16 July 2020
Between Two Worlds
East and West.
By Jehad Al-Omari
A few years after investing in the latest tablet technology I discovered that reading e-books is not for me. I mostly read in bed and there is an enjoyment in finding yourself having dozed off with a printed book on your face. I never could relax with the tablet for fear it might smash on to the tiled bedroom floor in my Amman flat. Though Jordanian, I have lived much of my life elsewhere, mainly in the UK, and thanks to Covid-19 I am now in Abu Dhabi. Over the years, tablet or no tablet, I have burdened movers and myself with an ever-increasing library of printed books. Thanks to Allah (Alhamdulillah) I have done so. It’s been a delight during the Covid-19 curfews to raid my library and re-read books.
Though to some I may appear to have lived between two worlds, divided between East and West, I have always felt that “East versus West” is a fallacy that does not belong to modern times and is a remnant of the past. It reminds me of Kipling’s famous “The Ballad of East and West” beginning:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.
Everyone can quote that first line but seldom the third and fourth lines, which carry the main message of the poem:
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.
During my time and work in the UK, Jeremy Paxman’s book The English was of a great use to me personally and professionally. I used to use some of its examples when training English (and even Scottish, Welsh and Irish!) business people to understand the similarities and differences between their culture and my Arab one. Over a month ago I happened to stumble across Paxman’s book in my Abu Dhabi library and it was as enjoyable a read as the first time.
Somewhere towards the end of the book he mentioned the name of the 17th century English novelist, playwright and poet Aphra Behn and in particular her literary work Oroonoko or The Royal Slave. The writer’s first name immediately struck me as sounding similar to the Arabic name Afrah or Afraa’.
The next day I googled Aphra Behn and was immediately captivated by her story. She wasn’t just that rarity for the times, a successful woman writer, she was also an adventurer and spy. There was something very engaging about her personality, the mystery of her origins, her marriage, alleged spying activities and the circles within which she moved. The Royal Slave’s complicated plot also intrigued me. Its author seemed to have an unorthodox view of slavery as early as the end of the 17th century.
Subsequently I wrote a fairly short post (in Arabic) on Facebook on Aphra Behn and The Royal Slave with a few words about Jeremy Paxman. To my surprise, there was considerable interest in “Aphra”. It is as if there was an immediate bond between “Aphra” and Arab readers simply because it sounded Arabic. A friend of mine who lived in Yemen also pointed out that the name was very common amongst Jewish Yemenis. I looked up the English name “Aphra” on the internet and found it is of biblical origin, meaning dust. In Arabic, the verb “Affar” also relates to dust and earth, whereas the name “Afrah” or “Afraa” means white. Not surprising given the Semitic roots of Hebrew and Arabic.
So fascinated were my readers with this newly found “cousin” that several of them asked if I could write more about Aphra Behn and so as not to disappoint them I decided to dig more. To my delight I found that there was another work of hers that is closer to home – The Moor’s Revenge. In writing this she appears to have been influenced by an earlier work by the writer Thomas Dekker called Lust’s Dominion. From what I could discover on the internet, it is argued that Behn presented a more balanced view of the Moor or the Arab than Dekker, who described a ruthless, lustful and vengeful Arab. Could it be possible that we are up against two schools of orientalism with opposing views that preceded the 18th and 19th century orientalism on which Edward Saeed based his famous 1978 book of the same name? I don’t know but it is something that I intend to pursue, especially as Behn’s and Dekker’s weren’t the only works on Arabs from that period.
It’s also interesting to note that whilst Dekker called his Arab villain “Eleazer”, Behn thought that the name was not sufficiently Arabic. So, to give more authenticity to the name she added the pre-fix “Abdel” (or Abdul as it is now commonly written) and called her Moor Prince “Abdelazer”. Abdel or Abdul means “Slave of the”. It has nothing to do with slavery but has religious connotations and meanings. Names such as Abdul Kareem or Abdul Hameed or Abdul Azeez are Arabic names (masculine) in which Kareem, Hameed and Azeez are three of the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah (God). However, both names used by Dekker and Behn are not Arabic and the most rational explanation for “Eleazer” by Dekker (later corrupted to “Azer” by Behn) is that the original name used by Dekker is actually Jewish and he may somehow have got confused on the differences between those two Semitic tribes. In this case, I guess that “Eleazer” is the same name as the biblical “Eliezer”.
It is thought that Dekker was in his turn influenced in his work by the Diplomatic mission led by Ambassador Abdul Wahid Bin Massoud Bin Anoun on behalf of the King of Morocco, Mawlay Ahmed Al Mansour, in the year 1600 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He stayed for six months negotiating a possible British Moroccan alliance against the Spanish which in the end came to nothing. One can only wonder how our world would be different now had this alliance worked. I can’t stop myself from visualizing the look on Londoners’ faces seeing this ambassador in his Arabian robes strolling the streets of London. And what did he think of Londoners then!!
The prevailing wisdom that the Arabs are predominantly anti-Western is, in my opinion, a misconception that is propagated by those who benefit from it most. Over the past few years I have written many posts about my life in the UK under the title London Papers and these semi-memoirs have been very popular with my followers, as I was presenting a different view of the West that goes against the usual rhetoric. I found that there is a genuine interest in understanding the “West”. People are truly attentive when hearing a different story that challenges long-established views. There is a thirst or hunger to see the West as it was experienced by someone they trust as opposed to hearing the same old bullshit.
Just over two weeks ago I began to write posts about T E Lawrence, General Allenby and others in connection with the Great Arab Revolt during World War I. Once again I was surprised at the interest in the subject. Without doubt, the Arab Revolt continues to provoke nostalgic feelings amongst my readers and a belief that Allenby, Lawrence and the British in general betrayed the Arabs. However, there is more to it than that. There is genuine interest in revisiting and re-examining our views of the West. The hardliners don’t want that and may see this as a betrayal of the Cause. The old emotional rhetoric used by extremists is no longer persuasive and people are willing to lend their ears to new voices. The old clichés are not as convincing as they used to be. Arabs are willing to hear that T E Lawrence should not be written off as another spy; that maybe Allenby was more sympathetic to the Arab Revolt than historians have suggested; and that maybe the fact that he delayed his army’s march to Damascus was a genuine gesture to give Prince Faisal, later King of Iraq, a good chance to claim it and the whole of Syria as a land liberated by the Arabs for the Arabs.