For many people, the idea of an Arab comes straight out of the movies. Lawrence of Arabia, riding a camel across a sand dunes, face wrapped in a light colored scarf. Wikipedia says Arabs inhabit the Arab world in North Africa, Western Asia, the Horn of Africa and the western Indian Oceans. For most of us on the outside the Arabic-speaking world, anyone who speaks Arabic and is Muslim by default is probably an Arab.
“Oh, but we’re not Arabs”
A phrase I heard not once or twice, but from a host or contact in just about every Arabic speaking nation I travelled to for work. So Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia … none of whom see themselves as Arab. Pretty much all of North Africa, and some of the Middle East. According to the people who live in a lot of that area, they are not Arabs at all. Clearly, speaking Arabic and being Muslim isn’t a defining feature, at least among the Arabic-speaking and Muslim populations of the world.
So, what exactly is an Arab, then?
The Arabic word for Morocco is Maghreb, meaning the west. In English, the Maghreb region encompasses the western part of the Arabic speaking world. It is the traditional home of the Berber people, who still make up the majority of the ethnic population in Morocco. Around a third of Moroccans speak some flavour of Berber as their first language and for many, it’s their only language. The Maghreb encompasses also Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Libya as well. Each of these countries has a large proportion of their ethnic background that is Berber. Berber languages are said to be related to ancient Egyptian.
Educated and wealthier Moroccans speak Arabic, but often learn it in school rather than at home, and French. French is the language used in most official work, including academia and government. English is not as important, although the hordes of tourists who descend on the beaches of Agadir every year will find that residents speak the languages of tourism, mostly English, Italian, German, Russian.
In Algeria, French colonialism has left behind an educated class of French speaking academicians, politicians and government agencies. Not as tourist-friendly, Algerians don’t speak English or other European languages as often. Berber is now one of the official languages of the country. Tunisians are also primarily French speakers in their public life, and are also primarily ethnically Berber.
The rest of the the Arab world is known as the Mashriq. Translating to a poetic reference to the rising sun, the Mashriq is made up of Sudan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Sudanese are ethnically sub-Saharan African, but culturally Muslim and Arabic speaking. The Arabian peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, are majority ethnically Bedouin , the nomadic tribes who roamed the region. They settled gradually in major centres over the last two hundred years, often in response to European influences. The peoples of the Levant (which are the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea) are more aligned culturally to Europe. Ethnically, they are Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and Jewish, as well as Arab.
Egypt is usually grouped with the Mashriq but is in fact an anomaly with an ethnic heritage from both Sub-Saharan Africa, the Levant, and North Africans. The Nubian people of the southern part of the country are genetically sub-Saharan African, while there were influxes of more northern peoples from Turkey, especially during the Mameluke Sultanate which started roughly a thousand years ago.
So … what is an Arab again?
People from the region define Arabs as people from the Arabian peninsula, comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman. And that’s it. Westerners would probably think of them as the Bedouin. Bedouin clans range from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East, but are a minority in most of the region except the Arabian peninsula, where they are the majority and the House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, are descendants of a Bedouin clan whose territory is reputed to be near Riyadh, in modern Saudi Arabia.
What the west labels a homogeneous Arab people is actually a hodgepodge of ethnic Berbers, Bedouin, Turkish and other northern peoples, and sub-Saharan Africans. The further west you go in the region, the more the population is ethnically Berber, and the further east you go in the region, the more the population is Bedouin in heritage. This results in dramatically different ways of being “Arab,” as cultural heritage that predates the Arabization of the region starting from the 7th Century CE.
It’s very easy to travel for a westerner to Morocco. Westerners can largely dress as they like, unless they leave the major centres and travel to the rural areas, which are quite traditional. Many people in rural areas speak only Berber, and live in poverty far more often than city dwellers. Algeria, in recent years, is far more socialist than its neighbours and has a more egalitarian perspective of the world. Unlike its neighbours, there is not an obesity problem there. Tunisians have one of the most active and effective movements for women’s rights in the region. Egyptians are unique in the Arab world, following the beat of their own drummer, usually dancing in the street. Egyptians love a party and don’t care who it’s for or what the event is. Valentine’s Day? No problem. Christmas? Is there a feast? Awesome. The Levant is highly oriented towards Europe due to colonialism. While the region is more conservative than the majority of Europe, people wear the same clothes and largely aspire to the same lifestyles as Europeans, notwithstanding the greater levels of poverty that affect, as always, rural areas more.
Then the Arabian peninsula is Bedouin in culture. The importance of hunting is still strong, including camel riding and racing and falconry. Recently, there was a story in the local news about a flight that carried nothing but high end hunting falcons in the first class cabin, each of which was travelling for an event and had their ticket paid by their wealthy owner.
The peninsula is known for a legal system more closely aligned with sharia law, or religious Islamic codes, especially in Saudi Arabia, where women only recently earned the right to drive. Women in Saudi still require a male guardian for many day-to-day activities, including getting a job. Essentially, women are considered minors who cannot make their own decisions. It’s sold as Islamic law, but this interpretation of Islam is unheard of in areas that are ethnically Berber. Clearly, it hearkens back to an era that predates Islam in the region.
So what is an Arab?
Most westerners assume that if someone speaks Arabic, they are an Arab. Often, people assume that speaking Arabic comes with a strong adherence to sharia law. This is simply not true. Arabic speakers are as ethnically and culturally diverse as Christians are from one another. The strict ethos of the Saudis are as different from fun loving Egyptians or the Euro-oriented Lebanese or Moroccans as Southern Baptists are from Anglicans are from Eastern Orthodox Christians.
To most of the west, an Arab is someone who speaks Arabic. The reality is far more complex than that.