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One and Many

I’ve written a review of Eugene Rogan’s new book, for the Friday Review section of The National. The first couple of paragraphs are posted below, and you can read the whole thing on the newspaper’s website.

The Arabs: A History

There is something almost old-fashioned about the idea of a book-length history of the Arabs. Broad, all-encompassing narratives of this kind were popular in the 20th century, when historiography frequently intersected with pan-Arab nationalist projects, and when the sense of a common Arab identity was vividly felt both by the region’s inhabitants and the foreigners who observed and engaged them.

Today, the Arabs are increasingly viewed (and seem to view themselves) either as a small subset of a larger civilisation – the Muslim world – or as a collection of disparate and fractious entities whose differences often overwhelm their commonalities. Indeed, the notion of “Arabness” as a shared and distinguishing element seems to have lost its currency as a prism through which to study the region, just as it has lost its charismatic appeal in the political culture of the contemporary Middle East.

It is therefore suggestive to re-encounter a panoramic perspective in Eugene Rogan’s excellent new book, which, if we are being frank, is not so much a history of the Arabs as it is a political history of the Middle East and North Africa during the last 500 years – with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. The narrative begins with the Mamluk army’s defeat by the Ottomans at the battle of Marj Dabiq (in northern Syria) in 1516, the event that “marked the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the modern age in the Arab world”, and then flits through the main developments of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries before slowing down the pace upon arrival at the period of European colonialism.

(Keep reading)

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21 thoughts on “One and Many

  1. Thank you Qifa and good timing. I just received this book from Amazon but haven’t started reading through it. Glad to know it’s a good read.

    Posted by Mehdi | December 3, 2009, 4:38 pm
  2. Most welcome Mehdi. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 3, 2009, 4:41 pm
  3. The interpretations of history that seem to favor “just one event after another” do not appeal to me. I would like to know why slave owners from Virgina could forge a country with Pennsylvania Quakers and New England dirt farmers while the Arab nation never formed. “It just didn’t happen” is not a good explanation.

    Posted by AIG | December 3, 2009, 4:51 pm
  4. QN,

    I’m not sure where exactly this comes from.

    A dialect is an ideolect history & literature. A language is a dialect with an army & navy.

    I suppose this is true of ethnicity, culture or nationality as well. These are not physical things that fit into discrete categories. Definitions are malleable. They follow & are used by political actors or institutions who draw lines around them for some reason or purpose. Definitions change. Categorisations changes. This leads to actual changes in the nature of the languages, cultures or ethnicities we are trying to track. It’s a moving target.

    You seem to often get caught up in defining things like Arab or Maronite even as you point out the futility of the task.

    Posted by netsp | December 3, 2009, 9:05 pm
  5. AIG,

    People who say things like that (I haven’t heard anyone say it today, incidentally) don’t usually mean that things are just random events. They just mean that stringing together a historical theory is pointless. It is biased, interested or just mistaken.

    This is because of a variety of reasons that conspire to make historical theories useless. Fallacies like confirmation bias, survivor bias & others are enough to ensure that historical theories are wrong even when no malice is involved. Add in conscious & subconscious agendas, malice and elbow room for coincidence seeking and you have no chance.

    Your US example contains all of these.

    Posted by netsp | December 3, 2009, 9:17 pm
  6. netsp,
    Some people like to give up in the face of complexity, others don’t. All historical theories are subject to improvement and correction. In my book, that is not a reason not to advance them. Even when the theories are wrong, which I agree is 99% of the time, we still gain insights from formulating them. Theories should not be accepted at face value but should be refined or refuted. You of course may choose not to play the game at all. But just because we are fallible and have many biases, it does not mean we should not put forward theories and distill knowledge. In science this has proved very successful and I believe that it is worth the effort in history.

    Posted by AIG | December 3, 2009, 10:03 pm
  7. AIG Says:

    December 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I would like to know why slave owners from Virgina could forge a country with Pennsylvania Quakers and New England dirt farmers while the Arab nation never formed. “It just didn’t happen” is not a good explanation.

