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Arab Culture and
African Culture: ambiguous relations."
This paper is extracted from the book 'The Dialogue between the Arab culture and other cultures', published in Tunis in 1999 by the Arab League, Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO), P.O. Box 1120, Tunis, Tunisia (Tel. 784-466, Fax 2161784965)
In this essay ,we intend to show that , despite the profoundness of the intercourse between Arab culture and black, bantu or nilothique cultures, big or secondary, the relations between these two cultural worlds continue to be among the most instable. We say amongst the very instable, because various parts of the continent witness or have witnessed other instabilities known to those who are informed of conflicts, such as those opposing the Hausa to their neighbours in West Africa, and the conflicts affecting the Bantu and nilothic ethnic groups in Central Africa, the Saharoui and other groups. These conflicts were transformed into military clashes in some areas, like in the Sudan or Maghreb, despite the common cultural roots of the parties involved.
If we see in the ambiguous character of the relations between the Arab and other African cultures, not an isolated case, but the manifestations of a general phenomena, we could easily situate our study as a case study - a case which will be transformed into a general vision of the African situation, seen in the light of the tensions in the international scene. In this study, we start from the evidence and the richness of the intercourse between the Arab and the African cultures, from which both have gained mutually during a long period of time; and despite the troubles that appeared ,sometimes in these relations, they never stopped showing, by events, that they were a true expression of the latent manifestation of the people and could serve as a tool to understand Africa. That is what the cultural , social and intellectual products, as well as the creations of the two parties confirm.
But we will not limit our study to pointing out the richness of the intercourse, because we consider that the signs of ambiguity, amazingly confirm the profoundness of the relations. Our objective is therefore to come to a conclusion, which would assist in handling issues of globalisation, which is a merciless reality all have to deal with. Many of the issues frequently raised in the paper, could serve to resolve major problems. The world cultural space has not been destroyed by the ambition of domination and monopolisation of the centre. And it is not by chance that the slogans of the cold war in its economical, social and military aspects have given way to the concept of the clash of civilisations; a concept which once again is explained as a conflict opposing the centre to the periphery and, the centre to all the "others". This in reality represents a manipulation of the idea of the 'theory of dependence', concerning precisely the cultural issue. If the troubles effecting the cultural relations between the countries of the periphery are not solved, that would result in the disappearance of their individual identity. This is what the South risks if it does not implement a wise policy of cultural and civilisational interaction. It is not by chance that the 'migration to the South' begins in spring.
The Political Culture
The political culture of a society finds expression through the dialectic of the representations which it has of its history and the education of successive generations, thus developing the national identity. It depends also on the degree of mobilisation of the society and individuals to defend their culture, which is embedded in their linguistic patrimony, popular traditions and the arts and literature.*
Arab ethnography, or what has come to be called travel stories, has surveyed African political structures such as empires, states, political regimes and the history and transformation of political conflicts and their consequent power shifts. It has also studied the less important features, which the Europeans also observed in their period of expansion - which they called anthropology, which modern African elites adopted which represented African societies as stateless ,classless ,segmented and tribal societies etc. Since the European interpretation of African culture dominated 19th century thinking, with its pseudo-literature on the "discovery of Africa", European logic was put to service the economic and political interests of colonialism, resulting in a modern vision, based on a war-like view of African tribal society. This ideology aimed to be representative of the whole continent, and served therefore to explain events right up to the most recent in Africa (Mafeje,1971). During a long period of time, African thinking used this European anthropology and its functionalists stereotypes; but it could also not ignore the "historical facts" about Africa's disappeared empires and states, often used to justify theories about the destruction of Africa by the Arabs through religion and slavery etc. The Ghana empire destroyed by regional tensions(11th -12th centuries ), and the Muslim empire of Mali, became the illustrations of the dramatic consequences of the Arab presence in Africa. It is unfortunately this vision which dominates African political culture today. When it became independent, Ghana, the "black star", was cherished because of its rejection of the colonial name"Gold Coast", but also as an example of the rejection of Muslim/Arab cultural domination, which culture is still alive in Senegal and Mali. The African political culture has not, in that respect, been careful enough in avoiding the dangers of denying the historicity of the African cultures, despite the fact that the Arab historical sources ,used by the Europeans, could have been an African reference point, because the Arab presence in Africa did not result in the social and political degradation of the African entity, as had happened under European colonisation.
The association of commercial activity with the expansion of the Muslim faith was, in a particular Arabo-African context, an example of regional and continental interaction, as compared with the colonial exploitation of the Europeans which used guns, the Church and the "civilising mission of Europe". Everybody has certainly read the important book of Edward Blyden Christianity, Islam and the black race. This Afro-American writer, one of the founders of Liberia, used black concepts. He was far from being an admirer of Arabs, indeed he is hostile to them in his other books (Blyden 1887). More important than Blyden ,in this regard, because of his contribution to modern political culture was Walter Rodney , historian and political leader, who saw in history the appropriate politics to shape the struggle against colonialism. That was why this great historian was engaged in the project of popularising the history of the great African kingdoms and empires, such as Benin and Zimbabwe, as well as many other countries, which one cannot accuse the Arabs of having destroyed, since those countries were European creations (Rodney 1972).
