This program explores the nature of Arab identity and the main cultural ties that hold the Arab world together — language, the Koran, historical vision, literature and poetry, and humor. Cultural diversity among various Arab groups is examined, along with the role of women in Islamic society. Methods of education — the ancient Arab technique stressing memory versus more modern methods introduced during the period of European colonization — are also compared.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. We talk, in the West, about “the Arab world,” but 185 million people live in that world, in a score of countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa and, like all other places and peoples on this planet, they defy simplistic description. But some things, they do share in common and, in this broadcast, we’ll talk about the bonds of pride. Many of the English words we use in everyday living come from Arabic. “Algebra,” “alcohol,” “checked and checkmate,” “sugar,” “magazine,” “tariff’ are just a few. Arabic is an old and rich language, and so is Arabic culture. We’ll talk in this program about language, humor, education and family life in the Arab world with Yvonne Haddad, who was born in Syria and studied in Beirut and the U.S. and now teaches history at the University of Massachusetts; Michael Suleiman, professor of political science at Kansas State University, who was born in Palestine and educated in the U.S.; and Afaf Marsot, who was born in Egypt, educated in Cairo and England and who teaches history at UCLA. Dr. Suleiman, what is it that constitutes “Arabness”?
MICHAEL SULEIMAN, Professor of Political Science, Kansas State University: Let me begin by talking about what is not Arab and Arabness. Certainly, in the West, there is often the misconception that, for instance, Iranians are Arabs, or Persians are Arabs. They are not. Turks are not Arabs. The people who are Muslim are not necessarily Arab. There are many more Muslims than there are Arabs and, of course, there are Arabs who are Muslim. There are Christian Arabs.
What constitutes Arabness today is primarily a feeling that people who share the language — the Arabic language — and speak it have, a sense — a vision — of the future, that the Arab-Arabic-speaking countries today should, in fact, unite together in some form of-fashion to advance their economies, their politics, to become again the great civilization that they were before. In other words, they have a vision that they once were a great nation that produced Islam, that, in fact, ruled a great deal of the Middle East and some parts of Europe, and that produced a great culture, and it is that feeling that now unites them that they should again march toward that particular vision.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Marsot, what is it about Arabic as a language that you find so intriguing?
AFAF MARSOT, Professor of Near and Middle Eastern History, University of California at Los Angeles: In the first place, the Koran came in Arabic and that gives Arabic a very special place. In the second place, Arabs love poetry. That’s their art par excellence, and you will frequently find Arabs sitting together and somebody will spout a line of poetry and somebody else will say “Ab, but do you remember-” and he’ll start the second line without feeling embarrassed. Poetry is something very natural, and we even sing our poetry. Our most famous singer sang poetry and, therefore, this, to us, is something very living and very vital.
BILL MOYERS: What is it about Arabic that makes it so inimical to poetry?
AFAF MARSOT: Because it’s such a rich language and you can marry the sound to the meaning, as you can in many other languages, of course. But it is almost a symbiotic relationship between the Arab and his language and what you can do with the language and play around with the language.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Haddad, some people have said to me that they thought George Bush’s, President Bush’s, comments about Saddam Hussein during the war were chosen to be especially offensive when they were translated to Arabic. Do you think there’s something to that?
YVONNE HADDAD, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst: I think so, but let me tell you, at first, I thought that he had the wrong kind of advisers. I was even ready to write to him and say, “Please, President Bush, you’re hiding behind some people who don’t understand the Arab world.” But I have a feeling that he-they probably knew and it was deliberate. Those words that were used were very offensive in Arabic, once translated. He wasn’t the only one to use them. Javier de Cuellar used, also, some very offensive language. When he went, theoretically, on a diplomatic mission to see Saddam Hussein and came back, he said, “I went to dance and there was no partner.” It was as though he was saying that Saddam Hussein was a prostitute and it was very offensive. And President Bush used some of the most belligerent kind of language that, in Arabic, is unacceptable.
BILL MOYERS: What, in your judgment, constitutes Arabness, to follow up on the question we discussed with Dr. Suleiman?
YVONNE HADDAD: I think it’s really a question of identity and a sense of dignity and belonging to a specific people. You are an Arab if you identify as Arab. All right, my kids and I, we emigrated to this country. We’re identified as American and we can stand and sing, Land where my father died / Land of the Pilgrims’ pride, and, yet, we weren’t born here. And in a very interesting sense, all Americans are American, yet, they come from a variety of backgrounds and, yet, we consider them Americans, but only the American Indians are the indigenous people.
