The Delusion of an Arab World

The toxic remnants of a negationalist Arab nationalism.

In 1999, long before the fitful rise and fall of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” former Arab-nationalist author and intellectual Hazem Saghieh published a scathing critique of what he considered outmoded Arab dogmas and delusions. The Swansong of Arabism, his book, was a work of painful introspection in which the author called for casting aside the jingles of “Arab Unity” and discarding the assumptions of “Arab Identity,” urging his former comrades-in-arms to let go of the corpse Arabism.1 “Arabism is dead,” wrote Saghieh, urging Arab nationalists to bring 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.”2

Arabism and related “philosophies of compulsion, coercion, and exclusion” writes Saghieh, have rained disaster on the Middle East for the past hundred years. Yet their ideologies persist as lodestar to many nationalists, and their terminologies remain the dominant prism through which some insist on defining the Middle East.3 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.”4 Diversity frightens the Arabists, he claimed. To wit, Lebanese militant scholar Omar Farrukh wrote during the second half of the twentieth century that it is irrelevant if 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.”5 Likewise, Farrukh stressed that the inhabitants of today’s Morocco, Algeria, Libya and elsewhere in North 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.”6

More recently, Palestinian journalist and intellectual 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.”7 Consequently, those citizens’ physical and geographic space, argued Khouri, deserved descriptive language reflecting their actual world and the mood of their peoples. The “Arab world” was a more apt term to describe Egypt, Syria and other nearby Mediterranean countries, said 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. Some in the region disagree with Khouri’s over-simplifications and 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 bent on snuffing out diversity in the name of Arab uniformity; as if Arabism’s negationist history of the past hundred years has not yet been negationist enough. “History beckons to the Arabs,” wrote Syrian thinker Adonis recently,

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.8

Yet Khouri somehow deems it fitting to slay Adonis’s Levant—the Levant of millions of Adonises—on the altar of an “Arab world” that no longer obtains. Never mind that in this year’s Middle Eastern 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) sacrificed himself for the sake of an “Arab world.” Yet the champions of a moribund “Arab world” have no shame piggybacking on the sacrifices of those seeking freedom from the brutality and servitude of a spent “Arab world.”

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 the Arab world, not the Levant; and he was inviting irredeemable nationalists like Khouri to join him at the wake. Eulogizing an anthropomorphic “Arab world,” Qabbani wrote:

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