In Search of the Arabs

In Search of the Arabs

by Jack G. Shaheen, Ph.D.

When I think of the word “Arab,” I see the 150 million people in the great expanse of the Arab world, most of whom share a common cultural heritage, religion and history.

They are city dwellers, suburbanites, farmers and villagers who live in twenty-one different countries. Many wear Western-styled dresses, trousers, shirts, ties and coats. Some Arab men cover their heads with a small embroidered or crocheted cap, over which they place the traditional kufiyah, a white or checkered cloth which is folded diagonally and kept in place by two rings of thick black wool called agal. Some Arab women go veiled in the streets or wear just head scarves or smoke-thin chiffon or opaque black crepe. Other women wear the latest fashions from Paris and London and New York. Still others wear the traditional abaya (chiffon gowns). The variety of white, brown and black-skinned Arab men, women and children defies stereotyping.

Very little is known in the U.S. about outstanding Arab personalities. Thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Talisman, some of us know about the 12th century Arab champion of chivalry, Saladin, who defeated Richard the Lionhearted and conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders. This remarkable warrior carried with him the traditions of Arab warfare, which prohibited the killing of the elderly, women and children. Saladin, whose name means the “bounty of religion,” did not persecute the defeated Christians but permitted them to continue to live in peace with Moslems in the holy city.

Another giant of Arab culture, the contemporary Lebanese poet, philosopher and artist, Kahlil Gibran, spent most of his life in the United States writing about love, religion and freedom. Of Gibran’s numerous books, his most popular poetic work, The Prophet, appears in more than twenty languages. Approximately a quarter of a million copies are sold each year in the United States.

Legendary Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum. Photo: courtesy Tanz Oriental

Creators of TV programs could easily offer viewers significant programs about past and present Arab personalities like Saladin and Gibran. There are also contemporary heroes, like Egypt’s Um Kalthoum, a peasant girl who became one of the world’s richest and most famous women. As a renowned singer, she regularly performed special concerts for Egypt’s needy. For fifty years her songs of love appealed to the hearts and minds of Arabs. She could sing for five consecutive hours without stopping. When she died in 1975, the Egyptian government did not release the news for seven days, fearing public chaos. The media transmitted daily reports about her “illness.” Until now, no single death has been so mourned by the Arab people.

Another contemporary hero is Huda Sharawi, also of Egypt and a pioneer of the Arab Women’s Liberation Movement, who led several demonstrations in her country in the early part of the century against the oppression of women and the British occupation. A promoter of national independence, she was known as the “Mother of the Modern Egyptian Family.” Ms. Sharawi wrote for and established political pamphlets and magazines in French and Arabic which supported women’s rights. She also advocated the abolishment of prostitution and warned against atomic armaments.

There is also Lebanese-born Rose Elyousef, an actress and famous journalist/publisher, who performed on stage in the early 1900’s when women were generally forbidden to appear in dramas. In Egypt, she established a weekly arts magazine, Rose Elyousef, which helped defend her and other actresses against public criticism. The magazine, the first to employ women as journalists, encountered ruthless opposition from officials. In another courageous move, Elyousef changed the contents of Rose Elyousef from art to politics. Again, the authorities harassed her and other staff members by censoring and periodically closing the magazine. Yet, she not only continued publishing Rose Elyousef but established a major publishing house. After Elyousef’s death her daughter Fatima started another famous weekly magazine, Sabaha Kheir (Good Morning). Both publications are known for their cartoons and sketches instead of photographs and remain available on today’s newsstands. Her son, Ishan Abd Quodoos, who acts as editor-in-chief of both magazines, is also one of the Arab world’s best novelists.

Television programs also generally ignore Arab contributions to world civilization. The Arabs gave the world a religion — Islam — a language and an alphabet. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, a number of Arab scholars wrote important documents on medicine, philosophy, history, religion, astronomy and geography. Hundreds of English words we use today are a sign of this legacy: algebra, zero, cipher, alcohol. The list runs on. Many of the original Arabic manuscripts were later translated and used in European schools. Famous Arab surgeons in the Middle Ages authored books and medical encyclopedias that, in Latin translation, became leading medical texts in European universities.

Arab doctors made numerous breakthroughs in the areas of drugs and surgery and wrote extensively on diseases and treatments. They were pioneers in introducing the kind of teaching hospitals and traveling clinics which served as models for Western countries. Arabs were the first to establish hospitals with different wards for different diseases and to restrict the practice of medicine to medical college graduates with diplomas. In surgery, they were the first to perform the procedure we know today as the caesarean section.

Arab physicians, who discovered the contagious nature of tuberculosis, recognized the highly infectious nature of the plague. They demonstrated that the disease could be transmitted by clothing and utensils as well as by personal contact. They were the first to diagnose stomach cancer, measles, smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague. All this occurred 300 years before Pasteur’s bacteriological discoveries.

