a surprisingly large amount of writing.
In one graffito, the writer records that ‘a torrent made him flee in [the season of] Suhayl’, that is, in late August, when the star Suhayl or Canopus rises.
In the same area 2,000 years later, in the twentieth century, the Rwala bedouin proverb warns, ‘When Suhayl’s overhead, trust not the torrent-bed’.
The camel was domesticated for milking at some time in the third millennium BC.
Camels for transport developed over the following millennium.
By the time of that first datable mention of Arabs – 853 BC – camels were big business.
It was the camel that enabled the people who would be called Arabs to uproot themselves from the Fertile Crescent, to head beyond the fringe of civilization and make for the savage south, the Wild West of the settled Semites.
It was the camel, in a sense, that made people Arabs in the first place.
Healthy minds belong to healthy bodies, for ‘where fresh air is generated, so too are reason and perception’.
Arabic synonyms include 80 for ‘honey’, 200 for ‘beard’, 500 for ‘lion’, 800 for ‘sword’, and 1,000 for ‘camel’.
An old saw among Arabists that says every Arabic word means three things – itself, its opposite, and a camel.
Other Arabian societies, avowed non-Arabs, radically different in lifestyle and language, would, from the third century AD or so, not only take on these pieces of Arab dress, slipping into Arab costume and custom, but would also eventually, in the seventh century with Islam, adopt the label ‘Arab’ – and even end up claiming that the label and the language were their very own to start with. As an ethnic fashion statement it was surprising, coming from the settled, civilized peoples of the south.
They would exchange their ancestral tongues for the ‘Arabickt’ of the hair-tent-dwelling herdsmen.
They would join the growing sociopolitical mix that was Arabdom, and wear the Arab national dress with pride.
One can only show obedience to Allah if one shows humility.
The Marib Dam in the sixth century BC, continued to function from that time for over a thousand years.
Designed to divert and distribute seasonal run-off from the mountains (rather than to store water), it may be one of the most successful works of civil engineering in human history.
The new Marib Dam was bankrolled in the 1980s by the late Shaykh Zayid of the United Arab Emirates.
The prime accoutrements of settled life: a table and chair.
To use the terms of German nationalism, if a Staatsnation was as yet unimaginable, a Kulturnation was forming.
“You may criticize me, but I tell you that new wealth is dearer far to me than old.” - poet and aristocrat of the raid, about 530AD
Raiding was – indeed still is – seen as something other than roving robbery, dry-land piracy.
It resembles the old maritime practice of privateering, prize-taking.
Reciprocally raiding tribes are in a chronic state of war.
Raiding came to be seen, with Darwinian detachment, as the survival of the fittest.
Raiding could provide social security for the weakest in society.
Urwah ibn al-Ward, a sixth-century ‘vagabond’ leader, would gather the sick, the old and the feeble, would feed them up, and then take them off raiding to support themselves.
Raiding and redistribution of wealth go together.
wahhab nahhab, lavishing-ravishing – that is, lavishing gifts and ravishing other people’s property,
His supporters say ‘Ya’kul wa-yu’akkil’, ‘He eats, but he feeds others’.
These others – again, his supporters – also call him sariq ’adil, ‘a just thief’.
His unfed detractors say he is just a thief.
Add the camel to the horse, and you have the perfect double-act.
You plod to battle on your camel, which also carries your horse’s fodder and water, and then rush headlong into the fray on your steed.
Did a first sense of all-embracing Arab unity come not from within Arabs themselves, but from outside – from their non-Arab neighbours?
There could be nothing like being told that you’re a king to make you feel and act like a king; to make you look on your potential subjects, however divided they might be in reality, as a unity – ‘all the Arabs’.
Perhaps, after more than a millennium of being told by their neighbours that they were Arabs, a discrete group with an identity, the message had finally got through.
Like all the best parables, the story works at different levels.
Nations come out of getting history wrong.
But fiction can be truthful, even if it isn’t true
National identity, like religion, turns on questions of faith rather than matters of fact.
Arabs are active on the move, passive when settled.
To stay inactive at home is to remain majhul – ‘unknown’, that Arabic term for the passive voice of a verb.
Fouad Ajami quotes Nietzsche, ‘You shall be fugitives. You shall love your children’s land.’
Arabic script reached Mecca ‘a little before Islam’ – at the end of the sixth century.
After the Latin alphabet, Arabic is the most widespread writing system in the world.
In other languages, you read to know what the text is saying, but in Arabic it helps to know what it is saying in order to read it.
Readers are always approximating the meaning of what they are reading, and sometimes guessing wildly.
Written Arabic is no one’s mother-tongue: speakers of Arabic have to read and write in a ‘foreign’ language.
The Lakhmid and Ghassanid patronage of poetry thus helped to unify further the high Arabic language.
Thereby, they also did more than anyone else to unify Arabs.
Strengthen identity by building a boundary.
The complementary pairing:
... was thus ring-fenced by a pair of opposing terms:
The second term is closely connected with a’jam, ‘unable to speak properly’.
So the pairing is comparable with arya/mleccha, Greek/Barbarian, Slav/Nemtsi and so on.
Arabs love their language to the point of sanctifying it.
They consider the hold it has over them to be an expression not just of its power, but of their own power too.
Neighbouring empires had been defining arabness – and inevitably shaping Arab identity – by appointing or confirming ‘kings of the Arabs’.
In turn, those semi-settled satellite kings, the Ghassanids and Lakhmids, pulled nomad tribes into their own orbits.
With repeated foreign intervention, the old institutions of the settled areas were breaking down.
The flimsy tissue of relations between hadar and badw, town and country – always a matter of faith, not of contract – was ripping apart.
It all enhanced the power of the ’arab and of their leaders, personalities whose legitimacy rested above all on their control not of institutions, but of rhetoric.
Tribes were led by their most eloquent elders.
The ability of both seers and prophets to persuade and lead depends not on the inherent truth of what they say, but on their command of rhetoric – on how they say it.
