Words and their Meaning…

Let’s play a game!

I am thinking of a tree.

I can picture it in my mind.

You don’t know what I am imagining.  You might safely assume it has a trunk, branches and leaves of some kind, but can you assume we are picturing the same thing?

What image first came to mind when you read the word ‘tree?’  Depending on what may be growing outside your home, in your neighborhood, region or country, our mental pictures could be vastly different; a bonsai, a palm, orange tree or cedar?  Does your tree grow indoor or outside? Is it standing alone, or placed strategically in a park or garden, inside a mall, or is it part of a magnificent forest? What season did you imagine it in, that would determine the state of its color, leaves, flowers or fruit? Is anything inside the tree, such as a nest of some kind, or is anything attached to it; lights, ornaments, a swing, a poster? Do you imagine a living tree, or an artist’s depiction?

We could continue with this line of questioning for quite some time, and with each inquiry we begin to see just how complex and intricately detailed our concept of a tree can be.

The more questions we ask, the more information we can convey to clarify meaning.

Language is powerful because words are thoughts. However, the same words can describe different thoughts. To be really sure you have understood me, and I, you, sometimes we must dig deeper into the meaning behind what we say.

Let’s play again, shall we?

I am thinking of an Arab.

I can picture him in my mind.

Where does he live? What is he wearing? How old is he?  What kind of job does he do? What is his family like? What kind of government does he have?  How does he deal with conflict?

Arab.  This four-letter word is very powerful. As a Dutch national living in the “Arab World” I see firsthand the very big issues raised by this little word.

Consider for a moment, what and who have contributed to your thoughts on what or who is Arab?

Where did you get your information? Are you thinking of people you spend time with like family, friends or colleagues? Have you lived in, or visited the Arab World? Or do your images and ideas come entirely from TV, Newspapers or movies?

If you were to describe to an Arab what you presume about him or her, if you were to say it out loud, how would it sound? How would they react? Do you anticipate they would whole-heartedly agree with your interpretation? Perhaps it is important to consider how much of our understanding of what is Arab is defined by people outside the Arab world looking in.

Centuries ago, visitors recorded what they saw on their journeys to the Arabian Peninsula, and tried to explain it to their fellow countrymen.  Greek and Latin writers appropriated the term ‘Arab’ to include all of Arabia and the Sinai into Egypt, (roughly 1/3 the size of Europe) and everything in it.  ‘Arab,’ in many ancient writings, basically became a synonym for all things Eastern, and with Islam, became synonymous with ‘Muslim.’ As Islam grew, so did the application of whom and what was ‘Arab’. The images and phrases used to describe these persons/places were not ones that were chosen by these ‘Easterners’ themselves.  They were based on perceptions of outsiders, who framed the “Arab World” in Western terms they knew the people around them would understand.  Up until now, the ‘West’ understands the ‘East’ as they have constructed it.

This construction of Arabs is continually being built with every article, newscast and film that keeps the actual ‘people’, the warm bodies and their life experiences, at a distance. In this construction, Arabs also appear to be one very homogenous group, all 280 million of them; people who look, think, behave, believe, communicate and live almost exactly the same way, albeit far away.

East and West are directions, but they are words that express extreme opposites.  How similar are you to your image of what is Arab? How similar are Arabs to each other?

The term ‘Arab’ carries with it racial, geographical, linguistic, religious, cultural and political connotations. It is being used now in so many different contexts that it is not clear what someone is referring to when they use it.

Some questions

Are Arabs a people group?

Arabs are not one race, any more than ‘white people’ are one race. The original Arabs are people from tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.  Those living around North Africa and Southwest Asia, come from many different people groups. People living in the “Arab World”, although they may identify as being Arab for other reasons, do not identify as being of one ethnicity, and generally add a national affiliation when they use the term, ie. Egyptian Arab.  To be considered as Arab first and foremost, because one lives in an Arabic speaking country, so much so that ethnic or national identities are lost, is a phenomenon called ‘Pan-Arabianism.’ Someone referring to me as being of British nationality or descent because I speak English does not accurately describe me, or for that matter most of the English-speaking world.  To be Arab then, as an ethnic identity is only accurate for a very small group of people from a very specific region.

Is being Arab related to where you live?

The so-called ‘Arab World’ covers North Africa and Western Asia, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea, with climatic and geographic differences between countries being extensive.  Politically, socially, culturally and economically they also have almost nothing in common. What does the everyday life of a Lebanese Bedouin nomad have in common with a Saudi prince or a Libyan farmer?  The “Arab World” has within it the enormously rich and the dirt poor, with almost no middle class to bridge the lifestyle gap between them. Living in the “Arab World” does not by definition make one Arab.

