Why We Can't Seem To Understand The Arabs

Language, culture and history all feed the mistrust

Consider the word hello. Iraqis who speak English use it when they mean goodbye. Or so it seems. "It was good to see you. Hello," they say. Or, perhaps, "You must leave. That's final. Hello." Foreign diplomats and journalists in Baghdad find this amusing. Perhaps, one suggests, it's not surprising Saddam hasn't gotten the message to pull out of Kuwait. We say goodbye, he says hello. Except--the Iraqis, in fact, are saying "ahlan wa-sahlan" in local dialect. It means welcome, whether you are coming or going. So American visitors blithely say goodbye, hear hello, and make jokes, while the Iraqis are saying welcome and wondering what the foreigners are sniggering about.

Differences in language, rhetoric, religion, logic, notions of truth and freedom, honor, trust, family, friendship, hospitality--all account for misunderstandings that persist between Arabs and the West. But they are not the core of the incomprehension. The essence can be summed up in a single word: history. It is an always present force in Arab life, and this is what so many Westerners find impossible to grasp. Americans, especially, have very little sense of their own past, and virtually no sense of the Middle East's. Given a problem to confront, an American typically will ask what comes next. An Arab will talk about what came before. "We don't dare to talk about the future, or even the present. Our refuge is the past," says Amin Mahmoud, a Palestinian history professor from Kuwait University who lost his savings and his home in the Iraqi invasion. "We always go back to the roots."

For Arabs, the distant past offers inspiring memories of glory. Twelve hundred years ago, the Arab empire was the greatest in the world, stretching from the Indus to the Atlantic. The Egyptians draw on the history of the pharaohs as well; the Tunisians recall Carthage; the Iraqis hark back to Babylon. Saddam is fond of saying that Iraq is either "a shining light leading the way" or a nation "trampled under the feet of invading armies." Glory or defeat, he suggests, is a zero-sum game, and the past is his proof.

But for many Arabs history is also a trap--a way of defying the painful reality of the present. "What I fear most," declared Salama Musa, a left-wing author of the 1930s, "is that we shall overcome the colonialists and drive them out ... but we shall fail to defeat the Middle Ages in our lives and shall lapse to the old call: back to the ancients!" The distinguished scholar Albert Hourani concluded in the early 1960s that the technological, social and political revolutions of the time had created a "society so new, complex and strange, that the past no longer had lessons." Yet the Arabs would not give it up, and the urge to revive their lost glory is stronger now than ever.

The reason is simple. The last 42 years have brought the Arabs six major wars and several minor ones. Most have involved defeat at the hands of Israel, which stakes its territorial claims on ancient history, too, finds moral force in its religion, yet has adapted more successfully than any Arab country to the ways of the West. Israel exists, in the Arab mind, as a denial of their past, present and future.

To explain their plight the Arabs continue to blame fate and the Jews, the West and God, conspiracies and lies. "We had been cheated and betrayed by a thousand years of decay," says novelist Jabra I. Jabra at Baghdad University. "We had been the victims of our beautiful inane rhetoric." But after four decades, even the apportionment of blame has grown tiresome, giving way to unquenchable frustration. "Desperate people don't think, they react," says one affluent young Jordanian woman educated in Georgetown and Palo Alto. "Desperation will always inhibit us, make us resort to the wrong person, believe in the wrong plan. Beautiful proof of this is Saddam Hussein. "

Washington's Arab allies, of course, have resisted the charms of Iraq's president. But they are not immune to the general malaise. The oil boom of the 1970s brought to some countries a kind of anesthetizing prosperity. But for rich and poor alike, in a part of the world long characterized by its mysticism, the pervasive consumerism of the last 20 years has left a hollow sense of purposelessness. "Life without hope is the worst thing you can have," says Hazem Malhas, a young Palestinian business executive in Amman. Arabs of all classes, as he puts it, are looking for hope "like a candle seeking oxygen."