It is hard to disentangle fiction from non-fiction.
In the absence of concrete evidence, to say ‘fact’ is to claim too much.
That absolute individualism of the su’luks would be negated by the eventual totalitarian nature, both theological and political.
The concept of sunnah in its Islamic form – the idea that there is one perfect individual whose practices must be imitated by all.
We understand the past via archaeology.
In ’arab Arabia, ancient physical buildings are rare; but Arabic poems.
Arabs left their record in poems, which may in the end be more lasting.
Reading pre-Islamic poetry may in fact be rather like looking at English Gothic churches, zealously but artfully ‘restored’ in a more recent past.
The first sense of Latin religio is ‘obligation’.
din: the obligation to follow the ways of one’s ancestors
sunnah: the practices of those ancestors.
Islam would move din on to a different plane,
Din is originally a matter not of theology but of keeping society on track: the track is that of the ancestors.
Words themselves can be guilty, and it is a cruel irony that a single one, shahadah, includes in its meanings both ‘martyrdom’, ‘profession of [Islamic] faith’ and ‘[school] certificate’.
Context clarifies meaning, of course; but propagandists play with context.
They stage ‘shahadah days’ at every school, exhorting students to go and die: what you lose in the examination hall you gain in heaven.
The Ka’bah of Mecca, however, was not alone.
There was a Ka’bah of Najran, developed under Ethiopian auspices as the martyrion of the Jewish King Yusuf As’ar’s Christian victims.
Also a Ka’bah of Sindad in southern Iraq.
Towards the end of the sixth century the Meccan Ka’bah was becoming the major centre of worship and pilgrimage.
In those disunited days it offered something for everyone.
The date of Muhammad’s birth is often given as 570. That is a stab in the dark that has stuck.
Only with 610 – usually suggested as the beginning of Muhammad’s revelations – does time firm up. Thereafter, likelier dates begin to dawn:
Muhammad’s relocation from Mecca to Medina in 622 is the first indisputable waymark in his life, and thus the start of the Islamic calendar.
The decisive raid at Badr in 624
The Meccan siege of Medina in 627
The truce with the pagan Meccans in 628
Muhammad’s takeover of Mecca in 630
His death in 632.
The later the sources are, the more they claim to know about the life of the Prophet.
Later grafted on to the family tree of biblical prophets via Isma’il, the infant asylum-seeker in Mecca, Muhammad himself forbade anyone to try and trace his pedigree back that far.
Beyond Ma’add, the putative ancestor of the northern tribes, he knew that the record was unreliable.
Collectors of hadiths – reports of the speech and deeds of and concerning Muhammad – amassed as many as a million alleged such ‘Traditions’, which works out at about one for each eight minutes of his waking life as a prophet.
Willingly suspend belief.
In Arabic, the written symbol is considered to be identical with the sound indicated by it.
Letters are not just phonetic; they are phonic, acoustic.
Arabic script is a transposition of speech from the audible to the visible.
A written version of an oral text is not a separate entity, a next stage in composition; it is seen (or heard) rather as a direct audio-recording, not so much a dictation as a notation, like that of music.
The pen is a second tongue.
The Qur’an was a loose-leaf, unbound mass of texts. Putting them together as a single book would take until nearly thirty years after his death.
The editors had to splice, but, given the divinity of the material, they couldn’t cut.
The volume is full of repetitions and internal echoes.
Expect not to read a sequentially constructed narrative but to hear a set of themes and variations.
The Qur’an’s divine origin has denied Muhammad a place among the world’s most gifted and original authors.
I saw the Almighty in a dream and asked, ‘O Lord, what is the best way to manage to be near You?’
He replied, ‘My Word [i.e. the Qur’an], Ahmad.’
I inquired, ‘With understanding or without understanding?’
He said, ‘With or without understanding.’
The time of Moses was ‘the age of magic’ (transforming staff into serpent, dividing the Red Sea),
that of Jesus ‘the age of healing’ (curing the sick, raising the dead),
that of Muhammad ‘the age of bayan’, of the clear, eloquent speech of the Qur’an.
Earlier miracles were supernatural; Muhammad’s was superlinguistic.
Without the Arabic language, Arabs would have been a footnote to world history, not a continuing and important chapter.
The language that bears their name both ensorcelled them (‘enchanted’ is not strong enough), and empowered them and their coming empire.
It is the reason we can speak of ‘the Arab world’ – really, the Arabic world, the Arabosphere – and the reason why that world is still alive, while the Roman world is as dead as its language.
Whatever ‘Arab’ has meant in the past – marginal camel herds, cultic guardians, tribal raiders – it now means, primarily, users of the Arabic language.
Our [Arab] community, unlike all others, does not live in a land; it lives in a language.
Having realized that he was a prophet, prompted to speak by a force beyond his self and his control, Muhammad had also discovered, like all prophets, that he was without honour in his own country.
He had found the logical, if extreme, solution: hijrah, a move to another country.
And in that other country he had found not just honour, but obedience and adulation.
He had created a super-’asabiyyah, a sense of solidarity and unity like none before.
The hijrah, the move to distant Medina.
The word hijrah was later to gain more meanings; but ‘severance’ is what it meant to the Meccans.
In a tribal setting where kinship ties real or imagined were the main defence against societal dissolution and anarchy, Muhammad’s schism was shocking.
Moving to a far land was what you did if you had committed murder within the tribe.
Although hijrah meant severance, it also came to mean mobility, exertion, salvation
Not unlike the ethos of the old dissident refuseniks of tribalism, the su’luks or ‘vagabonds’, but translated into a mass movement.
With their hijrah of 622, however, Muhammad and his few score followers were following ancient practice by taking themselves off and forming an alliance with another tribal grouping.
For Muhammad and his hanifs in the early days at Yathrib, the direction of prayer had been towards Jerusalem.
Now, in the second year after the hijrah, there was a volte face of almost 180 degrees and the newly designated Muslims, ‘Submitters’, turned their backs on Zion and submitted their faces instead to Allah, the Lord of the Meccan Ka’bah.
