For several years I have depended largely on Bernard Lewis (with important sniping at times from Edward Said) for my information about the general makeup of the extraordinary variety of people in the Middle East and Southern Mediterranean regions. Lewis has been an imperfect source to be sure, but his writing is both cogent and concise. Over the past months, however, Lewis has been eclipsed in my mind by Prof. Juan Cole of U. Mich. Cole's particular superiorities to Lewis become apparent fairly quickly, but the best way to characterize them is that I feel Cole has a deeper understanding of the acutal peoples of the region while Lewis's understanding concerns more the governments of the region. Prior to 9/11 and Mr. Bush's War this was sufficient for my amateur needs, but since those events, I think a greater focus on the so-called Arab Street is important.
Jack Schafer's recent article in Slate has been making the blog rounds of late. While amusing and certainly informative of just how inadequate the current Western vernacular is for describing the intricacies of the Middle East and Asia, Schafer's article was not meant to provide answers on the issues it raises. Prof. Cole here goes a long way toward providing the answers that Schafer's article does not. Cole's post is long, but to give a sense as to why I think he's so valuable as a resource, I'll clip just the first part of each paragraph:
"Arab" is actually a linguistic category, like "Romance" or "Latin".
But the region is linguistically diverse despite the dominance of Arabic.
"Arab" is not a racial category. There are anyway no such things as races in the way they are popularly imagined.
In Iraq itself, many Chaldean Christians speak Aramaic (a Semitic language) as their mother tongue, and of course the Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian and distantly to English.
So, the Arab world has a good deal of linguistic diversity within it. But then when you move north and east of Iraq, the situation becomes really complicated.
Then you have Muslim South Asia. There are four major regional languages in Pakistan: Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi and Pushtu. All four are Indo-European.
So when the New York Times included "Pakistanis" among the Arab-Americans, this would be like including Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "Latin Wave" of popular culture.
There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and by the time the global population stabilizes around 2050, theirs will be the world's largest religion. Americans had better become more familiar with it.