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Arabs in the Mirror

Images and Self-Images from Pre-Islamic to Modern Times

By Nissim Rejwan

Publication Year: 2007

What is an Arab? Though many in the West would answer that question with simplistic stereotypes, the reality is far more complex and interesting. Arabs themselves have been debating Arab identity since pre-Islamic times, coming to a variety of conclusions about the nature and extent of their “Arabness.” Likewise, Westerners and others have attempted to analyze Arab identity, reaching mostly negative conclusions about Arab culture and capacity for self-government. To bring new perspectives to the question of Arab identity, Iraqi-born scholar Nissim Rejwan has assembled this fascinating collection of writings by Arab and Western intellectuals, who try to define what it means to be Arab. He begins with pre-Islamic times and continues to the last decades of the twentieth century, quoting thinkers ranging from Ibn Khaldun to modern writers such as al-Ansari, Haykal, Ahmad Amin, al-'Azm, and Said. Through their works, Rejwan shows how Arabs have grappled with such significant issues as the influence of Islam, the rise of nationalism, the quest for democracy, women's status, the younger generation, Egypt's place in the Arab world, Israel's role in Middle Eastern conflict, and the West's “cultural invasion.” By letting Arabs speak for themselves, Arabs in the Mirror refutes a prominent Western stereotype—that Arabs are incapable of self-reflection or self-government. On the contrary, it reveals a rich tradition of self-criticism and self-knowledge in the Arab world.

Published by: University of Texas Press

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Prologue: The Bedouin, the Camel, the Sand, and the Palm Tree

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pp. vii-xii

The Arabian Peninsula is the cradle of the Semitic family of peoples, who later became known as the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Assyrians, and the Phoenicians; it is one of the driest and hottest areas in the world. In the words of Philip Hitti, an Arab historian: “Though sandwiched between seas on the east and west, those bodies of water are too narrow to break the climatic continuity of the Afro-Asian rainless...

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One: Identity and Self-Definition

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pp. 1-9

On the personal, individual level, identity can be defined as the under-standing of oneself in relation to others. On the national, corporate level, identities are formed partly in relation to other nations, collectivities, and states. In both cases, identity is essentially a matter of self- definition—of how individuals, nations, states, or any other corporate groups choose to ...

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Two: Ibn Khaldun’s Appraisal Appraised

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pp. 10-19

In their attempts to explain Ibn Khaldun’s derogatory though somewhat ambiguous remarks on the Arabs, some modern Arab scholars have tried to attribute his “vagueness” and “inconsistency” to the fact that he was an opportunist, a self-seeker, and an arriviste who was willing to serve any master in order to attain...

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Three: “Arabizing the Arabs”

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pp. 20-30

...some of whose views were discussed in the last chapter, represent a new generation of Arab intellectuals whose knowledge of and familiarity with Western culture and Western ways have evidently given them new insights into their own society and culture, as well as the tools to cope with what they consider a challenge posed by traditional Orientalists to their culture ...

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Four: Self-Images Old and New

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pp. 31-49

One of the more striking results of the Yom Kippur War (October 1973) was how Egyptians, Arabs, and the world as a whole tended to change their images of the Egyptian as a person. Not only the Egyptians and their leaders, but many foreign observers also went on record, a few days after the outbreak of hostilities, as being greatly impressed by the discipline, ...

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Five: Calls for “Critical Self-Analysis”

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pp. 50-64

Variations on the themes of responsibility and morality are to be found in most Arab writings on self-interpretation and self-appraisal, though mostly in a political vein. George Hanna—a Marxist of sorts, a Lebanese Christian, and an advocate of revolution and socialism who was often excited by the Egyptian revolutionary experiment of the 1950s and 1960s—wrote ...

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Six: Unity in Diversity

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pp. 65-76

The death of Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism has been proclaimed so often during the past thirty years that one cannot help being reminded of that other much-celebrated demise—the alleged death of the novel. How-ever, while the novel seems to continue to thrive despite recurrent ups and downs, pan-Arab nationalism and aspirations for an all-Arab unity have ...

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Seven: The Quest for Democracy

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pp. 77-91

Despite their protestations that democracy is not a purely Western creation fit only for Europe and North America, Arab political intellectuals were slow to realize that the road to a democratic system of government in the Arab world would be long and difficult. A recent example from Iraq is worth citing, although the democratic experience in that country is seen as vastly ...

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Eight: Resources and Development

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pp. 92-100

...and their society free from the fetters of what they variously call the West’s “cultural imperialism” or “mental invasion” has exercised the minds of many Arab writers and intellectuals in recent years. Th e problem, as most of them formulate it, has been that since the Arabs have finally managed to liberate their lands from the political and economic dominance of the ...

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Nine: The Social Scene

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pp. 101-121

Observers generally treat the status of women in the Arab world as if it were uniform or at least very similar all over the area. Islam’s perceived rulings concerning that status are habitually cited, and generalizations made accordingly. Th e actual situation, however, is vastly different, as the experience of one Arab country, Yemen, shows. In Yemen, whose two “parts” were reunited ...

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Ten: The Case of Egypt

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pp. 122-135

Egypt’s cultural orientation, or identity, a subject that in the 1930s and 1940s gave rise to fierce controversies and wide differences of opinion, has all but ceased to be the cause of such debates. Time was when intellectual leaders and pathfinders like Taha Hussein, Salama Mousa, Muhammad Hussein Haykal, and ....

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Eleven: The West’s Inroads

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pp. 136-146

Suez crisis, the American writer Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982) asked Taha Hussein in Cairo what he thought of the Hungarian revolt. Hussein, the gray eminence of Egyptian letters and one of the chief disseminators of Western culture in the Arabic-speaking world, had this to say in reply: “I am not informed of what has been happening in Hungary, because I have ...

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Twelve: The Difference Israel Has Made

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pp. 147-159

In mid-May 1948 the regular armies of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—as well as a Saudi Arabian formation fighting under Egyptian command—crossed international borders into what until then was Mandate Palestine. Their declared aim was to prevent the implementation of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, passed on....

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Thirteen: New Lessons for Old

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pp. 160-169

...mans reached the conclusion that the only thing one learns from experience is that one never learns from experience. Nevertheless, men kept drawing lessons from the experiences they happened to go through in frantic at-tempts to learn from them and thus avoid making the same sort of errors in And Arabs have been no exception. Since the nakba that befell them in ...

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Fourteen: The Intellectuals

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pp. 170-181

... of controversy in the Arab world, and the intellectual’s role in society and politics remains a point at issue among the educated classes there. Th e Gulf crisis, precipitated by the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in August 1989, served only to intensify the debate, as some academics and writers In Egypt, especially, intellectuals came under heavy fire—and from all ...

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Appendix: Portraits in a Mirror: Three Fictional Versions

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pp. 183-197

Peaceful and happy was our town, and its love filled our hearts. We were so fond of it that, we often gasped with awe while walking through its pine-shaded streets. What a lovely town! What a glorious river! Th e river descends from the top of the mountain, stormy and angry; but as soon as it reaches our town it starts streaming gently, as if it were resting on the bosom...

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pp. 197-204


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pp. 205-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780292794481
E-ISBN-10: 0292794487
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292717275
Print-ISBN-10: 029271727X

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Democracy -- Arab countries.
  • Egypt -- Social conditions.
  • Arabs.
  • National characteristics, Arab.
  • Intellectuals -- Arab countries.
  • Arab countries -- Intellectual life.
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