It was a ‘conversion’ in the most basic sense: a turning around.
But it was also a turning back: the Arabianness of the new ideology was reasserting itself.
New, more strident Qur’anic verses descended:
O you who believe, take not the Jews and Christians as friends.
They are but friends of each other, and if any among you take them [as friends], then surely he is one of them.
Some editions of the Qur’an implicitly admit this change in the nature of revelation by labelling chapters ‘Meccan’ or ‘Medinan’.
The successful use of raiding tactics was a reason behind the rise of Medina as a power a couple of years after the hijrah.
‘Books of raids’, and they are serial accounts of his armed expeditions. There were almost thirty major operations, and Muhammad took an active part in about a third of them.
In one sense, a religion is a cult with an army; but while most cults take a while to get hold of one, Islam got its army almost straight away.
Arab and Islamic history are conjoined not just at the hip, but at the heart.
See Islam not as the start of it all, but as a part of it all.
One could be a muslim, a ‘submitter’, without being a mu’min, a ‘believer’.
Islam is outward, public, impersonal, to do with society and politics.
Iman, dwelling in the heart, is inward and private, to do with one’s personal relationship with Allah.
Muhammad, building a community and a state, was well aware of the two-track nature of religion.
Qur’anic verses show that Jews and Christians were believed to share in iman, in that heartfelt belief, by virtue of their monotheism.
They could also become tribute-paying associates of the Islamic state.
The faithless bedouin, conversely, could be full, ‘card-carrying’ members of that state as muslims, submitters, without believing inwardly in its spiritual truths.
The majority of Muhammad’s contemporary poets – the nearest thing to objective observers - considered Islam to be ‘a social and political movement rather than a profound spiritual experience’.
English ‘religion’, with its post-Protestant focus on personal piety, skews the English reader to one of the two poles, to seeing religion as primarily a matter of belief.
Believing is only part of it.
Arabs went out of Arabia without a backward glance, as if obedient to the pre-Islamic belief that a traveller who looked behind him as he set out would never complete his journey.
Earlier accounts of the Arab eruption have little to do with faith, and more to do with taxing unbelievers than fighting them.
Empires: the quicker they are won the shorter they last.
Arabs would control their own united empire for about two hundred years..
At its greatest, the Arab empire was as big as Alexander’s, as big as or bigger than the Roman.
Genealogy, one of the great passions of Arabs at least since the days of the Safaitic desert graffiti, would become more an art than a science, and a pretty abstract art at that.
The technical term for marriage of an Arab man to a non-Arab woman is hujnah, which suggests mere ‘hybridization’.
The term for the opposite union is iqraf, which also means ‘loathsome infection’.
An ancient aspect of being Arab began to wither.
You moved from your old dar a’rabiyyah, ‘bedouin home’, to your new dar hijrah, ‘migratory home’.
In so doing, you abandoned your ’arab lifestyle, and ceased being of the ’arab in the oldest, herding-raiding sense of the word.
The Meccan merchant elite, now rebranded as the leaders of the Islamic state of Medina, were directing the tremendous energies released by Muhammad’s revolution, and the unprecedented unity it had generated, to remould tribal Arabdom into something that was economically, militarily and even socially more like the former superpowers, Rome/Byzantium and Persia, in their heyday.
Now Persia was defunct, Byzantium decimated, and Arabs would succeed them both.
The Qur’an had many passages encouraging travel, hijrah: always on the move.
Desertification would accelerate in the 650s.
The peninsula became a place to be left, a holy land whose sanctity increased with distance.
Arabia had lost a lot of its ‘talent’ in not much more than a decade, and it suffered cultural desertification.
Medina: ‘Scholarship came out of our city!’
‘Yes,’ Ibn Shubrumah said, ‘and it never came back to you.’
The souls of the ambitious strive to attain high stations, while the hapless strive to stay at home.
Peninsular Arabia slipped out of the mainstream histories for the next thousand years
The threat of change was greater still for Arabs in the diaspora.
Language had given them identity and then, via Muhammad and the Qur’an, unity.
But the very success of that unity had spread them far and wide – and thin: they were in danger of being dissolved by their own mobility.
The extraordinarily monist nature of Islam had now given it an extra dimension: Allah is One, Allah is Truth, therefore Truth is One.
This was the blunt syllogism with which disputants had begun to belabour each other, each convinced that he was utterly, unshakeably right.
The pattern runs through history and is visible around the Arab world today.
Politics and culture were characterized less by debate than by denial, with each side believing that it acted according to absolute Truth, while its opponent was utterly in the wrong.
In looking at neat dichotomies of dogma like Sunnah/Shi’ah we are only examining symptoms. The root problem is who gets the power.
Muhammad’s revolution had shifted the whole foundation and focus of Arab society from tribal to theocratic.
Din had shifted in meaning from honouring ancestors and tribal deities to worshipping the One God, and sunnah from emulating tribal heroes to emulating God’s prophet.
The Qur’an existed as the canonical text; but a whole theological, legal and moral superstructure had yet to be built on it.
Islam’s basic ‘pillars’ – profession of faith, prayer, pilgrimage, fasting and alms-giving – were religiously upheld.
Its extant lore and legend were carefully orally preserved, and sometimes written down.
But the sayings and doings of Muhammad and his companions had not yet been put into any order, let alone synthesized into an ethical system.
To unite Arabs and make them a ‘race’?
The earliest sense of ’arab may well be that of ‘a mixed people’.
This seems to reflect reality: genealogically, Arabs are not a family tree growing from a single stem.
Arabs needed stories of migration, of founding fathers, acculturation and unification, to rationalize their own historic diversity.
The Isma’il legend works for many reasons:
it grafts Muhammad on to the monotheistic family tree
it grafts the South Arabians on to the linguistic tree (thus avoiding the problem that they didn’t actually speak Arabic)
it backdates by millennia the alliance between the peoples of northern and southern Arabia
it offers in Isma’il a paradigm for the wanderer who settles (useful in an age when bedouins were being turned into colonists)
it acculturates not just peoples, but a whole past – Judaic and monotheistic – and makes it Arab.
