An Arab in London, An Englishman in Baghdad

In Baghdad, there is a street that is famous for its many book shops and it’s named after the greatest Arab poet of all time, Al-Mutanabbi. Sellers clutter their books on carpet floors or crumbling tables and haggle over their prices, though the vast majority of books are sold for around 10,000 dinars. The books are in a variety of languages but Arabic and English dominate. Behind the mess of books resting on carpets or precarious tables are cafeterias and more established bookshops. These have the privilege of tradition, many of the owners having inherited their protective walls and their books from their fathers. It is in these shops you find hardcover books with titles written in perplexing and incomprehensible Arabic calligraphy. At the very end of the street stands a rusted bronze statue of Al-Mutanabbi, his right hand in the air as if he were in the middle of one of his bombastic lines where he praises himself as the ideal Arab: equal parts desert warrior and poet: 

“The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.”

“Al-Mutanabbi is a famous Arab poet from the Abbasid Era,” my mother says after seeing me struggle to sound out the inscription under the statue. His poetry dealt with courts, women, encounters with lions and their smiling teeth, among other topics. The magnificent statue of Al-Mutanabbi is tired with dirt and riddled with graffiti. Just before the statue was a grand old cafe where my mother and I sipped excruciately sweet black tea under old photographs of Baghdad. When my mother and I went to pay at the till operated by a large and seemingly perpetually smiling old man, she noticed a photograph of the five young men with a black ribbon in the corner. The man noticed her gaze and said, quoting the Quran, “‘with every difficulty, there is relief / verily with every difficulty there is relief’”. My mum replied, “may the rest of their years be in your life.” She would later show me an article where the man’s five sons were among the victims of a bombing of the street during Iraq’s civil war.

 As we were walking back down the street to the nearest taxi point, a bookseller caught my attention with a line I have often heard in Iraq: “you don’t look like you are from here, can you read English?”

“How did you know?” I asked.

He laughed “I can always spot foreigners, it is obvious you know–”

“He is Iraqi.” My mum interrupted.

“Of course, aren’t we all”

“His father and his mother are both Iraqi so he is -”

“But your clothes,” he laughed without addressing what my mother reiterated, “your clean face, you are wearing shoes when everyone else is wearing sandals. It is obvious!”

I chuckled awkwardly and walked over to his table. He had old English mass market paperbacks; books once popular and now probably out of print.

“I have Arabic books too, you know, if you can read that. I know when you guys leave you never bother to learn Arabic. You can always learn though”, he said, pointing towards the Arabic section of his bookshop. The first book that caught my eye had its title in English: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. I picked up the hardcover book expecting to read left to right; I opened the cover only to find Arabic writing I flipped the book over and saw the Arabic cover. “Lawrence of the Arabs”, my mum said when I gestured for her to come over and see what I had found.

“Lawrence of the Arabs… he lied to us, promised us Palestine and a free Arab state and the Arabs were foolish enough to trust a man with blue eyes and blond hair and pigeon Arabic”, my uncle said when I showed him my new purchase later that day.

“But he didn’t know about the Sykes-Picot Agreement”, I said to my uncle, who shook his head. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret deal between the British and the French that divided control over the Middle East despite their wartime promises of Arab independence.

The purchase was a sign of a burden that I feel every time I go to Iraq. I am reminded that I am not enough of an Arab and that I did not amend this then I would be another Arab westernised and lost to another world. My identity is questioned by people who have the same skin tone, the same hair and same taste in food as me. Simply because I reach for the seat-belt in a taxi (“I knew you’re not from here, only foreigners care about safety”) or the telling nature of my clothes or because I defend Lawrence to my uncle with my Wiki-knowledge of that period’s history. “It is obvious”.

“You are being played by the book just like Lawrence tricked the Arabs”.

I decided that every night in Baghdad I had to read a few pages of my Arabic copy of Seven Pillars. The sheer lopsided strangeness of an ethnic Arab trying to learn his native tongue from an Arabic translation of an Englishman who learned Arabic as part of a wider British colonial project escaped me at the time, but I persisted.

