‘The Arab Mind’ by Raphael Patai – A Book Review

Updated 19 July 2017

The price you pay for a book bears no relation at all to the value of the stories and lessons held within!  I found The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai, [a prolific cultural anthropologist] marked down at a sale in a favourite NZ book shop.  I believe that, like cats, books find you, you don’t find them.  In all my travels I have never seen this book anywhere else.  And I found it while writing the final manuscript for Ishtar?

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Fayez A. Sayegh comments in The Arab Mind: ‘…yet even more devastating… was the drying up of the creative and adventurous spirit within Arab society itself. The keen intellectual curiosity which characterised the preceding period, the passionate and untiring search for knowledge, and the joy of adventure were smothered under a hard crust of dogma and fundamentalism. Free thought was banished, traditionalism reigned in its place…’

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One of the most enlightening books (for me) I have ever bought

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I grew up without knowing my Italian mother as a person.  She suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes. So, at ten months old, I was placed in a Catholic  Orphanage for the poor, and was visited only by my devoted Lebanese father.  His extended family could not find any room in their hearts to love me.

My father often took me to visit his extended family, in the futile hope that  their frozen hearts might thaw, but the quiet, prayerful ways of a nun-studded convent does not prepare a young girl well for the noisy and multi-generational home of  Middle Eastern immigrants.  In their view I was “of another breed”.  I escaped Catholicism and “Little Lebanon” as a teenager and never returned.  However, you can take the girl out of her Lebanese extended family but you can’t take the Lebanese influence out of the girl, as the familiar cliché goes.  I picked up the Aramaic language they spoke and many positive aspects of their lives; great cooks, devotion to family (if you didn’t have a foreign mother that is) but those positives  were buried deep in my soul for many years, under all the negatives.

From The Arab Mind by Albert H. Hourani: To be a  Levantine is to live in two worlds or more at once, without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms which indicate the possession of a certain nationality, religion or culture, without actually possessing it. It is no longer to have a standard of values of one’s own, not to be able to create but only able to imitate; and not even to imitate correctly, since that also needs a certain originality. It is to belong to no community and to possess nothing of one’s own. It reveals itself in lostness, pretentiousness, cynicism and despair.

The Arab Mind was such a help in the final stages of writing   Whatever Happened To Ishtar? A Passionate Quest to Find Answers for Generations of Defeated Mothers.  Many of my Lebanese family’s ethnocentric behaviours suddenly took on new meaning; the hatred they exhibited toward my Italian mother and by association, to me, was the result of thousands of years of cultural prejudice.  Necessary in desert and mountain life in sectarian communities where brutal invasion and massacre were a common way of life.

To the Arab, saving face and honour are everything and when your beloved eldest son marries a sharmuta (Aramaic for prostitute-every woman who did not live up to the family’s cultural values was labelled sharmuta) then what can you do but exile from the family the issue of that union!  Being the only girl child made it easy for them to make me the scapegoat of all the family’s ills in a foreign country.

Historian Oswald Spengler: The Arab culture is a discovery . . . Its unity had been suspected by the late Arabs, but it escaped the Western historians so completely that one cannot find even a good designation for it. On the basis of the dominant language one could term the pre-culture and the early period Aramaic, the late period, Arabic . . . The Arab spirit however, mostly under a late-antique mask, cast its spell over the emerging culture of the West, and Arab civilization, which in the folk psyche of Southern Spain, Provence, and Sicily is superimposed that of antiquity…

In this current era of the ‘Arab Spring’, I recommend you find a copy and read The Arab Mind to gain an understanding of how differently we westerners from such very young countries, like Australia and New Zealand, view everyday life.  I think the half of my book that dealt with my father’s family was a much kinder book in the end because I read The Arab Mind before I sent my re-written manuscript off to the publishers.  So many of the events that played out in my childhood took on very different meanings, while suppressed memories re-surfaced.  I understood better, what it must have been like for my naive, fifteen year old Syrian/Lebanese grandmother, from the hills of Bcharre in Lebanon, to marry and follow my grandfather to the other side of the world. She was one tough, superstitious old woman when I met her.

How relevant to the lives of my Maronite Lebanese extended family, and by the same token, to the current Arab Spring,  are the following quotes in the book:

Nabih Amin  Faris and Mohammed Tawfik Husayn  write in The Arab Mind: ‘In some respects Arab absorption [particularly Arab Muslims] in their bygone days tends to be a chronic disease. It stems naturally from the general misery of the majority of the people and the wretched social and political conditions since the fall of the Abbasid empire and the Arab states in Spain and North Africa. They live in a splendid past as an escape from the miserable present…Until the closing years of the eighteenth century, the Arab world was in a state of near stagnation, ingrown, content with its prevailing conditions, resigned to its fate, and blissfully ignorant of the events unfolding around it. Then the West descended upon the Arab world as a conqueror, bringing its culture, civilisation, and science, its missionaries, its mercantile goods and commodities, and political, economic and military domination.’