I would say that the African ambiguity is in ascendancy now and that one should expect that its significance will decrease in the future. The fact that wise political leaders as Nkrumah and Cabral and others have 'shown the way', should make things easier in future. Unfortunately ,the same optimism does not exist when it comes to Arab culture. There is no effort by the Arabs to move away from their backward view of Africa towards a modernist vision. The edification of nation States in Arab North Africa did not result in emancipating Arab political thought from its historico-religious interpretations - source of various ambiguities - in order to guarantee a base for an unequivocal interaction with Africa.
In that sense, instead of keeping faith with the spirit of the liberation movements and using the affinities created with African movements, which would have helped revise the colonial concepts of the intellectual elites and thus build a national project, Arab thinking has perpetuated the ideological apparatus of the Oummah and the mission(Risala) of Islam, thus maintaining through the history, the traditional religious sacred thinking and writings. When it did not adopt this backward looking attitude, Arab political thought used western anthropology , falling therefore under the intellectual hegemony of the west. In both instances, the attitudes confirm the divorce between Arab North Africa and sub-Saharian Africa, though the Sahara has been for more than a 1000 years, the meeting point of the two cultures.
In an epoque, when slogans repeat the refrains of national liberation, and Afro-Arab solidarity, Africa-Arab culture is dealing with notions cut out from their African and European context, which inhibits a positive interaction between Arab and African cultures. This uncertainty and lack of confidence between past and present can be perceived in Arab literature over the last fifty years. The academic publications on Africa have titles such as : Egypt and its mission by Hucin Mo'niss (1955) , The expansion of Islam and Arabia in Africa of Hassan Ibrahim (1957), The expansion of Islam and the Arab culture in Africa by Hassan Ahmed Mahmood (1957), The expansion of Islam in Africa by Yussef Fathi Hassan (1979), or on the same theme, The historical roots of Afro-Arab relations by Zakaria Kassem (1975), The expansion of Islam in Africa by Jamel Abbes , and The first years of the Maghrebian rule in the western Sudan by Mohammad Al Maghrebi (1982). The problem with this literature is that it departs from an a historic vision of a continent without any culture and civilisation, which received Islam and the Arab culture, or which resisted them without any interaction. We have analysed the content of these books in a study entitled :"The image of the African in the Arab intelligentsia" (Sharawy 1996) in which we show the duality in the Arab cultural scene, between acceptance and rejection of the African. This duality is due in my opinion, to the Arabs ahistoric view of their heritage, which they want to perpetuate on the one hand (Omotoso 1975), but also and more importantly to the influence of western anthropology, an influence which is also at play with the African intellectual, which troubles the vision of all parties.
One should interrogate other sources of knowledge, like educational programs, academic specialities, and European pedagogical traditions, in order to discover the endless papers on the "discovery of Africa", and Egyptian " geographical prospecting" in Africa, as well as other visions, which fit within the European approach , but are contrary to the reality of coexistence between Arabs and Africans on the same continent for thousands of years.
It is probably the hegemony of the alternative geographic and historic schools in the different phases of academic studies , and in the field of conceptualising educational programs, that have hidden the role of politics in treating the issues related to modern Africa's political and social structures, treatment that started in the 1960s (Aouda 1975) ,but deviated in the 70s into studies such as "the Africans and the Arabs", dealing mostly with issues such as "Afro-Arab solidarity", after the 1973 War (Centre for Arab Unity Studies 1983 ,Raouf Abbes 1987, Ijlal Ra'fat 1994). This is what maintains an ambiguous duality in Afro-African relations, with disastrous consequences for the few possibilities of a cultural dialogue between Arabs and Africans.
The Oral and Written Traditions
In the dialogue of cultures, mechanisms which favour reciprocal attraction or rejection , assimilation or proscription, are numerous and crystallise in new cultural formations through translations, edition and writing. Other formations are the result of the interaction, over time, of languages and dialects. Arabs for instance do not deny the importance of their contacts with the old Greek culture and the eminent role which translation played in the genesis of a culture that is in part the result of these contacts. At the same time Africa cannot ignore the value of the Arab contribution, in connection with the use of Arabic characters by many African languages, which is confirmed by many European, African and Arab sources, sources listed by the Arab League Organisation for Education, Culture and Sciences (1984), which constitute 30 titles.
We do not intend to elaborate once again the importance of the linguistic dimension in studying cultural identity, or the tensions which exist and the forces at work both from within and from outside. We do not either want to belabour the crucial role of the history of linguistics in the vision one must have of the cultural and social history of one or more groups of people. But one should understand that the presence or absence of this factor in the analysis of the interaction with the African countries is not an accident (Ehret 1968).
