Commentary Magazine

Temperament and Character of the Arabs, by Sania Hamady

The Complex Arab
Temperament and Character of the Arabs.
by Sania Hamady.
Twayne. 285 pp. $5.00.


The Arabs burst into quarrels and threats. . . . The Arabs talk more than they act; their plans and menaces promise more than can be actualized. Their excitement about public issues is easily aroused, but there is no persistent cooperation and no effective cohesion among them. Their public-mindedness is not developed and their social consciousness is weak. The allegiance toward the state is shaky and identification with leaders is not strong.

This robust but typical passage comes from a critical book on the Arab temperament, written not by any “imperialist” nor even by a prejudiced Western scholar, but by an Arab with impeccable credentials for such a study.



Dr. Sania Hamady, the author, was born in Lebanon. She was educated first in Arab and French schools, then at the American College for Women and the American University in Beirut. She lived for some years in Syria, taught Arabic, French, and English in Baghdad, and met hundreds of fellow students from six Arab states during eight subsequent years of training in the United States. Sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist, she earned a master’s degree from Michigan State, a Ph.D. from Chicago. Now a U. S. citizen, since 1957 she has been an assistant professor of Human Relations at Miami University.

Achievements such as these for any Arab woman are by themselves already quite singular, even among the relatively enlightened Lebanese. But Dr. Hamady’s book adds to them. In some ways, it is almost a pioneer work. Many writers have dealt with some aspects of her subject, but no one—and certainly no other Arab—has probed so wide and boldly. Dr. Hamady inspects Arab habits, instincts, conventions, moralities, emotions, social and political attitudes, loyalties, traditions, superstitions, faiths, philosophies, and mental mechanisms.

Her method, as she herself makes clear, is not “scientific.” She relies on history, her own recall, and the reports of other observers, rather than on a mass of measured and technically precise samplings. From her material, Dr. Hamady pulls together the significant Arab characteristics—not the exceptional, individual ones, but those which are “general, typical, salient, common”—into a complex “profile.” She presents this as a tentative delineation, pending research with finer instruments.

The Arab, says Dr. Hamady, is a generous host, a solicitous friend, a courteous person. (These are talents which have charmed generations of Western visitors and diplomats, especially British and American.) But, the author regretfully indicates, such graces are insincere. Arabs give because they intend and expect to receive at least as much. Hospitality and good manners, she says, are for public display. They build a man’s reputation—and this, rather than his true worth, is the solid currency in the bazaar. The cardinal evil is to be put to shame in one’s own tent or street or village or tribe. Dr. Hamady reports that ostentation, flattery, dissimulation, even lying or worse are considered quite respectable by the Arab, provided they achieve a desired objective—and he doesn’t get caught. She notes, for example, that an Arab male will be puritanical in public but, if left alone with a woman, will promptly make sexual advances.

Frankness is regarded as plain folly, Dr. Hamady goes on, among a people who admire guile and “despise the meek.” Arab politeness is a calculated diplomacy of “blandishment and adulation” which, if thwarted, explodes easily into rage. She cites a pertinent proverb: “Kiss the hand that you want to bite, and pray that it will be broken. . . .” Conversely, she adds, the Arab hides his inner weakness by an inflated exterior. He boasts, he exaggerates, he walks and talks with an arrogant air. (Another proverb: “Thousands of ladders do not reach his head. . . .”) But deep within him, she continues, the Arab is desperately sensitive, a “dreamer,” without system, energy, or capacity to strive.



Dr. Hamady tends to lay the blame for the Arab’s public behavior patterns on his history, for his private torpor on his religious and philosophical concepts.

Since pre-Mohammedan times, she points out, the family has been the dominant Arab unit, with the individual utterly subordinate to the group. Even the early Bedouins, widely credited for their fierce “democracy,” practiced only tribal democracy; their group approval was given to a man on the basis of his prestige, not his value. There was no incentive to individual initiative; indeed, Dr. Hamady recalls, even group initiative was minimal, except for the negative purposes of aggression or defense against outsiders (non-members of the family or tribe). There were “collective outbursts of enthusiasm,” but no “collective action for common benefit,” no sense of “disciplined unity.”

