Looking into Orientalism in
The Arabs: A History
Rogan, E (2009) The Arabs: A history
Basic Books; New York
The Arab World and the Middle East are two spaces that have been capturing my attention, together with has the rest of the world at great lengths this past year. With the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict far from a resolution, the popular uprising against the decadent authoritarian governments, dubbed the ‘Arab Spring‘, sent shock waves through the international community and heated the global political climate. Beginning in Tunisia, the ‘domino affect’ ensued as it spread like a contagion from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Drawing international headlines, it re-engaged many in varying degree towards the Arab world. The Arab past, it seems, is largely an unknown one to most, yet its one that is vital and crucial to understanding the present position the Arab people in the Arab world occupy in the global context. The current western perception of Arab history and the way it has come to be told is best described as still a narrow and limiting one. The regrettable error many commit when characterising Islam, a contemporary religion composed of a larger non-ethnic Arab population, has become merged with the subject Arab, who it now comes to embody. For myself, these frustrations and the occurrence of the uprisings culminated into what already was, a deepened interest in these histories; architecture, society, culture, philosophy, science and politics of Arab societies. These are societies that have added substantially to human civilisation and its development; its narrative an integral part. As places on a map; the Arab World is complex to identify with and relate to from a western perspective, let alone start defining. What the West refers to as the Middle East; the area that takes in the Arabian Peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean, is not just a singular construction of colonial ambitions but has involved a great number and diversity of external and internal players. These players bring their ideas, opinions, perspectives and plans and all are subject to constant change. As such, the region has for a long time, remained in a state of perpetual political conflict. In Eugene Rogan’s book, ‘The Arabs: a history’, we are presented with yet another one sided version of which he makes no apology for. To see the view from another side of the fence is to take a step towards greater clarity. His recount is a new one with a contemporary frame that he invites each one to engage with, and one that leaves you wanting to find out more. I came across the book upon meeting an English traveller in Fes, Morocco. He was currently working as a journalist in Oman. I remember reading the first few pages, and becoming instantly enveloped in the book.
The dominant view given to Western outsiders is an Arab World lodged ‘somewhere’ in between two places we know, a stumbling block, a long flight over it, a geographical hurdle, and to much an extent, an empty space between Europe and Asia. I place the term empty here because without determined limits, all of the potential contributed ideas can and will at best be loose, temporary and then redundant in their meaning. Empty is another common description that refers to the hostile climate and terrain the Middle East occupies, its perceived desert image and from that its perceived unliveable characterisation. This perspective on space has been dominated by its Western visions, defining where Europe ends then stretching to the vague space beyond it known as Asia, which many perceive to be a far, and perhaps distant reality. It would never be the Middle West, that would bring them in a descriptive sense, too close for comfort. If it were so, there is no doubt that it would remain equally unfaithful and as useless as its present geopolitical name-tag. It seems that the only lure for the West, and the only story that would emerge would come out of its own self-interest. Be it empowerment through war, strategic political importance or enrichment through commodity extraction. For many indeed in the West, this had been the only reason to flick through the pages of an Atlas. Furthermore, the amount of names an area comes to attain, the velocity in which the name changes, weakens the stability and power of that area, be it as an entity or an idea. The US and the West are too terms that seem to have gone together for years, over these years, they collect and attribute facts, ideas, people, institutions and as such become a complex yet well known cohesive narrative. On the other hand, when an area, such as the Middle East can be referred to as, the Levant, the Bible lands, the near Orient, the near East, the Fertile Crescent, Asia, Far Asia, Asia Minor, The Nile region, the Gulf, we start to see a diluting of the region as a whole, its description transfers notions of instability and fragmentation. A map is not only a tool, as an instrument, it also reflects point of view, this view in turn refers to a method replete with politique. And so it is this particular perspective from which a history, its culture, its peoples, its religious credence, its politics comes to be viewed.
