Proud To Be An Arab?

I’ve been hanging out a lot with a Lebanese fellow lately–néyim éyim as we say ‘chez nous.’ He’s adamantly Maronite from Mount-Lebanon and has an issue with being called an Arab. To most Westerners, the Arabic-speaking countries are called the Arab countries, and the people coming from these Arab countries are Arabs. Obviously, this is what self-proclaimed Arabs also say, so why wouldn’t Arabs be simply called Arabs?

As a matter of fact, most Westerners also take for granted that all Arabs are Muslims. If an opinion is shared by the majority of a certain population, does that mean it is necessarily true? The answer no. (If you answered yes, you are a populist.)

My friend prefers to be called “Mediterranean”, “Oriental,” or “Levantine.”  He contends that Maronites are historically not Arabs but Syriacs (or Syro-Aramaeans.)

I don’t like to go into endless controversies about history and culture. In matters of identity, I am totally liberal. I consider that everybody has the right to determine his own identity insofar as he commits to it. You choose freely your identity, it doesn’t choose you; it cannot–should not–be imposed upon you. Who are you to say what the Other is and what he is not? Call him what he wants to be called. When you talk about him, hold a speech he can recognize himself in.

Liberal is a term that I use to mean “indifferent.” Yes, choose whatever identity you like, what do I care. Whatever makes you happy. Identity is a masquerade, but a necessary one. It is an arbitrary construction, but a solid one.

I am not proud to be an Arab. I am not proud to be anything. I neither consider myself Arab nor Syriac nor anything else. Arabness (‘urûba) does not mean anything specific. It is a useful tote bag, that’s all. Especially in Arab politics where rhetoric is always better than action.

Spare me these identity talks. My human identity alone is enough for me to bear. And it’s too often an alienating burden.

"Our land is not Arab land" - - Feb 8, 2008

"Our land is not Arab land" - - Feb 8, 2008

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2 Responses to Proud To Be An Arab?

  1. Tifa says:

    I have two simple questions concerning the fact that your friend doesn’t like to be called an Arab :
    Is it an unconscious desire to not be associated to the negative image of Arabs conveyed by the western media?
    Or, is it a conscious desire to not be associated with “other types” of Arabs (since Arab is a generic term) that he doesn’t relate to?

    • a.s. says:

      Quite difficult to call him now and ask him. But as his friend, I can try to provide an answer.

      It’s not the first reason I’m sure, and I have doubts concerning the second one. I think it is unconscious, and primarily due to sectarian and political factors. Despite all that the Middle Eastern Christians have done for the Arabic language and Arab nationalism, Arab identity remains willy-nilly associated with Islam–in the eyes of the West and the East (forget about politically correct speeches and expressions).

      Second, Islamism has taken over Arab politics after the lamentable failure of Arabist ideologies in the 1970s ans 1980s (to this day). Therefore, minority groups tend to show little sympathy for Arabist and Islamist ideologies, which have acquired a negative dimension over time.

      Third, Lebanese Maronites compare themselves to their brethren in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, and the remaining Arab countries. They are suffering in Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine. In Syria and Jordan, their condition is stable, but they do not enjoy the freedom that the Maronites have enjoyed, and are still enjoying. (Will the Syrian Christians undergo the same fate as the Iraqi after the fall of the Baathist regime?) In other Arab countries, the freedom of the Christian expats/workers is extremely regulated. Most of the Maronites are very jealous of the freedom and rights they have acquired.
      While discussing the matter with a (non-Christian) Palestinian friend living in Lebanon, he yielded that “Lebanon is indeed the only country in the Arab world where being Christian, or publicly saying your are, is not a big deal at all.”

      Fourth, the Maronite Church is a church of Syriac tradition and heritage. It is not uncommon to come across Maronites who claim Syriac ancestry. After all, there is no way to check whether one is of Arab, Syriac, Aramaic, Canaanite, or Hebrew ancestry. There is no objective definition of identity. Arab identity too, is hard–if not impossible–to be defined. What is an Arab? Language is not a sufficient element to prove any identity. You have Arabs who are allies with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel, France, the US, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia… in the name of Arabness; Arabs who have diverging political choices in the name of Arabness; Arabs who compete for power in the name of Arabness… It might as well be just self-designation with many (and random) meanings.

      So who’s to say what’s Arab and what’s not?

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