This basic negativism was re-enforced profoundly by Islam, the author maintains. True, the Prophet did sometimes preach of the need for volition and decision in this life. But down the centuries the mass of the faithful have instinctively hearkened only to those admonitions of the Koran, the hadith and the sunna which stressed this world’s worthlessness and man’s impotence before Allah. The Arab’s earth, Dr. Hamady says, is a planet where all is predetermined, where Kismet actually makes undue personal effort blasphemous. Suffering is normal, joy unnatural, resignation mandatory. Immersed in such fatalism, Dr. Hamady’s Arabs have scant belief in progress. The rock of their salvation is prayer and humility—not action. Such gospel, she stresses, has been piously seconded by the masters of the Arab’s earthly limbo—the landholders, sheikhs, kings, and other potentates. Their convenience and privilege are admirably served when those they exploit are encouraged to attribute their poverty to God’s will or foreign villains rather than to themselves or their exploiters.

Even his language, Dr. Hamady points out, conspires to insulate the Arab from purposeful thinking in the here and now. The opulence of the Arabic vocabulary and the intricacies of its grammar put a premium on form at the cost of substance. An Arabic writer is considered a good writer, however turgid and opaque his message, if only he is sonorous, wordy, and syntactically pure. In life as in literature, the author continues, the Arab is long on florid argument, short on precise reasoning. His emotions and his passion for single details are high, but “his ability to generalize and to grasp the whole is low.”

These traits, still according to Dr. Hamady, are reflected in the Arab’s public institutions. The typical Moslem state is authoritarian, its parliament (if it has one) feudalist or loaded with landowners and tribal chieftains, its administration a morass of nepotism. Religion is more important than patriotism, clan more important than nation. In fact, Dr. Hamady laments, love of country and pride of nationhood are still embryonic in the Arab, if not altogether alien to him.

Are there, then, no attributes in Arab society or personality which are admirable by Western definition? Dr. Hamady tells us that parents and the aged are touchingly venerated in Islam. She praises the Arab’s instinct for fortitude, for dignified acceptance of pain and bad fortune—the golden side of the fatalist coin. He has, too, a gift for enjoying his own company, for silence, for the serenity of lonely meditation or, at least, of solitude.

From long and direct contact with Arabs in many countries and territories, this reader can agree with Dr. Hamady that these commendable attributes abundantly exist. The author’s scholarly apparatus sometimes breaks down, however, under the shibboleths of contemporary Arab politics, as in her momentary nod to the myth of pan-Arabism: “Unity,” she writes, “is the basic, underlying norm in (Arab) life. . . . The creation of one great Arab nation is constantly in the mind of all Arab patriots.” Having stated this cliché in a few sentences, she uses the rest of her book to demonstrate the contrary, showing that nothing is constant in the Arab mind, that patriotism is far more slogan than reality, and that the “basic norm” of Arab allegiance since immemorial time has been the family, the tribe, and the faith, not empire or federation, or even country.

Where Dr. Hamady errs most, I think, is in her failure to grasp the significance of the Arab portrait which she has drawn. In a closing chapter—on the utility to the West of understanding the reasons for Arab behavior—she seems to feel that the main purpose for such understanding is to learn how to keep the Arabs contented, and how to keep Westerners who must deal with them serene. She suggests, for instance, that, since Arabs are vain, one must flatter them, tell them how mighty their past, how glowing their future. Since Arabs lose themselves in rhetoric and tirades, one should be patient, forgive the bombast, and brush aside the insult. Since they are never punctual, one should arrive late also. Since they are lazy, one should set a lower work-quota for them, and not expect to reach it.

Such advice, I am afraid, is on the relatively trivial level of trade relations and technical assistance. Dr. Hamady apparently does not suspect that larger matters are at stake. She misses the real point: that the disasters of Western and American policy in the Middle East these fifteen years past might have been reduced, and even reversed, if our policy-makers had truly understood the Arab.



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