I have just finished reading two books that deal with the Middle East and the larger Arab World at length, both offer different perspectives. Starting with the now academically popular ‘Orientalism’, Edward Said (1980) speaks to the way the Orient and the study of the ‘Orient’ has evolved into a discourse of power, identity, history and culture in how the West characterised and studied Asia. An Asia, in which the Arab World is dealt with to a large extent. His analysis of the field known as “Orientalism,” is, according to Said, the conservation of a single interpretation about a very large part of the world, to be characterised by a small portion of selected western ‘specialists’. This exclusivity ultimately idealised the idea of a diminished, controlled, history. And so this is how we have come to our present dilemma, blinded still by the legacy left by the Orientalists. The Arabs, as its author understands, are a problem for the larger Western audience as they have been prohibited and discouraged from understanding them. This may be what Eugene Rogan in his book the Arabs (2009) wishes to address. In his recount starts from the moment that as a people, the Arabs became subdued to Non-Arab rule, beginning with the Ottoman rule to the colonial conquest, decolonisation and independence, the alliances under the Cold War and the turn to political Islam in the form of islamism in the face of incompetent corrupt authoritarian governments coupled with the force of Globalisation. The latter perceived as a synonym for Modernisation, Americanisation and Occidentalisation. The book seeks to reveal an account of these historical events in detail by looking through the lens of an Arab perspective. Although an Arab perspective as the English author admits is characterised by the privileging and examining Arabic texts, books, context and its underlying sentiments. This author insists this is valid and necessary when telling a side of a history of a certain people, just as one would prefer to write their own account of a personal history drawing on their texts they feel are most relevant and influential to the way their story developed. From here the book delves into the history of the Arab World, mostly looking at the last two complete centuries of how it perceived certain aspects of its history under foreign dominating powers. The author, Rogan, tells the story with such depth, how the considerably controversial decisions were made with such haste, the lack of deliberation, and the strategic manoeuvring of various players.
From the beginning, the dominance of the Ottomans for over 400 years was not so much welcomed as tolerated, the author explains how through this toleration, the Arab world grew largely politically silent, only the inhabitants of modern day Egypt presented serious political problems for the Ottomans, most coming in the 19th century with various plots to overthrow a very weakened imperial ruler. The closest that Egypt got to achieving some degree of independence for the Arab world was in Mohammed Ali, still revered as one of the more charismatic leaders in Egyptian history. Yet it was failure and disunity that at best characterised the political period under empirical rule. The colonial period, although beginning earlier in Napoleons occupation of Egypt, intensified the nationalistic desires in the early 20th century. The romantic nationalist ideas pouring out of Europe were quickly diffusing in the near Arab colonies. The players began to multiply internally and externally, together with the political strategies and goals.
In the break up of Colonialism soon after and with hindsight to draw on, its easy to laugh at the ridiculous circumstances in which political decisions were made. Such as the outrageous decision in Egypt to go to war over a disputed border with Libya, an unfortunate border alignment devised in the colonial area that left Egypt oil-barren. Or the British colonial powers allowing early independence to Saudi Arabia, believing it to be oil barren and so of little economic value to the Empire. Moreover, reading the book commands a strong individual reflection of the present from reading a past. Throughout the book I found myself blaming and despising several actions, people that ultimately added to the filthy complicated mess that presents itself today. Frustration at the arrogance, ignorance, disrespect, manipulation that was utilised first by its foreign imperial powers, its corrupt leaders, the Zionist Jews, the post-war World Powers, the monarchical and autocratic governments, their leaders, the Israelis, the Palestinians, those exterior lobby groups and unethical donations that are fuelling a violence and hatred that is destroying the lives of many. But once I came to the end of the book, I ended up pointing the finger at myself, as I realised every single one of us has in some sense actively or passively screwed this up. But even still, the more perspectives and as such, knowledge one attains on a certain subject, the harder it is to pull out and point the finger. Indeed this may be the message intended by the author. That the complexity of such a diverse complicated location such as the Arab World leaves everyone with mud on their feet, and tracing the footprints is what is required, even if a difficult one, for coming to a humble base to really start understanding it.
So even though the book is long at close to 500 pages, I managed to chew threw it in five days. It is a contemporary write for its contemporary reader. The writing style is sharp, precise, spending little time on unnecessary embellishments such as under-estimating or over-glorifying that which would entail a stark partisan point of view. The events and the way in which they progress in his novel, construct themselves from the previous ones discussed. The writer walks you through, as if in a museum, gradually building the facts from events into the narrative. It seldom dithers, rather it is solid, concise and compelling. For this reason the events glue to the memory just as my eyes became glued to the words. Partly to the fact that as a reader I was dumbfounded at the history I had been told that seemed to contrast greatly to the one that I had passively accepted. The past is omnipresent and complex, history is akin to the patchwork quilt, many threads, many colours, many patterns. All of which bring and complicate the overall colour, texture and patterning of the quilt. Yet, there are histories that need to be considered in depth, that need to be engaged with at all angles, by more people. This part of the world is the cradle of civilisation and the crossroads of many cultures. There are obviously many footprints to investigate. So it makes sense to go back to see where the stitching, now deeply enmeshed in the quilt, started to fray, to pinpoint where the form began to change, and see the effects it bore. Indeed it is investigation, it is the attention to detail that the author stresses. In re-engaging with the Arab history, it cannot and should not be deduced to oversimplified watered down narratives, nor detailed partisan accounts, what is needed is an thorough rediscovery of all its revealing bits and pieces. This perhaps is the essence of discovery in this book, and what I certainly got out of it. It commands the individual to reconsider and reflect. Not only expand or amplify the possible views, perspectives, information and knowledge but encourage self-reflection on our personal lens, as an instrument that informs our perspective and lived experience.