A Collision of Cultures
Gamal Rasmi slumped into his chair and glanced about the dance floor, his fingers tapping a nervous beat on the tabletop. The Playboy Disco was nearly full, but he recognized not a soul. "I used to know everyone here, absolutely everyone," he said with a sigh, signaling the waiter for a German beer. The waiter didn't see him and hurried by to fill another order. The music grew louder. Gamal's fingers moved faster. "This getting married in Cairo, it may be a very stupid thing I am about to do," he said. "I may never be able to dance again."
Until recently Gamal had come to the Playboy almost every evening to dance and drink a beer or two, acting out his fantasy that he was John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever
. Then trauma entered his life: he got engaged. His fiancée, Manal, was a plump, silent woman who spent her time watching television and would not get into Gamal's car until he had plugged his portable TV into the cigarette lighter on the dashboard. Having only recently become conspicuously pious, Manal did not dance and did not condone the consumption of anything stronger than fruit juice. She also had started veiling--covering her hair and shoulders, but not her face, with a scarf--thus tacitly announcing that she had made her peace with God and would display her religion as a badge, which said, Look! This is who I am! This did not greatly please Gamal, but I noticed that he soon stopped drinking beer and started observing noontime prayers, bowing toward Mecca on the floor of our dining room, which we had turned into an office. "This makes me feel better inside," he said.
Gamal, who earned $175 a month as my Los Angeles Times
Cairo bureau manager, was twenty-eight years old. He had a university degree in business, although he had never attended any classes. (College students are taught to memorize, not reason, in Egypt, and class attendance is not mandatory, so he crammed until dawn with the help of tutors before each exam period.) He had fulfilled his two-year military obligation, although I don't think he ever actually put on an army uniform--he had an influential friend in the army who had made some arrangement on his behalf. At heart Gamal was a rug merchant, always trying to cut a corner and turn a profit by swapping cars or investing in a boutique or cooking up some business deal. He was also an engaging young man totally devoid of spite or malice. He was impeccably honest and considered his job with me to be a contract of friendship. I would have trusted him with my life.
What most worried Gamal about getting married was the cost. First, he could not marry, or even spend time alone with Manal, until he had a fully furnished condominium. Then he would have to make a substantial dowry payment to his bride's parents. And finally, there was the lesson of his father, who divided his time between Egypt and Saudi Arabia as a used-car salesman and was supporting four wives, an acceptable arrangement in Islam as long as he remained financially responsible for them all. Gamal swore that he intended to have only one wife, but just to cover himself, he had written into his marriage contract that if he ever divorced Manal, he would owe her only twenty cents.
Gamal, still wanting his beer, signaled for the waiter again. The club was dark, and the light of candles on each small table bounced off the faces of young Egyptian couples. They wore smart Western attire, and their conversations slipped easily in and out of Arabic, English and French. The disco music had reached torture levels of intensity, and Gamal could stand it no more. "Do you want to see me dance?" he asked, and without waiting for a reply, he was up and strutting across the dance floor, alone, arms pumping, head back, lost in the flashing lights and memories of his fading bachelor days. He was a man torn, like the Arab world itself, between two forces--the traditional, conservative Islamic values passed down through the centuries and the modern, liberal temptations of Western ways imported from alien cultures thousands of miles away.
The resultant clash of cultures is hardly a new phenomenon in the developing world, yet few people have found it more unsettling than the Arabs. For them, far more than for most, the future is rooted in the past--in their own unique and rich heritage, in their belief that what Mohammed the Prophet taught thirteen centuries ago is a precise guide for today's life--and when their sons would rather watch Chicago Hope
than go to the mosque, when Nike sneakers and a greed for material things replace prayer beads and the need for spiritual fulfillment, then the very foundation of their Arabness is challenged and shaken.
"Nobody was ready for all the money that descended on us during the oil boom of the seventies," Bahrain's minister of development, Youssef Shirawi, told me one day as we sipped sweet tea in his office. "In having to choose, we accepted the manifestations of a modern, Western civilization, but refused its rulings. We accepted technology, for instance, but not science. People became confused, and they ran away to find comfort in Islam."
