Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Myth-Making

with 8 comments

We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).

It should be a matter of pride for the Turks that they are a linguistic, genetic and cultural mixture, but Ataturk invented for his new nation a mythology of ancient Turkish (or Turanian) glory. Because the Sumerian language was, like Turkish (and like many other languages), agglutinative, kemalists held the Sumerians to be ancient proto-Turks. Ataturk even promoted an absurd ‘sun-language theory’ which claimed that Turks had invented language itself. After the cultural vandalism done to the Ottoman language to strip it of foreign influence, contemporary kemalists will not admit the presence of loan words in modern Turkish. But still the Turkish words for ideas as basic as ‘thing’, ‘ok’, ‘famous’, ‘busy’ and ‘hello’ are from Arabic. The Turkish for library is ‘kutuphane’ – a mix of Arabic and Farsi. Ask a rigid kemalist about the Arabs, Persians or Kurds, and he’ll reply “kultur yok! – No culture!” Fortunately kemalism is finally on the retreat in Turkey.

In Iran I heard someone explain that Islam was a barbaric desert religion until it reached the cultured Iranians, who then civilised it. The philosophical, scientific and artistic glories of Islam, even when these flowered in Andalusia, were Persian achievements.

Zionism has created a myth of continuous Jewish bloodlines linking Israelis back to Roman Palestine, although a more scientific approach suggests that today’s Palestinians are at least as closely linked genetically to the ancient Israelites. Even more ignorant than Israelis are their supporters in the United States, many of whom believe that the state of Israel, rather than being founded by terror and ethnic cleansing in 1948, has been there since Moses (supposedly) crossed the Red Sea. They don’t know the difference between Syria and Assyria, or between Ahmadinejad and Nebuchadnezzar.

And then there’s someone called Amre el-Abyad, and people like him. I’m not publishing his comments on my blog because they are hysterical, racist and even on occasion personally threatening, but I wouldn’t want to deprive my readers of his point of view. So, if you are curious, you can enjoy his ravings here.

On his blog Mr. el-Abyad says that the great Arab people invented writing, irrigation and cities, built the pyramids, and have been fighting to protect civilisation from Persian barbarians for thousands of years. Although he admits that Persians have been around for thousands of years, he says they aren’t part of the region, which is only Arab. Neither are Turks. We must assume that Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and other non-Arabs are also foreigners in this pure Arab region.

President Nasser’s Arab nationalism considered any speaker of Arabic to be an Arab. Baathists in Syria and Iraq extended the definition through time to include past speakers of extinct Semitic languages – such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician and Babylonian – which are related to Arabic. There is no reason why Arabs should not take pride in the history of the peoples who lived in this area before us, and whose culture the Arabs have in some way or other inherited. But we need to keep this pride in perspective. Scientific descriptions of peoples are linguistic, not racial, as there is no way to keep tabs on who breeds with who. Today’s Arabs are a mixture of Semitic, Indo-European, Turkic, Mongol and African genes. (So, for that matter, are today’s Iranians). The Sumerians were probably racially very similar to the people who live in southern Iraq today, but their language was not Semitic. It was the Sumerians who invented writing and cities – so you need to stretch reality further than it will comfortably go to say that writing was invented by the Arabs. As for fighting off the barbarians – the first barbarians the Sumerians had to deal with were Semitic barbarians invading the fertile river plains from the desert. These barbarians later became supremely civilised Akkadians. Some centuries later, the Semites of Mesopotamia were fighting off Amorites – more Semitic barbarians from the desert. What is now Iran was also the scene of constant barbarian invasion. The people of present-day Iraq invaded Iran, and the people of Iran invaded Iraq. Sometimes the Iraqis were more civilised than the Iranians, and sometimes it was the other way round. The first documented use of the term ‘Arab’ is in an Assyrian text of the 9th century BC, thousands of years after civilisation rose in Mesopotamia. In this context, a narrative of glorious Arabs in a millenial struggle to hold off Persian barbarians is clearly absurd.

The idea that Arabs built the pyramids is as bad. Ancient Egyptians were not even Semites. The ancient Egyptian language was a member of the Nilo-Saharan family, not the Semitic family (modern Ethiopians who speak Amharic, however, are the speakers of a Semitic language, although they don’t speak Arabic, and so are not considered part of the Arab world). Although Egyptians have often intermarried with Semites, especially since the arrival of Islam, there is still an obvious racial difference between them and their eastern neighbours.

