We the Arabs: A reflection on what it means to be Arab

I have always worn my Arab identity with great pride. As a young man, I used to say that had I not been born an Arab, and knowing what I knew, I would have wished to be an Arab. I am sure other people feel the same way about their own identity, but the fusion of my Arab identity with my pan-Arabist and Saudi identity, as well as my Islamic spiritual identity, really did provide me with incalculable meaning on a cultural, a political and a spiritual level. The historical and civilizational significance that Arab lands and the Middle East represent for the world are simply overwhelming to me. I think of the cultural and technical, the intellectual and the spiritual endowments that the Middle East and Arabs in particular gave to humanity and I believe that everyone can understand why this region is so special.

When you read about the world’s foundational civilizations you will come across the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Ancient Egyptians, the Nabateans, the Phoenicians, and more yet – all of which are Middle Eastern civilizations that birthed civilization as we know it. They gave us our most important inventions, from bronze-work and irrigation to science and writing, from philosophy and law to seafaring and maritime trade. The region was chosen by God to deliver the message of the three monotheistic religions to his prophets. Thousands of years later, these three religions continue to provide essential belief, values and spirituality to more people than any other religion in the history of mankind. I continue to be amazed by the thought of a substantial number of the close to 2 billion Muslims around the world humbly turning towards the same focal point of Mecca five times every day. Our designation as Arabs comes from the Quran itself, mentioning us five times. The desolate deserts of Arabia provided many a treasure to the world. Dig below the sand and you will find oil, but dig in the mind of the Arab and you will find pearls of wisdom.

An aerial view of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. (Shutterstock)
An aerial view of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. (Shutterstock)

The Arab world and its civilization has long fascinated non-Arabs, above all in the West. Rare are the outside observers who truly understood the depth and complexity of Arabs and the Arab world however. As T.E. Lawrence himself observed from his time in Arabia, “the foreigners come out here always to teach, whereas they had much better learn, for, in everything but wits and knowledge, the Arab is generally the better man of the two.” Lawrence also understood the spirituality and rootedness of Arabs better than most: he wrote of the Bedouin that he “could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God.” Arabs possess a combination of pride and humility, stubbornness and generosity. All were exemplified by Saladin, who, upon learning that his opponent Crusader King Richard I had lost his horse, sent him two horses as a replacement.

A mass rally outside the Mohammad al-Amin mosque and the nearby Maronite Cathedral of St George in the downtown district of Beirut's Martyr's Square, Lebanon.(AFP)
A mass rally outside the Mohammad al-Amin mosque and the nearby Maronite Cathedral of St George in the downtown district of Beirut’s Martyr’s Square, Lebanon.(AFP)

The Arab world is indeed a land of contradictions, and sometimes we are baffled by them ourselves. But, as a rule, we Arabs mostly look alike, we are 90 percent Muslim and we share a common language. We all have our specificities, but these are quite removed from the differences the West tries to paint between us, citing such things as our marginally different dialects. An observation that has become somewhat of a cliché about Arabs is from the historian Arnold Toynbee, who remarked that “Arabs are generous to a fault.” We are indeed a hospitable and welcoming people, but our stubbornness precludes us from ever accepting occupiers or manipulators. Our region has been a constant battleground throughout human history precisely because it is the cradle of civilization, the center of trade routes and global exchange and a place of great spirituality and significance. Arabs have always held onto their identity and carved their own destiny. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled after 400 years, it was the Ottomans who returned home speaking Arabic and using our script.

A view of Cairo, Egypt. (The Associated Press)
A view of Cairo, Egypt. (The Associated Press)

In that sense, the onslaught that we Arabs are experiencing today is no different from what we have experienced for centuries. As Israelis, Iranians and Turks continue to try to seize or control our lands, we remain steadfast. The cost for Arabs has been tremendous, with numerous agonizing wars in our region over the past decades, and a number still raging today – as in Libya and Syria. It is painful to us but we will not allow ourselves to be divided or robbed of our shared Arab identity. We may be Saudi Arabs, Egyptian Arabs or Lebanese Arabs today, but there is still a kinship that holds us together. Our heritage and our roots are essential to who we are and essential to maintaining a region that has offered such a great deal to humanity.

I am writing today to show myself that my Arabism continues to beat strong; it has not gone anywhere. I am dressed with its culture, its identity and history, and I am committed to the Arab cause because there is such great value in who we are and what we can continue to give the world. We Arabs do not react fast, it does take us time, but every would-be occupier learns eventually that our will is unbreakable. I am deeply in love with my Arab roots and identity; it is a comfort and refuge that I will enjoy until my very last day.

By Hassan Yassin – AL ARABIYA

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