It all depends on your origins

Criticism of prevailing religious and social conventions is still taboo in Arab discourse. But that urgently needs to change, so that we no longer judge people by their origins in future, but rather based on what they have achieved.
Criticism of prevailing religious and social conventions is still taboo in Arab discourse. But that urgently needs to change, so that we no longer judge people by their origins in future, but rather based on what they have achieved.

Criticism of prevailing religious and social conventions is still taboo in Arab discourse. But that urgently needs to change, so that we no longer judge people by their origins in future, but rather based on what they have achieved, says Egyptian writer Khaled al-Khamissi in his essay

Essay by Khaled al-Khamissi

We are listening to the folk history of the Bani Hilal tribe: "The time of the honourable ones was coming to an end. It was followed by the rule of the unworthy. An incompetent servant became successor to the unfortunate kings."

The listener may conclude from this tale that the world is divided into the "honourable" and the "unworthy". The murmured account of the narrator just might make one contemplate this division and in the end agree with it.

Upon returning home, the listener turns on the radio and hears the popular Egyptian singer Mohammed Taha performing his folk song "It all depends on your origins". The lyrics go: "Love is in the blood; it is not white, it is not brown". Again, our listener nods in agreement: that's right, love is in the blood. A girl's background is important.

Taha goes on: "She never incurs shame, even were you to shoot her dead." Of course, our listener thinks, a young woman of reputable lineage would never tarnish her husband's honour, quite unlike a girl of dishonourable stock.

The next day, our listener goes to the mosque, where the sheikh talks about the fine origins of the Quraysh tribe and then quotes a hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad according to the tradition; editor's note): "Once when the Prophet Muhammad entered a house, he asked: Is everyone here a member of the Quraysh? The answer: No, the sister's son is not. The Prophet replied: The son of a sister belongs to the tribe. That is how it is with the Quraysh: When one pleads with them, they show mercy; when they rule, they rule righteously; and when they share, they share honestly. The curse of God, the angels and all humankind falls on those who do not act in this manner." Whoever belongs to the tribe of Quraysh has a noble character; this is what the hadith tells us.

Anti-racism protest in Tunis (image: Fauque Nicolas/Images de Tunis/ABACA/picture-alliance)
In early March 2023, Tunisian President Kais Saied spoke of Black migrants in Tunisia wanting to change "the demographic composition" of the country. The intention being for the country to become purely African and to lose its Muslim-Arab identity. He said that this phenomenon must be put to an end. A massive wave of racially motivated violence against migrants from sub-Saharan Africa then broke out. The president had deliberately exploited racist attitudes that exist in Tunisian society to distract attention away from the country's dire economic situation

Origins define an individual

Our listener is someone like me, someone like most Arabs. Every day we hear traditional sayings, words of wisdom and admonitions. We read that a particular person belongs to a particular group, family or tribe, and we internalise the notion that this affiliation alone constitutes that person's character and nature, not what they have actually achieved in their lives. This discourse stems from backward-looking religious currents and the argumentation patterns of political Islam. It shows up in numerous texts on the Internet, where it is endlessly reproduced.

It all begins with the story of Noah – progenitor of us all, according to the Koranic tradition. His sons are said to have been the forefathers of various peoples: the Assyrians, Armenians, Hebrews and Arabs go back to Noah's son Shem, the peoples of Egypt and Africa descend from Ham, and Japheth is the forefather of the Europeans and Persians. Canaan is the only one that did not beget any offspring.

In some Jewish traditions there is a legend telling how Ham came upon his father naked one day and told his two brothers about it. When Noah learnt of this, he flew into a rage and asked God to withhold His blessing from Ham's descendants in Africa. Because we are descendants of Ham – who saw what he was not supposed to see – we Egyptians were cursed from the outset.

One of the first books I ever read was the four-part history of the pre-Islamic poet Antarah bin Shaddad (525–608). The book was an old, worn volume from my grandfather's library, and it, too, was about the importance of provenance. Antarah was a descendant of Shem, but was born to a Black mother – who was cursed by her descent from Ham. Although Antarah inherited her skin colour, he succeeded in proving the fine lineage of his untainted paternal ancestors and his efforts were finally crowned by marriage to his cousin Hamia, whose blood was spotless.

Egyptian writer Khaled al-Khamissi (image: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
خالد الخميسي حول ضرورة تفكيكك جوهر العنصرية البغيضة: "على الرغم من بديهية حقيقة أن كل إنسان يمارس ما يمارسه من فعل ونشاط وحركة نتيجة لعوامل متعددة ومركبة من ظروف حياتية واجتماعية وميول وقدرات ذهنية ونفسية، وتوليفة من مفارقات عجيبة، وأوضاع سياسية واقتصادية عامة، إلا أن البحث الجاد عن تفسير لكل هذا الحديث في خطابنا العربي عن الأصل يبدو معقدا، فلا يمكن التطرق لمداخل في التفكير دون تحليل التراث الشعبي والديني لمنطقتنا".