Historians like Ki-zerbo or Ogot ,who are both eminent specialists of African history , argue that this historical dimension is the key to African languages, while a great anthropologist like Prah, considers that African languages are essential components of their societies. Prah tends to regroup these languages in families and denies the thesis of 'The Tower of Babel' of African languages. He does not attach much importance to the historicity of these languages and argues that their transcription from their oral status could be used as a basis to study societies and social relations, (K.Prah 1997).
For us the issues raised, form the basis of the African identity, seen from the point of view of history and from the vision of European anthropology, thus raising the thesis of the destruction of the African entity under the European occupation. One must say that, all these authors rarely referred to the study of relations between Arabs and Africans.
The approach adopted by most, in my opinion, ignores important Arab and African references which if adopted would have helped the African party to better understand the issue of identity. They should have studied these references and studied them profoundly, as they did the theses developed by European anthropology. I would like once again to underline the importance of the Arab ethnology know as the travellers literature, which has been translated by the Europeans. The importance of the Arabo-African text, which came before western anthropology, comes from its fidelity to the African spirit which is expressed in it. The literature of Jihad is an example of converging views between Arabs and Africans since the Wahhabit School and Ottoman Ibn Fouda. Ibn Fouda extends the duty of Islamic Jihad to tribal and regional conflicts in the Western Sudan (Ibn Fouda 1977). But the most convincing example is probably the history of the African manuscripts written in more than thirty languages using Arabic characters. The first comments from African researchers on the issue, do not reflect the body of shared experience, due to inattentiveness or naivete, according to their appreciation. This negative appreciation fragilises one of the most important parts of the debate on identity. A quick review of the Arab sources concludes that they do not contribute any additional appreciation to the issues. The Arabs seem to have been more preoccupied with expressing their own identity, which they isolate from other identities, because of the conflicts that occurred with the European and Ottoman entities etc, or again because of the chauvinistic tendencies within the League of Arab States. Due to all these reasons and many others, they only have been interested in their own image. They tried to come forward only with their own problems, ignoring those of others. We have seen the negative consequences of this behaviour in connection with the Arab influence and the spread of Arab culture. This also effected matters of linguistic tradition.
Nobody would deny the role Arab States have played in safeguarding Arabic manuscripts and documents. There exists a well known Institute affiliated to the Arab League and the Arab Organisation for Education, Culture and Science where these papers are kept. There are also efforts made by specialised institutions in this domain, which have relations with some African national institutions, in Mauritania, Tomboctou, Kano, and Zanzibar. But these contacts did not intend to compile a list or index of African manuscripts written in Arabic characters into French, English or Arabic in order to make them usable by African, European or Arab researchers, to facilitate an understanding of African linguistic tradition and its social and historical roots. At the beginning of the 19th century, a discovery of a single text written on a stone, made it possible to know the history of an entire civilisation, which constituted the basis of humanity: the Egyptian ancient civilisation. Likewise Persian and Turkish histories live on the knowledge of their past, still written in Arabic characters and continue to dialogue with the Arab culture, sometimes harmoniously, other times in tension, within the context of neighbourly relations. Why has the African experience not drawn inspiration from these examples, and why did the Arabs not help to achieving that goal?
The problem, I believe resides in the issue of how to present ajami (African texts written in Arabic characters) to the Arabs themselves. Those who discovered these texts have only been sensitive to some of its parts, that could provoke Africans by promoting the propaganda of Islam and the Arab cause, by way of the religious poetry. This of course does not help the aim of finding the historical and social dimensions of these traditions and therefore justifying the hard task required in order to discover and revive them. Some Arab institutions, which have worked directly on these sources, were unfortunately unable to free themselves from a naive approach. Al Furkan Publishers in London, who publish thousands of Arab manuscripts, sometimes from African sources, do not go further than mentioning that there are some African manuscripts written in Arabic characters (Sidi Amor Ben Ali,1996-1997), without making any attempt to make them better known. When some Arab institutions decided to publish some African manuscripts, in order to make them available to modern researchers, they limited the work to reproducing some religious texts and poems without translating them into any languages.
These publishers probably wanted to make the texts available at popular level, which is the correct level, when considering the African scene today, although no research has been done on the number of potential African readers at popular level (which is generally an illiterate level) of Arabic texts. We think that the effectiveness of the publication of those institutions must be questioned, because we are aware of the other attempts made to reach the public able to read in African languages written in Arabic characters, in the form of daily newspapers in Wolof published before and still published today by the Party of Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal. I do also have in my possession some posters of the African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights in Gambia, posters which aim to promote human rights in simple English slogans, plus formulations in local languages written in Arabic characters, addressed principally to women considered to constitute the base of popular culture, and the advanced guard of the new movement of emancipated women.
All theses facts and issues should engage the mind of the African intellectual, in relation to his languages written in Arabic characters.
Pan-African Culture and the Culture of the National Emancipation.