If Arabs wanted to assert their place in that wider community of kings and cultures depicted graphically in al-Walid’s desert palace, then Isma’il’s was a perfect ancestral persona to adopt.
All of this is hardly history; it is inspired and inventive autobiography.
But it has become part of deep-level Arab collective memory, as important to the story of Arab unity as solidly historical figures like Muhammad.
The Isma’il legend created a unifying “ethnic” identity for the Arabs, which had not existed before.
It gave an alleged biological basis to an ethnic identity that had begun to form long before.
In the year 700, Caliph Abd al-Malik decreed that the empire be administered not in the local languages but in Arabic.
The decree both reined in and enriched a language of poetry, oratory and proverbs, and changed it into a language of civilization and science.
The mass went on growing, swollen by the ever-silent majority – all those zeros that in themselves mean nothing, but can turn the ‘1’ at their head into a million.
Arabic makes ‘truth’ and ‘right’ one word: haqq.
A final stake was driven into the heart of unity when the new Caliph actually forbade pilgrimage to Mecca.
The anti-caliph had allegedly begun to force Mecca pilgrims to pledge allegiance to himself.
Abd al-Malik declared Jerusalem the substitute destination and, as the focus of the redirected pilgrimage, built the Dome of the Rock, completed in 691.
That golden architectural icon of Islam, founded on the vacant temple mount of the Jews and decorated by Christian Byzantine craftsmen, arose from Arab disunity.
The ultimate rhetorician could make you believe a rhetorical truth that was the diametric opposite of observable fact.
The most important stage of Arab intellectual growth was in the Abbasid period.
It was then that most of the questions were posed that are still posed today.
Debate was marked by such extraordinary fearlessness that even heretics were able put forward their views.
Today, we dare not pose the smallest fraction of the questions some of our forebears asked, and in this sense, we have regressed from those times.
Arabic-speaking scientists were to add much of their own to ancient knowledge, particularly in the spheres of medicine, trigonometry, mathematics and astronomy.
Witness the giveaway al- words like ‘alcohol’, ‘algebra’, ‘algorithm’.
A star, Betelgeuse, is the Arabic ibt al-jawza’: ‘Orion’s armpit’.
In philosophy, the first and one of the greatest was the ninth-century ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’, al-Kindi, a prolific author in and defender of science.
If had not been for Arabs, Europeans would have had no Renaissance.
The Abbasids were themselves princes of the Renaissance, of which the later European episode was a continuation after a long hiatus.
A lot of ‘Islamic’ art is really Arabic calligraphic art.
A story about the third Abbasid caliph, al-Mahdi, getting lost while hunting in the wilderness and taking refuge with a bedouin.
The bedouin plies him with wine and, cup by cup, the caliph gradually reveals who he is:
first that he is from the court;
then that he is one of the caliph’s commanders;
then that he is the caliph himself.
The bedouin, meanwhile, looks on askance.
‘Bedouin,’ al-Mahdi said, ‘pour another cup.’
The man replied, ‘No, by Allah, I won’t let you drink another drop.’
‘Why?’ the caliph asked.
‘Because I’m afraid that if you have a fourth, you’ll be telling me you’re the Prophet of Allah.’
When he heard this, al-Mahdi laughed.
At this point the caliph’s distraught escort finally find him.
The bedouin is at first aghast, then collects himself and says to the caliph, ‘So you were telling the truth. But if you’d made the fourth claim – and the fifth – you’d have been going too far.’
And al-Mahdi laughed so much at ‘the fourth claim – and the fifth’ that he nearly fell off his horse.
Of the thirty-seven Abbasid caliphs over the 500 years, only three would have free-born Arab mothers.
The other mothers were slave-concubines of hugely varied origin, including Afghan, Khwarizmian, Byzantine, Slav, Berber, Persian, Turkish, Armenian and Abyssinian.
The world has intermingled.
Nostalgia is an underrated force in history.
Time goes forward; but people often flee backwards, from crisis and complexity to imagined simplicity and purity.
From the later eighth century onward, philologists, lexicographers and ethnologists from the towns descended on the remaining Arabs whose lives were supposedly uncontaminated by urban ways and speech.
Their object was to gather folklore in its widest and most etymological sense – the whole inherited knowledge of a people.
It was rescue archaeology performed on the living remains of a people’s past.
In a mobile society in which words had always been more important than places or artefacts, it focused on language.
For a thousand years from the ninth century to the nineteenth, from ‘the age of setting down’ to ‘the Arab Renaissance’, the meaning of ‘Arab’ would split in two.
On the one hand, all those who used the Arabic language were in a cultural-linguistic sense Arabs.
On the other, and in usual parlance, Arabs were uncivilized lizard-munching nomads, even if their ancestors were heroes.
‘Oh, they’re just qabilis, tribesmen,’ someone might say dismissively of uncivilized, gun-toting rustics.
But insinuate that the speaker himself is not of tribal origin, and you will insult him to the quick.
Desert nostalgia has been embedded in the culture.
In the 920s, truth was no longer to be adopted ‘from races who are distant from us and societies quite different from our own’.
That had been possible a hundred years earlier, when Arab identity was less in question.
Now, as it dissolved, that identity clung to ever-narrowing definitions of its language, its history, its religion, even of truth itself.
Lone voices and thoughts were dangerous.
In the Arabic world today, truth is still what it is instructed to be.
Those who speak independently can still pay with their lives.
wahdah is one-ness, but it is also lone-ness, introversion, isolation.
Turks were popularly supposed to be a sort of anti-Arab, and the past resounded with warnings about them.
The Arab rulers of the empire had stirred them up, taken them on as caliphal guard dogs, taken them into the centre of power, and then watched powerless as they had taken over.
Turks would dominate most of Arabdom for most of the next thousand years.
