Those boring Arabs

Every so often, I take one of the works of the late Elie Kedourie off the shelf to refresh myself, and I never fail to find some pertinent passage that speaks directly to the present. Today I came across this one, a few lines of which I vaguely remembered, and which I hope to remember better in future by posting it here. It’s vintage Kedourie, on the West’s invention of the Arabs:

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 the Arabs 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 choose: Barbary corsairs, belly dancers, fanatical Mussulmans, sultans, pashas, moors, muezzins, harems. Now, in a decidedly poor 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.

This passage is taken from an essay Kedourie published in the New York Review of Books back in November 1967. Since then, the idea that “the Arabs” are the heroes of the drama has retreated quite a bit, at least in the Middle East, but it still lingers in intellectual and academic circles. There has been no remission in the West’s drive to reinvent the peoples of the Middle East to suit its ever-changing moods. I wonder what Kedourie would make of their being cast in the new role of eager seekers of democracy. “The Middle Easterner is very far from thinking that he has a right to have a say in politics,” Kedourie opined in his last interview in 1992. “All he wants is to be left alone and not to be oppressed.” Kedourie was no neo-con. But by his own logic, might nature imitate art again? Well, we’ll know soon enough.