The Crippling Present: Questioning the Route to a Unified Arab Identity

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Living at home has become scarier than ever. Until now, I have considered Lebanon and the neighboring nations of the Arab world my home. This understanding consisted of a mash-up of different realities — all these Arab countries moving in parallel. I cared about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, freedom in Jordan and activism in Egypt, as if they were all part of my country. I cared about Syria’s right to peace, Palestine’s right to exist, and Tunisia’s steps towards victory. I thought I had a role in affecting them positively. “I am an Arab,” I would say, quite proudly, expressing a vivid part of my geopolitical and cultural identity. I still say this, but it is aspirational, not a description of my present situation.

I believe that to achieve a certain reality, one needs to perform it until this reality complies. So, “I am an Arab” stands until it’s true or false — until I can physically and emotionally subscribe to a set of nations that identify with each other and act accordingly, or not. However, as time passes, I feel we’re diverging swiftly from any form of unity, or any plan to achieve this, as we willingly and aggressively cast off and deny everything that unites us, for no good reason whatsoever.

Living in Lebanon, more people are mastering the ancient art of racism, against each other and everyone else. Internally, Lebanon still suffers from its post-civil war “holographic” divisions; people are more comfortable in their little neighborhoods, categorized by sect or kinship, spending their time and energies protecting these enclaves, rather than developing a nation that unites them. If there were a comprehensive Lebanese guidebook to external affairs, it would state that Arabs are not welcome unless they have money to spend. It’s a national statement of agnosticism towards the reality of the region: the so-called Arab identity mumbo jumbo is not appreciated here.

As far as the Lebanese government is concerned, Syrians can flee their country’s lack of shopping opportunities using the newly minted shopping visa, and access Lebanon for 24 hours to buy whatever they need. They cannot, however, flee their eminent death sentences back home. Palestinians, meanwhile, are still treated like human trash in their landfill camps, and are denied all conceivable civil rights. Egyptians need to have 2,000 US dollars in cash before they can board a plane to Lebanon.

In this context, “I am Arab” starts to sound a little demented and embarrassing. According to my passport, I belong to a nation that is passive aggressive toward its siblings. As a Lebanese citizen, I can’t even surpass my nation’s official mediocrity and take any step towards a greater “home” without feeling somehow apologetic. The tension between the Lebanese and Syrian people is escalating by the minute. Even if the current war ends, which prevents me from safely going to Syria, the aftermath is not going to be pleasant. Many Lebanese blame their country’s economic dysfunction and saturated job market on the Syrian refugees. The Syrians, in turn, do not appreciate Lebanese parties fueling different fights on Syrian grounds. After the war, it is going to be even scarier. We will look at each other with anger, disdain and emptiness. Where would “I am Arab” be appropriate then?

Where would it factor within these crumbling relationships, whose past glory is being diminished by steadily increasing doses of strife? Where do we go from here? Last week, The New York Times published a speculative, prospective map of a new Arab world, boldly but rationally dissecting Libya, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen into fourteen states based on their religious polarities. It’s depressing to say, but this map makes some sense. At least it makes more sense vis-à-vis reality than a now-abstract goal of Arab unity.

If the Arab world gravitates towards more division, with its nations repelled from each other, exploding into extremist sub-states, what would it mean for the route to a new and functional Arab identity? “Am I Arab?” becomes a clearer performance/inquiry. Would there even be an Arab world, in light of those divisions? The current situation in the region compels me to reassess my position. Considering my personal belief that we need to be active agents in any context we inhabit, would it still be that efficient to rally for a pan Arab, borderless state?

For the longest time, I thought that, to become powerful, Arab nations had to work hand-in-hand and complement each other through their respective strengths and resources. That, I thought, was the only way to manifest this region’s potential. I was positive that accomplishing major goals, such as plucking Israel out of Palestine once and for all, could only be achieved by a united Arab entity. Part of me still thinks this way. Perhaps that’s the fading romantic in me, but before I bid him farewell — what are the new questions of the day?

Is being Arab irrelevant now? Should we, each in their own nation, try to reform our own institutions regardless of regional shifts? Should we actually protect ourselves from the region, complying to our politicians’ favored policy of “self-distancing”? War driven urgencies are imposing new limits on individual and communal action. These limits are pushing people and their governments even further away from each other. As of now, I am not Lebanese, nor do I find the possibility of being Arab that relevant anymore. I am not religious, so, effectively, I will not belong to any future, post-war sub-state. The once vast distance between me and the horizon seems to have shrunk. This subversive claustrophobia, caused by subsequent wars, and the need to make tools to survive them in ever shrinking spaces, is crippling. The present is unbelievably crippling. Some may argue it has always been. I’m wondering where to go from here.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

Don't give up on being an Arab. I am a Palestnian Arab and care about all the Arab countries. You are not alone. There is a point at which no matter which Arab country people come from, they do accept Arabness. I see this all the time.

Are you trying to hang on to "how thing were" ... (?) ... but are no more because they cannot be.
Just because the surroundings are not the same does not mean that you are less of an Arab.
An Arab can dance down The Yellow Brick Road with Dorathy & her friends & still be an Arab. The Tin Man did it & at the end of it all he was still the Tin Man.

* "mastering the art of racisim agains each other" There nerves are frayed - I wonder why ? - in having a nerveous breakdown one must expect oddities of character.

There is nothing demented & embarressing about being who you are. It just makes you ashamed at the behavior of others.

Wroughting is an ancient passtime of the greedy & unscrouplous opportunists - they are may & vary in shape / size & origins & yet they are all the same.

* "If the Arab world gravitates towards more diversion" - Dearest boy - the Middle East has been held back repressed - look around you - do you actually believe that MODERN is an unesirable world for the People of The Middle East (?) That you would be any less an Arab if you had a Japanese - self flushing toilet that also washed your bottom with warm water after defecation & blew it dry (?) admittedly it would take some getting used to, but hey - life goes on man !

* Israel will kill themselves - just stand back & watch.

"is being Arab irrelevant now" - are you for real ?

p.s.
Q:-
Are foreigners - more & more - leaving the Middle East ?
A slow exodus type process.
Ask around -
If so, why are they leaving ?
We are talking across the board - migrant workers also.

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