Are Arabs members of a language group?

To be Arab because one speaks Arabic is also a mere superficial and artificial argument. Does a Westerner speaking perfect Arabic then become Arab? Arabic is the official language of 22 countries, and over 280 million people (US population is 311 million). But the dialects they speak from region to region make it almost impossible for them to understand each other. The common language association is not enough to bridge the gap between so many people to unify them as one body.

Is being Arab related to religion? Is Arab Muslim?

Arabs existed before Islam, although most people living in the “Arab World” would now identify as being Muslim.  Mohammed received the word of God in the language of Arabic.  There are almost 1.5 billion people in the world who follow Islam, and they read a Qur’an written in the Arabic language.  Most people who read the Qur’an cannot speak or communicate in Arabic. For only a minor 280 million (some 20%) of them it is their first language.  However, it is through the spread of Islam that the Arabic language has become so prominent. It is also not the case however that all Arabic speakers are Muslim, or even that all Muslims are Arabic speakers.  Unfortunately however, both terms are often inappropriately used interchangeably, obscuring their meaning.

Not all Muslims live in the Orient either, for example think of Indonesia, which is the mostly highly populated Muslim country.

Is Arab a cultural descriptor?

There are common cultural expressions throughout the “Arab World”, because of the Islamization of the region around the 7th Century. But there are also significant cultural practices stemming from historical traditions outside Islam that vary between states and ethnicities.

Is Arab a political affiliation? As in the ‘Arab League’?

The Arab League is a Western invention that was formalized in 1945. It sums up all the inaccurate understanding of what is the “Arab World” in one not so neat political body. The 22 countries with Arabic as their official languages comprise this union.  But the concept of all 22 countries being united, in the way the 50 American states are one United States of America, is nonsensical.  Yet, this is how the West perceives the “Arab World” world; as a homogenous group. The idea that this many individual countries in the “Arab World” are so similar that they should be financially, economically and politically tied, has caused chaos.  As a construct, the Arab League is then expected to come up with solutions for people’s problems much like governing bodies such as the European Union and United States do, but the Arab League countries have little interest in doing that.  The concept itself implies that a Jordanian King is motivated, capable and invited to solve the problems of say, Moroccans, and the Egyptian President is capable and able to resolve Iraq’s troubles.

Considerations: 

Our Western love for democracy and our fervent belief in the democratic system as the ultimate definition of freedom and responsibility has so tainted the lens through which we view the Arab World, that further deconstruction of our thought processes is necessary. Why do we assume that the political leaders of these ‘Arabic speaking’ states are representatives of the people they govern? Or that they are making decisions in a vacuum?  Many of the member countries are reliant on American support to sustain themselves, as is the case with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they are two of the most powerful countries in the region. Some of the Arab League nations cannot really be autonomous, because they do not or cannot make decisions that are considered anti-American.

At the other end of the equation, the American dependency on oil as a resource means that the US also has to make decisions to support their own existence that are politically questionable, for instance their long history of selling weapons.  In the most recent example, the United States made a US$ 60 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, all they while the political leaders who signed off on that deal spoke publicly about ‘Arab’ terrorism. France also, not too long ago signed a $10 billion trade deal with President Qaddafi in Libya

Conclusion:

How often do we consider our very real role in the construction of what is ‘Arab’? Think about your original image of an ‘Arab.’  This confusion exists both within and outside the countries of the “Arab World”.

Many people very passionately say they are Arab, but they often cannot describe what it means to be Arab.  The abuse and confusion of the term in the Western world, contributes to confusion here in the Orient. Now, being ‘Arab’ or living in the ‘Middle East’ carries the weight of the term ‘terrorism.

I want to call for change, by redefining our vocabulary. We need to deconstruct these terms to understand each other better, and either redefine them, or develop new words in their place to communicate with greater clarity and precision. If we were to start using the phrases “Arabic speaking world” and “English speaking world”, it would be a significant improvement.  Using this language takes away the religious, ethnic and political connotations. Even saying “the Levant” is an improvement because it takes away from the connotations now associated with “the Middle East.”

Maybe next time you watch the news, or hear a sermon, or have coffee with a friend, you’ll think about the effect of the language being used and the message it communicates.

For a better understanding.

Robert Pelgrim

This blog was written in 2011

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