What the Arabs wanted to do with their petrodollars was to import Western technology without sacrificing their Eastern culture. Cars were necessary for transportation, but should not be employed for death-defying racing events. Chemistry was fine in itself, though it became evil when used to produce whiskey. As Lebanon's Sheik Abdulaziz Salameh put it: "Television is a useful invention of the industrialized West. But Westerners have turned it into the home of the devil with all those films of crime, sex and immorality. We have mimicked the West in many ways. I insist that television be used for purposes more in keeping with Islamic tradition." Western technology, however, cannot be isolated. With it come Western culture and Western financial values, and the accumulation of wealth can become a religion as powerful as Islam or Christianity. The Arabs saw their world changing, and it scared them. They responded as so many others have in times of crisis: they turned to religion, heeding the muezzins' call that, like the bells of Christianity and the horn of Judaism, summoned the multitudes to prayer with promises of hope.
God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Mohammed is the Prophet of God.
Come to prayer.
Come to success.
God is most great.
There is no god but God.
The call to prayer offered a return to simpler, less threatening times. Those who abided strictly by the revelations Mohammed received while in a trance from the angel Gabriel would be rewarded with a "perfect" life. There would be no need to question. Every event, every turn of fortune, would be determined by God. Inshallah (If Allah wills it).1 Tell an Arab friend that you will see him tomorrow or wish him a safe journey or say that you hope his business meeting goes well, and the reply is always the same--"Inshallah."
"Never," warns the Koran, "say of anything, 'I shall do that tomorrow,' without adding, 'If God pleases.' Invoke thy Lord, if thou hast forgotten and say, 'Perhaps my Lord will lead me to do a more reasonable thing.'"
In many ways, the Arab world today is a religious empire. It encompasses eighteen countries and 4.6 million square miles, an area 25 percent larger than the United States.2 The largest country, Sudan, is more than three times the size of Texas; the smallest, Bahrain, would fit neatly inside the boundaries of New York City. Except for a small, aged generation of Jews and a relative handful of Christians--religious minorities have not fared well in the Middle East--94 percent of the people are Muslim.
Outsiders tend to think of the Arab world as a cohesive unit. Linguistically, culturally and religiously, it is to a large extent. Yet in political and human terms, this empire is fractured and diverse. The Saudis and Moroccans, for instance, are separated at the extreme by forty-five hundred miles and speak dialects that are mutually incomprehensible. The Tunisians eat couscous (steamed semolina with meat and vegetables); the Egyptians prefer ful (cooked beans served with a variety of foods). In Iraq 58 percent of the people are literate; in Yemen 57 percent are illiterate. A Yemeni has a per capita income of $740 a year; a Kuwaiti, $22,700. A Libyan lives in Africa, an Omani in Asia.
But until the mid-1960s, these were superficial differences to the Arab. He viewed the rivalries that divided the Arab nations as merely a temporary obstacle on the road to eventual Arab unity. Culture is a greater force than politics, he believed, and the strength of being Arab is in the heart. It is a sense of oneness among brethren, a bond born in the sharing of a history that goes back to the earliest days of mankind.
Twenty thousand years ago an ice cap covered much of Europe. The ice generated masses of cold air, which created a blockade that prevented rainstorms from drifting across the Atlantic. Unable to move west, the storms swung down across North Africa and the Middle East, and transformed the region into a land as green as the English countryside. It teemed with wildlife and was crisscrossed by great river systems. Olive groves covered what is now the Libyan desert, forests and grasslands stretched for hundreds of miles across the now-sandy wastelands of Egypt, through which the river Nile flows without a single tributary.