Arab culture and African thinking have been influenced, in the different phases of their historical interaction, by the two tendencies of panafricanism and national emancipation , which due to their various characteristics sometimes converged and diverged. This history has been marked by a lack of common will to adopt a cultural policy and to move to positive forms of interaction. Because of numerous historical reasons , the African way of thinking stressed emancipation , while the Arab culture focused on liberation, which resulted in Africans, through the panafrican experience, indulging in romantic introversion, illustrated by groups of intellectuals, writers, poets and philosophers (Blyden , Senghor, Nkrumah). We have even seen some political leaders preoccupied with leading their people to independence using this philosophy. This situation translated itself into the policies of some African states towards "others", who were treated as foreigners, whether they were Arabs or European colonialists. The panarabist movement essentially prolonged the Islamic reform, even though it could claim a long, rich tradition, inheriting from what the Oummah had as the holiest in Islam and Arab tradition. Panarabism remains concerned with the external, preoccupied in dealing with the others - successively the Ottomans and the Europeans colonizers. The theologists (Al-Afghani) and the warriors (Aziz Masri-Nasser) who stood for this vision accentuated its political premises and degraded its cultural dimension , though the cultural part has also been used to support political aspirations (Sati , Alhussari). All this detracted from the significance of culture in the process of national liberation.
In both cases , the cultural tradition has had the tendency to priviledge exclusion in the first place, and to revindicate new affinities thereafter. Africans have in this regard revived, as they still do, their links with the Afro-American diaspora, and Arabs renewed contact with the Asians despite their contrasted cultures.
What impact did the two regions effected by this study feel as a result of their different genisis and evolution in the past and today? No doubt slavery in Africa explains the tendency towards national emancipation and continues to influence the African national liberation movement. The enslavement of more than 50 million Africans and their transfer to the Americas and to Europe, a process under which half the slaves died in passage, raises the problem of Arab slavery and the non-interdiction of this practice by Islam, which is a widespread religion in Africa. There is no need for reminder of the role of European culture in creating confusion between the two areas and the exploitation of cultural information against Arabs. This situation aggravated the bleeding wounds, and created the emancipation movement and the exclusion (of 'others') tendency. As a result the idea of ethiopianism was born in the late 19th century, and associated itself to the Black Church, to support specific aspects of continental unity based on ethnicity and shared experience (Geiss 1968).
Cesaire and Senghor created the idea of negritude to define terrain and to define the African identity in its roots, from the first millenium of its history (that of its common history with Arabs). This identity expressed through emotion , movement , poetry , dance and effect accentuated the difference with Arabs and Europeans (Senghor 1964). When Nkrumah raised the issue of conscience and Sekou Toure the notion of African personality, they did not move far away from this vision, though they deepened the notion of national liberation and not the notion of emancipation, diverging on what position to adopt towards western imperialism.
Many of the African analysts hide the complicity between Arabs and Africans in the slave trade and do not situate it in its social context ; even though there exist numerous important studies concerning the economic and social precapitalist context, which witnessed the development of this practice; a context that had nothing to do with the European capitalism model which later submerged Africa. Certain of the studies were written by African historians of great cultural and political standing (Rodney 1969). Many also are those who neglected the solidarity between Arab and African national liberation movements especially within the Nkrumahist and Nasserist streams and others, within the first period of Independence. If this fraternity had been known, it would have avoided the stories of the Arab slave trade and would have replaced a partisan view with a more just image , the one of militant support within the ranks of the Liberation Committee and the defending of Lumumba (Sharawy 1987).
The Arabs have been preoccupied with rejecting the accusation of slavery, trying to deny a social manifestation which occurred in all societies. Objective history has clearly shown the role of this practice in Arab-feudal society ,which had millions of European, Asian and African slaves. History has also shown the role of the African tribes in furnishing to the European slave trade companies millions of slaves, which lead to the destruction of the ancient African States, which were replaced by a narrow tribal ideology. Instead of rallying against feudalism and imperialism, the involved parties are engaged in a finger-pointing exercise of justification and a struggle without respite, which moderated in the 1960's only to intensify again during the era of petro-dollars, despite claims of Afro-Arab co-operation and solidarity in the Arabo-African era !
Since I am the guest here of an Arab organisation, I would like to direct my criticism at Arab intellectuals, who carry a certain blame for having failed to build a political culture able to constitute a basis of dialogue between Arab and African cultures. Why was the Arab intellectual seduced by European information organs , to the point that they have praised the person and poetry of Senghor, who propounded a theory of exclusion and rupture in relations with Africa, whatever respect we might have for his creativity, and who the University of Cairo awarded a doctorate 'honoris causa'? At the same time the Arab culture ignored the role of the great intellectual and political leader Cheikh Anta Diop, who struggled to establish the African origin of Egyptian culture (Diop 1975) and made this thesis the starting point of his project for the African Federation? The Arabs for their part are not interested in the dynamic journalist Mohamed Ali Dos of Sudanese/Egyptian origin, who participated during the first half of this century in the movement for African unity. Why did the Arab intellectual ignore and not want to popularise the African critique of the isolationist negritude theory, made by the African intellectuals such as E.Maphehlele (1962)?