So-so-some of the eveel-evil – fuck – some of the evil of my tale may be – may have been inhum-in-her-inherent in-in-in our circumstances.

“Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances”.

The first line took me five minutes at the very minimum. I put the book to one side and watched a documentary on Lawrence presented by Rory Stewart, instead.

Lawrence was a British colonial officer sent to ‘Arabia’ to incentivise and guide a revolt there against the Ottoman Empire in the midst of the First World War. The rebels captured Damascus but, unknown to them, the great powers had already divided the region. Rory Stewart, a current MP and a former senior coalition official in Iraq, presented a BBC documentary on Lawrence after learning that American soldiers in Iraq were made to study the Seven Pillars. Lawrence’s ability to unite feuding Arab tribes into one force has earned him the colonial authority sought by Westerners trying to understand the region. The Americans thought that the Seven Pillars could continue its educational purpose in spite of the fact that a century had passed between the Great Arab Revolt and the US invasion of Iraq. By the end of the documentary, Stewart had presented Lawrence as a friend of the Arabs who had wanted their freedom and liberation and was equally as disappointed when the great powers refused this. My uncle disagreed:

“Who cares about Lawrence’s dream for the Arabs? Are we so barbaric that we need a man in a military uniform to liberate us?”

Lawrence wrote in an undoubtedly colonial tone. His prose, absorbed in the wider imperial project, described ‘the Arab’ as equal parts exotic, sexual and noble in his savagery. Lawrence was, after all, a colonial officer. However, I could not help but feel an affinity with Lawrence, at least as he set himself out in the Seven Pillars.

Before I boarded a flight back to London, I ordered an English copy of the book to cross reference with the Arabic one. The idea was to read the two texts side by side and thus strengthen my comprehension of the Arabic.

One image that did not manifest itself in my mental vision when stuttering through the Arabic copy was of a skinless Lawrence who had ‘quitted’ his ‘English self’ to take on an ‘Arab skin’ only to fail and be left skinless. He had ‘dropped one form and not taken on the other’. He was naked in the desert and he was scorched. 5,000 kilometres and a century away, a taxi driver decided that I am not an Arab and it is hard to not be reminded of my inability to be English purely by the way I look. They took away one form but no one else bestowed another and I am left out naked in the cold.

Back in Oxford, I began reading fewer and fewer pages until two weeks passed and I noticed a shift in my reading towards the English, away from the Arabic. Once again, I ‘quitted’ myself of my Arab self. With that, I slowly stopped listening to Fairuz. I ceased completing the exercises in my ‘Mastering Arabic 2’ textbook. I stopped trying to think in Arabic. And yet, despite this, I am always on the outside. Just as an Iraqi taxi driver can spot my otherness by the fact that I put a seat-belt on, I often notice that I am the only non-white person in a room and I am reminded that I am not from here because I do not look like the people that are. I feel like Lawrence, stuck out between ‘two selves that converse in the void’. When a friend opens a gift I just bought for them, I feel an innate aversion, inherent from my Arab upbringing and my mother’s constant reminders that it is rude to do such a thing. My conversations with relatives from Iraq on the phone are almost militaristic in their simplicity, while Arabs are used to superfluous praising and emotive language. When I’m in Baghdad, I try to read Arabic and to talk to relatives about history and politics and then when I’m in the UK, I drift away towards western music, history, politics. I go months without uttering a single word of Arabic.

 I know that the next time I visit Iraq, I will feel the same urge to be more Arab. After all, the ultimate shallow aim is to hear from a relative that I am not Westernised and that I have stayed true to my heritage. I also know that upon returning, I will feel an aversion to being so ethnic and different and will find refuge in similar shallow shows of acceptance. The pressure to cater to both sides is the only solidity that I possess, inherited from seeing, as Lawrence saw, “things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments”.

Maan Al-Yasiri

About Maan Al-Yasiri

Maan Al-Yasiri is 22 and lives in London. He was born in Damascus to an Iraqi family. He read History and Politics at Oxford University.

Maan Al-Yasiri is 22 and lives in London. He was born in Damascus to an Iraqi family. He read History and Politics at Oxford University.

Leave a Comment