In a similar way, all of the Arabs, whether they are you know, including some Armenians, Kurds, Circassics. They identify as Arabs because they identify with the culture and, yet, the only true Arabs are the ones who live in Arabia and some of the tribes that moved up north. There’s a large number of Arabized people who identify with the culture, with the history, with the language. They laugh at Arabic jokes and they sympathize and empathize with the culture and, therefore, they are Arab.
BILL MOYERS: What are your own roots in the Arab world?
YVONNE HADDAD: I’m originally of Greek background. I also have a great grandmother who was Armenian, that-I grew up in a culture that identified itself as Arab and I was raised as that.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Marsot, what about your roots?
AFAF MARSOT: My mother’s grandfather was Greek. Her mother is Circassian. My father is partly Arab, partly Egyptian peasant.
BILL MOYERS: You really were at the crossroads, weren’t you? I mean, there were a lot of people coming through..
AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely. Everybody has gone through Egypt. Therefore, Egyptians are a very mixed bag, and the only ones who can claim descent from the ancient Egyptians are the Coptic Egyptians —
BILL MOYERS: The Christian war —
AFAF MARSOT: Of course, some of the Muslim Egyptians, also, are direct descendants, but they may have intermarried with Arabs, with Turks, with-The French came; the English came; the Greeks came, the Persians came; the Romans came. Everybody came.
BILL MOYERS: So it’s a culture borrowed from many, many sources.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: It’s borrowed, but the borrowing has been-the culture that has been borrowed has been assimilated and, certainly —
BILL MOYERS: Refined —
YVONNE HADDAD: Refined, yes.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: — is part of the corpus of what is the Arabic language and the Arabic heritage.
BILL MOYERS: What are your roots?
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: My roots are — Well, I was born in Palestine, but my family originally came from Lebanon. That was in the early 19th century.
BILL MOYERS: What do you remember most about-most Arabic about being a child? What was the thing that happened to you that you can now look back and say, “Oh, yes, that was really Arabic.”
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Well, primarily, I think, the feeling that people cared, so far as I’m concerned. I mean, the fact that it was-Palestinians were suffering, but, also, others who are Arabic-speaking, whether they were in Egypt or Iraq or Morocco. I’ll tell you an experience. When I was in Morocco doing research a few years ago and anytime I mentioned, people would ask me, ”Where are you from?” Once I mentioned I was Palestinian, literally, older people, even, would kiss my hand. It’s as if I’d come from a sacred land. And I was, you know, quite embarrassed by it and upset, but-but they were associating me with that particular piece of holy land, yes, and the bond was there, immediately established.
BILL MOYERS: Do you try to-What do you do with your children to remind them of that very distinct and specific background?
AFAF MARSOT: My children feel they’re very blessed in that my youngest was born in this country. My eldest came here when she was two years old. They feel they’re very American, yet their father is a Frenchman, so they feel they have French roots, and their mother is Egyptian, and they feel they have Egyptian roots. So they glory in having three strains, and they think that’s-that’s wonderful. They’re so different from everybody else.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve written a good bit about Arab humor and politics. Is there a distinct Arabic sense of humor?
AFAF MARSOT: There is a great Egyptian sense of humor. In fact, the earliest cartoon in the world is an ancient Egyptian cartoon. But when you asked Michael what does he remember about growing up-what I remember is all the cousins getting together and being funny and simply the laughter that you had with your cousins, cracking jokes, starting pieces of movies and turning them-turning a dramatic piece into a comedy — the laughter that you have in the family.
BILL MOYERS: Now, there is a difference. My cousins all got together, but none ofthem had a sense of humor, so I guess that’s what they lose when they come to-What about women and family life? We hear so much, you know-we hear so much about the veil, and this is part of the problem that affects even Americans who want to be open-minded and tolerant and modern. They say, “I just don’t understand why women would want to live that way.” What about that, Dr. Haddad?
YVONNE HADDAD: I think part of it is an American problem, because we have decided that wearing a scarf on your head is a sign of oppression. And let me give you an example. I invited, once, a Lebanese woman [to speak] and she had this wonderful, beautiful scarf and she had it around her shoulders and as she was giving the lecture, she said, “This is now fashion.” And she pulled it up and put it on her head and said, ”Now, it is a sign of oppression.” It really left an impact on me, because what it said is that what we wear is something that, you know-it’s an act of communication. We want to say something about ourselves. What the women who are wearing the scarf on their head are saying is absolutely different than what we imply that they are saying.
BILL MOYERS: What are they saying?