It is good to be proud of the peoples who came before us, and legitimate to use their achievements to remind ourselves that Arabs are not programmed to be weak and subservient. But it is illogical to suppose that Arabs are the only inheritors of these ancient cultures. Agriculture started in the Middle East (maybe not something to be proud of), and ancient Middle Eastern genes spread into Europe and Russia as the first agriculturalists colonised outwards. Culturally, most of the world has inherited irrigation, the alphabet, the gods of the Orontes and the Nile, the stories of Noah and Job.

This isn’t an attack on Arabism or the Arab identity. I am a big supporter of an intelligent Arabism which recognises and celebrates the diversity of the Arab peoples, from Morocco to Oman, as well as their commonalities. I wish there were far more unity of purpose and cooperation between Arabs. This is an attack on intolerant Arabist mythmaking which, like its Turkish variant, is fortunately on the decline. People like Mr. el-Abyad are a very small but noisy minority, given more volume by the current tragedy in Iraq. In Syria the nationalist myths were never aggressively intolerant anyway, unlike in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. But I ask the surviving dreamers: where has extreme mythical nationalism got anybody? Do you really think it will help to solve our region’s problems? It is possible to hold strong political positions and to desire true independence without being stupidly simplistic. It is possible to be proud of your people without being a fascist.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 17, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Turkey, Zionism

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8 Responses

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  1. I think all this cultural “self-glorification” is a sign of immense cultural, political and even psychological insecurity.

    Once nations have REALLY become great, they are less likely to be fighting over petty myths.

    The Iranians who have suddenly turned pro-Achamenid are reacting to two specific waves:
    1) Pahlavi-generated myth of Persian glories, with is ridiculous 2500 years celebration and changing of teh calendar

    2) Iran’s Islamic revolution!

    In the first case, Shah’s objective was to a) “modenize” Iran in the path of his much more clever father; and to divest it from Islamic superstition; and b) to distinguish Iran from the rest of the middle east and to gain grounds by winking at Israel and flirting with America.

    In the second case, the shame and humiliation brought about upon Iranians by the behavior of the IRI made many to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    If you ask any of these Persian, )Arab=Islam)-haters to give you a cursory summary of the “previous” glories, you will draw a blank and uncomfortable look.

    There is no denying of the wealth of Persian culture, and its continuity throughout history. A language that has survived hundreds of years of colonization by the macenonians, the arabs, the mongols, the Turks, speaks for itself. But those who are clinging to the myth of Persian “superiority”, for example, are most likely to not be very well educated. If they were, they would recognize that the strength of a culture is not in how it holds to old things, but how it integrates the new. It would be a much more interesting discourse if the Persian fanatics celebrated the marriage of the occidental and teh oriental culture i n Iran, and took pride in how that marriage has enriched their history, rather than to seek purism.

    I think the same would go for Arabs; and Turks.

    But these nationalistinc flames are also fanned by those who seek ammunition for their “divide and conquer” project. Little potential sparkles that will ignite massive explosions in communities that are divested of self respect, and self worth; so deplete to fill themselves up with nonsense as does Amre.

    He is an interesting case; and I am happy to see Arabs speak up against what he perpetuates as a united Arab sentiment.

    I wish to ask all these self-glorifying middle easterners: Have they taken a trip to Asia, or to South America?

    The amount of self-loathing inflicted upon our people is amusing! I have the occasion of being immersed in a German’ism! To date, I am amazed how self-hating almost every German that I have met is! so self-hating that they seek healing in an assumed “perfectionism”. A perfectionism that ultimately becomes self and other-destructive!

    Our political psychology is up for a major analysis! Post-modernity was an immature experience. We need a shift of paradigm, … soon!

    Naj

    April 17, 2008 at 7:15 pm

  2. I agree, Naj, although I’m not sure about the Persian language ‘surviving’ Turkish and Arabic colonisation. A language survives, to borrow an image from taoism (more or less) in the way that water defeats a fist. Persian is full of Arabic and Turkish – to its strength.

    By the way, last night I watched Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wonderful film “Gabbeh”. I advise everybody to order a copy. It’s such a shame that Arab cinemas are full of Hollywood rubbish but not the great Iranian films which are made next door.

    qunfuz

    April 18, 2008 at 7:30 am

  3. As to Amre representing a united Arab sentiment – in my recent trip to Egypt (he’s an Egyptian who lives in Sweden, so he says) I met no-one who thinks like him.

    A recent pan-Arab opinion poll shows:

    “In contrast to U.S. government views, most Arabs did not see Iran as a major threat and 67 percent considered Tehran had the right to a nuclear program.”

