18 - 24 July 2002
Issue No. 595
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On being named Nasser

Arabism and revolution: Nasser Rabbat looks back

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One of my earliest memories dates back to the winter of 1960 when I was almost four years old. I remember being hoisted on my mother's shoulders in the middle of the Qasr Al-Dhiyafa Square in Damascus and screaming with the crowd around us: "Nasser, Nasser." I thought it exhilarating that everyone was chanting my name, and I strove to outshout them all. But I also knew that we were in reality shouting the name of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the president of the United Arab Republic, not my name. That awareness did not dampen my enthusiasm however: I had been taught by everyone around me to be proud of the other Nasser, the "unifier of the Arabs" and the "leader of our new renaissance." The man himself was soon to appear on the balcony of the palace facing the square surrounded by a bunch of his aides and guards: a handsome, tall, square-jawed, and dark complexioned man with mischievously intelligent eyes, captivating smile, and mesmerising charisma. He lunged on with a fiery speech about something I did not understand that aroused the masses even further, and everyone went ballistic with excitement: Nasser! Nasser! Nasser! But by then the kid that I was had lost all interest: I was tired, hungry, and wanted to go home.

Years later, when I took to annoyingly asking my parents: seriously, was I named after Gamal Abdel-Nasser? They would always quip back, no! They then would hastily note: he is not the only Nasser in Arabic history, there were many heroes with that epithet, especially Al-Nasser Youssef Salaheddin Al-Ayyubi, after whom you were named. But I knew that was not true. I was named after the contemporary Nasser, and the reattribution of my name to another Nasser came only in the wake of a dramatic change of heart on my parents' part.

When I was born in 1956 the successful "revolution" Nasser led in 1952 represented to my parents' generation the fulfillment of their dreams of liberation, unification, and progress. By the time I was 14, Nasser had dashed their hopes, and the hopes of many nationalists inside -- but especially outside -- Egypt. He had botched the union with Syria, imposed his reckless dictatorship in Egypt, lost the 1967 war with Israel, and finally died broken-hearted at having failed to stop the intra-Arab Black-September bloodbath in Jordan. In their melancholy answer, my parents were resentfully admitting that the early euphoria which inspired them to name their first-born after a political figure -- and not one of their own countries at that -- had fizzled out so quickly and so sourly. They, like many educated and motivated Arab nationalists of their generation, had by then retreated to a mundane life devoid of political activism and hopes of national renaissance. They left the scene to the new breed of brash nationalist officers who took over in many Arab countries -- Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and Sudan -- and who giddily styled themselves after Nasser and their "revolutions" after his.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of Nasser's 1952 "Revolution," how am I to remember it? Am I going to lament its actual failure at delivering what it promised the Egyptian and all the Arab peoples, which was realistically undeliverable to begin with? Or, since I am not myself Egyptian, do I wish to harp on the failure of its emulators in the Arab world at following in its modest footsteps or at rectifying its shortcomings? Not really. After all, revolutions, like all human movements, are hard to predict and even harder to judge. They all start with good intentions and high hopes and, along the way, they falter. They shift and change direction and gear. They lower their expectations. They renege on their promises. And they end up either biting the dust or compromising most of their ideals to survive in forms not too different from what they revolted against in the first place. History is full of examples: witness the metamorphosis from the French Revolution to Chirac; or from the Bolshevik Revolution to Yeltsin; or the Khomeini Revolution which is still mutating; or the many other lesser revolutionettes in the Developing World with their revolving casts of characters and ideologies. Nasser's 1952 "Revolution" is no exception. It is in fact one of the lucky ones that compromised and survived as a regime if not as a movement. Otherwise, how to comprehend the veering to the right that Sadat effected in the 1970s and that Mubarak continued? Or how to swallow the "Egypt First" line of reasoning that seems to have become the leitmotif of the Egyptian foreign policy of late? Or how to explain the "Infitah"and the subsequent revival of class distinction in Egypt complete with the old titles of Pasha and Bey, the "'izbas" of the nouveaux-riches, and the reappearance of the "Fat Cats," the "tanabila" and "'Ali 'Aliwas," frivolously modeled after the 1950s acerbic caricatures of Al-Musawwar?