Interestingly enough, the same theme is found in the field of horse breeding. Arabian horses are divided into thoroughbreds and lower breeds. The story goes that the Arabs did not always succeed in separating the pure-bred horses from the rest due to incidences of war and flight. But because such a distinction was indispensable, the kings and emirs ordered all horses to be rounded up and harshly beaten, after which they were offered grass to eat. Those horses that began to eat were evidently inferior, while the others were the purebreds.

Attitudes toward dogs likewise betray this way of thinking. For example, when my daughter adopted a stray that had been found sleeping under a car in Cairo, some of my acquaintances were baffled that we would accept a dog without a pedigree.

"No difference except their fear of God"

But what is actually meant by "origin" or "descent" ("asl" in Arabic)? Is it about belonging to a ruling family? If that were so, even the son of a minor official would be of reputable origin. Or does it refer to wealthy families? For a long time, in fact, "asl" referred to ethnic origin. But then Islam proclaimed: "There is no difference between Arabs and non-Arabs except their fear of God". Instead of ethnic origin, the only thing that mattered henceforth was religion and how seriously it was taken.

As before, personal qualities and what people have to show for themselves in the way of professional achievements made no difference. For example, former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi used the phrase "grandchildren of monkeys and pigs" when referring to Zionists and settlers occupying Palestinian soil. Because distinctions are made even in the animal world, and a pig, for one, has a lower rank than a horse in the Arab world.

In Islamist writings, political opponents are often denigrated by presuming that they have Jewish roots; this alone stigmatises them as national traitors or champions of Islamophobic policies. A prime example is former Egyptian agricultural minister Yousef Wali, who people often told me was of Jewish origin. They then went on to tell of the damage Wali had done to agricultural policy because of his mother's background.

Former Egyptian Air Force officer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Raouf, one of the Free Officers in the orbit of Gamal Abdel Nasser and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, recounts in his memoirs a 1979 meeting with former Egyptian President Muhammad Nagib. The men spoke of how Nasser was allegedly descended from Jews who had immigrated from Yemen.

Elsewhere, Abdel-Raouf writes that Nasser was a member of the communist Egyptian organisation "Democratic Movement for National Liberation", not neglecting to mention its Jewish founder, Henri Curiel (1914–1978).

Hafez al-Assad, Muammar al-Gaddafi and many others have likewise been said to have Jewish roots. Social and religious conventions have conspired to codify the significance of kinship, ancestry and religiosity. According to this mindset, there is no question that it is people's origins that lastingly determine how their actions are to be judged.


Denigrated for your origins

This attitude is also compellingly illustrated using the example of prison inmates. A police officer once told me that a criminal nature lies in the blood of the prisoners, that it is innate and incurably linked to their inferior ancestry. Another time, I was talking with the son of a major landowner and he expressed his view that Egyptian farmers – like slaves the world over – were markedly cunning and crafty, which was due to their inferior status compared to the landowners.

In the same context, he also touched on what he considered to be Nasser's problematic origins. According to him, Nasser's rise was only possible because of the Egyptian government's fateful mistake of opening up the army to all social classes.

In his book "Autumn of Fury", Mohammed Hassanein Haikal writes that former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's real name was "Sadati" and not "Sadat". By adding just one letter, the meaning of the word "Sadat", associated with "lord", is changed in Arabic to "belonging to this lord", or "Sadati", thus alluding to the supposedly inferior ancestry of the Egyptian ex-president.

Haikal moreover refers to Sadat's Sudanese mother, whose grandparents were still slaves. Whether that is, in fact, true is of no consequence. The point is to suggest an inferior descent. Of course, one could argue that Haikal merely wanted to make clear that this family background had an influence on Sadat's personal development and political actions. In fact, however, his sole purpose was to sully Sadat's name on the basis of his origins.

Couldn't he have limited himself to criticising Sadat's actions? Wouldn't it have been enough to censure Gamal Abdel Nasser's policies, rather than alluding to his alleged religious and family roots? And wouldn't Mohammed Morsi have been better off confining himself to talking about the occupation of Palestine by Jewish settlements, rather than speculating on the forefathers of these occupiers?

There is no doubt that numerous factors play a role in each individual's socialisation. Personal living conditions, social environment, intellectual and mental capacity, as well as political and economic circumstances are formative for our thoughts and deeds. So why is there so much talk of origins and ancestry in our Arab discourse? The answer to this question is complex. We can only attempt a knowledgeable explanation when we begin to take a closer look at our region's social and religious heritage.

Because therein lies the core of the despicable racist thought patterns that are used to pigeonhole people.

It is imperative that we find a way to allow ourselves to call into question this socio-religious legacy, down to its very core, so that in future we will no longer judge people on the basis of their origins, but rather for what they truly accomplish in life.

Khaled al-Khamissi

© 2023

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor