Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:February 10th, 2011 10:10 EST
Look Carefully and You Will See Arab Influence Throughout Western History and Culture

Look Carefully and You Will See Arab Influence Throughout Western History and Culture

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

They are part of Western history and culture

Recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen suggest how out of focus the Arab world is as seen through an American lens. We understand the Arabs as exotics in spite of intimate contact with them throughout Western history.

To particularize this failure, read Brian Turner`s Here, Bullet. It is a poet-soldier`s poem-by-poem effort to see the human beings behind the stereotypes on both sides.

The oddest aspect of this objectification of the Arabs is that there would be no West as we know it without them. They conveyed to the West the classical world to which we are heir because they understood its worth when the West did not.

But there`s more to it than that. Part of their civilization, rooted in the caliphate based in Cordoba, is western. The western Arabs` poetry, for example, is a forebear of our own through the Provençal troubadours. Their ideas of aquaculture, architecture and music influence much of the culture of the Americas.

And yet we persist in seeing them as deplorably unlike us and the Israelis as admirably like us. There is something historically malicious in this picture, as if we were doggedly persisting in seeing the Arabs through spectacles prescribed by a quack.

The Christian right has gotten over the oddness of God in choosing the Jews but only insofar as it suits its grander purpose of hastening the Apocalypse. Once that starts, the Jews are on their own. On the other hand, we refuse to get over the demonization by which the people of the Dark Ages scared and manipulated each other, a demonization shared by the Muslim Arabs. The web is peopled by latter-day versions of Peter the Hermit preaching crusades and Muslim dyspeptics preaching hatred of the West and America in particular. The repeated use today of national security as a tactic to scare us out of civil liberties is a Dark Ages relic. The Frankish tapestry makers wove pictures of Arabs with horns and devil`s tails just as today the government weaves such ideas into its pronouncements and so-called security assessments.

Islam and Christendom butted heads and clashed swords, and while there were heroes, there were no angels. Folly and hatred characterized both sides, and still does. The Jews, in whose religion Christianity and Islam are rooted, fared poorly, persecuted by both sides, but probably by Christendom more. The Holocaust, after all, was perpetrated by nominal Christians.

The Arabs have a stake in the West, not as a potential victim of their extremists, but as part of their history and culture. They ruled much of it and left an indelible mark. Norman rule and culture in Sicily and England was deeply indebted to the Arabs. Dorothee Metlitski`s The Matter of Araby in Medieval England and Maria Rosa Menocal`s Ornament of the World are testament to this indebtedness. The world is too small and too connected to tolerate all this apocrypha about the Arabs, too small to support all their extremists` baloney about the West. We keep overlooking the obvious fact that most extremists on both sides are appallingly ignorant. Osama bin Laden usually sounds like Elmer Gantry.

The Arabs cannot be expunged from the West`s image of itself, no matter how hard we try. Look at the rooftops of Casablanca and California and you`ll see what I mean. The Spanish would have known precious little about irrigation were it for the Arabs and the Incas. Our idea of ourselves would be impoverished were it not for the monumental efforts of the Arabs to convey the classical world to us. Jewish literature "witness the Zohar and the entire Qaballah "would have been the less were it not for a tolerant Arab civilization in Iberia.

Either we broaden our view of our relationship with the Arabs or we go on hunting demons, doing the bidding of extremists on both sides, the bidding of the very people who know and care least about our intricate connection with each other.

Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother`s art:

His aunt`s art: