‘Existence is resistance’ is a catchphrase often attached to the Palestinian cause. Passive existence has done little other than contribute to the indubitable decline of the Arab civilization and it will continue to have this effect lest positive action is taken. There is little use in existence if, as a peoples, Arabs remain irrelevant and disconnected from the rest of the world. Celebrating and knowing one’s roots is a cultural duty, in knowing our collective past we should have been able to build on our distinctively strong foundations and become resistant to psychological destruction and manipulation. Instead, by relentlessly clinging onto the edges of a glorious past, we have impeded our ability to fully establish ourselves in the present we have so obligingly neglected for the benefit of others.
In rebuttal to the world’s criticism of Arab culture, we atomically return to default arguments pertaining to the greatness of Mahfouz, Battuta and Khaldun, reaffirming to the world just how outdated the Arab community is. We hold onto external, intangible representations of ‘Arabness’ like a child that clings onto the dress of his mother as she leaves for work. The tarboush, the thobe and the hookah have allowed us to live in the past and idly define our present with meaningless motifs and hollow catchphrases. Professional speakers on Arabic talk shows often inject English and French vocabulary into their arguments as though their own language is insufficient. In some cases, this reflects reality; computer, menu and television are a few examples of non-subject specific vocabulary that have become part of daily expression. French, English and Spanish have an array of words with Arabic origin, but my discontent lies in that the Arab world has failed to make any revolutionary discoveries in our recent history that have restored Arabic on the lips of the world’s citizens. Real resistance lies in evolution and creation. The most dominant powers are currently those that have best adapted to change and that have brought something new to the fore.
In part, our inability to evolve is rooted in our fear of criticizing our own culture. This is an understandable phenomenon in a world where internal instability mixed with incessant reproach of Arab society from outside forces, have created an environment of defensiveness and an extreme desire to safeguard ‘our’ identity. Though understandable, this mass reaction is a one way path to self-destruction, as it has made us stagnant and hard headed, unwilling to accept the fallibility and visible weakness of our present state.
Like many cultures of the ‘East’, we are obsessed by tradition; religiously, socially and academically. Our favourable opinion of traditional academia stems from the proud scientific history of the region and the difficulties of daily life in the Middle East – the more traditional one’s line of work, the more able one is to care for one’s family. Artistic expression has therefore become non-essential, despite it empowering individuals to heal emotional wounds and providing peoples with the capacity to reach out to others without the use of a common language. Art cultivates the spirit and serves as both a challenger to and a reflection of cultural identity. “All your artists in Ramallah are shit, you all hold onto the dick of patriotism”, spits the Israeli soldier in ‘Mars at Sunrise’. The truth in this argument is a painful pill to swallow, but the time has arrived to no longer blame colonialism for this cultural deficit. This dependence upon nationalism in art has trapped the Arab peoples into obscurity in this ever more globalized world. The designer/typographer Pascal Zoghbi, who was shortlisted for the third Jameel Prize at the V&A London, has designed an overwhelming array of beautiful, artistic fonts for the Arabic language on the computer. Until recently, typography was a neglected field and an example of the Arab absence in modernity.
There has been a reawakening as of late and this article is not to dispute that, but our complacency, fear of criticism, irrelevant and outdated dogma and patriarchal stronghold are all things we have the power to control. Once we have overcome these vices, our upcoming poets, artists and writers will serve as a catalyst for a true resistance and will reignite our evolutionary process. For too long, we have remained stagnant and locked into the old ways of thinking, fearful that we might disgrace ourselves not recognizing that our disgrace lies in our complacency. The Nahda is overdue.