Map circa 1860
While living in Europe in 1992, I came across an article in a French magazine about the man credited with founding Egyptian cinema. His name, to my surprise, was Mohamed Bayoumi–the same as my father’s–and he lived from 1894 to 1963, mostly in Cairo. That summer I traveled to Egypt to visit my family, and one afternoon in Alexandria, while sitting with my uncle, aunt and grandmother in my grandmother’s airy bedroom, I asked her if this Mohamed Bayoumi the cinéaste was related to me. Had he been part of our family?
“What’s he asking?” she said, turning to my uncle, her eyebrows in knots.
The question caught everyone off guard. Moments later my aunt broke the silence. “Oh!” she said, clarity illuminating her face. “He wants to know about roots!” She emphasized the last word by saying it in English. Suddenly everyone understood. They were smiling and laughing, finding the question quaintly endearing. My uncle turned to me. “Like the TV show, huh?” he interjected, in English. “You want to know your roots!” Apparently, the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book had made a lasting impression in Egypt.
It was an odd exchange. With the Mediterranean breeze blowing through my grandmother’s apartment, the politics of the diaspora mingled with the global reach of American culture. On the one hand, there I was, wondering if I might unearth something about my Egyptian family. (Born to Egyptian parents, I’ve lived my entire life, except for regular visits, outside Egypt.) I ventured a question that, I assumed, illustrated my growing knowledge of my relatives’ homeland and its cultural patrimony. On the other hand, my relatives were mostly amused by my question. Rather than regarding it as evidence of my Egyptianness, they found it to be very, well, American–African-American, even. Had my interest in roots made me appear rootless in their eyes?
To a budding movement on anthropology’s right wing, such subtle intrafamily differences are trivial and best brushed aside in order to focus on the fact that all Arabs are tribal. Forget Islam. Tribalism is in, and it is being promoted as the key to explaining the distress of the Middle East. In “The Middle East’s Tribal DNA,” from a recent issue of Middle East Quarterly, Philip Carl Salzman writes that Arabs, universally and throughout history, organize their societies along a series of “nested” relationships–family, lineage, clan, tribe, confederacy, sect and religion–with each group larger than the preceding one. Indeed, Islam, in this account, postdates tribalism; with its ability to magnify the difference between believer and nonbeliever, it’s simply the largest tribe of all. Tribalism is inescapable because Arab culture demands loyalty to the group above every other human value. According to Salzman, tribal loyalty explains peace, where tribes of equal standing face off in “balanced opposition,” and war, because tribalism also “normalizes antipathy against outsiders,” thus promoting conquest as a means of expanding the tribe. Whether in times of peace or war, tribalism fosters an antagonistic social world that will always trump the rationality of the modern state and the abstract rule of law.