Harari on Tribes
I take umbrage with Professor Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)on his notion of what it is to be an Arab. In particular, his comment on page 217.
“Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century…”
I beg to differ with him, partly because I have travelled the length of Egypt and have spent time talking with them, and with other Egyptian ex-pats, some of whom I have worked with throughout the Gulf for the past twenty years.
One of the first lessons I learned travelling overland from Nairobi and following the Nile through the Sudan to Cairo was to assume that once I got into this part of North Africa that modern-day Egyptians considered themselves as Africans.
One chap in the souk quickly corrected my incorrect assumption and told me proudly, “No, I am Egyptian”.
Unless Egyptians have changed in the last while, I think Harari has fallen into the same trap.
For him to assume that Egyptians think of themselves as “Arabs” is a stretch.
I know for a fact, that my Egyptian Copt friend Murad, whom I worked alongside for seven years in Abu Dhabi, corrected a mistake I had made.
He spoke Arabic, lived in an Arabic-speaking country yet when I am asked, “Are you an Arab? He quickly corrected me and said, “No, I am Egyptian.”
This confusion on Harari’s part about Arabs brings me back to my first day in Professor Todd Lawson’s “Introduction to Islam” course at University of Toronto in 1990.
He asked our large class, consisting of many Muslims and interested Arabists such as myself, “What is an Arab?”
No one knew the answer or bothered to answer even though there were obviously students of Arabic origins in our class.
Naturally, I could not help myself, so I answered, “The Bedu, the Bedouins.”
This comment seemed to catch the professor off guard, and he asked why I said that.
I told him that is what I had read in Wilfred Thesiger’s legendary travel book, “Arabian Sands”.
Professor Lawson casually tossed off my suggestion and proceeded to tell us all that "an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic".
In retrospect, he was dead wrong because there are many nationalities who speak some form of Arabic, but they do not consider themselves as “Arabs”.
A few that come to mind are Moroccans, Tunisians, Mauritanians, Algerians, Somalis, Sudanese, Libyans maybe even Palestinians.
It is true that most of them have some Arab blood in them, but many have more African or Berber bloodlines.
I know for a fact that many in Southern Sudan speak Arabic, but that is the lingua franca there and they are for the most part either animist or Christian, and they prefer to call themselves by their tribal alliances: Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk…etc.
I also know from teaching in Kuwait, UAE, and now in Qatar, that if I were to call my female students "Arabs "that they might take that as an insult.
In my first year of teaching at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait, I had a mixed class of girls of various origins and ethnicity. Moreover, it is not unusual to have a class with the majority of students from the traditional Bedouin culture of Kuwait, usually with surnames Al Azmi, Al Ajmi, and Al Mutairi.
Perhaps some of them might be what are called “Bedoons”— ‘stateless Arabs’—those tribes never having citizenship because of their ancestors roaming from pasture to pasture in traditional Bedouin lifestyle between Kuwait, KSA and Jordan.
However, in my classes there might also be a smattering of Palestinian, Syrian, Qatari, Bahraini, Balochi, and Egyptians thrown into the mix.
Two of my better students were Palestinian, and in one class the subject of the “honour killings” came up. In particular, we were discussing the recent “honour killings” that had taken place in Jordan, and I knew the two girl’s families came from Amman. I also knew they were Palestinians, so I played the devil’s advocate and asked them if ‘honour killings’ were part of Palestinian culture.
They were abhorred, and one said —“Sir, that is the tribes that do that, not us.”
I wondered who ‘the tribes’ were that she was referring to, so I asked for clarification on that.
The one answered rather adamantly — “The Bedouin tribe’s sir. They are very tribal.”
I was rather taken aback by this and asked — “Aren’t the Palestinians tribal too?”
She seemed miffed by this as though I was insulting her and clicked her tongue at me which is a verbal sign of disdain or dislike in the Arab World.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps Professor Harari should re-think his notion that Arabic-speaking people think of themselves as Arabs—the Palestinians I know would not share that worldview.
In fact, the Palestinians have gotten screwed around not only by the Israelis, but their supposed “Arab brothers”.
Their "Arab brothers" have kept them in refugee camps spread all through the Levant since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent “Nakba”. The largest camp is north of Amman (with the Jordanian Army tank barrels pointed in their direction), and there are squalid camps in Lebanon, and Syria. I used to live in what was considered the Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait called “Nugra”.
King Hussein and his Jordanian Army battled with Arafat and the PLO and their ilk during “Black September” in 1970. Both the Kuwaitis and Saudis kicked many of Palestinians out of their countries when they unwisely supported Saddam before and during the Gulf Wars and Invasion of Kuwait.
In a sense, despite speaking Arabic, the Palestinians get shafted in the Middle East because, for lack of a better term, they are from the wrong tribe, but maybe, they are not from any tribe.