The coming of the French to Egypt is usually seen as the turn of an era, the Arab turning point towards a modern, Western world. It was certainly the closest encounter.
Egypt had been the cultural heart of the Arabic world since the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols.
It was home to the biggest Arabic-speaking population in all the lands of the Ottoman empire.
That said, in 1798 the cultural heart was beating faintly at best, and Egypt’s conscious arabness lay dormant.
There seemed to be nothing worth adding to the past.
Now, though, in the pre-dawn of what came to be called al-Nahdah, ‘the Awakening’, France, then Britain, had planted the first rough kisses that would rouse Arabs from their long sleep.
They re-arabicized Egypt itself, by replacing Turkish with Arabic as the official language.
Part of the problem:
The Arab Awakening of modern times was grounded so deeply in that very old, and very difficult, high language.
The European Renaissance began just as people were beginning to write widely and creatively in their vernaculars.
Translation of scripture ensured that, in writing as well as speech, those vernaculars would eventually prevail over Latin and Greek.
In contrast, the Arab renaissance, which sought common ground for all Arabs, ensured the victory of the old high language as the sole written medium.
It was all part of that retreat from modernity.
The Awakening, in other words, awakened nothing new; it simply returned the present to the past.
Modern Standard Arabic is to classical high Arabic rather as medieval Latin is to Latin of the golden age: a bit dumbed down syntactically; clunkier stylistically; broader lexically, yes; but in essence the same.
It is part of what holds Arabs together, not just over space but also over time.
When Arabs write they are using a language which is non-native. A big distance from everyday speech to written Arabic.
There are plenty of educated Arabs who take the easy way down, by speaking in Arabic but writing in other languages.
Almost all scientific research is written in English or other non-Arabic languages.
The double problem of getting the Arabic right and finding the vocabulary is too daunting.
So forked a tongue as Arabic enables users to think with a forked mind.
The ‘ideal self’ expressed, and believed, in ‘the loftiest moral tone’ of high Arabic, contrasting with the ‘lower stratum of moral behavior’ expressed in colloquial speech.
In social media, Arabs tend to write in colloquial form.
Tweeting is in dialect, but propaganda is still in high Arabic.
High Arabic still bewitches, mystifies and silences the masses as it did in the mouths of pre-Islamic poets and seers.
It still has a weight and a volume that mutes the twittering.
Arabic remains the most potent symbol of a long-elusive unity: ‘We do not live in a land, but in a language.’
The only aspect of unity that is not a mirage.
Politically, the Arabic world is one big Jurassic Park.
Revolution by the Young Turks in 1908:
Under them, Istanbul began to impose its language on its Arab domains.
What natural linguistic selection had not achieved over a thousand years of mostly Turkic rule, the Young Turks would now try to do by force.
As a result, Arabic was banned in schools, except as a ‘foreign’ language.
The French attempted to ban the teaching of high Arabic, and promoted the use of dialect instead, to cut off the Maghrib from the increasingly politicized nationalists of the rest of the Arabic world.
Linguistically, culturally, politically they were trying to de-arabize the thick end of Africa.
In Algeria – where, with its many Berber speakers, high Arabic had never had much of a presence – that the effects of the French campaign against the language went deepest.
There was a unifying language; but no one spoke it as their mother-tongue and, with widespread illiteracy, few could read it well and even fewer write it. Conceivably, education could change that.
From the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz:
The Arab territory was not a neat, discrete area like most of the nation-states of Europe, bordered by rivers, mountain ranges or gulfs.
Islamic constitutional theory is concerned only with community and not with territory.
The ideas of Muslim scholars about the nature of rule have generally been about people not land, chaps rather than maps.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the movers behind modern territorial nationalism were non-Muslim Arabs.
Borders, which define such a state, mean nothing to bedouins. But a territorial state without borders is a contradiction in terms.
And yet the danger is that the bedouin-minded will be tempted to raid their own state.
Levantine Arabs went to seek their fortunes as traders, pedlars and labourers in Europe and beyond, particularly West Africa and the Americas.
300,000 Lebanese migrants to the Americas by 1914.
Argentina has had an Arab-origin president (Carlos Menem), Brazil another (Michel Temer).
Brazil’s Arab-origin citizens now number twelve million, making it the ninth biggest Arab country by population.
Lebanese-born Jubran Khalil Jubran, who arrived in New York in 1912, was later famous in the West as a misty mystic and the author of The Prophet.
He was also a founder of poetic modernism in Arabic.
By leaving his old home, he (Khalil Jubran) and other emigrants seemed to free themselves from the passive past - from the powerful poetic force field of ancient Arabia.
With hijrah, as ever, came activity, creativity.
If those ‘neighbours to yesterday’ go anywhere, Jubran wrote elsewhere in prose, they only ‘go from place to place along a track already beaten by a thousand and one caravans, never diverging from it for fear of getting lost in the wilderness’.
It may be the safe route, but it is also the shortest one between ‘the cradle of thought and its grave’.
Jews were achieving what Arabs were still wondering how to do: to take a diverse collection of humanity, linked by little more than devotion for an ancient text (in the Arab case, devotion for the language of an ancient text), and to translate them into a ‘people’ who, in the terms of modern European nationalism, had a claim on a territorial nation-state.
Various elements of the European nationalist model were missing from Zionism, like shared language, customs, history (at least for the most recent couple of thousand years or so), but all that could be dealt with in time; and for the moment, it could be finessed with that idea of a Promised Land.
Like it or not, they would see their world defined in territorial terms, by lines on maps: lines laid down not by themselves but by those seemingly inescapable Others.
The presence of Europeans hardened borders.
Geographically adjacent territories might become strikingly different from one another.
If a man hates at all, he will hate his next neighbour.
Nothing reignited the rhetoric of Arabs unity like the double dishonour of Balfour and Sykes–Picot.
Blame it as they might on other peoples’ empires, Arabs had never been a happy family.
They had never really been a family at all, except in tribal fictions of shared descent.
