Glubb Pasha -- or, to give him his full title, Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb -- was one of a long string of Englishmen who got involved in the complicated affairs of the Middle East: Lawrence of Arabia was perhaps the most famous. Pasha, by the way, is simply an honorary title in the Arab world, one that is typically granted to high-ranking soldiers or governors, and it means, more or less, 'Sir'.
Born in 1897, Glubb was a career soldier, and his career culminated in his role as commander of the Arab legion, from 1939 to 1956.
After his retirement, Glubb wrote a considerable number of books, which I have not read, but I have just read My Years with the Arabs, which is the text of a lecture that he gave to the Institute for Cultural Research in 1971. It's still in print, and if you are trying to make sense of the current nonsense in Iraq you could do worse than take a look at it. (ISBN 0 9500029 6 8)
Glubb begins by trying to give a historical definition of the term Arab. He points out that, in the seventh century, a handful of troops from the Arabian peninsula (perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 men) conquered vast areas of the Middle East. These soldiers were inspired by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Ultimately, the countries conquered by these troops adopted the Muslim religion and the Arabic language, but their populations were largely unchanged. The newly 'Arab' countries therefore retain marked differences in ethnic origin and customs, and they react very differently to the events and crises of life.
Having made that point, Glubb goes on to describe some common characteristics of those peoples who are today considered Arab. And we should note immediately that, writing in 1971, he was aware that the younger generation of Arabs were often being educated in western universities, and were bringing into their communities new ideas and new ways of doing things. However, Glubb seems to have held the view that most of the characteristics which he described were likely to remain at the core of Arab behaviour and thinking.
The first characteristic that he identifies is courtesy. He describes the elaborate politeness and formality with which even the poorest people greet friends and strangers.
His second trait is dignity, which he says is common to all Middle East cultures. In company, an Arab will not lounge about, yawn, or laugh uproariously with his mouth open. The behaviour of Europeans and Americans, says Glubb, often makes them seem like barbarians to the Arabs.
To the casual visitor, says Glubb, Arabs do not normally seem very pious. But whether or not they pray five times a day (as Muslims are supposed to), Glubb thinks it a safe generalisation to say that all but a handful of westernised Arabs believe in God. This, he feels, has a markedly stabilising effect on society. For example, there are no suicides among these people.
As for the common sneer that Arabs are fatalists, Glubb chooses to describe this rather as a calm acceptance of setbacks and defeats. It is their faith in God which enables Arabs to bear terrible misfortunes and hardships without nervous breakdowns and suicides.
Next, Glubb considers the Arab attitude to money. 'Most of the traditional Arabs among whom I lived presented a phenomenon entirely strange, perhaps incredible, to the modern Western mind -- they did not live for money.'
This has various consequences, one of which is that the poor do not envy the rich; the elderly are cared for in the family, and are not seen as a hindrance to the pursuit of money.
However, this is one area where, even in 1971, Glubb could see substantial changes. The western-educated young often returned with a very western enthusiasm for money. As a result, the old system of basing business transactions purely on trust was breaking down, and a wider gap was developing between rich and poor in the Arab world.
Under traditional Arab conditions, children naturally grew up as part of a family, and tended to continue in the family way of life. The sons of shepherds, farmers, and merchants became shepherds, farmers and merchants in turn. But by the time Glubb was writing, the introduction of western education methods had changed all that. A university degree is now considered the one essential to success; under the western influence, 'character, honesty, experience, courage are never enquired of, or even thought necessary.'
This development causes Glubb to consider the question of wisdom and knowledge. 'One of the most striking peculiarities of life in this country,' he says, 'which has impressed me since my return to Britain, is the loss of our appreciation of the difference between Wisdom and Knowledge.' These are, in Glubb's view, as different as chalk is from cheese.
Wisdom, according to Glubb, is the art of living and can only be acquired by experience; thus an old peasant may be wiser than the world's greatest scientist. 'I have known village headmen in Asia,' he declares, 'who were wiser than the president of the United States.'
No further comment is required on that.
Glubb considers politics in the Arab world. In politics, he says, we in the west are as narrow-minded as our ancestors were in terms of religion: i.e. convinced that our way is best. He gives an example drawn from two western comments on the state of Jordan in the 1940s. One western correspondent remarked to Glubb that the government of Jordan was 'entirely reactionary and feudalistic, and really an anachronism in the modern world.' A second correspondent, speaking separately from the first, remarked that 'This is the first country I have ever visited where everyone I have spoken to praises the government.'
Moral: we should not make the assumption that democracy is the most natural, or the 'best' form of government for every nation under the sun. Some might prefer a different arrangement.
The key to the traditional Arab form of government, Glubb says, was accessibility, at all levels. Everyone in the community had the opportunity to speak to the leader, without lawyers, legal fees or delay. Our own system, Glubb argues, has completely lost this vital asset. No single man is responsible for anything: individuals are concealed within committees, and the system is dehumanised and depersonalised. Glubb's conclusion is we are not justified in demanding that other nations should abandon their own traditions and adopt ours.
Finally, Glubb points out that the western code of chivalry has its origins in the Arab world. Before the preaching of Islam in the seventh century, the Arabs carried on endless wars; but these wars were governed by strict rules of honour. The object of war was not to conquer or subdue another tribe; it was to provide a means whereby men could win honour, rather than wealth or power.
It was these same warlike nomads who formed the spearhead of the Arab conquests, and in Spain and France they established their ideas of war for honour, and a chivalrous attitude toward women. (The Arabs, by the way, remained in Spain for nearly 800 years.) Glubb concludes his lecture by echoing the words of the great French scholar, Dr Levi-Provencal: 'Arabs taught Europe respect and courtesy to women.'
Should you wish to read Glubb Pasha's lecture, you can obtain it from the Institute for Cultural Research, along with much else.