    “The world changed”, and became much more complex, is a good answer

    Try to form today a union of the very compatible two (not 20+) countries … The United States and Canada

    Posted by Alex | December 4, 2009, 12:14 am
  8. The Arabs had a chance to do it from 622 and on. I am not talking about why it didn’t happen now. I am asking why it never happened over centuries.
    You might be interested to know that after the civil war ended, some Americans and politicians suggested using the standing army to take over Canada. It would have been a cake walk and Canada would have easily integrated into the Union. In addition, if the Americans go crazy and invade Canada, the Canadians will not fight back. There will be no “resistance”. The two countries would become one.

    Posted by AIG | December 4, 2009, 1:10 am
  9. Very timely!! I spotted this on Amazon a few days ago. Can’t wait to read it. Do you think Hourani’s classic on the Arabs should be read before or after Rogan’s new book?

    Posted by Won | December 4, 2009, 5:30 am
  10. AIG

    For long stretches of time, large chunks of the Arab world were united under a single political authority. The Abbasids ruled over all of Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula for a couple hundred years before the empire fragmented. Under the Mamluks and then the Ottomans, this empire would be reconstituted in different forms.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 4, 2009, 7:56 am
  11. QN,
    Yes of course, but still for some reason, despite these unifications, a during Arab nation failed to form. Contrast this with the Persian nation that was forged early on based on despotic unification and continued to survive despite disintegration of the the empire and colonialism. The Turks are another example of a nation surviving the disintegration of an empire. So why in the case of the Arabs their military losses led to the loss of identity?

    Posted by AIG | December 4, 2009, 11:14 am
  12. Ok AIG you asked for it !!

    It is old Colonialism and the current Imperialist Great Satan and the Zionist Little Satan conspiracies that prevent the Arabs from being a single nation. 🙂

    Posted by V | December 4, 2009, 1:55 pm
  13. good lord, aig, in the course of your intellectual journey did you ever come across the idea of nationalism as the product of a particular historical conjuncture? admittedly that’s a big step for a zionist who quotes dan senor as an authority political sociology, but really.

    it’s astonishing to me that you can invoke the contingent nature of american political identity and then go all herbs and roots re “hebrews” and “arabs”. my fault for taking you seriously, i suppose.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | December 4, 2009, 2:49 pm
  14. V,
    I am starting to believe this answer myself…

    If something has a 1% chance of happening, and it does not happen, then there is no reason to ask why it didn’t happen. But the Arabs had plenty of opportunities to forge a nation over hundreds of years. If something has 1% of happening per 10 years but does not happen over centuries, then you begin to ask why. For example, in 50 decades the chances of a 1% chance event per decade NOT occurring is 1-.99^50 or about 40%. The chances of it occurring are 60%. And if the chance is 1% per year, then it is almost a certainty that it will occur in a 500 year period.

    So, my argument is that there is ample prima facie evidence to seriously ask why the Arab nation was never formed. It could be that Chance and Luck were against the Arabs. But given what we know, don’t you think that is a cop out and that perhaps there are more salient reasons?

    Posted by AIG | December 4, 2009, 3:08 pm
  15. aig,

    final attempt to address you as a rational adult, rather than a frustrated zealot actuary (all puns intended).

    all nationalist traditions contrast a politically loaded now with a supposedly transparent and factual past that leads, inevitably, to the former. what makes yours an especially superficial and dull account of “arab” identity isn’t that you impose post-wwi notions of state on the broader notion of ethnicity.

    it’s that you neglect the really salient element of arab political life in the period that matters to you: the elaboration of many competing identities based on imperial pasts, diverse reactions to colonialism and radically disparate local cultural inheritances.

    it’s all much simpler when you see them as “arabs”, apparently. you wouldn’t be able to say why they converge on the question of palestine, though.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | December 4, 2009, 3:35 pm
  16. J,
    I am not underestimating for one second the complexities that hinder the formation of any state. For example, their were many more anti-Zionist Jews in 20th century Europe than Zionist Jews. Most secular Jews believed in integrating within their societies or preferred going to the US and most religious ones believed it was up to the Messiah to create a Jewish state, not Herzl. One could then say that it was pure luck that the Jewish nation was formed but one would be wrong. It is clear with hindsight that a combination of Christian Antisemitism together with Christian Zionism made the Jewish state inevitable (Balfour is an example of a person that harbored both feelings at the same time).

