The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: The "Tintin" of the Arab uprisings

Despite another installment of our “In Translation” series being long overdue, allow me an indulgence: the article our friends at Industry Arabic translated this week is nothing topical. It’s an attack on this site and myself. And what a deliciously absurd attack it is!

Its author, Sobhi Hadidi, a Syrian writer (I don’t know much about him), seems to be quite upset that I am aping the orientalists of old. One of his main gripes: the banner on top of this site, which he describes as a rather nasty throwback to old stereotypes of the Arab world. I’ve added footnotes to rebut the factual mistakes in the text (the banner is not from Tintin, for example), but on this point let me say this: the choice of a banner from one of my favorite comic books is not intended to spread the view of an ossified, stereotypical Arab world — it’s just that I like comics and loved that long panel from the 1940s which is recognizable even today and depicts the area of Cairo I’ve called home for over a decade. Chill, dude, it’s just a cartoon.

The reference to Edward Said, the denigration of the old European Orientalists I’ll pass on. I think this is an illness of much of the left-ish intelligentsia that has an interest in the Arab world (or is from it), it’s silly and ignores the great learning that these scholars brought to the fore. I very agree with Robert Irwin on this, and have always thought it’s sad that some of those who claim Said’s mantle have degenerated into, basically, nativists who shudder at the very thought of outsiders looking into their societies. It’s another facet of that virulent anti-cosmopolitan strain of Arab culture that echoes similar trends elsewhere (e.g. in America the “USA! USA! USA!” elements of the conservative movement, with its fear of brown people and of effete “old” Europe). I think Said is partly responsible for having created this, but he would have never sunk so low — he was far too cosmopolitan himself.

More puzzling is that Hadidi takes a few single postings on this site as representative of the over 4,000+ that have appeared since 2003 — especially when they were translated articles meant specifically to illustrate a small part of the Arab debate on certain issues rather than my own opinion! Also perplexing is his claim that Joshua Landis of Syria Comment is a close collaborator, even though Landis has never written for this site (even if I’ve linked, both positively and negatively, to his work) and that because of the well-known controversy over Landis’ views of the Assad regime, I am therefore a supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s butchery.

To sum up Hadidi’s argument, I am a kind of native informant who is aping the European Orientalists of old and is guilty of veiled racism/self-hatred because the banner I chose for the blog a long time ago is from an old-fashioned comic book (which was first published in 1954). I trust my readers (some of whom have gently chided me about the “Orientalist” banner in the past but most of whom seem to love it so much that I am afraid to remove it in an upcoming redesign) look past the banner and judge the site’s merit on its articles, not its artwork.

As for my appropriation of the loaded word “Arabist” — it was done in 2003 precisely to reappropriate the word from its two most common usages. Arabist, used in English, tends to either have the loaded, negative meaning Kaplan gave it in his book or be misused as an alternative to “pan-Arabist”, generally also with negative connotation. I’m just a guy who is interested and has tremendous affection for this part of the world, its politics and its culture, and happens to be from it — and really likes comic books. No need to read into it anything more than that.

The “Tintin” of the Arab Uprisings

By Sobhi Hadidi, al-Quds al-Arabi, 12 February 2012.

More widespread than it was before, it is more correct to say that it has woken up after slumber [then] revived after a stagnation that was more like extinction — a phenomenon known in colonial history by a name of strange derivation, ambiguous sense, and extraordinary scope — the “Arabist.”

Arabists have reemerged to take center stage in opinion columns and on Western satellite channels (and then, by extension and annexation, Arabic channels) and the reason behind all this is the Arab uprisings, from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. This being the case, it is no wonder that the term “Arab Spring” has become widespread, when it is the precise term chosen by Arabists themselves, a term fashioned in the same mold as other, previous appellations, derived in particular from Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy and shocking that some Arabs are eager to take on the role of “the Arabist” and copy his old functions as an intermediary – as well as his more modern roles. Moreover, sometimes they transform this role into one of simply reproducing caricatures of the most famous clichés in the history of Arabism, most notably of course those about political Islam, confessional and sectarian conflict, fatwas of takfeer and tahreem, and so on.