I found chapter 15, The Question of Arab Stagnation particularly interesting. e.g. the Arab admiration for Israel; its excellence in scientific research, and its brilliant scholars and universities. Its global achievements in weaponry, commerce and banking, not to mention its organisational abilities in all walks of life. ‘The Jews, their rich people and their financial institutions…donate millions for their researches in Israel; but our rich people and our financial institutions,  our leaders, our rulers …do not contribute a single gursh [penny], but ask: Why donate to science?’  This chapter has several publications written by Arabs who are very critical of Arab stagnation since the early 14th century and why they believe Israel won the 1967 war. It may surprise readers to know that upwards of 200,000 Arabs a year regularly visit Israel because they love the place, and everything that it has to offer them, and which they cannot easily access in their own country.

Faris and Husayn further recognise that ‘the cultural famine which ravages Arab life is indeed not novel, nor is it the handiwork of colonial rule, feudal rapacity and local oppression alone…its roots go far back into the history of the Arab people.’ …the low position in which Arab society keeps its women is an important contributing factor to this sorry state of affairs.  ‘No wonder,’ they exclaim, ‘that the Arab world remains backward, tradition-fettered, and limping behind the procession of human achievement, when women’s status is so low.’

It is not enough for Arabs to continue to blame the West for their stagnation…dam butlab dam feuds were so intense among the Arab tribes [blood demands blood or an eye for an eye] in pre-Islamic times, and were such a permanent feature of life…’that an important contributing factor to Muhammad’s success in rallying the people of the Arabian Peninsula around the banner of the new religion he preached was the fact that widespread feuding had weakened the Arab tribes and made it impossible for them to unite against him.’

From author Hisham Sharabi in The Arab Mind: …There is no turning away from Europe. This generation’s psychological duality, its bilingual, bicultural character are clear manifestations of this fact. It has to judge itself, to choose, and to act in terms of concepts and values rooted not in its own tradition but in a tradition that it has still not fully appropriated.

From Author Halim Barakėt in The Arab Mind:…We are a people who have lost their identity and their sense of  manhood. Each of us is suffering from a split personality, especially in Lebanon. We are Arab and yet our education is in some cases French [my grandfather’s second language was French], in some cases Anglo-Saxon and in others Eastern Mystic. A very strange mixture. We need to go back and search out our roots. We’re all schizophrenic…

The Arab Mind is a great read, very well written, and draws on accomplished writers and authors who know their topic well.   I urge anyone interested in Arab culture and history, to read this book.

I have lived a life in two halves, so I know what Barakėt means about being schizophrenic. Writing Ishtar? helped me to become one person and to discover the wonderful Italian and Lebanese genetic talents buried within me. The young Arabs of today have so many tools to use in their search for who they are; Facebook, Google, Twitter, blogging, mobile phones, formal education, etc etc.  Let’s hope their search for an identity wont take as long as it did my generation.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 3 September 2014

 

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4 comments
  1. I’ve read this book as well – about two years ago. It helped me, too, connect to my Middle Eastern roots. As I’m half of Irish descent, and the Irish side of the family being HUGE, I tended to spend far more time with the Irish side than the Lebanese side. Plus my father, a very kind man, tended to be a very reticent man. As the Lebanese side of the family was very small, I tended to not get hardly any exposure to the Lebanese side; even though, quite frankly, I looked *very* Lebanese. I kind of stuck out when visiting my Irish cousins! 🙂

    I remember reading in the above book an account that the author witnessed of Middle Eastern people leaving a movie theater. People leaving the movie often showed no middle ground. They either LOVED the movie, or they HATED it. That lack of a “middle ground” is very close to my own personal experiences- and reading the above, it seems that you had similar experiences? Either they accept you wholeheartedly..or not at all. Growing up, it confused me. I saw people being what I called “favorited” or not favorited at all. It took me many, many years (and some hurt) to figure out what was going on.

    That said, I didn’t know that the tidbits of language I had picked up from my jidoo weren’t really Arabic until I was an older teen. What happened was that a distant cousin north Lebanon visited our family. When he spoke to my jidoo, they couldn’t understand a word they were saying to one another. My jidoo was rasied to speak what he was believed as Arabic from a young age- in fact, it was his first language. Why couldn’t my cousin from Beirut understand him?

    In the end, we figured it out. My cousin spoke modern Arabic. My jidoo spoke a form of Aramaic that was spoken more than a century ago, which was passed onto him in the USA by his family. Not only was my jidoo speaking another, older language, he was speaking a form of it that was about a century old!

    I really like your site. I don’t have much time to check it out from top to bottom; I hope it’s okay if I come back and read through it some time! Thank you for posting so much interesting stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. frandi said:

    Hello again David. I am enjoying your comments very much. I recommend you read my book ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?” because you will be able to relate to so much in it and it will give you more insight into your own life; many people who have read it have said this. There is also ancient history of the Lebanon. It is available at Amazon and other online sites. I too picked up the Aramaic my father and his family spoke, I could understand what they were saying, unknown to them. I wish I had been able to speak to my grandfather as an adult;he spoke 5 languages and knew so much about the history of Lebanon. You may like to see photos on Bcharre on my blog roll under that heading.Kind regards Anne.

    Like

    • Anne said:

      You will enjoy this book, Luciana. It’s a testament to how powerful stereotypes and prejudices can be passed on down through many generations.

      Like

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