21st century appears to Arabs as khaki-clad robber of cities

January 10, 2004 12:00 AM

With the fall of Baghdad on the 9th of April 2003, this century appeared to the eyes of many Arabs as a giant robber dressed in khaki intent on snatching away their greatest cities one after the other. Personally I could not stop thinking of two other cities, whose rise and fall had been directly linked to the destiny of Baghdad: Cairo and Damascus.

A month after the catastrophic triumph of American air-born freedom in Iraq, I went to the Egyptian museum in Cairo. I had been to the museum more than once before, however that time was different. I felt deeply worried about the safety of the statues, mummies and sarcophagi, the images of looting the Iraqi museum could not be overcome. I was trying to brush aside my irrational fear; after all, the Egyptian government is a strategic ally of the United States, an American invasion of Cairo is only a hallucination stemming from medieval history; less than three years after Baghdad fell to the Moguls in the mid-13th century, their ambassadors to the Mamlouk Sultan were demanding Cairo’s unconditional surrender. As I was ridiculing myself for trying to draw those parallels between 1261 and 2003, I noticed that someone had written on one of the museum walls, (the one to the right of the hall where the statuette of King Khufu is displayed), the following line: “Lil-Iraq Rabbun yahmeeh” (Iraq has God to protect it).

For most of the 20th century, invoking the pre-Islamic non-Arab identities in the region had been a colonial legacy. The British and the French had two contradictory images of the Arab world: one bright, glorious and recognized biblical image of pharaonic Egypt, Babylonian Mesopotamia, Phoenician Lebanon, and of course Hebraic Palestine, the other an image of a dark, hostile, sensual united Arab Islamic region, whose unity was seen as a deadly threat to Europe and its extensions. The colonial policy was thus to use symbols from the pre-Islamic history of the region to create nationalisms, and perhaps nations, that are not Arab and not Islamic. What made Pharaonism, Phoenicianism and their likes more attractive is that while they were alive as symbols, as cultures they were dead. There was almost nothing pharaonic or Phoenician in the everyday lives of the people of the region. These identities are void of any social or political content in the modern era. With Islam set aside as an organizing force, imposing those politically, socially and culturally meaningless identities, on the people of the region would allow the colonial powers to fill the cultural vacuum and engineer the social and political lives of the conquered Arabs. The result would then be a nation whose symbols are pharaonic or Phoenician, but which is in everything else an imitation of Europe.

The leaders of the Egyptian national liberation movement in the early twentieth century fell in this colonial trap. The doctrine of the mighty Wafd Party was a mixture of British liberalism and pharaonic symbolism. The leaders of Egypt wanted her to become a slice of Europe. The struggle was to raise everything Egyptian to the level of everything European; the Egyptian Parliament aspired to become a European Parliament, the Egyptian woman aspired to look like the European woman and, among other things, Egyptian history aspired to look like European history. Egypt had to have her own antiquity; Pharaonic Egypt thus became the local equivalent of Europe’s ancient Greece. This is expressed even in the design of the building that hosts the Egyptian museum. The museum is built in Greco-Roman style with Venus-like statues paradoxically guarding the entrance. The scene is as strange as having a mosque design for a museum exclusively dedicated to Greek statues. Despite the clarity of the paradox, it went unnoticed by the builders and the visitors of the museum for many years, for it was natural within the cultural orientation of the ruling elite.

However, like everything colonial, the policy of redefining Arabs into their biblical images failed. Instead it was the Arab Islamic culture that took over pharaonic Babylonian and Phoenician symbols and Arabized them. Nothing in Islamic culture bothered the colonial powers more than the emotional unity it created among the peoples of the region. The concept of the Umma as a political unit, as well as the daily expressions of this unity in rituals, rather than the rituals themselves, were and still are the main threat to foreign powers aiming at dominating the region. Ramses, Nebuchadnezzar and Hannibal had been re-invented to become alternative emotional poles, but instead, they were, and still are, treated by Arabs as their own. By some emotional spillover, Ramses and Nebuchadnezzar are used in Egyptian and Iraqi national discourses not as alternatives to Saladin, but rather as his ancestors. While intellectually people still recognize that those two kings were pre-Islamic, emotionally they deal with them as kings of Arabs and Muslims!

This complex system of historical identification was expressed clearly in the sentence written on the walls of the museum; it was re-formulation of a sentence said by Abdel-Muttalib Ibn Hashem, grandfather of Prophet Mohammad, when an Ethiopian army invaded Mecca and aimed at destroying the Kaaba. Ibn Hashem, talking to the invading general said: “Lil-Bait Rabbun Yahmeeh” (the house has God to protect it). The Islamic narrative goes that God sent millions of birds throwing burning stones that exterminated the invaders’ army. To the grin of Cromer and Bremer, Islam linked Ramses and Nebuchadnezzar and made them talk in Arabic.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/Jan-10/91513-21st-century-appears-to-arabs-as-khaki-clad-robber-of-cities.ashx#ixzz2wGUjoecs 
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