    Amre thinks that Hizbullah is an evil Persian plant working with Israel to destroy the Arabs (!), but the poll shows:

    “Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s popularity grew as did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s. Asked which world leader they disliked most, U.S. President George W. Bush was at the top of the unpopularity poll with 63 percent followed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with 39 percent.”

    This is a link to the poll info:

    http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnN14369203.html

    qunfuz

    April 18, 2008 at 7:40 am

  4. I was thinking about the overall concept of nation, race and creed recently. I pass the Argenteuil holocaust museum every morning on my way back from dropping my son to his nanny.

    It’s funny how the natural human tendency to want to belong to a group causes such aberrations as the Nazi party, the Zionist movement, the crusades, the American way, sects of Christians or Muslims or Sikhs or whatever else.

    There’s also a trend for nations to claim their ancestors were the inventors, or the founders, of historical monuments to progress. Who invented the telephone? Or the television? Or cinema? Or photography? All are modern questions with multiple responses just like the blurred lines you allude to when different nations or creeds talk about who invented language or writing or geometry or whatever.

    This is amplified by the blatant claiming of all progress by the Europeans, who mostly reinvented things that the Arab world (or the Persians, or the Babylonians, or the Sumerians… I’m not well read enough to know for sure) had already done before. Like navigation, or astronomy, or mathematics, or whatever.

    Globalisation seems to be pushing us ever forward, in idealistic terms, towards better sharing and understanding. Yet the pressing desire to be part of a unique group with “better” history seems to keep creeping back in to the debate as each generation seems to lose the lessons of the previous one.

    History is written by the survivors, and that’s never going to make it objective. Look at the wonderful history, culture and languages of native North Americans – mostly lost. Or of what might be if we could only know what wonders were in the great library at Babylon…

    fruey

    April 18, 2008 at 8:08 am

  5. Re: Language being an organic entity, I totally agree. Nowadays, the Persian language is also filled with internet lingo!

    But added vocabulary is like dressing a language. I my view language is defined by grammar, by verbs (that describe action), by congugation, by intonation, I don’t know a lot of those things.

    And those have survived; not by force, but because of volition; and because of an active intellectual participation by the elites who have realized the vitality of holding on to language to not melt away in the hodgepodge of transient, aggressive, imposed cultures.

    The Myth in Iran for example is that ‘we transform our enemy and turn them into us’. Even the post revolutionary government of Iran, that at the onset wanted to get rid of anything monarch and nonislamic, has begun to embrace something like Norouz. The will of the ordinary people and their attachment to the very basic value system of the ancient past has forced this government to change.

    The unifying force of language and folklore in Iran cannot be overlooked.

    Re: Arabs against Iran, I know it is not true. Cultural bitching happens everywhere, and you saw evidence of that in Iran yourself. Iranians look down on Arabs and Arabs do the same! But I seriously doubt any Iranian will pick a sword to fight against “Arabs”. And I hope the same is true about Arabs, although Iraq history makes one wonder if that is too optimistic!

    Naj

    April 18, 2008 at 12:53 pm

  6. Thanks Qunfuz for pointing me to this article. How interesting that you call out Amre el-Abyad by name! I had a similar encounter with him a while back on my own blog — the Arabs invented everything, the Iranians are insidious destroyers of Arab culture. I wonder what became of him?

    Your larger point, though, is what matters — the myths we tell ourselves to defend the superiority of our group, the way this blinds us to all we share with those outside the group, and the insecurity at the root of such chauvinism. It’s a pathology, but a pathology that seems all too common to humans everywhere.

    The test is if we are willing to learn from our encounters, accept the limits on what we previously knew and expand our knowledge — or simply use our encounters as an opportunity to validate our prejudice. Will someone please explain to me the value of that!

    eatbees

    February 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

  7. Your comment that brought me here, I read first by e-mail, not on the post itself — so I actually thought the “racist, sectarian fool” to whom you were referring was another commenter entirely, on my most recent post — an American who thinks all Arabs are ready for jihad (based on the second-hand “experience” of a friend) and who is happy that Congress is trying to censor Arab media so he, and the Arabs themselves, won’t be exposed to “terrorist” ideas. This explains why I was surprised to see you name Amre, but the larger point remains. The myths we tell ourselves about the Other are surprisingly resistant to evidence!

    eatbees

    February 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

  8. [...] http://qunfuz.com/2008/04/17/m…..th-ma king/ "The idea that Arabs built the pyramids is…bad. Ancient Egyptians were not even [...]


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