In the teeming streets of Jordan's Bakaa refugee camp, where 100,000 Palestinians made homeless by the 1967 war continue to live, two decades later, in makeshift houses under "emergency" conditions, the anger is more palpable still. An old sheik from Beersheba glares from beneath his kaffiyeh: "I ask of the American people not to support an American war in the gulf with the Arab countries, with the Arab people or with Iraq, whose consequences ..." He pauses and waves his hand to indicate the misery around him: "You are present in the Bakaa camp, a 'temporary camp,' and this is the immediate consequence of war."

Among the children of Bakaa, the inherited fury of their fathers and brothers is visceral. During a demonstration against the American presence in the region, young boys carry pigeons in their hands. Not doves of peace, but symbolic Jews, they say, whose necks they intend to break. The pigeons' eyes are as helpless as those of the children. "When you reach a certain stage of desperation," says Taher al-Masri, a former Jordanian Foreign minister, "you don't care about anything. Without committing suicide, people can kill themselves, you know. If a patient doesn't have confidence that he will be cured he might simply die."

At one time, Arabs thought the hope for a cure lay with the West. Since Napoleon's conquest of Egypt 192 years ago, Arabs have realized their ancient civilization would have to find ways to learn from the practical, precise, powerful West. "We must follow the path of the Europeans so as to be their equals and partners in civilization," Egyptian author Taha Husayn declared before World War II. Attracted by the Occident's strength and efficiency, Arabs studied Western polities and economics, trying diligently to adapt them to Islamic traditions. After World War II many immersed themselves in Western art and literature. Poets in Baghdad suddenly found a kindred voice in the work of T. S. Eliot, enthralled by the imagery of his "Waste Land," which they saw as their own.

But mostly the flow of culture, and of understanding, went one way. France got some feedback through Arab immigration and the slow accumulation of creative works in French by writers, actors, even comedians of Arab descent. But the British were interested less in the Arabs themselves than in their own eccentric Arabists--T. E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton and the like. Americans were interested in oil and what it took to get it out of the desert. Even those who moved to the Middle East tended to live in their compounds, content with their cars, air conditioners and other conveniences, talking only to those Arabs who came to them.

Many Arabs still come, learning firsthand the ways of the West. Thousands of men and women from Arabia, the Levant and North Africa have been educated in Western institutions, have lived in Western countries, are perfectly bilingual and, indeed, bicultural. They do not say hello when they mean goodbye, nor bargain over the price of a Big Mac, nor kneel toward Mecca in the subway.

Yet Westerners who strive to understand Arabs are a tiny minority. When U.S. troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia, they had to be given a primer, called "Customs and Courtesies," on how not to offend the Saudis. "It is 'natural' for an Arab to speak with double meanings--and the American who fails to watch for these can make foolish mistakes," this crib sheet advises. "If something is threatening to an Arab or puts him down, he will simply reinterpret the 'facts' to suit himself--which is perfectly correct by his code."

Stereotypes such as these are useful, at least, as reflections of Western fears and prejudice. Practical-minded Americans often are puzzled by an Arab propensity to decouple cause and effect. One takes an action--invading Kuwait, for instance--then professes surprise and denounces conspiracies when the reaction is hostile. Westerners are intrigued, and also rather intimidated, by Arab bargaining. "They have trouble understanding that the final offer is not the first one," says an Italian businessman resident in Algiers. The very notion of Islam, with its doctrine of holy wars and martyrdom, seems suicidal in cultures grown comfortable with tidy suburban churches and perfunctory devotions.

The most disturbing realization for many Westerners, however, is that the Arabs probably understand us better than we understand them, and many don't like what they see. "The more influenced we've been by the West, the more alienated we've become," says Jabra, sitting in Baghdad among his copies of Eliot and Hemingway. To disregard the Arabs' past, dismiss their passions, discount their despair, only forces them to seek out demagogues who seem to listen. They are men, for better or worse, like Saddam Hussein.