The Orientalist View of Arab Nationalism

Posted: December 8, 2014 in Discussion
Tags: ,

 (Gertrude Bell is in the center, flanked by TE Lawrence and Winston Churchill)


Below is a quote from a woman named  Gertrude Bell, a woman who even Edward Said described as an Orientalist. She is describing her view of Arab nationalism. What is she talking about? Is Arab nationalism a substantive thing? Many of you today identified yourself as Arab first….are you? Is she right or wrong?


“Of what value are the pan-Arabic associations and inflammatory leaflets that they issue from foreign printing presses? The answer is easy: they are worth nothing at all. There is no nation of Arabs; the Syrian merchant is separated by a wider gulf from the Bedouin than he is from the Osmanli, the Syrian country is inhabited by Arabic speaking races all eager to be at each other’s throats, and only prevented from fulfilling their natural desires by the ragged half fed soldier who draws at rare intervals the Sultan’s pay.”
-Gertrude Bell
  1. Absolutely brilliant, eloquent, and beautifully put together Gertrude!!!

    Her words are truth, the whole truth, and nothing but truth. I mean really there isn’t anything tangible or for that matter important that binds a people together more than their humanity.

    The Arabs of Iraq and the Arabs of Syria and the Arabs of Egypt and the Arabs of The Gulf and… wanted nothing more than fulfilling their own baseless and selfish human desires all along. We have evidence from history when they targeted their canons towards each other. Palestine-Jordan, Iraq-Kwait,…. There never was such thing as Arabs. It is a tool used by any of the Arab rulers to fool the commoners and make them believe that the wants of the ruler are in fact the most noble wants of the Arab nationalism.

    There is nothing that make the “arabs”, arabs. The language doesn’t make all the English speaking people “English.”………

    • Daniel A. Leal says:

      Why is identifying with the humanity okay, in terms of homo sapiens, but not in terms of people who may speak the same language as you?

      Is any identification that causes and us and a them, almost all, then wrong?

      • Ok so if you wear white then I should identify with you because we wear the same color?

        Humanity and language are two different things. Humanity concerns morality and decisions based on which the harmony of communal life depends. Language can be learned and… I can’t consider myself Arab just because I can speak Arabic.

        And with regards to your later comment, yes in my view any identification that causes an US and THEM is archaic, and absurd.

  2. Juliana Kaldany says:

    The fact that Gertrude is orientalist doesn’t mean that what she speaks of isn’t true. I agree with her to a certain limit. I agree that there is nothing unifying what are considered to be “Arab” countries, but she elaborates and explains that there is no “Arab” nation, as if that is the only thing preventing these countries to unite. Orientalism isn’t always bad. Gertrude’s observation is quite spot on and many “Arabs” wouldn’t be able to see things in this region with such clarity because of the biases we are raised to hear and believe.

  3. Juliana Kaldany says:

    Why should I, a Jordanian, take the responsibility of a country such as Syria? We speak the same language, sure. We have similar cultures because we’re in the same region, sure. That doesn’t mean that we can just be labeled and named together as if we were just a recently discovered species. Just labeling and compartmentalizing people of this region is racism in itself.

    • Well, you might have heard that in unity lies safety….
      Actually, Arabs aren’t that far from each other. In fact, people who consider themselves Jordanians, aren’t entirely Jordanian. Their ancestors were either from Syria or Egypt or… This region is a tribal region and people share common values. People’s language, culture, and history bonds this region together.
      Even if some people think Arabism is baseless and blah blah blah, then I tell them you The West labels you all as one package regardless of what you think so you might as well stick together… There are loads of great political and socio-economic outcomes to having a big Arab nation in the least…

      • Jude Hadadeen says:

        Regarding what you said on how people who consider themselves Jordanians aren’t entirely Jordanian. I’m Jordanian and my ancestors traces back to here, Madaba. Please don’t generalize, and try to know the whole picture behind what you’re trying to argue.

      • Jude, I am not speaking about one person. I am speaking generally… Jordan just came about a few decades ago.

        BUT that’s not even my point. What I am trying to say is this: Arabs are one blood, one race, one language and one culture… so it is better that they embrace that Arabness proudly…

      • I mean There existed greater shaam and… look at how many individual arab nations are there now…

      • salehqadi says:

        I totally disagree with you that Arabs are all ‘one blood, one race, one language and one culture’. There is an orientalist view and a ‘true’ view. The orientalist view is that Arabs are all one, they have that ‘one blood, one race, one language and one culture’. The true view, which is what I personally believe, that Arabs are so different and are not the same. Of course they would have some cultural similarities because at the end they were all together and stuff, but now each country is different, it’s so different in here than it is in Saudi for example or Egypt. Things are different now.

