Yearning for the ‘Arab’ identity

Reading about the Arab League Summit recently got me thinking about Pan-Arabism again; an ideology or a concept I had studied growing up but felt for a long period of time like it was this term parked in history somewhere at the end of the 70s, a term that only re-emerges in private circles in those nostalgic conversations with parents or grandparents when they talked of an Arab world that “once” was aligned, and managed to take a unified stance towards something.

In recent days I have been feeling the re-emergence of this on a political front between the Arab League Summit and the collaboration of several of the most prominent Arab states currently with Egypt in Egypt’s Economic Conference. I am feeling a revival of the term and it gives me a sense of pride.

It is far from a perfect picture. I am fully aware of that especially given all the regional struggles and wars. Such is a reality I am well aware of. I have yet on days to sit and think of the millions of Arab refugees; of the war children who will grow up as distressed adults full of war scars and psychological trauma from what they have experienced and continue to on a daily basis…

However, there is another positive picture I see sometimes. The picture is not only of presidents meeting, and money being pledged to cross-border projects in the region. That is one part. But the more important rise in the term of pan-Arabism I now see is on a societal and personal level.

I believe that the rise of new cities like Dubai has added a lot to the term. Dubai is a city that has attracted a huge young & talented pool of Arabs who are coexisting in such close proximity to one another – a hybrid of Arabs that still proudly identify with their respective nationalities but have grown to share a comfortable space of speaking different dialects, being open to different Arab cuisines and enjoying an enhanced cultural understandings of countries that were always ‘next-door’ but actually unknown to them or their families previously.

In the entrepreneurial space I see several of the cities in the region becoming start-up hubs attracting Arabs from other countries to live and grow their concept ideas in. Not only that, but such hubs provide a ground for co-founders from different countries to meet, whereas such opportunities may not have historically existed.

In the arts space there is a lot more overlaps now. Historically, there was a dominance of the arts by some countries like Egypt especially in theater and the film industry, but now we see a rise in the film industries in several other countries like Jordan, UAE and even Saudi. The rise of independent projects and a generation of young Arabs who want to find their unique artistic flare has made for a lot more cross-cultural exposure in the arts that has been very enriching for many in my opinion. I have also noticed a rise of Arab artists, actors and singers living and working in Egypt again, like they used to in the 60s and 70s. That gives me pride.

For someone like me who grew up in an expatriate community in Saudi, with a group of best friends whose nationalities were Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Yemeni, Sudani and Saudi, the word “Arab” always had a very real and tangible meaning. It meant speaking in the same language but having extremely different dialects that we’re constantly laughing at each other and try to explain the origins behind bizarre terminologies that we take for granted in our own countries. It meant continuously being exposed to new customs, traditions, inside jokes, and cuisines. It meant being exposed to different styles of fashion. It meant seeing different customs in weddings, childbirths and even deaths. It meant constantly seeing how similar we are as a region but how multi-faceted we are despite that similarity on the outside. Being in that environment meant being an ambassador 24/7 for Egypt because in many situations I would be the only Egyptian and having to answer to the endless questions of “what do you Egyptians say for this…” “or what do Egyptians do in that..” type situations. It meant that over time somehow our dialects became a mesh of all the different dialects – something noticeably different to what the natives from our countries would speak, but something that had that beauty of what defining as an Arab is about.

That was my world growing up. That was my ‘normal’. And I loved it. I felt it made me more Egyptian and simultaneously more Arab. The two were not mutually exclusive. But when I left that setting and traveled around the region, it seemed that the majority of Arabs in their respective countries, living with a majority that was exactly like them did not see the benefits of the picture I presented. It was always a struggle to explain. It was always a long talk to say why I take so much pride in saying not only that I’m Egyptian, but that I’m Arab.

And I believe that given the difficult times the region is going through in recent years, many more of these people now are starting to understand the benefits of returning that long-lost “Arab” label, a label with a lot more positive connotations that we believe, and a label that we should grow to love, cultivate and take control of defining it the way we want to the rest of the world, instead of being on the receiving end and letting it be defined in the worst possible ways as a reaction to minority groups that by far do not present even a fraction of our stories. I think as much as our current times challenge our identity because of extremism, as much as I think we also have great tools at hand to re-frame our identity…now more so than previous times possibly.

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