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Mind Over Matter

Louis Werner

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The news from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that Jewish historian Raphael Patai’s book The Arab Mind, a sex-obsessed cultural stereotyping of the Arabs, is considered a must-read by Washington neo-conservatives is not surprising. It is, after all, taught at the US Army War College, and its new edition has an introduction written by Colonel Norvell DeAtkine, director of Middle East Studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, whose academic specialties are listed as terrorism, urban warfare, and “operations other than war”.

The diseased psyche at the heart of the USA Empire is displayed no more vividly than by its treatment of dissidents living in its latest acquisition.

The diseased psyche at the heart of the USA Empire is displayed no more vividly than by its treatment of dissidents living in its latest acquisition.

So I suppose it is also unsurprising that the book was apparently used as a field manual by US Army Intelligence in Abu Ghraib prison, whose interrogators inferred the bizarre lesson from Patai’s chapter on Arab sexual shame that recommends forced nakedness, transvestitism, and female-on-male sado-masochism as the best way to get Iraqi prisoners to cooperate and talk.

The book is of the discredited genre that was once called “national character studies”, but is now dismissively called “diaperology” by anthropologists, for its laughably reductionist argument that culture can be explained by how a nation toilet trains and mollycoddles its children. Patai chooses to focus on the potty’s shame factor, while other diaperologists have concentrated on its relation to childhood rebellion, resistance, and retention. It is difficult to write these lines with a straight face.

Patai was a Hungarian refugee and journeyman academic, who made an itinerant living in the USA, before his death in 1996, by editing Theodore Herzl’s diaries, writing his own memoirs of life in the old country and Mandatory Palestine and churning out middle brow studies on such subjects as Jewish seafaring and folk tales. His interest in probing the “mind” of different peoples came from his urbane multi-ethnic European roots, from which he acquired both an amateur taste for Freudian analysis and an acute nose for racial typecasting.

But his penchant was not always for the mind’s dark corners. Unlike his book on the psychopathology of Arabs, his treatise The Jewish Mind is a cheerful paean to his own people’s mental health and cultural normalcy. His one book in which Arab meets Jew face-to-face is The Seed of Abraham: Jews and Arabs in Contact and Conflict, in which he claims that Arabs are “psychologically unable” to accept Israel. The usually bland review service Publishers Weekly gives it an uncustomarily harsh assessment, calling it an “apologetic screed likely to raise hackles”.

The current edition of The Arab Mind features a foreboding cover of a blood red sunset over a black minaret and is published by Hatherleigh Press, an eclectic low-end publisher of body building manuals ( The White House Workout, Inspired by President George W Bush ), Fundamentalist Christianity-filtered American history ( The Spiritual Journey of George Washington ), and tongue-in-cheek guides to macho misbehaviour ( The Badass Bible ). For a genteel scholar like Patai, whose credentials from Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania are touted on the cover, this is indeed odd company to keep.

I remember first reading Patai’s book as a college junior in a class taught by Bernard Lewis, whose own Arab-bashing bibliography is linked on to this very title. Lewis himself had a few Arab sexual anecdotes he would trot out in learned lectures for the amusement of his students. The one I remember best is that the Arabic word for revolution , thawra, comes from the verb thaara, meaning to stir up, but which he found to have an obscure secondary meaning, to become sexually aroused. Therefore, Lewis would say with his mumbly chuckle, the idea for an Arab revolution is to have an orgy.

One hears from President Bush that what happened in Abu Ghraib is “un-American”, that it does not represent “who we really are as a people”. But following the Superbowl halftime show, Britney Spears’s career choice to go from “good girl” to “bad girl”, and news that the temporary shutdown of the $9 billion per year pornography industry in California, caused by an HIV outbreak among its “talent”, may affect the state’s economic recovery, all this talk about “sex” and “who we are as a people” becomes confused.

Pity that Raphael Patai is no longer alive to write The American Mind. President Bush might have learned something from his analysis of Private Lynndie England and her dog leash, in which her skulking smirk is paired with Janet Jackson’s faux horror while covering up her busted bustier, both now under the gaze of millions. Just wait until the Arabs put those images on a deck of cards.

Published Monday, July 5th, 2004 - 09:15am GMT

Louis Werner is an independent documentary film maker who works regularly in the Middle East.

Article Courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly

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