This foolish business about Barack Obama allegedly being an "Arab" or "Arab-American" reminded me of something I was reading recently by Stephen Tamari.
Tamari is an associate professor of historical studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville who recently nabbed a 2008-2009 Fulbright Scholarship.
I don't know the guy, but I get SIUE press releases at work, and I looked up Tamari last week with a mind toward reporting his Fulbright here as a piece of community news. I came across a teaching module he developed for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University called "Who Are the Arabs?" It's worth a look.
The piece is written with an elegant simplicity that makes it very easy to follow. Even so, since it is written by a scholar, who knows his stuff in detail, it reveals a complex reality.
Tamari's core definition is simple enough: "Arabs are those who speak Arabic as their native tongue and who identify themselves as Arabs." That certainly leaves out Obama, who speaks English as his native tongue and identifies himself as American or African-American.
On Sept. 22 Rush Limbaugh, that noted scholar of Arab languages and peoples, said of Obama on his radio show, "He's Arab. You know, he's from Africa. He's from Arab parts of Africa. He's not - his father was - he's not African-American. The last thing that he is is African-American."
If Limbaugh were right about Obama's origins, Obama would be both African-American and Arab-American, but he's not right. Obama's father is from Kenya, where the main languages are Swahili and English. Arabic was not his father's native language. Obama's father was not Arab, Obama is not an Arab, and Obama is not an Arab-American.
Of course, Limbaugh is trying to muddy the waters, whether or not he actually believes the untruths he is spreading. It's similar to the Republican effort to present Obama as a Muslim - that is, when he isn't being vilified for his former loyalty to his Christian pastor! This is all misinformation, which is never aimed at the people who know what's going on, like Steve Tamari; it's aimed at the people who have no clue - which, unfortunately, on most complex subjects, is a large number of Americans, perhaps the majority.
Back to the complex reality. Professor Tamari the Fulbright scholar writes:
"The Arab world is not to be confused with the 'Middle East,' a strategic designation developed during the heyday of the British empire, which encompasses such non-Arab countries as Israel, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And though Arab history is intertwined with Muslim history, the Arab world does not correspond to the Muslim world. There are significant non-Muslim Arab communities and most Muslims are, in fact, from large non-Arab countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and many of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. There are also large Arab and non-Arab Muslim communities in North America."
Interestingly, the "17 independent countries that make up the Arab world" listed by Tamari - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - includes the ancestral country of St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay, who is of Lebanese descent.
So is Mayor Slay Arab? No, not by Tamari's definition. Tamari currently is conducting research at the American University of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon, the land of Slay's ancestors. I'll have to drop him a line to see if there are any Slays over there and whether they speak Arabic. Though my guess is that "Slay" is an Anglicized attempt to escape the burden of a more ethnic family name.
If Slay ever gets a valid mayoral challenger, it would be interesting for them both to have their DNA mapped, to see just what parts of the city's constituencies each represents, at least at the level of bloodline.
The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program is administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. For you geniuses out there, the contact is James A. Lawrence, Office of Academic Exchange Programs: (202) 453-8531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image of the Arab - the Arab letter press, that is - from British Letter Press.