      • Saleh,
        You fail to understand that your “true” view is t like a lollipop that makes you happy, but gains you nothing of a sentimental value. History suggests that this region was one great sham and there was one great culture…. these recent geographic deviations are nothing but the results of the greed for power of only a few people. To deny your Arabness is to deny your origin and disrespect the ancestors… Saying that Arabs have shared values is no orienatal view, but a fact.

      • Wali, I’m confused by your responses. First you said you 100% agree with the quote above and even lauded it. But now in your responses to other people, you are saying that “people’s language, culture, and history bonds this region together”, and that “Arabs are one blood, one race, one language and one culture… so it is better that they embrace that Arabness proudly”. Could you please clarify this?

      • salehqadi says:

        Wali habeebe, first of all this quote talks about what Arab nationalism would bring to us, but says nothing about Arabs rejecting our Arabness, you can find no REALY LOYAL Arab rejecting this identity, some people are really proud of it, and yes I’m one of these. Second, my comment clearly says that I deny the fact that all Arabs are one. Nowadays, we all know that we don’t have a strong of Arab nationalism, and therefore the sense of this nationalism is not as strong as it was. You said there ‘was one’ but now there isn’t. Despite the fact that I’m totally confused now on whether you’re with the quote or not, but I think the key for moving on is to forget about the past and make a future. Saying that there ‘was’ will not get us anywhere.

      • I take my words back. It is clear to me that an argument for nationalism is based solely on emotions, self interests, and nothing else. I would like to stick to my earlier words. :p

      • Rashed says:

        There are huge benefits of having just one large Arab nation if this was in ideal world Walli, but that is just a dream right now. I doubt countries in the GCC would prefer to integrate with impoverished and unstable countries like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Tunis, and Libya. Borders were created because they knew Arabs tend to clash with one another and this way they would be kept separate. I partly agree with her. But I do believe what stops Arabs tearing at each others throats for supremacy would be Western intervention in a weakened Arabia, not the ragged half fed soldier.

  4. Juliana Kaldany says:

    I’m not saying Jordan shouldn’t support Syria but I’m using it as an example because as an Arab country we are expected to welcome and support any other Arab country, because we’re Arab. And my point is the injustice of the Arab label itself.

  5. salehqadi says:

    For me, I totally believe that Arab nationalism is just something that is ‘trying’ to hold all Arabs as one, but is just failing in every way you can think of. I mean most of us would choose their countries’ nationality over their Arab nationality. Arab nationalism becomes something that only defines people because of the Arabic language that is shared among Arab nations, and the ‘official’ religion of the countries. I personally think that if Arab nationalism existed, then Palestine would have been freed since long time ago, but some people would not really care. Those same people would hold a gun and fight in the first rows if an attack or a threat was to their countries, that is the main difference, it’s the sense of nationalism that would let them defend their countries and the lack of that sense (for the Arab nationalism) is what makes us only care about our own countries not the Arabic countries.

  6. Juliana Kaldany says:

    Saleh, it isn’t just about defending one another. It’s about the term itself. People around the world, including you, label you with this term. We are put into a group called the “Arabs” and we accept it. As you said there’s nothing uniting us except our shared language (which by the way has so many different dialects that aren’t always understood by one another). What makes this worse is that we identify with the term.

  7. Faisal.D says:

    saleh back before the problems in Iraq and Syria, us Arabs where none of fighting together and you brought up the issue that if the Arab nationalism existed this wouldn’t happen well just so you know Egypt and Jordan and many other Arab countries went to war to get back Palestine so don’t go saying if Arab nationalism existed this wouldn’t off happen because I don’t know if you know this but Egypt and Iraq fired missiles on Israel but it was useless . And plus the biggest Arabic nationalism was between Jordan and Iraq in the past when Malek Hussein And Sadam Hussein may there souls rest in peace us Jordan used to get free gas and petroleum from Iraq and Whenever iraq would go to war Jordan would do there best and try and

  8. Faisal.D says:


  9. salehqadi says:

