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.