Post-imperial, post-nationalist Arab rulers have found it easier to try to keep control within the more manageable areas delineated by the old imperial borders.
We may now be getting enough distance on imperialism to look back at some of its features with greater clarity.
One of those features is the wickedness of it all, and the legacy of hatred and division that it left.
Wickedness ought to be quantifiable by the amount of suffering it causes:
the British in Palestine were measurably wickeder than the British in Egypt,
the French in Algeria wickeder than both,
so too are the Egyptians in Egypt today,
Saddam Husayn was wickeder still,
So too is Syrian Bashshar al-Asad.
Where civil liberties do not exist, the void where they should be is often occupied by national pride.
Even if Arabs could shape some sort of unity for themselves, who would lead it?
For the great majority of Muslims, Islam was not a family firm but a global corporation.
To restore Mecca to local rule was like handing the Vatican over to the Municipality of Rome.
In the vast hinterland of Aden:
In Hadramawt, there were about 2,000 separate ‘governments’ in the province, some as small as a hamlet or even a single household, each of which claimed not to owe allegiance to any higher authority.
Working with traditional local power-brokers – as so often, descendants of Muhammad - the British hammered out a peace treaty that halted chronic fighting between the larger factions.
The bedouin tribesmen, however, proved the most troublesome element: they still lived as herders, hauliers and raiders, and the British had to bomb them into renouncing that third immemorial means of livelihood.
There was no way badw would change overnight into law-abiding hadar.
Hadrami badw terms for their non-tribal neighbours go some way to explaining why:
Settled folk are masakin, from the root sakana, like hadara ‘to be sedentary, quiescent’, but also meaning ‘unfortunate, miserable ones’.
They are also hirthan, ‘ploughmen’, from the root haratha, ‘to cultivate, plough’, but also in its basic sense ‘to work for one’s living’.
Tribesmen do not work for a living – at least, they do not work the land.
They herd, they transport, they raid, and they look down on ‘trade’.
A culture in which words are almost the sole material of art, and poems the ultimate cultural product.
Dualism constitutes the essence of being Arab in all its domains.
Dualism – the ability to look at phenomena simultaneously from two opposite viewpoints, in two contrasting lights.
A whole mass of Arabic words can mean one thing and its opposite:
jawn = black/white
jalal = great/small
People can adore a political leader while admitting that he is blatantly corrupt.
The great and undeniable dualities:
spiritual Mecca/temporal Medina
unclean sinister left hand/clean dexter right hand
quietist Sufis/militant Wahhabis
high Arabic/Arabic dialect
A perpetual dialectic in society, religion, language, in which the world is a series of conflicting opposites, thesis and antithesis.
Regional idiosyncrasies compete with the pan-national whole – but without either the parts or the whole seeking to cancel or negate each other.
Such a negation would be a self-defeating act, because the existence of one is dependent and conditional on that of the other.
Like the ancient Arabian duality of hajj and hijrah, Mecca and migration, then, the idea of Arab unity works as both magnet and centrifuge.
It attracts, but inevitably repels.
Pilgrims travel hopefully, arrive – but must always leave. Mecca cannot hold them all for ever.
The more Islam is pulled apart by its own opposing extremists, the more important is that stable, unquestionable core: the Prophet and the Qur’an.
A plump and pampered camel:
Atop its hump, an elaborate litter with a pyramidal roof - a small but gorgeous pavilion. A travelling throne-room in miniature.
The mahmal or ‘bearer’, as it is called in Arabic, was empty, but full of symbolism.
Sovereignty, mobility, pilgrimage and, in its calligraphic covering, of the power and beauty of the Arabic language.
In former times it had gone to Mecca to pay the Egyptian ruler’s homage to the House of Allah – an armchair pilgrimage in which the chair itself did the travelling.
The mahmal became a regular institution in the thirteenth century under the first Mamluks of Egypt.
Soon, other regions began sending mahmals to Mecca – Yemen, Syria and, later, Ottoman Turkey – each paying its allegiance to the unity symbolized by the ancient Arabian city, the navel of the world, but each also expressing its independence.
The mahmal’s travels were as much about local politics as about pilgrimage.
The mahmal was customarily followed by an old man called ‘the Shaykh of the Camel’, who had long hair but no other covering than a pair of pyjama bottoms.
He was mounted on a camel, and was incessantly rolling his head. All assert that he rolls his head during the whole of the journey.
At times, the old man was himself followed on another camel by a scantily clad old woman called ‘the Mother of Cats’, half a dozen of which shared her saddle to Mecca and back.
From 1884 the Egyptian mahmal travelled by train to Suez, in its own private carriage, then by steamer down the Red Sea to Jeddah.
In 1926 the new protectors of Mecca, stoned it, beat up its bandsmen and clashed with its guard.
For the puritan tribesmen it was a bid’ah, a heretical innovation, even if the ‘innovation’ was 600, or perhaps 1,200, years old.
Since then, for a generation, it had only paraded around Cairo, all dressed up and nowhere to go.
The parade of 1952, however, was its last. Later that summer, a group of army officers overthrew the British-backed king of Egypt.
The past and its superannuated symbols, including the mahmal, were consigned to the lumber-room of history.
Besides, since 1926 the camel and its empty palanquin had been a reminder of a bitter present.
The last remaining symbol of the old connectedness had been rejected by the new masters of Mecca.
Now the new masters of Egypt rejected it too: for them it was the opposite of an innovation – an anachronism.
The symbolism of the empty palanquin was now itself empty.
Four years after the 1952 revolution Egypt’s new Egyptian rulers would assume the leadership of Arabs everywhere.
Arabness, as so often, was something to be forgotten and rediscovered, cast off then reassumed, to be recollected and reshaped. It was something that ebbed and flowed according to the phases of the times and their political mood, and it was about to have a spring tide.
Four years before the 1952 revolution, arabness and Arab unity had, in contrast, been at one of their lowest ebbs ever.
