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    The Arabs shop while their world drops

    In my frequent travels throughout the Arab world, I have always found a striking and troubling contrast between the rich vitality and humanity of the private realm of Arabs everywhere, and the shallow, demagogic, predictable and generally hollow nature of public activity. This distinction between the private and public realms and how people behave in them may provide useful insights into the wider political and national problems that plague much of the region. 

    The bizarre nature of the public realm is the one that interests me more. It may hold clues to how our region might one day finally shed its burdensome status as the last collectively non-democratic region in the world, the only group of like-minded and culturally connected states that did not experience the global wave of democratization after the end of the Cold War. 

    Why is this so? Anyone who moves around the Middle East as I do will quickly notice that the rural landscape has slowly been strangulated of sustainable environmental wealth and economic possibilities, while the urban landscape has been hollowed of its human and cultural vibrancy. Everywhere, the landscape of civilizational advancement has been replaced by a panorama of guns – all kinds of guns in the hands of policemen, army troops, private guards, militias, and undercover security agents. The dominance of security agencies over public urban spaces has shattered the vibrancy and creativity that once defined Arab cities, whether in the early- to mid-20th century, or in older history. 

    Walking through our Arab cities today is no longer an uplifting urban experience; it is an exercise in martial voyeurism, a stroll through a gun shop. Guns and pictures of the Great Leader populate and dominate the landscape. We are told this is for our own good, that it will reduce the numbers of bombs and wars that plague many countries. But at what cost? 

    The lack of opportunity for ordinary citizens to be themselves and to express themselves in ideological, cultural, ethnic, national, sexual or other orientations has transformed the people of the Arab world into little more than spectators, rather than the participants in cultural and national development that they once were. Faced with a forest of guns backed by an army of bureaucrats and security agencies that we must beseech for permission to do anything more meaningful that change curtains, the average Arab citizen has retreated from public space, ceded it to the soldiers, and relinquished the essence of his or her humanity – the capacity to freely express themselves, and to enrich their society and fellow citizens with ideas, art, questions.

    When Arab countries were first formed, most people in the region were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and participants in a very localized culture. They then became citizens of sovereign states, with centralized armies, budgets, flags and borders. Now, the people of the Arab world have lost their attributes of citizenship, and have been transformed merely into consumers. Arab nationals have no significant or meaningful way to shape the policies of their governments, or choose, validate, or hold accountable the leaders who run their countries. Robbed by security-backed elites of their human capacity for participation, ideas and choice, average Arabs have been left mainly with the option of going out to buy clothes, cell phones and remaindered American and Italian shoes. The common denominator today of Arab urbanism – those great cities that jolted human civilization forward several times in history – is the shopping mall. 

    All those soldiers and security agents are out there on the streets to keep us safe to go out and shop as much as we want, but to do little else of value or consequence. The residents of Arab cities, that once were vibrant centers of learning, political activity, and cross-cultural exchange, have sheathed their humanity in favor of credit cards, discounted recliner chairs, and endless varieties of fried chicken. 

    The transformation of urban Arabism into globalized consumerism is not sustainable. It dehumanizes people, who put up with shopping sprees as their primary life purpose for a decade or two, but then seek more meaningful means of expressing themselves and experiencing their humanity. I do not know what will happen to change the trend we have experienced in recent years, which has been defined by the dominance of our own militarism, the demagoguery and hero worship cult of our leaders, and the emptiness of our public life.

    The contrast with Arabs in their private homes and communities is staggering – for there, they regain their humanity. They debate, argue, offer ideas, demand answers, show kindness and compassion, express themselves creatively, and produce things – artistic expression, political thought, works of cultural merit – that are not allowed to be displayed in public. A society of consumers without citizens is not a society; it’s a shopping mall, and it will not last very long if that is all it remains, no matter how many guns are out there keeping order.

    Rami G. Khouri
    The Daily Star

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