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What Science Fiction can tell us about Arabs, History and Historians

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD


I was attending a lecture once by an Egyptian science fiction writer, quite a distinguished engineer in fact, and he gave a hilarious example. He talked about an Egyptian boy that had grown up in America and had come back to Egypt, as it were, and the boy insisted on precision in everything. Whenever somebody gave him directions, he would insist on precise units of measurement. Whenever somebody would tell him about the location of a place in a building, he would ask which floor. Whenever somebody would tell him a word like down, he would ask how far down, how many feet or meters.

The speaker was using this to illustrate the value of scientific culture and education and how this was the only way forward for a nation hoping to catch up with the rest of the world. Alas, the speaker said that, after 3 months here in Egypt, the self-same boy gave up and began singing nonsense songs he’d heard on the car radio!


Singularity Syndrome

This none too humorous anecdote can tell us a lot about the recent ruckus over history and historians happening in Egypt, especially in the wake of Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the lawful capital of Israel, and the Arab historians they dredge up on the TV screen to legitimise such decisions in the Arab world.

The said historian in question had been launching a tirade for quite some time against the hero Salah Al-Din, claiming finally that he had massacred his own troops, and their wives and children in Syria, burning them all to death. The troops were Mamluks, the historian said, a bunch of people he actually disdains. (You’d think he’d be happy that Saladin Al-Din put an end to the scourge of the Mamluks before it even began. And even if this incident were true, it was no different than what Muhammad Ali did to the Mamluks and the Hawara, and everybody praises him). Then he made the silly mistake of accusing the self-same Salah Al-Din of bringing the Mamluks to Egypt and putting them in charge of the country for the next five hundred years.

Typically for me, I like to check things before passing judgement on them. (Imagine that!) So I ambled off to one of the more reliable places in Egypt to get historical and religious data – Sour Al-Azbakiya, the big second-hand book market in Cairo. I had a chat with a person I have a lot of respect for, and the man – although he was no fan of Muslim heroes like Salah Al-Din and Khalid ibn Al-Waleed and Amr ibn Al-Aas (see below) – he exonerated Salah Al-Din from this charge. He said there was no Mamluk system in Egypt in the Ayyubid era till the time of the last Ayyubid king, Al-Malik Al-Salih. Then he explained that what really happened was that Salah Al-Din had taken on the mercenaries in the Fatamid army, more specifically the Sudanese ones.

As luck would have it, I know a thing or two about Arab history myself and I knew that the mercenaries in the Fatamid army, while Sunnis, were angry for being side-lined by Salah Al-Din and were conspiring against him. In the case of the Sudanese mercenaries, they’d contacted the Norman King of Sicily and got him to invade the Northern Coast of Egypt while they took on Salah Al-Din from the land. Fortunately, Saladin Al-Din got wind of the plot and was able to take counter measures against both the Norman sea invasion and the local conspirators. So much for Salah Al-Din being a bloodthirsty maniac who killed his own people!

Now take a closer look at what the said history had gesticulated on TV. How could somebody claim that the Mamluks had entered Egypt and staying there for 500 years, and at the same time all had been located in Syria to get killed? How could they be in two places in one time? How could they be alive and dead at the same time?!

Come to think of it, how could anybody, any historian from the olden days who chronicled these exploits when they actually happened, ever confuse blond, blue-eyed Turks with the Sudanese?!!

As (bad) luck would have it, I’d once got into a heated debate with a former friend of mine on something to do about Arab nationalism. He claimed that the borders of the Arab world are ‘natural’. I said that wasn’t so because Iraq and Iran have joint borders, desert and marshlands that crossover one into the other. So he said that the mountains separate Iraq and Iran, so I said that wasn’t true because the mountains were in the North only, and even they were shard on account of the Kurds who existed on both sides of the border.

So he said he’d read it in Gamal Himdan, so I said, don’t tell me what you read, actually go and look at the map!!

Historians in Arabic history, and the Arabic present, don’t know the difference between up and down, today and yesterday, midnight and morning, let alone black or white and left or right, to recollect the boy at the beginning of this essay.


The Ministry of Truth

A singularity, if you are wondering, is a black hole, a point of infinite mass where the regular laws of physics break down. Science enthusiasts and futurists have been predicting, for quite some time now, that technological advances would reach such a pace that all the laws of economics and politics would collapse, leaving you with a singularity.