Notwithstanding my obvious apprehension at the collapse of its principles and the defeat of its endeavors, to me, the central legacy of the 1952 "Revolution" is not something it achieved or failed to achieve. It is something it stimulated, nurtured, massaged, and somehow managed through the words of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to titillate millions of Arabs with its prospects. Of course, what I am referring to is Arabism.

I and countless Arabs believe in it, swear by it, and yearn for it, yet no one can conclusively define it. It is supposed to denote a nation, yet there is no inclusive political entity that engenders it. Nor has there been any in the past, except for disappointingly short periods and in exceedingly limited geographical extents. It is believed to have existed since time immemorial, yet it has no clear-cut historical trajectory that carried it through time and distinguished it from parallel and overlapping identities, most prominent among them is the Islamic one. It is also seen as an overarching cultural quality, yet there are no prevailing traits that can exclusively be attached to it other than the Arabic language. And that too owes its survival primarily to the fact that the Qur'an was revealed in what was the language of seventh-century northern Arabia and stayed unchanged since then. Today, what we have are 22 countries, which are members of the moribund Arab League, officially professing their adherence to Arabism while each is pursuing its own narrow nationalistic goals and stabbing its brethren in the backs along the way.

Arabism, nevertheless, is real and palpable. It lives somewhere between the minds and hearts of millions of people both in the countries usually called Arab and among Arab expatriates elsewhere. It occupies multiple and sometimes conflicting registers in their memories and invariably stirs their most impassioned emotions when evoked. They recognise it in the ways it affects their outlooks on the world affairs and colors their feelings, reactions, opinions, hopes, and fears. They see it in their facial expressions, hand movements, nonchalant gaits, and body language. They hear it in the deep guttural sounds that characterise their language, especially that one unique, unaspirated consonant which gave their language its proud epithet, lughat al-dhad (the language of the letter dhad, which does not exist in any other language). They feel it in their beautifully sinuous calligraphy, their powerfully expressive poetry, and their modal and melodious music and singing. And they taste it in their mildly aromatic and richly garnished dishes, their tangy spreads and dips, and their strong and bitter coffee spiced up with cardamom.

They also remember it in Gamal Abdel-Nasser's speeches, in his evocations of its real and imagined glories, and in his articulations of its future potentials. What Nasser and his "Revolution" succeeded in accomplishing was to add a new, expressive, and powerful dimension to Arabism. This dimension outlasted the death of Nasser and the demise of the "Revolution" itself and became inscribed in the memories of Arabs everywhere, including those like myself who cannot realistically recall the occasions in which the speeches were delivered.

But that is not all. The emotions that Nasser so masterfully and perhaps sometimes so heedlessly stirred live on albeit in new forms and in strange climes. They are coming out of the least expected quarters: Europe and America on the one hand and the Palestinian Occupied Territories on the other. They are formulated primarily by those evincing the most postmodern form of identity: the hyphenated one -- the Arab-Americans and Arab-Europeans -- or those stateless Palestinians bravely struggling for one of the most basic components of national identity, a land to call home. Exceedingly sensitive poets like Samih Al-Qasem and Mahmoud Darwish, one living in Israel and the other in exile, are singing the glory of the people and the love of the land in such a universal way that could apply to all people and all lands. The formidable Arab American critic, Edward Said, is showing us how vigilant and socially engaged intellectuals can, against tremendous odds, make a difference, and at the same time never loose their human compassion. And many Arab American or Arab European thinkers, poets, and essayists, are challenging negative stereotypes of Arabs and re- mapping what it means to be an Arab today.

Understandably, they, on the whole, shun the rigid and exclusionary definitions of Arabism and prefer a humanistic and culturally inspired Arabism. Paradoxical as it may sound, this new Arabism owes so much to the dreams of Nasser's "Revolution" although it could not have begun to shine if that "Revolution" were anything but a memory.

The writer is Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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