This morning I stumbled upon an old edition of The Economist – which I do not typically read – from July, treating on an topic that is occasionally forgotten: Arab nationalism. The article was entitled “The Arab World Wakes,” and went on to treat the Arab world as if it were a functioning whole of sorts, with shared problems, shared achievements, and a shared future.
For those of us who have spent time in the Middle East, are about to, or have some other backhand form of experience with the region, suffice it to say that the idea of Arab unity has been something of a disappointment – look at the history of secular and semi-secular Arab nationalism if you are eager for information. Arabs are the first to admit that there have been complications on the path to decolonization, like Israel, but when measured against the historic dream of a unified political entity embracing all Arabs has proven unrealistic with the departure of the British and the French and the establishment of disparate centers of power.
But is that true? As an Arab-American, I am inclined to be skeptical of the rhetoric of which my father (who is Lebanese) is so very fond, and to focus on what divides the Arab nation today – political boundaries, economic might, patron-states, religious identity – the important stuff. The sad fact that a politically unified Arab state is so unlikely in the offing has made me conflate statehood with collective identity more than is healthy, especially given my academic focus in the discipline of political geography.
After I read that article, I noticed that celebrations had begun in Doha, which has just been crowned Capital of Arab Culture for 2010. For those of you who are not familiar, this is an annual endeavor begun in 1996 with Cairo that sought to give a formal edge to Arab cultural identity and unite the Arab peoples beyond their borders – in addition to non-Westerners – in appreciating the contributions that Arabs have made to world civilization. The opening operetta of the ceremony was entitled “بيت الحكمة” or “The House of Knowledge,” after the legendary library of Baghdad that produced so many vital translations for Arab and, eventually, European scientists of the Middle Ages. A clip (in Arabic, sorry) from Al-Jazeera is available here.
Watching the performers dance about I was moved to appreciate what I should have already known, which is that political power is not the same as collective identity or nationalism; what the Arabs as a people have done in Doha is create a program to remind the world of this. As much as we may believe that Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians and Emiratis do not get along politically, they are bound by something much more significant than mere politics, which is the belief that their ties are something that matter. That is why Gulf states invest so heavily in Arab business across the region, that is why they have funded the rebuilding of towns across Southern Lebanon, and that is why the people continue to express what my father has told me since childhood – that all Arabs are brothers.
So when you read this article, try not to be too skeptical. Arab nationalism is not dead – it’s simply dormant.