What Distinguishes the West from the Arab World?

Nouri Al Jarrah heads a research centre in Abu Dhabi whose employees browse through libraries worldwide in search of old Arabic travellers' tales that the institute then publishes in new editions. Julia Gerlach spoke to Al Jarrah

Nouri Al Jarrah (photo: Larissa Bender)
According to Nouri Al Jarrah, the Arab world will strengthen its identity by studying Arab conceptions of the West

​​According to the Syrian poet Nouri Al Jarrah, travelling intellectuals felt closely attached to the West, and it was only the West's double standards and power politics that eventually alienated them.

"Beyond the Horizon" is the title of a series of publications that now comprises more than 50 volumes, including diaries, research reports and adventure stories. Al Jarrah wants to demonstrate that Arabs have always been interested in the wider world.

Mr. Jarrah, what is your aim with this project? In the 19th century, the age of travel was followed by the age of reform. Is this the point you're making?

Nouri Al Jarrah: Naturally, we're hoping to enlighten the public a little. These travellers – many of whom visited Europe – asked themselves questions that are still worth pondering today. What distinguishes the West from the Arab world? What do we have to do to catch up? What do we want to adopt from the West and what not? These reports also demonstrate that most Arabs admired the West. Only in the 20th century did this change.

So you want readers to realise something: "We were already so far advanced so long ago"?

Al Jarrah: Yes – and even more importantly, we placed the individual at the centre of things. The reports we are re-publishing are, after all, highly subjective: a single human being wrote down his view of the world. In recent decades, this kind of approach has not been terribly popular in the Arab world. At the centre of things where the nation, the people as a whole, or the family – and the individual didn't play much of a role. Only when we place the individual in the centre will things change.

You have just published the diary of an Arab scholar who travelled to Germany at the end of the 19th century. How did he like it here?

Al Jarrah: In 1889, Hassan Taufik al Idl travelled from Berlin via Westphalia to Cologne and Frankfurt; then he continued through Switzerland, on to Leipzig and back to Berlin – and he wrote down a precise description of what he saw and experienced. For travellers of that period, Germany was a pretty exotic destination.

Many travelled to Paris and London. These cities were regarded as centres of progress, and a lot of the travellers who visited Europe in the 19th century – after Napoleon had shaken the Arab world with his Egyptian adventure – had come to find out why Europe was so progressive. Most of them, however, made only brief detours to Germany at most.

People admired France and England for their progressiveness. By no later than the mid-19th century, however, this admiration was accompanied by contempt for the colonialist countries. People sympathised with Germany, though, and one mustn't forget the importance of the German intellectual tradition for the Arab world.

Goethe's "West-Östlicher Diwan", for example. Even in my generation, many people still read Brockelmann's books when they wanted to understand Arabian history. By contrast, the French and British Orientalists were always approached with distrust; these people investigated the Orient because they wanted to dominate it. Arabs were more inclined to believe that the Germans were motivated by honest scholarly interest. By the way: the traveller I referred to, Hassan Taufiq Al Idl, taught Arabic in Berlin for a while – and his students included precisely these Orientalists.

But he wasn't the first Arab to travel to Germany. There were also reports by Ibn Yacoub – and, of course, Ibn Fadlan…

Al Jarrah: You are referring to the early reports written by travellers during the first few centuries of Islam. At that time, the Arab world was in its Golden Age – and Europe, it has to be said, was not exactly a beacon of progress.

We are now publishing the old travellers' tales in new editions. Personally, though, I'm more interested in the experiences of those who visited Europe in modern times. There are approximately 300 accounts by Arab travellers who explored the world in the 19th century. Many of them went to Europe. They included scholars who had been sent by their governments, but also merchants, businessmen and the first tourists.

But doesn't one also find a lot of tired clichés in their writings? Sheik Rifaat al Tahtawi, who visited Paris in 1832, bangs away at the same old topics: values, morality and personal hygiene – and the way women are represented... These early travellers' accounts also contain a lot of clichés about the West that still find a place in people's heads today – that Western women are "easy", for example.

Al Jarrah: No, I see this differently. Who, after all, is actually familiar with the old travellers' tales? The average educated Arab would perhaps have heard of Ibn Batuta or Rifaat Al Tahtawi, but their knowledge begins and ends there.

By means of our project, we are trying to give these accounts a place in the public consciousness once again. They are a part of our history, and a particularly interesting part at that. Because they show that there was once a time when we were asking ourselves much the same kind of questions we're asking ourselves today, and looking for answers by travelling abroad. That's what we want to link up with.

I can't imagine that the clichés about Europeans were communicated by means of these travellers' tales. Some people in the Arab world may think Western women are "easy, but if you ask me, stars such as Britney Spears have a lot more to do with that than all of these traveller' tales combined. A lot of those travellers set off on their journeys precisely because they wanted to find out the secret of Western progress – and many of them thought they had found the answer in the different status of women in the West.

How did your project "Beyond the Horizon" arise? Who finances it?

Al Jarrah: I have always had a passion for travellers' tales, and the same can be said of the man who initiated this project: Mohammed Ahmed Al Suwaidi, a businessman and intellectual from the United Arab Emirates. He then asked me if I would like to set up and develop this centre. That was five years ago. Now we have published around 50 volumes.

Where do the manuscripts come from?

Al Jarrah: We were in libraries in the entire region, in Teheran, in Cairo, and in London too. I was in Baghdad shortly before the war – luckily. That library has now been destroyed. I visited libraries in Germany, too. We go through the manuscripts and add footnotes.

In addition, we organise congresses, and we have recently started sending Arab writers off to explore the world and sent us their reports. Mohammed al Harithi, for example has just returned from India. Because, of course, there are also many fascinating countries outside of Europe, countries where we can learn something.

Have you come to any conclusions after reading all these travellers' accounts?

Al Jarrah: Each one of these reports stands alone, but one can perhaps sum them up as a whole by saying that the Arab travellers had a very positive attitude towards Europe. They felt very closely attached to this continent, and it was only the West's double standards and power politics that eventually alienated them.

Incidentally: this distinguishes the Arab travellers from their Western counterparts. For all their delight in "the Orient", European travellers tended to draw a negative and above all cliché-ridden picture of the Arab world. Flaubert's account of his trip to Egypt just bristles with clichés and untruths.

Can one say, then, that there is an Occidentalism comparable to the Orientalism of the West? In Europe, this topic is currently much discussed: the way Europe is represented by its enemies.

Al Jarrah: That's nonsense. Orientalism is a structure of thought, a concept designed to dominate the East. Perhaps Arabs also have hackneyed ideas about the West, and no doubt the old travellers' tales are not entirely free of stereotypes; but there is no trace of the theory, the system of domination, that would make an "Occidentalism" possible.

Interview: Julia Gerlach

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from German by Patrick Lanagan


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