    Why do you reject out of hand the possibility of some kind of explanation being possible for why the Arab nation never formed? I am not saying I am sure there is one, but I do think that there is more than chance and luck at play.

    Look, every category we use is a simplification. I accept that “Arab” is a simplification just as “American” or “Israeli” or “Muslim” or “Shiite”. So what? Is that not a reason to try finding explanations while keeping in mind that we have simplified the problem in order to make it tractable? In the end, given the results, we may say that the simplification was inappropriate. But how do you know before trying that this is the case?

    As for the Palestinians, the reason they are in such trouble is exactly because the Arabs are not united on this issue. For example, have you ever heard what most Kuwaiti’s and Lebanese think about Palestinians? Being united behind some issue means a willingness to sacrifice blood and treasure to solve it. Do you sense that there is this willingness in most Arabs? In fact, it is the Europeans and Iranians that give most of the money to the Palestinians, not the Arabs.

    Posted by AIG | December 4, 2009, 4:21 pm
  17. AIG Said:

    If something has 1% of happening per 10 years but does not happen over centuries, then you begin to ask why. For example, in 50 decades the chances of a 1% chance event per decade NOT occurring is 1-.99^50 or about 40%. The chances of it occurring are 60%. And if the chance is 1% per year, then it is almost a certainty that it will occur in a 500 year period.


    I will first criticize your approach, then I will accept that your overall claim/question is reasonable to some extent.

    For non-adaptive systems with constant, rigid properties, probabilities are not additive across independent trials.

    Let’s start with one of the simplest non-adaptive systems. We know that a coin is built in a way that the probability that a flipped coin will land tails is 0.5 (50%) This has been true every time a perfectly constructed coin was flipped (in a neutral environment).

    It should be noted that if you flip a coin once and it lands heads then the next time you flip it, the probability that it will land tails will not increase simply because last trial produced heads. Same applies even if you flipped it a thousand times and it always landed heads … the 1001st time you flip that coin the probability it will land tails will still be 0.5

    .. except … except if that coin is either not what we thought it is, or if the environment within which this coin is situated is exerting a constant force that is clearly affecting the classic properties of the coin as we all know them.

    There is no memory in the process… a specific system (the coin, or “the Arab World”) will not change its properties based on what happened in previous trials (experiments) … except if the Arab world is actually an adaptive system that changes with time. If this is the case (it is) we can not assume your randomly picked probability estimate (1% chance that Arab unity should happen this year or this decade) can remain constant starting from the seventh century until today.

    Another factor (besides the adaptability and learning process in the Arab world): The Arab world does not exist in vacuum … there are non-neutral outside forces .. their sum, we would assume, is pointing against the direction of Arab unity… and their sum is significant enough in the sense that it seems to be effective as one of the factors, if not the main factor, that prevent Arab unity.

    An example of learning as a result of a historic unity experiment and how it affected future probabilities of success (or even occurrence) of a future unity experiment :

    After the failed United Arab Republic experiment (Egypt and Syria), and after the larger experiment of uniting the whole Arab world (in practice) under Gamal Abdul Nasser until he passed away in 1970, the Arab world adapted in many ways .. lessons were learned. For example, Arabs learned that unity is not going to automatically lead to strength. The 1967 disaster was one of the negative lessons of unity. Syrians learned many other lessons .. they learned that total unity can only work with neighbors with very similar historical, as well as present structure. That’s why Hafez Assad never wanted to annex Lebanon even though at times (the early 90’s) he was in a position to ask the Israelis and Americans for their blessing in exchange for him showing some flexibility over the Golan. He knew that it won’t work … the Lebanese barely tolerated the Syrian army that was keeping the peace in their country. They would have resisted Syrian hegemony and occupation if Syria annexed Lebanon… Syria was not compatible enough with Lebanon just like it was not compatible enough with Egypt at the time of the 1958 decision to unite with Egypt that a group of motivated Syrian army officers forced the Syrian President to take.