Zionism had waved the wand of religion over colonialism, and magicked it into territorial nationalism.
The suffering inflicted by Nazism on the Jews of Europe: as if silenced and blinded by its enormity, the rest of the post-war world affected not to notice the suffering of Palestine.
In 1948 – the war between the Zionists and their neighbours, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – the Arab allies were thus fatally divided.
Four of them ganged up to stop Abd Allah, the Hashimite king of Transjordan, enlarging his realm by grabbing Palestinian Arab territory.
This mistrust was as tragic a flaw for the Five Against Zion.
The Israeli victory caused major Arab migrations, including those of tens of thousands of Jewish Arabs to Palestine.
The contrary migrations of Palestinians, were a flight, an expulsion.
Hagar and Isma’il were in exile once again, but on a vast scale.
The mythical medieval figure of the Wandering Jew was replaced by the modern, and all too real, Wandering Palestinian.
The Nakbah or ‘Disaster’ of 1948: is it like the Holocaust to those Jews who were touched by it?
Few Arabs have not shared the pain inflicted on Palestine.
The State of Israel, as it now became, felt like a wound in the north of the Arabian subcontinent.
For Egypt, was it better to be a US puppet or a Soviet Pinocchio?
Choosing between Eastern and Western blocs would always be a gamble:
Russian roulette with an American revolver.
What Arabic calls shamatah, and English – which coyly professes not to know the feeling – calls by the borrowed name of Schadenfreude.
Radio broadcasting revived the ancient power of spoken Arabic, and gathered the Arab word on a huge scale.
As a call to unity, it was comparable to the slogans of early Islam.
Radio was the ideal medium: listeners couldn’t answer back; they could always switch off, but the message was too novel, too exciting, and it was right there in your house, in your stall in the suq.
Nasser’s genuine heroic cool: on 26 October 1954 a bungling would-be assassin from the Muslim Brotherhood fired eight shots at Nasser while he was making a speech. They all missed; but where many a president would be bundled off, Nasser stood his ground, paused briefly, then ad-libbed: “I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor. Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor, and freedom in you.”
Nasser himself would exploit Arabic’s slippery diglossia.
In his speeches for Egyptian consumption, he would begin and end in high Arabic, but would switch between one and the other in the middle.
These linguistic gear-changes were a way of making points about ‘local [Egyptian] nationalism versus pan-Arabism’.
In his speeches to the wider Arabic world, however, he would use the high language alone.
Egypt had become the centre of Arabic culture.
Nasser was “The Last Arab”.
The hundred million and more Arabs who were left had indeed lost something huge:
Nasser had made them feel like a people, ‘the Arabs’.
Now the definite article was in doubt again, perhaps even the capital A.
Fire is kindled with two firesticks. War, with words.
The Zionist intrusion had the potential to form the core of a new Arab solidarity.
Perhaps the State of Israel would prove to be something unexpectedly beneficial, like the grit in the oyster.
As long as Israel remains such an aggressive and provocative neighbour, it is a gift for Arab dictators.
That intrusive grit has grown into a black pearl of great price, an almost transcendental foe whose existence is the subject of endless rhetoric and the occasional symbolic act.
Rhetoric is to truth as dreams are to realities.
The oil migrations were a kind of secular hajj.
By the end of the 1970s, the Arab world was more closely linked socioeconomically than at any time in its modern history.
The more Arabs saw of each other the more they realized how diverse they were.
‘Death to America! Death to Israel!’ the little children chant.
But do the people who teach them that rallying-cry know that if those two foes ever actually died, so too would they themselves?
In the mid-1950s, Iraq seemed to have a hugely promising future, perhaps as ‘a kind of Oriental Canada’.
Kuwait looked set for liberal democracy.
Nasser had radiated hope.
In the 1970s the revolution in oil prices and the pilgrimage of petroleum had mobilized Arabs anew.
In the early 1980s, Yemen entered the Modern World.
Arabs everywhere talked of al-taqaddum, ‘progress’.
And then, in the 1980s, forward motion stalled.
For many, there was a complete about-turn, as if Arabs had begun to sense that the path of progress was leading them into alien territory – into the ‘Modern World’, but also out of their own Arab world.
New-wave autocrats and islamocrats were empowered by the swelling wealth of the region, by the machinations of superpowers, and information technology.
Both have been able to use old rhetorics in ever more creative and persuasive ways.
Reconstructing Arab society on a democratic political basis and reconciling Islam and the modern world remain the greatest tasks confronting the contemporary generation.
However, autocrats and islamocrats have blocked social reconstruction and Islamic reconciliation at every step.
The last thing they want is to lose power.
What is more surprising is that most Arabs have gone along with them, silently, obediently backwards.
Surveys revealed as many as 79 per cent of respondents giving their first identity as Muslim, and as few as 10 per cent or less giving their first identity as Arab.
Arabness had been buried under a new Islamic identity.
Just as secular politics is conveniently if simplistically seen in terms of left and right, the politics of religion should be thought of as orientated forward or in reverse.
Three major factors of energized political Islam:
1. those crushing victories of political and military Judaism, in 1948 and 1967.
2. the Islamic Revolution of January 1979 in Iran, taking over a wealthy state whose regime was backed by the United States. The fight against old-fashioned colonialism had already been won. The fight against the new cultural and economic imperialism of the Cold War could triumph too.
3. at the end of 1979, Soviet Union pounced on Afghanistan.
From 1983, this time with the blessing of the United States as well as of Allah, Arab fighters went to join the Afghan resistance.
In all three cases, pressures exerted by foreign empires – the US, the USSR, and Israel – were shaping the region and moulding Arab identity.
Or rather, they were remoulding it as Muslim identity.
It was then that the world’s geo-political GPS seemed to go awry, and the path of ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ to look ever more misleading.
Left and right lost their definition:
Communist Party bosses in ex-Soviet states held on to power but swerved off to the ‘right’
China was technically communist but, looping the loop, was going rampantly capitalist.