YVONNE HADDAD: I did a survey of over 100 women that had put on the head scarf and there were political reasons; they thought that they were protesting lack of democracy. There were economic reasons, because it was cheaper than wearing a variety of clothes every day. It was a very convenient thing. You put it on-There were social reasons. For a lot of women who are active in public life — that means the engineers, the women who are doctors, the women who are teachers — when they are going into public life, they want very much to disassociate themselves from the image of the American woman or the Western woman or the liberated woman that they saw on the television and, in a sense, it was a sign saying, “I am not available for sexual harassment.”
BILL MOYERS: But there’s the other side of it, too, which goes beyond fashion to behavior. The women in Saudi Arabia who tried to drive cars — they were stopped by the authorities and told that they had to be there, in effect, under “car arrest,” until a relative, a male relative, could come and promise — make them promise that they’d behave. What about-what does that say to us?
AFAF MARSOT: Well, women will liberate themselves if they want to. They will change their society if they want to. After all, it is women who educate and socialize children in the Arab world. It’s the woman who has custody of the child and who brings up the child — even the male child until the age of seven. Therefore, she —
BILL MOYERS: But these women wanted to, Dr. Marsot.
AFAF MARSOT: These women wanted to, but-They wanted to make a point and that point misfired because of political conditions at the time. But these women, remember, are women who have professions. They are women who own their own property, because this is the difference in Islamic law. Women have to inherit. You cannot disinherit legal heirs and women inherit property and that property is theirs to do with as they please. It is not to support themselves with.
BILL MOYERS: Would either of you want to live in a-in a
YVONNE HADDAD: Well, you see, this is what you’re saying is that Saudi Arabia is all the Arab world, but that isn’t true.
AFAF MARSOT: No, that’s not —
BILL MOYERS: Egypt is totally different — isn’t it?
AFAF MARSOT: Not —
YVONNE HADDAD: Not only Egypt — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq. You know, the women in Iraq were the bus drivers and the truck drivers. They were the most liberated in the whole Arab world.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Not only is it different within different countries, but it’s also different within each country, depending on the social status of the group, depending on the religious background of the person, depending on whether the person has been educated overseas or not
AFAF MARSOT: Rural or urban —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: — yes, and rural and urban, and so on. Diversity should be mentioned, OK? Yeah. One particular incident is taken as if it were actually what the whole Arab world is like. It is not so and Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most conservative, on this particular issue, of all the Arab countries.
BILL MOYERS: Why does Saudi Arabia-and maybe others. Why does Saudi Arabia have such a severe penalty for adultery?
AFAF MARSOT: That’s not Saudi Arabia. This is religion. In the Koran, adultery is one of the very few cases punishable by death.
BILL MOYERS: It is, in the Christian and Jewish testaments
AFAF MARSOT: Exactly.
YVONNE HADDAD: — a very strong — a very severe wrong, but it’s not punished anymore.
AFAF MARSOT: It’s not punished anymore in Saudi Arabia. But in order to prove adultery —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN:Yes —
AFAF MARSOT: — you have to have three impeccable witnesses —
YVONNE HADDAD: Four —
AFAF MARSOT: — four-have your four impeccable witnesses watching penetration, and if they’re standing around watching penetration, they’re no longer impeccable, morally speaking.
BILL MOYERS: So what does this say to us, then, this-this
AFAF MARSOT: It’s saying it’s very difficult to prove adultery unless a woman goes and says, “I’ve committed adultery.”
YVONNE HADDAD: Right, and if you accuse someone of
adultery and you can’t prove it with four witnesses who actually witnessed the act — I mean, we are talking about an orgy of some sort, right? — if you can’t produce that, the person who accuses an innocent woman is punished.
AFAF MARSOT: He is punished for —
YVONNE HADDAD: So it is a very —
BILL MOYERS: So what do you think is the rationale, the root behind that kind of combination of laws? What’s happening here?
YVONNE HADDAD: It’s the way-it’s the same thing as Christianity and Judaism — the whole idea, then, that marriage is a sacred relationship and that sex is organized within the marriage relationship, not —
AFAF MARSOT: To produce children, and that the father is entitled to know who his children are.
BILL MOYERS: And, as in the United States, there are certain privileges-privileged groups who escape this. I mean, the emir of Kuwait is very well known for his weekend. That’s the same sort of —
AFAF MARSOT: But that’s —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: But he tries to do it within the law.
BILL MOYERS: How do — What do you mean?
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Well, basically, you can marry, if you’re a Muslim, up to four wives, at least in most countries in the region, and, therefore, if he marries, say, three and marries a fourth one, then that’s OK. If he wants to have a relationship with an additional one, then he would divorce one and marry another one.
