As a non-Arab scholar of the Middle East and the Muslim world, I could not but be struck by the ironic contrast between Edward Said's thoughtful review of "A History of the Arab Peoples" and the adjacent review of two books on the Arabs ("Baghdad Without a Map" and "Motoring With Mohammed") by Dick Roraback.
The latter, from beginning to end, is permeated by the stereotypes decried by Said and Hourani that shape, often with fatal consequences, U.S. attitudes to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Arabs are called in the review "somewhat unfathomable," "always ambiguous."
While the reviewer tells us that "both authors manage to dispense an Essence of Arab considerably less acrid than war-watchers have become accustomed to," we are nonetheless told that the authors (with no quarrel from the reviewer) support a series of stereotypes: "Arabs are fatalists . . . Arabs are generous, almost beyond reason . . . Arabs are inherently, almost hopelessly civil . . . Arabs are quixotic . . . Arabs are pious . . . Arabs are--can be--fanatic, or easily led by one."
While I do not deny that some people have different dominant cultural patterns than others, usually for reasons that good anthropologists and historians have been able to fathom, the statement or implication that "Arabs" are to be explained by this or that imputed personality characteristic can only reinforce our notion that we are rational and they are irrational and incomprehensible.
Ironically, not only are non-Arab Iranians cited to prove points about Arabs, but one of the quotations adduced to support this view of a special Arab nature could be exactly reproduced thousands of times in the U.S. with a simple substitution of the product mentioned: " 'Is qat habit-forming?' 'Oh no,' a cabbie tells Horwitz. 'I have chewed every day since the age of 15 and I am still not an addict.' "
If you would try substituting the word "Israelis" or "Jews" for "Arabs" every time it occurs in the review, the problem would be evident. Even positive-sounding stereotypes like "Jews are clever" have a large, perhaps predominant, negative burden.
I never recall having seen in the L.A. Times a review with such stereotypes about Jews, blacks or Latinos, and I wonder whether such a review would be printed without at least sending it back to the author for revision. I have seen, in the daily Times, other stereotyped reviews about Arabs.
NIKKI R. KEDDIE
Professor of Mideast History