In his novella, Men in the Sun (1962), the Palestinian author and spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Ghassan Kanafani, tells the story of four Palestinians trying to get to Kuwait in order to find work. They manage to find someone who promises to smuggle them across the border for a fee by hiding them in his tanker. However, Abul Khaizuran, the deeply insecure and cynical smuggler who lost his genitals in the 1948 war, is held up at a check point on the border between Iraq and Kuwait, and his passengers, who are hiding in the steel tanker, perish in the hot, airless container.

As Hilary Kilpatrick points out in the introduction to her translation, Kanafani’s story was an attack on the corruption of the Arab regimes that stood by while the Palestinians suffocated “in an airless, marginal world of refugee camps.” It is a picture of a political order that is, if anything, more recognisable today.

However, it is not just the Palestinians but most of the population of the Middle East who are living in an “airless, marginal world” characterised by oppressive, sclerotic and corrupt regimes.

The Arab Malaise

In his short but poignant book Being Arab (2006), the Lebanese journalist, historian and activist Samir Kassir describes what he calls “the Arab malaise”, i.e. the political and intellectual stagnation that afflicts the Arab world today. The title of the opening chapter, “The Arabs Are The Most Wretched People in the World Today, Even If They Do Not Realize It” leaves the reader in no doubt as to the central contention of the book.

What is distinctive for Kassir about the Arab malaise is not the high rates of illiteracy or inequality that characterise the Middle East, or any other quantifiable facts, which, while contributing factors, are common in many parts of the world.  It is instead the fact,

“…that it afflicts people who one would imagine would be unaffected by such a crisis, and that it manifests itself more in perceptions and feelings than in statistics, starting with the very widespread and deeply seated feeling that Arabs have no future, no way of improving their condition.

The malaise is also “inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other”, and the Other’s gaze,

“…constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition.  It ridicules your powerlessness, foredooms all your hopes, and stops you in your tracks time and again at one or other of the world’s border crossings…You have to have measured your anxieties against the Other’s certainties – his or her certainties about you – to understand the paralysis it can inflict.

It is a shame and cause of deep insecurity, not unlike Abul Khaizuran’s when he is asked why he is not married.

At the geo-political level, this malaise was and is, for Kassir, evident in the inability of the Arab world to stop the US invasion of Iraq and to help liberate the Palestinians from Israeli occupation. At the more local level however the malaise manifests itself in two different but related phenomena: the fetishisation of “resistance” and the rise of Islamism.

Since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon the notion of “resistance” has become an “Arab totem”. The Palestinians in particular have become cast by opinion-makers in the Arab world as a people of “professional revolutionaries” whose “courage consoles and cathartically appeases the consciences of those who watch from afar.” The problem with this is “[t]he idealization of resistance per se…prohibits any debate on the means that should be employed and so gives precedence to the most spectacular. Even if, like the suicide attacks, they are the most counter-productive.

Kassir, a committed secularist, is also very critical of Islamism. For Kassir, Islamism is the result of the democratic deficit in the Arab world (what Fawaz Gerges calls a “product of the deepening structural and institutional crisis in the Muslim world” [1]) and is a movement that bears a close resemblance to European fascism, “[i]ndeed, once the religious veil is removed the societal attitudes of the Islamist movements reveal many similarities with fascist dictatorships.

The Arab Malaise and History

If there is one figure that looms large in Being Arab it is the Tunisian ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). A prominent historian, he is often thought of as a forerunner of present-day historiography, sociology and economics.[2]

Ibn Khaldun sought to explain the rise and fall of dynasties.  He claimed that group solidarity was vital for success in power but that all dynasties inevitably fell after a period of decay, at which point they were replaced by a new order.[3]

The main advantage that this approach to history offers is that it sheds (most) metaphysical overtones – such as “religious predestination” and “nationalist teleology” – and in the process discarding essentialism and the sort of fatalism this can engender.  In other words, it leaves open the possibility of change.

By Sarah Carr, shared under Creative Commons

The Uprisings

“[w]hen there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered.” – Ibn Khaldun cited in Hourani.

Of all of the consequences of the 2008 recession, the uprisings in the Arab world have to be the least expected. With hindsight of course they seem inevitable. The Middle East is a region that suffers from chronic unemployment, a huge reserve of increasingly well-educated young people (a section of the population where unemployment is most concentrated), autocratic regimes with Presidents often grooming their sons (and it is only sons) for succession, rocketing food prices, and ossified institutions that are more often than not run along mafia lines.

In the ultimate expression of frustration with this condition, the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after the authorities confiscated his fruit and vegetable stall.  This act of self-sacrifice set in motion a chain of events that led to the ousting of the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Once Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia to take shelter under another regime whose days are hopefully numbered, the contagion rapidly crossed borders, aided by the Internet and al-Jazeera, infecting many in the Arab world with the idea that it is possible to take matters into your own hands and be rid of these modern day Don Corleones.

The last chapter of Kassir’s book is entitled, “The Worst Aspect of the Arabs’ Malaise is Their Refusal to Emerge From it, But, If Happiness is Not in Sight, Some Form of Equilibrium at Least is Possible.” For the first time in a long time though, happiness may be in sight and the Arab world, thanks to events that began in Ibn Khaldun’s birth place and the bravery and sheer tenacity of the people of the Arab world, will not just settle for equilibrium.

Samir Kassir was murdered in 2005 almost certainly by the Syrian regime. However were he alive today I am certain that he would agree that the Arab malaise is most definitely a thing of the past.

Statue of Samir Kassir

Statue of Samir Kassir, by pshegubj, shared under Creative Commons

Postscript:  Looking Forward

While the gains of the Arab uprising have so far been incredible it is important to remember that there is a long way to go. Writing the day after Mubarak was removed, Pankaj Mishra pointed out, quoting Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97): “The edifice of despotic government totters to its fall. Strive so far as you can to destroy the foundations of this despotism, not to pluck up and cast out its individual agents.”

While the removal of such “individual agents” as Ben Ali or Mubarak is an amazing achievement, the roots of authoritarianism run deep, and there are many whose interests lie in maintaining the old order and who will not back down easily.


[1] LSE Public Lectures and Events, February 10, 2010

[2] According to Wikipedia, the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee called the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun’s most influential work, “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

[3] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (2005)


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