AFAF MARSOT: Of course, it says in the Koran that divorce is one of the most heinous things in the eyes of God, hut people pick and choose their religion.
BILL MOYERS: What about-Each of you, as an educator, what about-I remember meeting a young man who was Egyptian and he talked about how his early education was memorizing long passages of the Koran, the holy scripture. Is that still the case?
AFAF MARSOT: In some societies, it is, especially if they’re very religious, but remember that the whole corpus, the rules of Arabic grammar, are derived from the Koran. And my father always used to say, “If you want to learn perfect Arabic, the only way to do it is to learn it through the Koran.
YVONNE HADDAD: I think —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: But it’s also part of the culture, that people learn-memorize a good deal of the text, if you will.
BILL MOYERS: We used to do that in this country.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Right.
AFAF MARSOT: That’s right. Yes.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: And I think it’s an aid to memory, anyway. I think we’ve given up too much of it. But, in any case, yes, as a child, I memorized not only the text that I was using in school, but-I grew up as a Christian and, yet, because I was Protestant-I was the only one in the class and when it came to religion, I was given a choice “Do you want to stay or go out?” — and I always stayed and I memorized, also, parts of the Koran, because it is also part of the culture of the area.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a core of learning in the Arabic-in Arabic society, in Arabic education?
YVONNE HADDAD: There is a new kind of education. It came in with the, you know, the influx of all the colonial people and, also, the missionaries, who also came there, and so what we have is two-track education. The Islamic education, which was based on rote memory and the inculcation of the Koran is — exists, maybe, in places like Oman where you have, still, a large number of Koranic schools. There are some places in Morocco where you have it. But the majority of the people go to public school and most of the public education came after the colonial powers were expelled, and that education is Westernized and you will see that, although there is some memorization — and if you look at the text of what is taught as Islamic religion, there are some passages from the Koran that are taught, but most of the Islamic education is now being read, because you have more publishing and so a lot of people read the Koranic text and reflect on it and there is a great deal of effort to distribute Korans and so it’s not memorized anymore, but, rather, read and reflected [upon]. You have, in a sense, something like the Protestantization of Islam taking place, in which people begin to read the text and reflect on it and come out with their own understanding of what the text says.
BILL MOYERS: Is it expected that young women will get the same education as young men?
YVONNE HADDAD: Absolutely.
AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely.
YVONNE HADDAD: Absolutely.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Not only expect it, but already [it is] very much in existence in many of the Arab countries, yes.
AFAF MARSOT: The rules of grammar — of Arabic grammar — are the very same rules that we’ve had for 1,400 years. They haven’t changed. The vocabulary has changed, but the rules are exactly the same.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember learning Arabic when you were —
AFAF MARSOT: I remember not only
BILL MOYERS: Was it hard?
AFAF MARSOT: I went to missionary school, even though we were Muslims. We are Muslims in my household, but my father thought that one religion is just an enrichment of another religion and I used to have a sheik come to the house and teach me Arabic and then my father would make me learn large passages of poetry and he’d bribe me and say, “I’ll give you a pound if you learn this piece of poetry, and for every mistake you make, I’ll remove a plaster from you.”
BILL MOYERS: Your father obviously intended for you to go out into the world and be your own, independent person.
AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely. Absolutely. He was a feminist before they’d even invented the term.
BILL MOYERS: And he was a Muslim?
AFAF MARSOT: He was a Muslim and my uncle, who was the first director of the Cairo University, is the one who opened the university to women.
BILL MOYERS: You know, the terrible thing about stereotypes is you’re always, daily, encountering an exception to them.
YVONNE HADDAD: Not “an,” “many.”
BILL MOYERS: Many. What do you think is the largest
stereotype in the West? You’ve lived here how many years now?
YVONNE HADDAD: Twenty-seven.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the biggest stereotype about —
YVONNE HADDAD: It’s changed. When we first came to this country in the ’60s, it was the “camel jockey.” Every Arab had the little camel in the desert — you know, Lawrence of Arabia type perception. Then, in the ’70s, it was the oil sheik with the stretch limousine, four wives and a private oil derrick in his backyard. And now, it’s the terrorist. I even have some toys that are called “Nomad, enemy of Rambo.” And there is this — Since ’79, we’ve had in the United States a great effort to depict Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, as violent people.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I wanted to add to that. I agree with it, but I think one other aspect that-Especially in politics, it is becoming difficult for Arabs to participate — Arab Americans, primarily because Arabs are viewed as not really part of the main political stream in the United States. In fact, there were incidents, during previous campaigns, when Arab-quote, unquote “Arab money” was rejected by the candidates when, in fact, it was given by Arab-Americans. And so, it is that that really is hurting the Arab-American community now — ”Why is the Arab viewed as an outsider?”
