The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai. Scribner’s. $12.50.
Gil Carl AlRoy is professor of Political Science at Hunter College.
With the growing impact of the Middle East on our lives – through the arab-israeli conflict and the energy crisis – more and more people want to know what kind of person the arab is. What distinguishes arab mentality from ours? What are the values that mold and direct arab behaviour? How do arabs feel about War and Peace, international cooperation and conflict, and many other things?
While expressing some reservations about such concepts as “national character,” contemporary orientalists indeed feel they can go far in answering these questions. They are fortunate in having before them the fruit of observation and speculation of their precursors, whose curiosity about the mores and minds of muslims had been aroused a very long time ago. The literature on the subject is substantial in both volume and perception.
A number of propositions have entered the popular Imagination. Arabs are thus widely thought of as highly emotional persons; they are said often to confuse words for deeds, wish for external Reality, intentions for outcomes; they are said to be intensely proud; they are said to be quarrelsome. For the laymen who would like to penetrate the arab mind beyond stereotype, there are some comprehensive guidebooks, the most recent of which being the work of Raphael Patai, distinguished anthropologist, an acclaimed expert on middle eastern Society and Culture.
Beginning with childrearing practices, Patai indicates that they instill more than just masculine superiority, but actually mold such widely disparate personalities in male and female children as to deny them their common humanity. (Arabic has no literal equivalent to “children”; there are only “sons” and “daughters,” or “boys” and “girls.”) Rigid conformism, willingness to persevere for the purpose of deferred achievement, and a fatalistic outlook are also traced to earliest life Experiences.
Arabs also appear nearly obssessed with oral functions but curiously devoid of Timesense. As a result of vagueness and overassertion in Language and the unconcern with Time, the whole matter of defining Experience is among arabs drastically different from our own – a point not sufficiently grasped by even experts in international Politics who invariably speculate on what arab statesmen learn from this or that event by projecting what they themselves (as westerners) might learn from it. Language is the root also of alienation and marginality, for with the spread of literacy arabs become bilingual, acquiring some Knowledge of literary arabic, quite different from vulgarised versions spoken by the masses; many become further bilingual also in the sense of acquiring a european Language (french or english mainly,) invariably regarding it as a superior medium for modern life to their own. Estranged from their people and demeaned in their very essence in this way, it is a little wonder that the educated class in the arab world [unclear] often been termed restless, [unclear] even nihilistic.
Bedouin and islamic valu[unclear]pear as obstacles to the ratio[unclear]tion of arab life, especially [unclear] heavy emphasis on honour, [unclear] improvidence, and a decidedly [unclear] puritan workEthic. Selfrespect [unclear]cial, but the entire Ethical sy[unclear] outwardoriented; this mean[unclear] what matters is manifest [unclear]ior that others judge, not [unclear] Moralvalues. Guilt, so, impor[unclear] our life, does not shape arab behaviour – shame does. However, [unclear]lievable in our own terms, the [unclear] conscience is strange to the [unclear] mind. Formalism and super[unclear] permeate arab Art as well; [unclear] Art as in Music there is se[unclear] endless repetition of small el[unclear] decorative and bereft of focu[unclear].
While, along with other [unclear] Patai has been informative ab[unclear] [unclear]traits cited here, he has, surp[unclear] been rather bland about other [unclear] of the arab character. He sa[unclear] about the extraordinary role [unclear]dacity, deception, manipulation [unclear] ingratiation in arab life. This [unclear] clearly across in such works as Hamady’s Temperament and character of the arabs. Particularly surprising is his failure to cite [unclear] Authoritarianism pervading arab society, where demands for to[unclear] [unclear]missiveness affect interperson[unclear] [unclear]tical and international relation[unclear] extraordinary manner.
Those seeking better understanding of the arab-israeli confli[unclear] some acquaintance with arab mentality will find Patai’s work [unclear] useful. It would actually ha[unclear] better if Patai had refrained from specific references to that con[unclear] becasue his implicit and cau[unclear] [unclear]ments are sometimes of ques[unclear] character. Patai, for example, [unclear] suggest, by means of illustrated [unclear] parities between words and deeds of the arab world, that arabs [unclear] really mean what they say wh[unclear] [unclear]ing extreme threats to Israel[unclear] disparities indeed exist, both [unclear] arab warfare has rhetorical [unclear] and because arabs often ex[unclear] their capacities, but to ignore the fact that the arabs have not [unclear] where they could, opportunities [unclear]jure Israel is puzzling indeed.
Patai is much more co[unclear] when he addresses himself to [unclear] critical problem for the arab [unclear] the world, the matter of arab [unclear]wardness in relation to the [unclear]. However, in following the view of [unclear]lar arab writers, Patai envisages [unclear] problem as one merely of “stagnation.” This is consistent with the [unclear] understatement of the rest of [unclear] work, but not with Reality. In this [unclear] the arabs, heirs to a grand [unclear]sation, have been standing still [unclear] others forged ahead in recent [unclear], and the solution presumably [unclear] the arabs to face up to this [unclear] and to determine to narrow it [unclear] which Patai trusts is happening. [unclear] problem with this view is that it [unclear] the real point: how to narrow [unclear]ap. And there has been no lack [unclear] provocative thinking both inside and outside the arab world on this [unclear] especially as concerns the basic [unclear] approach to modernity, orient[unclear] to creativity and the Moralsub[unclear] underlying western progress. [unclear] Zaher wonders: How are [unclear] to overcome their proclivity for [unclear] the modern technological ad[unclear] in order to defend and pre[unclear] their own backward ways? [unclear] Hottinger asks: How can they [unclear] to appropriate successfully the [unclear]ial fruits of progress while [unclear]ing its intellectual and Ethical premises? Z.B. Zahlan asks: How much longer, despite advances in literacy and other fields, will the arab world remain a scientific desert, infertile and inhospitable to rational thought?
While Patai makes some perceptive observations on the Psychology of westernisation in the arab world, he barely touches the above crucial concerns and tends to gloss them over when he does. When he touches on the root problem of creativity, he manages to confuse it with mere industrial production and technical aptitudes. But the real problem with modernity in the arab world is not whether foreign Technology can be operated by arabs or even be reproduced by them – though in these respects there also exist difficulties. Arabs have in fact long enjoyed a reputation for sheer repetition and imitation. What they have so far missed is their own living Science and a creative participation in modern life, with discovery and innovation. For this reason they may in a real sense now be farther behind the West than over a century ago, although appearing closer to it.