Why did we ignore and not translate, the ideas of the militant Joseph Garang on the situation in South Sudan, in the context of a united national democratic Sudan, until he was executed by Numeri in 1971 (Garang 1971)? The flagrant absence of the various elements of political culture necessary to establishing a profound dialogue, could be explained by the lack of a social and democratic conception of unity and complimentarily in diversity, especially as regards autocratic regimes, vassal states and social structures, as well as populist charasmatic leaders, without a popular and cultural base. This had an influence on the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation and the Non-aligned Movement, organisations that do not give much importance to dialogue between cultures and downplay the role of social movements. In that respect the African and Arab countries continue to divide along the francophone/anglophone dichotomy, copying European modernisation models, although they use a socialist Arab or African discourse!
Cultural Relations Based on Commercial Exchange
>From the old caravan routes determining trade relations, economic dependency in the 1960's, came to characterise Afro-Arab relations. This was one of the rare examples of a complete shift in international relations from a cultural to an economic relationship. The economic aspect of the relationship had previously been latent. Today it is dominant. In that sense the 1973 War between the Arabs and Israel started the oil and food prices crisis and constituted the first manifestation of a world economic crises which profited western capitalism. One could have guessed that this would have strengthened the coalition between the countries of the south, to enable them to collectively face the crisis and affirm their identity, especially in the places where there were historical links, like the Arab and African world. One would have hoped that Arabs and Africans would be inspired by the Suez crises in 1956 or the Arab position towards the racist regime of South Africa in 1965 etc. After all these represented, firstly the enrichment of third world countries from their own natural resources and, secondly the reduction of colonial/imperial authority.
But things did not go that way. Egypt was unable to keep the benefits from the 1973 War. Arabs could not guarantee the control of their resources. Africans were unable to find a common strategy to master their initiatives. On the contrary , the West remained with most of the cards in its hands and could dictate the New Economic World Order. The international propoganda machine took over and the Africans joined in blaming Arabs for the energy crises and forced them into compensation agreements concerning the energy and food crises in Africa. This situation occurred in a period of the declining influence of the national liberation movements and in the meantime the Arab and African worlds had witnessed radical transformations. The proposed solutions for the crisis did not take into account the heritage of the panafrican movement , but brought to life the old practice of exchange, with the Africans cutting their relations with Israel in exchange for financial aid, from the Arabs. One could therefore observe a change in the conceptual model of Afro-Arab relations. This moved from union to liberation , common engagement ,solidarity ,cooperation and finally to aid to face crises. The big gatherings between Arab and Africans intellectuals, which had reviewed Afro-Arab relations (Khartoum 1976-Al Charika 1976-Cairo 1978) were hijacked by the issue of the Arab slave trade and the responsibility of Arabs for the current crises, though some of the participants did manifest a common aspiration for national liberation and an understanding of the need for a sociological redefinition of the evolution of Arab and African societies, a redefinition able to take into account common challenges and interests (Sharawy 1984). Despite that, we should admit that the way of thinking which had characterised exchange relations in the past, thereafter did not change much, so that today Afro-Arab relations have remained sanitised and distant, since the mid 1980's. On top of the 'exchange relation' character of the Afro-Arab intercourse was added an increasing economic emphasis. We know the most important documents on the state of Afro-Arab relations during the period 1975-1985 consisted of documents published by the Afro-Arab bank (BADEA). On the other hand African and Arabic publications, whether positive or negative towards Arabs, seemed to focus on Arab dollars in Africa (Chibwe 1976 -Bechir 1982 -Zaarour 1989). As a reaction, the conditions of the crises probably made it easier for some of these publications to critique in a more mature way.
However Afro-Arab relations became those of debtor and creditor. Many others were trapped by their faulty understanding of history and by bad conscience, reviving a thinking which was widespread in the 50s and 60s. For instance one could see published in the 1970s academic studies from institutions linked with the Arab League with headlines such as The history of Afro-Arab relations (of the Institute of Arab Studies) , followed by studies by the Department of Literature and Political Science of Cairo University which used the same world view up to 1994.
