Something I’ve been wanting to write about earlier but haven’t got round to yet: I keep ending up in these ‘orientialist’ discussions where I find myself defending Arab culture against Arabs (invariably christian Arabs) who try to convince me that European/Western/christian culture is superior. My friend & colleague Balint witnessed and took part in one of the most vivid of these discussions and wrote this piece about it (it’s on his blog Clueless in Beirut).
Note that “P.” does not hold the most extremist position in this ongoing debate: those who do, argue that they are not even ethnically Arabs, and instead claim descent from the ancient Phoenicians. Interestingly, a recent DNA study has shown that the greatest concentration of genes traceable to the phoenician era in any Lebanese population group is found not in the maronite christians from Mount Lebanon, but in the sunnite muslims of Sidon – who claim no such imagined identity and are perfectly happy to be considered Arabs full stop.
The Arabs and Henry James
By Balint Szlanko
Interesting, even touching, debate between a Christian Lebanese friend (let’s call him P.) and a Western journalist colleague yesterday in the pub. P. insisted, in the way that many Christians here do, that he was not an Arab. Colleague seemed mildly surprised and objected on ethnic, linguistic, and cultural grounds: ethnically speaking, P. is Arab, he speaks Arabic, and his culture, however Westernised, is immersed in the dominant Arab culture of the region. Therefore he is an Arab – QED.
P. was rather upset and continued to insist that he wasn’t an Arab. He said his mother tongue was in fact French, not Arabic, that his ancestors could well have been European crusaders and, most importantly, he had been raised since his early childhood surrounded by, and immersed in, European, Western, culture. That in no way did he feel part of the Arab world in a cultural sense but owed his cultural identity to Bach, Charlie Parker, etc., to a list of other cultural heroes and ideas that he felt defined him more than anything „local”. (He even threw in Henry James as a tactical ploy to convince me, knowing I was crazy about him. )
Then he even went on to say, getting more and more into it, that all these cultural accomplishments and ideas were in fact markedly and clearly more mature than anything that the Arab-Muslim world had managed to come up with – an idea that was very un-PC until a few years ago but one that seems to have gained some traction lately, principally thanks to the rise of Islamist terrorism and Western response. He then said that Europeans had grown complacent and coy about what they had achieved and were as a consequence at risk of losing it. He rather touchingly started imploring us that we stay proud to Europe’s achievements and protect them because, as he somewhat harrowingly put it, that is all he had.
Now, I had known about this sort of attitude that many Westernised, and principally Christian, Lebanese entertain towards Europe and the West in general. The community has been in close contact with the West for a thousand years through close religious, cultural, commercial, and political links. And of course it shows. The Christians of Lebanon display not only what is in many respect a Western way of life, although often only superficially, but seem to have tried to adjust their whole cultural and sometimes political identity accordingly, dropping „the whole Arab thing.” But it was quite another thing to personally witness such a wholesale rejection of almost everything that is Arab and opt for another civilisation. It was quite dramatic and perhaps goes a long way towards explaining the insecurities of the Christians in this country. Submerging your identity in a culture and civilisation that is essentially of another continent and one that is very often at odds with the dominant culture and civilisation of your homeland is a pretty tough and dangerous thing to do.
More about this later in a full article as I have a lot of material to venture further. The subject is vast. Perhaps the best place for a reader to start is Kamal Salibi’s A House of Many Mansions: Lebanon’s History Reconsidered, a provocative reinterpretation of Lebanon’s founding myths and maze of identities.