Arab Culture’s Genius To Communicate Beyond Itself
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world. For over three millennia, it served as the terminus for the ancient Silk Route that linked traders from East Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Its durability offers testimony to an Arab genius for communicating with cultures beyond its own.
Today that same Arab genius is manifesting itself in Lebanon where fierce Israeli bombing has been unable to pulverize a population where literally everyone, whether urbanite, suburbanite or villager, has a cellular phone.
Military analysts interviewed by the New York Times credit Hezbollah’s surprising success against one of the most disciplined and well-equipped armies in the world to its practice of “net war”—”small, agile, units... operating with flattened command structures that are ... computer literate, propaganda and Internet savvy, and capable of firing complicated weapons to great effect.”
Yet even if Hezbollah had not perfected this new style of 21st century combat, the cell phone would have equalized aggressor with aggressed by ensuring that no act of destruction remains invisible. On the global media stage, the most ephemeral images—Israeli teenage girls writing love notes on artillery shells, Lebanese toddlers huddled in an apartment building about to be blown apart by smart bombs—are now immortalized by the Internet’s long tail. Cell phones can alert sophisticated tracking systems to the whereabouts of a suspected target, but when everyone has a cell phone, whom do the aggressors target?
The people of the Middle East—indeed the entire world—watch the images as a “failed” state is being burned at a medieval stake. That country is Lebanon, which is much smaller than Israel, which in turn is much smaller than Syria, whose capitol is Damascus.
The White House and the Pentagon have finally intervened to evacuate predominantly middle-class people—pillars of what the U.S. defines as Lebanon's “democratic” state. Left behind are the poor, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina last year. And the poor in South Beirut will want revenge, as do the people of the Gaza Strip.
Middle Eastern history reminds us that the scandal of destruction does not preclude durability. Those who are destroyed can project themselves onto successor generations. Revenge is evil because it can never be erased—having a soul means you carry evil beyond your death. But sacrifice in the name of love has had an even more lasting impact.
Jesus was put to a horrible death by the Romans. Despite quarrels over the meaning of his crucifixion, many people began emulating his sacrifice. Within three or four centuries, many Europeans were converting to Christianity. Two or three centuries after that, Christianity was being preached in China.
Then a new religion, Islam, burst onto the West Asian scene, coinciding with a new era of peace and prosperity in China under the Tang dynasty. Long before he fled Mecca for Medina, the Prophet Muhammad was a merchant who made frequent trips to Damascus. By then Arab and Persian merchants were already ensconced in the huge metropolis of Canton. Today, Canton is home to one of the oldest mosques in the world.
No culture in the world has been so successful at internationalizing itself—whether through its merchants or its prophets—as has the Arab culture, a culture of the desert. If Lebanon is the new Damascus, the key to its survival rests on this genius, now harnessing itself to the cell phone.
Franz Schurmann is professor emeritus of UC Berkeley, and cofounder of Pacific News Service.