    Faisal, I think I reallllyyyy need to correct your geographical facts a bit. First of all, you said Arabs, but you only mentioned 4 countries. You know how many Arab states are there? TWENTY TWO my friend. 4/22 is like 18% what are you talking about?? Go read the news man, the King of Saudi Arabia went out on tv during the last war on Gaza and clearly said that what Hamas was doing was wrong and he even said that we ‘should get rid of all these ‘terrorist’ groups’. He called the people who defend their lands as terrorists.. So you call this nationalism right? If Arabs were only Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt then this would be a PERFECT combination, but like 5 or 6 years ago definitely not now, because now, except Jordan, these countries are totally damaged and messed up after Arab Spring -for Syria and Egypt- or the American occupation and Islamist extremist parties and terrorist groups -like Iraq and Syria- so now only one of those four countries you mentioned is still strong and getting stronger (Jordan). Think about the rest a bit… The Arabic Gulf, all what they’re interested in is building islands and hotels under seas. Oh right and giving fuel to Israel for free or for a VERY low cost. All those Israeli fighting aircraft’ fuel is given by Khalijis, Qatar and Saudi.. It has alot to it bro, it isn’t only those four countries.

  10. salehqadi says:

    Julianna, yes I agree with you we’re defined as Arabs but how is this really making our life as good??!!! Being an Arab does not get you control or power or something, it only gets you more free security checking in airports and some other places if you really like it. I believe each country should be individual with no ‘Arabs’ thing. If it was something that brings benefits to countries then I’d go with it, but this gives us nothing but stereotypes. I don’t have to take the blame for BinLaden or AlQaeda who did several terrorist attacks on the West because I was born in an Arabic family or was raised in an Arabic country. DIGNITY over IDENTITY.

  11. Daniel A. Leal says:

    There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying yourself with a group of people because you speak the same language. Nationalism and Arabism are not inherently wrong. What makes things hurtful to others is the fact that such identification, and the pride that comes with, may be abused. In the case of the Arabs, Gammal Abdel Nasser abused Arabism, while the British and possibly Israel, belittled it. As Arabs, Arabism makes you stronger and weaker at the same time, it comes down to how malleable you allow yourself to be.

    I also liked Bell’s dig at Arabism being a foreign concept that is misunderstood, ” Of what value are the pan-Arabic associations and inflammatory leaflets that they issue from foreign printing presses?”

    I cannot help it but wonder though. If there is no such thing as an Arab and it is all an illusion, most things possibly are, then is there such a thing as European?

    Possibly it is that European nationalism has succeed because Europe has not been colonized?

    Has Europe been colonized by the U.S.?

    Is globalization a version of colonialism, a much more egalitarian, or at least free flowing due to the Internet, one?

  12. As I was reading this quote, yes, I did think about ‘is there really an Arab nationalism?’ along the lines of most of the comments I see above. But more than that, I was curious as to how this quote could be considered orientalist. Is it orientalist? If it is, then does the fact that she thinks Arab tribalism trumps over any form of Arab solidarity make it orientalist? Or does the fact that she expects there to be an Arab nationalism (for all Arabs, because they ARE the same, aren’t they?) make it orientalist?

  13. Juliana Kaldany says:

    Seungjung, I don’t really think the observation itself is orientalist, but Gertrude according to Said is an orientalist. And her being an orientalist doesn’t mean every observation she makes is orientalist.

  14. Marah Tarawneh says:

    Arab nationalism can be explained by the quote that we always use in class “my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger.” but on a bigger scale. Each country is concerned with its own people and will do the best for them regardless of all their cousins (the other Arab countries). However, the minute there’s an “other” (typically the US or Israel) interfering with the cousins, the Arab nationalism sparks and is strengthened. Xenophobia strengthens the Arab nationalism just like any other nationalism, but the thing with Arab nationalism is that when there’s no “other” we tend to forget about it.
    The other problem is that many deny this to be true, and believe that Arab nationalism exists strongly all the time. I think this is where Orientalism comes in. Arabs want to hold on Arab nationalism because they want to hold on their glorious past and heritage. They are nostalgic to their history when many Arab countries where one big country, or to Jamal Abdul Nasser’s era or to when Sharif Hussein united them for the Great Arab Revolution. This sounds in a way similar to “timeless” place and stuck in the past Orientalist view. I think that is why she raised this question, because to her now this denial “worth nothing at all”.

    • Mallak Al Husban says:

      I really like what you said, Marah. Arab Nationalism is only stimulated by outside influence, it isn’t something that is always present which puts it at risk of extinction and washing away with time.

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