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Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners.

SOME PHENOMENON is at work behind the plethora of books on the Arab mind and society. Has any other group of people been so highly analysed, defended and explained, and at the same time so misunderstood? When described in stark terms, the Arabs are rendered as museum pieces, or the sensitive child who needs to be flattered and led by fantasy, whose repressive familial and social institutions offer a discipline throughout his life, while encouraging his dependence.

The books under review make reference to this image, but in a rich context that presents a way of thinking and doing at times entirely in contradiction to Western ways. Whether these inherent differences lead to conflict or to appreciation of alternate approaches to shared problems remains to be seen. Probably both. Each book offers something unique and noteworthy and for that reason makes for worthwhile reading.

Fuad Khuri, an accomplished Lebanese social anthropologist who has taught for many years in the United States, wrote Imams and Emirs as a comprehensive and orderly examination of the role of minorities and sects in the Middle East. A sect is distinguished from a religious minority by its isolation and regional specificity. Among the enclaves he considers are the Alawis, Druzes, Ibadis, Yazidis and Maronites.

The title stems from the perhaps irreconcilable conflict between the religious authorities, the ulama, and the emirs, whose power stems from coalition-building, persuasion and coercion. The author sees sectarianism as a force to be reckoned with in all Middle East countries - not just in Lebanon where sectarian divisions have most obviously comprised the formal political order. In focussing on the formation of religious ideology - those factors that bind together a religious community - and on religious organisation, or the training and functioning of the religious elite, Khuri sets up a system that works well in the analysis of community and sect. The interplay between imam and emir varies from state to state, according to the ideology and organisational differences. But the constant factor seems to be their definition to some degree as rebellious, chiefly in terms of a challenge to state authority.

Tents and Pyramids looks at less formal institutions in Arab society to draw some telling images of power structures and social norms. The title derives from two paradigms of organisation, that of identical tents scattered across a campground, where no hierarchy is discernible and there is a struggle to be "first among equals," or the graded, stratified model, depicted by a pyramid, where every soul has its assigned place in the pecking order.

The Ibadi saying, "There dwells an imam in every soul", should indicate that, for Khuri, the cluster of tents presages the formation of the Arab struggle for dominance. One either dominates or is dominated, and a series of examples ranging from backgammon and other native games, to arranged marriages, to kinship rules, and again to the interplay between the secular and religious authorities provide ample illustration to prove the point.

The lack of a clear hierarchy forces a constant manoeuvering for position, especially in order to avoid the vulnerability of exclusion and isolation. This formation of power bases works in opposition to a broad-based general public and thus the notion of "republic", the author claims. Thus it can be explained why Arab rulers remain autocrats, not held accountable for their actions by the public at large. The wealth of vivid examples, from detailed charts of kinship relations to explanations of games, make this study captivating reading, with illustrations that encapsulate many of the vagaries of Arab society so difficult to pin down.

Understanding Arabs is a disappointingly banal and patronising title for what is an acutely perceptive study of the most salient differences between Western and Middle Eastern ways to life. Beginning with an overview of how much the Arab world has been transformed in recent years by the introduction of Western technology, the dilemma presented is how Arab traditions can be reconciled with modernisation. The author wishes such a guide had been written by an Arab, but as a scholar and teacher of Arabic with much experience in the Arab world, she seems a fitting substitute.

Continuing with the themes of the other books reviewed, Nydell quotes from a variety of Arab sources who conclude that the growth of Western civilisation has in many ways been at the expense of the traditions of Muslim society. Far from seeking to emulate the West, the Arabs seek to avoid the social ills, discord and strife that have been the by-product of both capitalism and Communism.

Practical points, such as how to compliment a child, treat a beggar or refuse more food and why form the backbone of this book. In speaking of family cohesion and responsibility, the author links the preference for boys as a means of increasing family's importance and influence, and then explains the unique roles of men and women in society.

Other headings on the centrality of the family and religion and methods of communication are expanded upon in appendices on the Arabic language, the Koran, and variations from country to country. Further books and sources are listed for additional reference, making this with the author's personal experiences, one of the best documented and concrete books of the kind.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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