Arab scholars adapted Hindu numerals into the numbers system we still use in a modified form today, invented algebra, made revolutionary advances in geometry and trigonometry, and taught the use of ciphers.

In astronomy, Arabs established the use of latitude and longitude. They built the world’s first observatory in western Iraq. When the telescope was still unknown, Arabs made important contributions in the use of observational instruments such as astrolabes, star maps and celestial globes. They introduced the concept of the center of gravity and prescribed to the ancient Greek theory that the world is round before Columbus ultimately proved it.

In Europe, Islamic contributions are of an everlasting value. The Arabs from North Africa focused on southern Spain, what they called al-Andalus (Andalusia), and built a remarkable civilization there. Moslem Arabs treated Christians and Jews with tolerance, so that many of them embraced Islam. Arabs established Cordoba as the most sophisticated city in Europe. By the 10th century Cordoba boasted a population of nearly 500,000, compared to about 38,000 in Paris. The city had 700 mosques, some 900 public baths, Europe’s first street lights, a water and sewage system, libraries, hospitals and research institutions.

One of Cordoba’s scholars was Abbas Ibn-Firnas, who constructed a pair of wings out of feathers on a wooden frame and made the first attempt to fly, anticipating Leonardo da Vinci by some 600 years. He also designed a planetarium. Not only was it mechanized — the planets actually rotated — but it simulated thunder and lightning. In 1154 the famous Cordoban scientist and poet al-Idrisi wrote a systematic geography of the world known as the Book of Roger, after his patron Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily. Arab geographers understood the basic outlines of Asia, North Africa and Europe by the 12th century, and their knowledge was documented in al-Idrisi’s impressive atlas.

The greatest geographer of Africa was an Arab, Hassan al-Wazzan. In the 16th century the Church brought him before Pope Leo X to write an account of his African travels. In time, al-Wazzan’s work appeared in many languages and for over 200 years served as the most authoritative account of Africa. Another Arab, Yaqut Ibn Abdullah al-Hamawi, wrote a geographical dictionary considered to be a forerunner to the modern-day encyclopedia. Important thinkers who flourished in the West in the 13th century, such as Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus and St. Albert the Great, acknowledged their debts to Arab scholars.

In the field of optics, Ibn al-Haytham made scientific progress with studies on focusing, magnifying, inversion of the image and the formation of rings and colors. His works helped influence Roger Bacon and Leonardo de Vinci, among others.

The Arabs invented the clock. Some of their time pieces moved by water, others by mercury or burning candles. The most famous is the water clock given to Charlemagne of France in 807 by the caliph Haroun al-Rashid.

They contributed to music theory, being the first to give time values to specific tones. The guitar and lute were originally Arab instruments. Arab architecture inspired the Gothic style and the Crusaders learned how to build fortifications from their Arab antagonists. The Arabs were pioneers in water works, a major preoccupation of people who live in arid or semiarid lands. As technicians, they built dams, used water wheels, dug wells, irrigation systems and underground canals. In agriculture, they introduced oranges, the cotton shrub, the mulberry bush, sugar cane and date palms.

Like other people, Arabs have made many contributions to civilization. Yet these contributions are rarely shown on our television screens…

The Arab world will number 300 million people by the year 2000. Its natural settings of rolling deserts, forested mountains, white beaches and lush green river banks are ripe for the cinematographer’s lens. There are untold stories to be heard within Arab communities. The emerging conflicts of individuals building nations while attempting to maintain valued religious and social traditions are many. Will their nations become so “modern” that social unity and faith decline? Will Arab folklore and language continue to survive alongside innovative ideas? Or will the technological future mute the Arab traditions of humor, poetry and song? Will the educated young, those who have studied at Arab universities or in Europe and the United States, continue to care for their parents at home? Or will they feel this is the responsibility of the state, of institutions? Will Western dress, already an accepted style in most Arab countries, reflect actual change in social roles and attitudes?

The drama of the Arab world awaits the television artist. But in order to capture such drama, the artist must first have a sincere motivation to care and to perceive. The artist might better follow those guidelines established by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith and “put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”

Most perceptions of Arabs today come not from real knowledge but from faulty and simplistic assumptions. The writer and producer, in cooperation with broadcast standards officials, will convey a truer image when they begin to see Arabs — indeed all people — as the multifaceted beings they are.

Dr. Jack G. Shaheen is Professor Emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University. He is currently a CBS television network consultant, is working on several books, and lectures extensively on the subject of shattering stereotypes. The following is an excerpt from his book, The TV Arab (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1984), reprinted here with permission.

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