Later the ice cap melted, and the Atlantic rains moved northward again. Gradually the grasslands and forests of the Middle East turned into desert and steppe. Dry wadis reached through the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula, and in his search for food and game, man was forced out of the highlands and into the valleys of the Nile, the Jordan River, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Mesopotamia (now Iraq). In these valleys, some eight thousand years ago, Neolithic man settled and became the world's first farmers.
Some anthropologists say man himself originated in the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. Others believe the first inhabitants of the Middle East were the black-skinned Nubians who emigrated northward up the Nile Valley and across the Red Sea. What seems most likely is that life evolved in different places at about the same time and that at some point the Arabian Peninsula--an area one third the size of Europe--became a junction of migrating populations. The nomads of the peninsula were to become known as Bedouin, a term Westerners incorrectly used for a long time as a synonym for Arab.3 Their society was based on the clan, a group of united families in which individual rights were subordinate to those of the majority, blood ties were through the male line, and storytelling provided the only entertainment for the adults and the primary source of education for the young.
For the clan--or for the collection of clans that joined to become tribes--survival was a daily challenge. One needed to be tough to endure the desert and both strong and cunning to hold off raiding parties from other clans that preyed on the weak. Unity was essential, and so was the concept of strength in numbers. Conformity counted more than individuality. The desert and the men who wandered there were both feared and respected, and from the Bedouin came the roots of today's Arab hospitality: any man, friend or foe, who had the courage and strength to cross the desert and appear at another's tent was embraced as a brother for three days and given water, food, lodging. On the fourth day he was on his own. The kiss could become a sword, and the visitor might be hunted once more as the enemy.
"I shall always remember how I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience and lighthearted gallantry," wrote Wilfred Thesiger after journeying across Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter in the 1940s. "Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority."
The migrant populations that had married and mixed in Arabia left the peninsula in successive waves as a new race--the Arabs--starting in about 3500 b.c., a thousand years before the Great Pyramids of Giza were built in Egypt. They settled in the arc-shaped region now known as the Fertile Crescent.4 There in the river-fed valleys of Syria and Mesopotamia they gave birth to the first known civilizations.
While Europe was populated by nomadic tribes who lived in mud huts, the Egyptians were recording their history in a written language. They invented surveying to lay out canals and ditches for irrigation. They developed engineering to build the pyramids. As the world's first astrologers, they established a 365-day calendar and divided the day into twenty-four hours. From the papyrus reeds by the Nile they produced the first paper. From grain they made the first beer, from grapes the first wine, which they sealed in jars with mud stoppers. Men shaved, cut their hair and wore wigs. Women used perfume and cosmetics.
To survive the Nile's annual flooding and to utilize the silt that made their crops grow, the Egyptians had to cooperate and organize. For that, they created government and levied taxes according to the depth of the river's flood waters. The deeper they were, the greater the amount of silt left behind, thus the more plentiful the harvest and the higher the taxes. An elaborate bureaucracy evolved to keep records, and a great emphasis was placed on literacy. "Behold," schoolmasters told their students, "there is no scribe who lacks for food." (Egypt's painfully cumbersome bureaucracy is scornfully referred to by Egyptians today as "the curse of the pharaohs.")
The Arabs believed the world was round when the Europeans thought it was flat. They devised algebra, invented the universal astrolabe--a forerunner of the sextant--and discovered and named chemical substances such as alkaline. Fifteen hundred years ago, while Attila the Hun was raiding Gaul, Italy and the Balkans, Arab tribes were gathering annually in Arabia for week-long poetry festivals; in order to make the arduous journey to the celebration safely and on time, the tribes often declared truces in their constant warfare. Their poems spoke of survival and conquest and the challenges of the desert.I was far ahead of misfortune before, but now
it tramples upon me with its shod hooves.
I used to wear a badge of distinction and led
the troops astride a noble steed.
When enemy horsemen attacked, I was the
first to meet them and cover the retreat of my men.
But today, I have no mount on which to carry my baggage.
Oh, how shameful! I have been humbled and subdued.
Excerpted from The Arabs by David Lamb. Copyright © 2002 by David Lamb. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.