Reading the Arabs


Reading the Arabs

“The Arab Spring is the most important event of the 21st century so far.”

When former British Foreign Secretary William Hague said these words back in 2011, I was proud of my Government, and of the pragmatism of the Conservatives. This was the future for the Arab world, we were told; next would come trade, freedom, democracy. Despite the fact that history already shows the Arabs as traders, as intellectuals, as people. But William was right, the grip needed loosening. No longer should we see the Arab as poor, their history is as rich, if not richer, than our own. Indeed, the Middle East is, arguably, the birthplace of civilisation.

It was the Arab scholar Ibn Qurra who worked out that the Earth orbits the Sun 600 years before Copernicus; it was the Arabs who saved Greek literature from extinction when Latin took over as the lingua franca. It is the Arabs we have to thank for so many things; but we have forgotten this simple fact. The Iraq War has repulsed us to the point that we’re tired of hearing about the Middle East, we’re disconnecting from stories about the Arab world. I visited several newsagents in London to look for English-language material on the Arabs. I checked at airports and train stations for weeks. Nothing. I went to Edgware Road, the unofficial Arab heartland of London, where there is material in Arabic (I’ve just started learning). How is someone going to learn anything of this region, which as Hague rightly said, will affect us for years to come, if there are no materials readily available?

I would go even further than Hague and affirm that the Arab world will and should affect us forever. The Arabs should rightly be a part of our lives. Not just because we’ve been a part of theirs — a military and colonial presence — but because Arabs are people. And while there may be Middle Eastern coverage in our newspapers, what about the reader who wants to go deeper? Who wants to really learn about the people and places of the Arab world? You can find such information in bookshops — in the literary magazine sections boasting the beautifully produced Brownbook from Dubai, The Outpost from Lebanon, and Alef from Qatar — but what about on the news-stand? There are those interested in that world that will seek out these narrative-based magazines; there will always be the young Arabists at university seeking it out. But what about the general public? What about the newsagents at train stations, airports, high streets?

I found one newspaper, started only a few months ago: The Arab Weekly. Twenty-four pages of stories on topics ranging from the Iraqi Communist Party to yes, inevitably, war. Where they told me ISIS were putting in services in the areas they went into. Hearts and minds.

The Arabs should rightly be a part of our lives. Not just because we’ve been a part of theirs — a military and colonial presence — but because Arabs are people

When the Iraqis in Basra asked if we British soldiers were there to help them, us young idealist dreamers said “Yes”. It would have been easy to win them over: generators for electricity, clean water supply, working infrastructure (ISIS have a telephone number you can call for them to come and fix the potholes in your road). We should have done more of that. Apart from this one newspaper I found in Marylebone, there seems to be very little English material. More frustrating, the material that is in English has evidently been translated from Arabic or written by native Arabic speakers, rendering it difficult to negotiate for a native English speaker. In the newsagents, I found newspapers with titles such as The New AfricanThe Africa ReportAfrican BusinessThe Chinese WeeklyChina Daily and Nikkei Asian Review, but nothing from the Middle East.

The Arabs are writing. I know that much. I’m writing this from my hotel just off Hamra Street in Beirut. The book shops here are full of material. Hamra is known as the intellectual quarter of the city, its bookshops and art house cafes filled to bursting with homegrown talent. Before I came I looked for written material on Lebanon and naturally found Robert Fisk (who is excellent, but not Arab), and then I found Samir Kassir. I always want to read a local.

Before I went to Havana, I read a short history by a Cuban in which he called the Americans “terrorists”. How can I know what the locals think without reading them? In Kassir’s Being Arab he paints a picture that’s hard to read. The Arab is stuck he says, in a malaise, an impotence caused by successive foreign boots on the ground and rich powerful Arab states retreating from responsibility. Chatting to young Lebanese students near my hotel in Hamra, they point squarely at the West. “It was your divide and conquer that has left us here with small powerless states who when they find weapons fight each other with them.” The sad thing is, they tell me, it’s working . They can’t see a unified Arab people just because they speak the same language: “How can somebody in the Maghreb [North Africa] relate to me here in Beirut,” they ask. It tore at me. I saw the potential because, of course, they’re people; with all the diversity and difficulty that implies. Any account that starts with a claim that “The Arabs are…” is part of the Orientalist tradition that Edward Said sought to expose. The Arabs aren’t anything specific; they’re a people and as complex and as sophisticated as any other.

One of the Lebanese students mused that the Arabs needed their own continent to feel unity and become the superpower they have been historically denied. To feel the power and the respect they deserved and to not be divided. I wanted to stop him, saying the British had done this to them. I felt it. Maybe because of having been present in British military uniform on their land. I told them: “This was not us, this was not the British today, this was not what we wanted.” I told them of the good we did in Iraq and they silently shook their heads. The Arabs will be confused by this childish pleading;  “Were we not a part of your history?” they’ll ask. Yes they were. And they still are. Where is the “hand of friendship” that William Hague promised?

Ultimately, however, Hague was right, the Arab Spring isn’t going to yield results immediately, it will take time. We need to understand them more. I need to. It’s where they write their stories that you’ll find the Arabs at their most open, talking to you. The Arab Spring isn’t just about fighting with guns, but fighting with words. We should read them.

Adnan Sarwar is a former British soldier who served in the Iraq War. He is a writer based in London. For more writing visit