For example, the positions of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) occupy a large amount of space in the posts of a blog bearing the same name — “The Arabist” — as if the extremist Salafi school were the driving force behind the Arab uprisings.1 We also find other posts claiming that the uprisings do not constitute a “spring,” but rather a new Sykes-Picot (a clumsy expression that has gained currency among those who reject the popular Arab movements, starting from those who are “reluctant,” including the mouthpieces of the tyrannical regimes, and concluding with the likes of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal).2

Although the blog focuses on Egyptian affairs, in which it cannot be compared with the rest (since it is edited in Egypt), some other pieces treat the Arab countries that have witnessed popular uprisings, sometimes in a spirit of sympathetic reporting, and sometimes neutral, even if Orientalism’s traditional methods are not entirely absent from the posts or the links that take you to other material off the site. American academic and friend to the Syrian regime Joshua Landis is an almost constant guest on the site; material sympathetic to the Syrian regime is hosted on the site, and published on the site that Landis himself founded, Syria Comment.3 In the end, it is amusing that the blog’s description says that it is “a website about Arabic politics and culture,” even though the image at the top of its pages is taken from a “Tintin” story, which – in addition to its racism – is not known for its sympathy towards Arabs!4

Getting back to the root of the phenomenon, Arabists from the West have different sources, passions and talents. They include academics and ambassadors, writers and intelligence officers, political commentators and scholars of antiquities. It is enough, for this purpose, to read off a list of the names of the most distinguished ones: Richard Burton, Lady Hester Stanhope (or “Queen of the Bedouin” according to her clever nickname), T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Gertrude Bell, Harry (Abdullah) Philby, Daniel Bliss (founder of the Syrian Protestant College, which would later become the American University of Beirut). Then, in the contemporary version of the list are Richard Murphy, Hermann Eilts, Robert Pelletreau, David Newton (the next-to-last American Ambassador to Iraq under Saddam Hussein), and the famous ambassador April Glaspie, who informed the Iraqi dictator that the United States had no opinion on his border dispute with Kuwait.

This latter tribe differs – both by classification and definition – from the Orientalists whose aims, schools and agendas were deconstructed by the late Edward Said, who also demonstrated the virtues that some of them, and the vices that most of them possessed. Or in allowing for a new description that allots them a separate, independent category, say that they are the pupils, the offspring of the Orientalists old, and they make Orientalism’s methods subservient to the geopolitical, diplomatic and security goals of the great (usually Western) powers. Likewise, now and then, some of them abuse a set of purportedly “cultural” aims, while remaining innocent and well-intentioned in order to achieve their hidden agenda. Then they bear fangs that would not seem out of place on a beast of prey.

In 1993, American journalist Robert D. Kaplan put out a book that derides this sort of Arabist entitled Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, which appeared to be another nail in the coffin of this astonishing class of individuals.5 The writer of these lines belonged to the ranks of those (perhaps not a minority) who thought that this was a good omen and not a harbinger of defeat, since Arab issues have not lost much from laying to rest a sort of Arabism that prevailed for an era, then faded away and fell into oblivion, or turned into its complete opposite. However, the Western Arabist born in London, Paris, or Berlin would rarely be so bold as to sum up Arab politics and culture by a scene from the “Tintin” comic that portrays an Arab street where Moroccans mingle with Upper Egyptians, and the European fedora brushes up against the popular skullcap and the Tuareg face veil – not to mention trousers, skirts, and gelabiyas. How can Arab Arabists who were born in Rabat or Cairo, and whose blog treats sensitive issues about the revolution and oppression, democracy and tyranny, religion and the state, political Islam and secularism, take this kitsch so lightly, and what’s more — not even add an Arab woman to the picture!

Or is it one of the virtues of the Arab uprisings that it is also a profound cultural movement that aims to deconstruct the romance of these elites themselves — the Arabists — in terms of their profession and their claims, who end up serving Orientalism financially and by their actions.

  1. See Arabist post “Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?,” 20 December 2011. This must be one of the two or three times that Ibn Taymiyya is discussed on this blog. ↩

  2. See Arabist post “”Muhammad Hassanein Heykal on the ‘new Sykes-Picot’,” 13 November 2011.  ↩

  3. Joshua Landis has never written for Arabist. An entirely different person, Egypt and Syria expert Joshua Stacher, did in 2005 and 2006. I understand it’s confusing, with these Americans all having the same names. ↩

  4. The vulgarity with which the writer exposes his lack of even rudimentary knowledge of European comic books is flabbergasting. The banner on this site is not from Hergé’s Tintin, but from Edgar P. Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer series. They were contemporaries and both Belgian but how could the absence of Hergé naif style be noticed? Jacobs drew colorful but fairly accurate reproductions of scenes from postcards for his backdrops, such as the depiction of 1940s Fouad St. (now 26th July) in the banner. As for the idea that the Moroccan fez has no place in the picture, perhaps, but an Egyptian tarboush that was worn until the 1950s certainly does — and they look almost exactly the same. ↩

  5. While Kaplan’s book is fascinating in many respects, I find it interesting that Hadidi should endorse a book clearly written from a Zionist perspective and that was instrumental in intellectually isolating the so-called “State Dept. Arabists” and preparing the ground for the takeover of US Mideast policy by people who often did not speak Arabic and came from a pro-Israel activism background, such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk. ↩