At the same time, the forward–reverse axis came into play:
the American religious ‘right’ swung round towards their puritan past and turned their backs on the ‘permissive’ post-war decades.
A sense of history is a sense of loss. It is also a sense of change.
Recently awakened islamists find themselves out of synch with an altered world.
Their solution is to ignore change, to deny history and time.
Contemporary political islamists, in rejecting history, thus deny the organic life and flexile strength of Islam, which has constantly renewed itself in a changing world, adapting to complexity, maturing.
Islam is ‘an evolving culture-bound dynamic of belief and behavior’.
Contemporary political islamists are fighting against the Shu’ubiyyah of the whole messy, modern, multicultural, complex, confused, tangled, tied-up, hung-up, interconnected world.
They are fighting for one version of a heavenly ideal versus a multifarious earthly reality.
The fight appeals to some precisely because it promises simplicity instead of complexity, monism as against pluralism.
But it is also a struggle for totalitarianism versus individualism.
Saddam was trying to reunite a notional, ‘natural’ Iraq.
In doing so he only succeeded in disuniting Arabs as a whole.
A majority of Arab governments opposed him and sided with the American-led coalition that threw him out of Kuwait in 1991.
Saddam’s Kuwait escapade was probably as divisive as any other event in Arab history since the fateful seventh-century war between the old and new regimes of Quraysh under Mu’awiyah and Ali.
What came next was not part of the plan: there was no plan.
US President George W. Bush masterminded the blank blueprint.
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given.
Freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.
It was not that Iraqis did not want to be ‘free’. But, for most of them, freedom meant the right to be controlled by someone of your own kind – whether tribe, sect, denomination or dialect group.
‘Freedom’ does not yet have the same nuances in the Arabic world as it does elsewhere, the same resonances of individualism.
While it is easy for a superpower to implement ‘regime change’, it is much harder for it to bring about dictionary change.
Libya’s thespian dictator Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi would survive in power long enough – over four decades – to stage a one-man show of the entire Age of Disappointment.
He played the Nasserist, the post-Nasserist, the islamist, the tribal neo-nomad and, ultimately, the ageing and isolated autocrat.
During that time, he managed to land himself in conflicts with most of his neighbours, as well as with others in Africa and further afield.
Israeli property law causes any land which is not actually lived on by its owner to revert to the ‘original’ possessors – that is, the Israeli state.
Since the State of Israel dates back only to 1948, the use of ‘original’ seems strange.
The equivalent thinking applied to England would result in absentee landowners forfeiting their property to a foreign-based sect of revivalist Druids, on the grounds that the land was sacred to them before Julius Caesar’s invasion.
Because belief in a before-life is as comforting as belief in an afterlife, they looked back to supposed golden ages.
The young Tunisian street-vendor persecuted by the police set himself on fire in protest and died in January 2011.
Anger at his death spread across the country, then through much of the Arabic world.
It was a mass uprising against the tyranny, corruption and arbitrary rule of authoritarian regimes, soon known, prematurely, as the Arab Spring.
What was different about this one was its geographical reach, from Morocco to Oman, and its sudden simultaneity.
Today, those individual voices that were raised have been silenced again.
Another spring has had no summer.
Like so many revolutions, Muhammad’s included, it was begun by those who were hungry for justice, but was hijacked by those who were hungry for power.
Arab history is a series of stolen revolutions.
The slogan raised in every country touched by the Arab Spring was the simple but rhythmic: Al-sha’b Yurid Isqat al-nizam: “The people Demand The fall of the regime.”
That last word, nizam, is ‘bipolar’:
in its imported sense it means ‘(bad) regime, rule’
in its traditional sense it means ‘(good) order, law-and-order’.
Come the counter-revolution, it would not be hard for traditional, reactionary rulers to spread the word that the youth of the Spring had actually been calling for anarchy.
Dictator – in that most basic meaning: ‘he who speaks constantly’.
Yemen is at war, both with itself and – in the case of the Huthis – with all its peninsular neighbours (except Oman, which has remained neutral).
Many of the tribesmen had no inherent loyalty to him; loyalty is a commodity that goes to the highest bidder,
Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring has had a reasonably successful outcome.
Unlike most Arab countries today it is, and always has been, geographically and culturally outward-looking: it wears its heart on its coast.
Arabs are too diverse, too different from each other, too deeply mingled too long ago with the peoples of a vast and various empire, to be lumped together or even to be a ‘the’.
The bigger, fuller picture is never as stark as ‘nomad’ versus ‘settled’, tribes versus peoples. It never has been.
It’s ultimately simplistic.
But the dichotomy does seem to lie at the heart of history.
The new Syrian leader Husni al-Za’im famously said in 1949: ‘Give me five hundred years, and I will make Syria as prosperous and enlightened as Switzerland.’
He may be right. Perhaps one cannot hurry history.
Perhaps different sorts of progress run by different clocks, and while in the present (AD 2020/AH 1441) most Arabs are in AD 2020 as far as their smartphones go, almost all might be in about AD 1441 in terms of comparative sociopolitical development.
Different sorts of history flow at different rates in different environments.
There can also be eddies, where the flow goes into reverse; that is what may have happened in the Arabic world over the last few decades.
One can speak out, utter alternative truths, and suffer the consequences.
Most people take an easier route: they both say and think nothing.
It is better than losing one’s mind, or one’s life.
Another escape route: the old physical one of hijrah.
Travel for many Syrians and others is not a flight of creativity, but a flight from doom.
From Syria alone more than five million have fled – nearly a third of the population.
Qatar’s independent media voice, Al Jazeera Arabic, has jazzed up the Arabic media with innovations like investigative journalism.
In July 2018, the Israeli government demoted Arabic from the status of an official language of the State of Israel.
For the Arab 17.5 per cent of Israeli citizens, who live in a language as well as a land.
The United Arab Emirates still lives up to its name, as well as to the rhetorical past.
Amid the skyscrapers and shopping malls, a new generation of leaders is picking up the old thread of language, spinning out the eternal word-magic.