Guest Writings
24/05/04 “Its best use is as a doorstop” by Brian Whittaker

www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,1223525,00.html

BRIAN WHITTAKER, GUARDIAN, UK – Consider these statements: “Why are most Africans, unless forced by dire necessity to earn their livelihood with 'the sweat of their brow', so loath to undertake any work that dirties the hands?”

“The all-encompassing preoccupation with sex in the African mind emerges clearly in two manifestations…”

“In the African view of human nature, no person is supposed to be able to maintain incessant, uninterrupted control over himself. Any event that is outside routine everyday occurrence can trigger such a loss of control… Once aroused, African hostility will vent itself indiscriminately on all outsiders.”

These statements, I think you'll agree, are thoroughly offensive. You would probably imagine them to be the musings of some 19th century colonialist. In fact, they come from a book promoted by its US publisher as “one of the great classics of cultural studies”, and described by Publisher's Weekly as “admirable”, “full of insight” and with “an impressive spread of scholarship”.

The book is not actually about Africans. Instead, it takes some of the hoariest old prejudices about black people and applies them to Arabs.

Replace the word “African” in the quotations above with the word “Arab”, and you have them as they appear in the book. It is, the book says, the Arabs who are lazy, sex-obsessed, and apt to turn violent over the slightest little thing. . .

The book in question is called The Arab Mind, and is by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at several US universities, including Columbia and Princeton.

I must admit that, despite having spent some years studying Arabic language and culture, I had not heard of this alleged masterpiece until last week, when the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh mentioned it in an article for New Yorker magazine.

Hersh was discussing the chain of command that led US troops to torture Iraqi prisoners. Referring specifically to the sexual nature of some of this abuse, he wrote: “The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind … the book includes a 25-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression.”

Hersh continued: “The Patai book, an academic told me, was 'the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour'. In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged – 'one, that Arabs only understand force, and two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation'.”

Last week, my own further enquiries about the book revealed something even more alarming. Not only is it the bible of neocon headbangers, but it is also the bible on Arab behaviour for the US military.

According to one professor at a US military college, The Arab Mind is “probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military”. It is even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg.

Main Index >> Back