BILL MOYERS: To turn a corner ’round, is there a body of literature growing up in the Arab world about America and about Americans or do they suffer the same prism that we do-have to look through the same, tiny prism?
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Yes. Yes.
YVONNE HADDAD: Oh, yes.
AFAF MARSOT: There are courses taught about Arab American government, American institutions in all the Arab [crosstalk]
BILL MOYERS: Do you think, though, that they have a stereotype of Americans?
YVONNE HADDAD: Oh, absolutely.
AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely. Of course.
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Yes. Yes.
YVONNE HADDAD: It’s a very interesting thing, because I’ve been analyzing some of the material. The most devastating critique of America is done by Muslims who have lived in the United States and have experienced the American racism. So, you have [unintelligible], for example, and some others that I’ve been analyzing. What it must be like for someone to come in for a brief period of time and be on the periphery of America and watch what Americans say about Arabs and Muslims on television. Most people are not aware that some of the televangelists say very nasty things about Islam. You know, they have said that the Prophet Mohammed is in the bottom most pit of hell. Jerry — Jimmy Swaggart — and there’s some other material. And that image shows America, at least in — The perception of the Arabs is that America hates Islam, that America fears Islam.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it true that-Isn’t it true that Muslims believe that all people of the book who live — who do — who live good lives — Jewish, Christian and Muslims will go to heaven?
AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely.
YVONNE HADDAD: That’s true.
AFAF MARSOT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And yet we have this sense of — as in Saudi Arabia and other places — of repression and oppression, of people who are “different.”
AFAF MARSOT: That is our perception. They have the perception that we are equally oppressive vis it vis Arabs, vis it vis blacks, vis it vis American Indians.
BILL MOYERS: Do any of you have hope that these stereotypes, on both sides-that we can break through them? And, if so, how do we do it?
AFAF MARSOT: Educate people. Educate the rulers —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I think there’s more to it than education —
YVONNE HADDAD: No —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: — if I might say so. I think politics has a great deal to do with it. There are two different hypothesis that are advanced about why the stereotypes [exist]. One, basically, says that the public is ignorant and once the public is educated, then the stereotypes are gone. The other hypothesis says, basically, that at least some aspects of the Arab world are not really friendly or [are] viewed as unfriendly to the United States and, therefore, in politics, you first decide who your enemy is and then you give them the image. If you view these people as enemies, then you say, “We’re going to give them a negative image.” Now, what is it, in Arabism and the Arab world, that perhaps is viewed as antagonistic toward the United States?
I identify three elements that really answer this question. One is a certain brand of Arab nationalism that has been viewed as perhaps harmful to American interests in the area. The other is the question of Palestine and how to solve the Palestine problem without hurting American interests. And the third is a certain branch of Muslim Fundamentalism that is anti-establishment in certain areas where the establishment is pro-U.S. and that is revolutionary in wanting to change the regimes in the area — again, regimes that are friendly to the U.S. So, once we’ve identified these as really harmful, supposedly, to our interests, then we say, ”We’re going to look at these people negatively. ”
AFAF MARSOT: Wait. One of the things is that we lump all Fundamentalists in the same bag —
MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Yes.
YVONNE HADDAD: Uh-huh.
AFAF MARSOT: — and there are enormous varieties between the Fundamentalists. There are those who wish to work within the system and simply reform the corruption of the system and there are those — the extremists — who want to destroy the system and put something completely new in its place, and they haven’t quite decided what they want to put in its place. And in between, you have all the gamut, from those going to extreme left to extreme right.
YVONNE HADDAD: But more than that, what we have is a problem that, whenever we see a Muslim praying we think he’s Fundamentalist and a terrorist and we have really have-You know, the American people begin to identify with religion-the religion of Islam with terrorism. I had a student who came to my room and was terrified because somebody told him-asked him, “Do you pray?” and he said, “Sometimes.” And he said, “Don’t say that to so-andso, because he will kill you.”
BILL MOYERS: On that unhappy note, we are out of time. But thanks to you, Dr. Suleiman, Dr. Haddad, Dr. Marsot, for coming here and discussing these issues with us. In our final broadcast, we’ll do a summing up of the Arab world with one of the most versatile graduates of that world I’ve ever met. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 14, 2015.