We should acknowledge that the convening in Khartoum, Cairo and Dakar, of six Afro-Arab meetings within 20 years ,uniting Arab and African high profiled intellectuals , has permitted a fruitful debate on the role of intellectuals in constructing and sustaining a dialogue. We should also acknowledge that the predominance of economic issues, has relegated the role of culture and the intellectual to an inferior level. Economic relations have achieved, on the official level, important goals which could produce a serious intellectual debate , specially in Africa. In fact , the cooperation between Arab and African governments resulted in the UN resolution equating Zionism to racism in 1975. Before that , the same body adopted a resolution recognising the legitimacy of the armed struggle to achieve the right to self-determination , giving support to African and Arab liberation movements (1972). Despite all this, the cultural movement did not pursue the debate on these important issues, once the motivation of the government parties was weakened. Therefore the first of the two resolutions mentioned has been cancelled (1991), while the second resolution lost its significance when negotiations started. Likewise the resolutions adopted by the intergovernmental Afro-Arab commissions on cultural institutions, or by other instances , have only become operative to the extent that they feed into economic concerns. This could be verified with the cancellation of the project for the Afro- Arab Cultural Centre, a project adopted by the Organisation of the African Unity and the Arab League in 1984. The cooperation between the Arab Organisation for Education , Science and Culture (ALECSO) and the Cultural Centre of Dakar has been interrupted, as have since the end of the 1990's, the activities of the organ responsible for Arab culture in foreign countries, an organ of ALECSO, even though it was initially tasked to propogate Arab/Islamic culture. On the other hand the OAU did not create any institution dedicated to serving the goal of cultural dialogue.
Which common cultural and intellectual spaces , could we establish in the Arab and African countries? If we interrogated in this respect the intentions of the owners of the oil revenues , we would find their strategies effected the evolution of the Afro-Arab dialogue. Even though we do not intend to discuss the nature of the concept of cooperation with Africa as understood by the Gulf countries, which is another issue, we notice their cooperation with Africa results in relations very close to the economic dependant model, in as far as culture is concerned. This can be seen in the teaching of Arabic language at certain stages in the curriculum of countries benefiting from substantial aid from the Gulf states. It can also be seen in the religious conditions linked to the aid. One can also site the support to certain African universities in the training of theology teachers and for Islamic studies in English and French, thus illuminating the physical presence of Arab intellectuals and excluding a cultural interaction.
Diverse political circumstances have made it difficult to establish a dialogue in other fields, which could have provided the opportunity for building an understanding between Arabs and Africans. For example, the conflicts in West Sahara, Chad, South Sudan and Somalia have developed in a direction which transformed Arab quarrels into centres of tension for Africans on the one hand , and paralysed common institutions on the other. This situation developed negative perceptions of the Arab presence in Africa ,and almost destroyed the dialogue on complementarity's between the African and the Arab worlds. It has made more difficult enlightened sociological analysis of the regional formations of the continent. Knowing that the problems raised great potential for misunderstanding between the North and the South of the continent, one should understand that the colonial project to turn the Sahara into a frontier cutting the North of Africa from the South is still alive and well, though the Sahara has been for centuries a place of cultural and intellectual integration. Actually Afro-Arab commercial exchange relations have not helped in solving these problems, which raises the need for a new cultural dialogue and a new space for reflection , in the era of globalisation that effects the African and Arab worlds.
The Migration to the North or to the South ?
The migration to the North has only been fruitful for Arabs and Africans in the sense that it has resulted in increased communication with the outside world and provided the possibility to know the "others." The relations with the South have been dominated by conflicts and violence imposed by Europe since the crusades until the colonial days. On the other hand, Arabs penetrated into Europe through wars, which was not the case when they came to Africa. Lastly Africa came into contact with Europe only through colonialism, leading to cultural dependence and domination.
The Arab progression into the South and to the Orient has always been through commerce, religion, culture and political dialogue. Popular and populist cultures like Sufism and political Islam invaded the Arab world, then Africa from their bases in the Far-East , as did the key concepts of Maoist revolution and the Asian tigers.
During three years (1955-1958), the national liberation movement, which brought a new humanism to the world of the oppressed, founded in Bandung, and Accra a firm internal legitimisation of its principles. The original response which the Non-Aligned Movement provided to the big issues, was very different from the thesis of the clash of civilisations. We remember the stimulating intellectual exchanges which were in bloom during that period, including within western civilisation, with its left and right options. That was the epoch of the rising strength of the national liberation movements and we were yet to see the centralisation of the North which occurred, when the South collapsed, failing to realise its potential. When we look at creativity in the fields of literature, theatre, cinema, events as well as progress during that period in advance theory, new writing concepts and cultural activities, we cannot but be impressed. Hopefully all these may still inspire the militants of globalisation , the specialists of unilateral communication between civilisations. But these ideas in those times inspired the children of the South, who attended the people's congresses, the youth and art festivals which took place in the capitals that hosted them such as Dar-Es-Salaam to Accra, Damascus, Beirut and Algiers. Thinking back today, we are left embittered by the misery, the cultural and social regression, which led some to go north - not Al-Tahtawi, Taha Houssein, Al-Houssari, Du Bois or Ki-Zerbo, but those whoes cultural legacy is negative. Lets put aside the debate about the ambivalent and complex heritage of history. Sociology and political science guarantee by their methods greater efficiency in treating these complex issues. We are once again on the road of a reciprocal migration between children of the South.