    But, AIG … in the past we had long periods of reasonably functional united Arab world. One of the largest empires on this planet was the one that was governed for over eight decades from Damascus … the Umayyad Caliphate.

    And now the part I love to talk about. Obviously I can’t provide you with a scientific proof, but here is what I see happening:

    In the near future (within 10 years) we will probably see some form of unity in the Middle East.

    Syria and Lebanon … and if the Israelis one day manage to stop worshiping their God of War (the IDF) they will obviously form an obvious united entity with the Palestinians.

    Jordan can go with either Syria and Lebanon or with Israel/Palestine.

    Non Arab Turkey will be part of a softer, larger union that includes all the states to its south (including Iraq). Iraq will find it more difficult to unite with any of its neighbors. Why? … because it is not similar enough to Iran … there will be too much resistance among different Iraqi groups to uniting with Iran.

    Uniting with Syria is more natural but it is not allowed .. and this is a good example of a case of unity that never happened because of environmental factors that prevent unity sometimes … or, foreign interference.

    Syria and Iraq are simply not allowed to unite. If they united they would have changed the balance of power in the region in a dramatic manner. In 1978 when Syria and Iraq almost united, Saddam Hussein (vp at the time) was encouraged by the Americans (his allies until 1990) to kick out his president, replace him .. and tell the Syrian to buzz off… no more unity. Saddam staged a tv show where he demonstrated a plot by the evil Syrians to overthrow the Iraqi government! … a good enough excuse to forget about the imminent unity deal waiting to be signed.

    This year when Syria and Iraq started to get too close, somehow Maliki started to go the other way… no matter what reason/excuse he gave us, this move was consistent with a number of similar outcomes in the past .. all of which show that Syria and Iraq are not allowed to become too close.

    So to sum up (not that anyone is reading at this point of my endlessly long comment) … the Arab world did not witness many unity experiments for many reasons … the internal ones vary with time .. it would be a mistake to try to find a pattern. The external ones are almost always there … they ensure that no unity will take place and if it did (under Nasser’s leadership) it will be a memorable failure.

    One last point: let us all remember the incredible success story of uniting the two Yemens 🙂

    They are still there!

    Posted by Alex | December 5, 2009, 3:56 am
  18. Alex,
    Of course the 1% per year or decade is a huge simplification. What you say about the probabilities is true but irrelevant. What I did was a very simple computation that shows that there is something to explain.

    My point is not about Arab unity forming but an Arab identity as a nation forming. The Hungarian identity was formed way before the modern nation of Hungary. The Polish nation was formed way before the borders of Poland were finalized. The Jews won the 48 war because they became a nation and even if they would have lost the war and not all been murdered, they would have remained a nation, like the Persians and Turks. The best example are the Kurds. Even though they have been denied a state, many of them self identify as part of the Kurdish nation.

    Unless you kill the people, not outside force can stop people from self identifying as a nation. In fact, external hostility helps (the Palestinians are such a case).

    Yet, unlike all the examples I have given, the Arabs do not see themselves as one nation. That is why Arab unity has failed. It has failed because most Arabs do not self identify themselves as Arabs. You got the causality reversed. And I would like to know why this self identity failed to form?

    Posted by AIG | December 5, 2009, 1:55 pm
  19. AIG,

    First, what I said about probabilities was needed to address the way you presented your point … it is obvious your 1% was not meant to be an exact estimate, but you were adding those 1% probabilities across independent trials (consecutive years or decades where Arab unity did not take place) which was not right.

    However, your point, as I said, is indeed valid to some extent. But you like to focus on one factor and ignore others.

    Since you want to examine identity and not unity, then we need to focus on the individual level, because that’s where identity varies in strength.

    Here is how I would model “Arab identity” … as a dependent variable that is determined by the sum of a number of functions of other variables.