Seems the Arabs have beaten them to the punchline. But, on a more serious note, you can explain what is going on in intellectual circles with reference to our desiccated educational system and, more important still, our thaqafa shafahiyah, oral or sound-based culture. Arabs, it is well known, only believe what people tell them, not what they can see with their own eyes, let alone research and check for themselves. The same former friend was very pensive about his own mental abilities, telling me it was wrong to read someone like Mohammad Hassanein Heikal or even Bourtrous Boutrous Ghali, just because they had went along with the former undemocratic regimes. He likened reading their books to drinking water out of a dirty class.

He’d clearly never heard of anything called filtration!

If you’re confident in yourself and your research skills, you can read anything and not be infected and even turn the tables on the original author. Not so in this part of the world. In all fairness to Arabs, all cultures before the invention of the phonetic alphabet and the print press judged the reliability of knowledge in relation to the reliability of the person transferring it to you, by word of mouth. (I’m getting this from Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman). That is why historians in the past were such consummate liars, because they knew the audience would believe anything told to them, provided it came from people of good moral standing. And they knew that they could get away with it too because in the olden days you didn’t have the internet, and television and newspapers and radio.

When Baghdad fell to the Mongols, it took eight months for people in Damascus to find out about. In Europe, the Pope who launched the Crusades made it sound as if the Muslims had just conquered the holy lands, and he couldn’t tell the difference between Turks and Arabs either. And people of his ilk never did anything to help out Byzantium during the Muslim conquests. (The Byzantines were Orthodox Christians, of course, and they controlled the trade routes coming out of the East, so what interest had Western Christianity in helping them out).


Making Mincemeat of Words

Thus, anything you read you have to take with more than a pinch of salt. More like a quart of the stuff.

As for Trump and his historical claims and those who defend it, after the fact, heroes another answer from the second-hand book market. The fanciful notion that Bayt Al-Makdis is derived from a Hebrew term is equally illogical. Apart from the fact that Arabs didn’t speak Hebrew at the time, there weren’t any Jews in Jerusalem when the Muslims liberated it. The first time the Jews made it back to Jerusalem was at the time of, ironically, Salah Al-Din. The very same person the naysayers aren’t trying to trash today.

The very Hebrew term is illogical itself because there was no holy places (plural not singular) in their way of thinking. They only testify to one holy place, which was their so-called Temple. (A Temple that was built by David and Solomon, Peace Be Upon Them, against the will of God, according to the Old Testament itself; please watch Richard Geer’s genocidal King David). Muslims, and Christians, are the one who consider Jerusalem to be the home of all religions, not Jews at all. My friend from Sour Al-Azbakia surmised that the Arabic Bayt Al-Maqdis could be a translation of the Roman name for the rebuilt Jerusalem of the day, Elia, since it was a holy name, celebrating their of own faith and making the new city out to be a temple to their chief god. If you watch the more responsible historical discussions on Egyptian TV, they found coins, early Islamic coins, with Elia on it, not Urr Shaleem, which itself is derived from Arabic-Canaanites Diar Salim (city of peace). And Baghdad, the original city built by Abu Jafaar Al-Mansur, was actually called Madinat Al-Salam. (Baghdad was a village right next to it, like the Greek town Byzantium that supplied Constantinople with groceries).

Things gets passed down incorrectly in history all the time. And here’s another example for all the naysayers. Amr bin al-Aas gets trashed all the time for having the audacity to liberate Egypt from the Romans, and is even accused of advising people to stand on their children when the flood comes. (As if they had floods where he grew up in Mecca). As luck would have it, I’d watched a (tedious) German science fiction movie once called The Noah’s Ark Principal (1984).

If you’re wondering about the peculiar title it has nothing to do with global flooding. It’s to do with ruthlessness and killing your own offspring, which is what happens in the story and with a Biblical quotation. (If I remember correctly). Wait a minute, wasn’t that what Amr bin Al-Aas is supposed to have said?

Again, somebody else’s historical baggage dumped onto us. What was that Arthur C. Clarke always said? Ah yes, “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” Thank heavens he hadn’t lived to see who was in the White House right this minute!

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