The way ahead is not easy , and it requires the analysis of new premises to sustain this renewed and reciprocal journey between the children of the South.
Firstly: an identification of the actors in the dialogue.
The conditions of the cold war and ideological conflict were imposed on the people of the South during a long period of time, as partners on the international scene in joints actions with the North, but also with the other people of the South. That was as natural situation in the context of the confrontation between blocks; but this fact did not exclude the acknowledgement of the identity of the South on the world's scene. That explain why increasing attention must be given to the cultural component in these relations.
This obliges us to rethink our way of understanding the issue of diversity and the differentiation of the components of the Arab and African map, in order to guarantee better chances of success for a cultural and political dialogue based on democracy and popular participation. That is what emerges from the people's preoccupations and not from the options of the elites. In fact , the religious issue with its major ramifications and the military revolts in Western Africa are the results of cultural factors which influenced the conditions of dialogue with the external world. That is also the case when it comes to the crises in East Africa and the search for integration in North Africa. This is how internal conflicts within societies can degrade inter-regional relations. It is difficult to engage in a dialogue without analysing first the international causes of these crises , because a dialogue is a cultural process that only can succeed when certain conditions are in place. Otherwise how do we understand that Arabs and Africans say yes to the wars in the Sudan and the Great Lakes and at the same time fail to respond to the situation in West Africa? Why don't we worry about the cultural approach in North Africa-in Algeria for example -and why don't we interrogate more seriously social, and international interference?
The duty of those concerned with cultural issues and future cohabitation, is to look South, not North and to work towards a terrain for dialogue.
Secondly: About the political culture.
The general concepts which determine the functioning of our societies need to be constantly reviewed by the intellectuals and the leaders of the social and cultural movements , because there is constant external interference. In that regard , the forms of domination relate to the domain of information , the culture of consumption and the free market , which effect the cultural domain and have a huge power to contaminate. Lets look into the concept of authenticity -and the elements which envelop it - when we try to define it in relation to the notions of fundamentalism and integration. An interaction which grows when looked at in the perspective of a living past. It true that the current hegemony of globalisation has succeeded in reducing in our societies the nationalist and unitarian ideological visions ; which makes it difficult for Arab and African intellectuals to engage in a dialogue, specially from the political/cultural point of view. Is a dialogue possible between the African and Arab unity movements? A dialogue which goes further than the romantic conceptions of these two movements? Is it possible that the re-examination of the foundations of the nation State will give unity a new basis and under new conditions? This seems to be possible from the documents published by the 7th Pan-African Congress held in Kampala(1994), in which took part hundreds of delegations, with a massive African-American presence and the noticeable absence of Arabs. Taking into consideration the absence of the Arab League at this forum, how can we hope to establish an Afro-Arab dialogue, a dialogue that is related to the Arab and African political cultures? We ask this question in a moment when the Pan-African movement is being moved from West Africa to the centre and the East, and so to speak, to the borders of the Arab world and its strategic limits (Nile, Red Sea). We want to remind the Arabs that the immediate activities of the panafrican movement raise the question of the European responsibility in the slave trade, but the role played by the Arabs will not be forgotten! The second example, concerns the positions adopted by the African and Arab cultures as regards some nationalities, which by their simple presence , project on the international scene a concert of ideological, racial and confessional considerations, at a time when such considerations would raise reprobation and indignation in any other parts of the world. I am referring to the Zionist ideology which hides behind Jewish nationalism in Israel. The cooperation between the Zionist entity and the racist regime of South Africa formed the origin of an African , Arab and world resolution identifying Zionism as a form of racism (UN 1975). The apartheid regime of South Africa has ended but the Zionist regime continues in the Arab region. How can we be credible in advocating that the modern State should not be based on confessional, ethnic and racial considerations, while not addressing that issue within Africa and the Arab world? The occurrence of such an Afro-Arab dialogue is the only chance of establishing the credibility of African and Arab intellectuals on the world scene, and will provide the opportunity to show a universal and humanist engagement.
Thirdly: The culture of development.
The question of development raise issues such as its various components - human resources, and sustainable development. These issues are rarely associated with regional development, whether it is the complementarity between regional and cultural components in the same country, or different economies in a wider region, in order to facilitate the resolution of regional conflicts. Since the cultural debate cannot ignore issues of development, it is time to engage a discussion between Arab and African partners around the issue of transformation. The dynamic of Afro-Arab relations did not give enough importance to this aspect, since it has been preoccupied by issues such as investments, loans and aid. Some Arab leaders refused to name the common bank the Afro-Arab Bank, preferring to use the name Arab Bank for the Development of Africa (B.A.D.E.A), which shows the level of the political culture and the current development model. Allow me to say that complementarity of well balanced regional development should be our highest priority in order to resolve the problems identified as being obstacles to Afro-Arab understanding, which cares about cultural and social realities and not only about political realities. I am referring to the Nile region, the Horn of Africa, the Senegal Valley and the Sahara region. It is impossible to achieve a real cultural dialogue without taking into account the situation in these parts of the continent and their social and cultural aspects.