    Y = F(x1)+F(x2)+F(x3) …+ F(Xn)


    Y = Strength of identity (Arab in this case)

    X1= language

    x2= religion

    x3= values

    x4= history

    x5= Perception of your own subgroup’s dependency or needs that can be fulfilled by joining (forming) the larger group.

    x6= Perception of seriousness of threat(s) to group’s survival.

    x7= Perception of Group’s success relative to other groups.

    x8= Personal preferences … some people prefer to be part of smaller but more cohesive groups, others prefer larger even though less clearly defined groups.

    x9= competition from alternate potential groups.

    etc …

    Some of the above are obvious. I will explain the less obvious ones.

    Language: true that Arabs speak Arabic, yet most Arabs do not understand a thing when an Algerian or a Moroccan speaks (Arabic), most Egyptians only understand their Egyptian dialect …etc.

    The common classical Arabic is only used in writing and most Arabs are not comfortable speaking it. So this language variable only contributes moderately to the overall strength of Arab identity. However, if you look at subgroups… such as Bilad almaghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) or Syria and Lebanon .. then language is indeed a strong contributor to identity to that subgroup.

    X5 … needs: If you are a citizen of Saudi Arabia or Qatar you probably do not feel you need to be united with Sudan, Egypt, and Yemen… you don’t need those poor people to share your wealth. Although after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs formed a political group made of Gulf countries plus Syria and Egypt. Despite their usual financial independence, the Gulf Arabs suddenly felt a need to unite to some degree with the militarily and politically stronger Arab countries (Syria and Egypt) that could defend them in the future.

    Now that need is gone as Qatar and Saudi Arabia got US army bases instead.

    X6 … existential threats Arabs differ from Jews or Kurds or Armenians in the sense that they feel secure that no matter how weak they are, their numbers are large enough that they will not disappear if they do not unite.

    X7 … how proud will I be to join that club … People like to join successful others … they like to have richer, more educated friends. After the 1973 war when Syria and Egypt did relatively well, and after 2006 when Hizbollah did very well against Israel, opinion pieces by Arab journalists were clearly in the mood to “unite” somehow. On the other hand, after 1967 Arab nationalism became a joke.

    And it does not take wars against Israel to produce those wild mood swings … When Egypt won Africa’s soccer championship last year, I changed my Facebook profile picture to that of the Egyptian flag (I like Egypt anyway).

    External influence works mostly in this domain … the west always fought Arab leaders who tried to link success to Arab unity. Hafez Assad and Nasser for example.

    The west also relied on fueling religious conflicts when needed.

    X9 … other alternatives Communism and socialism competed with Arab nationalism at times … Islam competed with Arab nationalism which was the choice of more secular Arabs.

    More recently, from 2003-2006, joining the club of American puppets became more attractive than the Arab club of the losers, dreamers and fools.

    Hezbollah and Syria changed that … But Syria is not pushing Arab nationalism like it used to in the past. Syria is pushing for regional openness regardless of ethnic background. Starting with opening up to former hostile neighbor Turkey. Again, when Israel is ready, it will be one of the main members in this Middle Eastern group .. a more natural alternative to the larger, and less cohesive, Arab nation.

    Why would it have higher chances of success? … Historically it has always been one (or at most two) entities … its geographic proximity makes it much more suitable for joint projects in transportation, tourism, telecommunications, trade, cultural exchanges …

    All it takes is the end of hostilities, and a transition period of one decade during which Arabs would stop fearing Israel and Israelis would stop loving their army… and everyone stops worshiping his flag and borders and national symbols.

    Posted by Alex | December 5, 2009, 3:23 pm
  20. Alex,

    At least you are trying to explain using a theory why Arab self-identification never happened. You are not saying it was just chance or luck. That is a huge improvement. Your argument about the language being less strong a factor than in other formations of self-identity is convincing. The others are less convincing. But that is only my opinion and it does not matter. What matters is that you have a constructive attitude towards this problem and are not sweeping it under the rug. We both agree that trying to find an explanation is worthwhile, and that is what is important.

    Posted by AIG | December 5, 2009, 3:41 pm
  21. Thanks AIG. Have a great weekend.

    Posted by Alex | December 5, 2009, 3:52 pm

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