Fourth :The problems of educational and cultural patrimony.
The collapse of educational systems in Africa and the Arab world does not need to be proven, from alphabetisation programs at the basic level to cultural illiteracy, which in the age of communication and advanced technologies, reduces our qualities as humans on the world scene. One should nevertheless admit that despite this situation, education seems to be a strategic preoccupation, but only at the level of good intentions. What content will the officials give to education? What ideas of the national identity will be promoted? Which positive or negative images will the manuals contain? Which language will be used, in a time of conflict between francophony and anglophony? Which reference will be proposed to the learner and the intellectual?
The works on the promotion of African languages (Prah 1997) and the projects of educational reform are ready and remain in Arab desks draws since two decades. UNESCO has been interested in the question of the African languages since A.Mbow became its General Secretary and the OAU was mobilised on the issue since the 70s-80s. But all these efforts have suffered from the rivalries between French speaking and English speaking countries. It is important though to notice that all the parties involved agree with the use of the Latin alphabet for the African languages, cutting therefore the users of these languages from their past and maintaining them in the grid of the European tradition.
Languages are the foundations of identity. Written languages constitute a patrimony which should be respected and treated with the required objectivity. We have already mentioned the proven existence of more than thirty African languages, which used Arabic characters until the European colonial invasion. Thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic characters cannot be ignored. Their study requires a vast research program, a strong and clear will and a huge education and formation program. Lets raise the issue with the African intellectual familiar with the French and English languages; we do not believe that this will add an arabophone component to the conflict of interests which opposes English and French speakers! It is rather a cultural debate based on popular practice, because we can observe respectable intellectuals recognising this practice-the use of Arabic characters- as an efficient tool of communication with the public, a practice implemented by social and cultural organisations in West Africa.
The Arab intellectual should bear a part of the responsibility, for looking at these patrimonies as a simple religious legacy and a justification for the Arab presence in Africa. This will not be accepted by the African cultural entity and won't serve the interest of reform. The Arab intellectual should replace the slogan "the African's contribution to the Arabo-Islamic culture" by another related to the promotion of the African culture and its patrimonies, with a serious dialogue on apparent cultures.
Fifth: The role of translations and cooperation between University institutions.
Cultural interaction plays an important role in national development; it provides the opportunity to cross-fertilize African and Asian cultures-including the Arab culture- the Arabia region having witnessed intense cultural exchanges during the two last centuries. The use of a foreign language as a means of communication is not ideal, as the example of Japan proves. It is necessary therefore that the Afro-Arab dialogue gets used to the ideas and social realities of its partners by engaging in a big movement for the translation of each other's texts. What comes to the Arab world about African cultural production and what Africans know about Arab cultural production is so inadequate, as to paralyse any possibility for a real dialogue. Because of diverse reasons there are no exchanges between Arab and African universities or if there are, they do not guarantee the possibility of a dialogue within these cultures. Lets take the example of the University of Dar-Es-Salaam which has been for more than two decades an important centre for African sub-Saharan intellectuals, an example followed by Dakar and Legon in Ghana! The North has also done the same from Al-Azhar to Cairo and Karaouine in Fes, Morocco; but this era ended as intellectual rigidity set-in and these institutions lost contact with dynamic cultural developments elsewhere.
It is regrettable that Afro-Arab cooperation, because of its economic focus, did not give the greatest importance to the cultural dimension, that is the reason why institutions created to serve the goal of cooperation have been completely neutralised.
Keeping moving with the wind coming from the North will not guarantee an efficient Afro-Arab dialogue. The challenge cannot be faced by reducing an economical fact to a political fact. A serious rupture has taken place and perpetuates itself due to deliberate inaction and the resurgence of the influence of the North, in the era of globalisation and new imperialism. For this reason, for us as for the Europeans , cultural dialogue cannot be reduced to a calendar of periodic meetings. It requires in fact a scientific basis, serious research, a common action and material support to the institutions dealing with dialogue and promoting its products. That's why this dialogue must include different levels of conceptual definition, languages, cultural patrimonies, information and cultural exchanges. It must also engage circles of reflection on diverse aspects, which should converge towards the establishment of a common cultural institution.
The Arab cultural institutions, due to their religious interpretation of culture and their dependency on new projects from the North, should redefine the new preconditions for a journey to the South.
The African institutions which work for reform and unity, must understand that they have for a long time suffered due to their fascination with the influence that the north exerts on them. They should take note that African-Americans, due to their natural evolution in America, are Americans, whose interests are diametrically different from Africans, in proportion to the development differentiation between Africa and America. For all these reasons, only a common Southern vision can dynamise a new Afro-Arab cultural dialogue. Based on these facts, we believe that a common vision of the South is the only way to build the new Afro-Arab dialogue.
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Reprinted from the Global African Presence