The Arab man’s burden

By Khaled Diab

Some in the west are more likely to believe in the existence of elves in Middle Earth than in Arab in the Middle East who are secular, modern and do not oppress women.

Saturday 6 November 2010

“Have you got another wife in ?” asked N with the trademark, but innocent, lack of tact which I had grown to expect with every one of her visits. “No, why do you ask?” I queried as Iskander, my baby son, put a whole strawberry into his tiny mouth and little streams of red ran down his chin.

“Most Arab men married to European women have another wife in their country,” she said, making a daring generalisation. I did a quick mental inventory of all the Egyptians and other Arab men I knew who were married to or in relationships with European women, and I could not think of a single one who had a second wife back home or anywhere else. Occupied as I was with Iskander, who was babbling incomprehensible instructions to his courgette slices as he watched them fall over the side of his high chair, I let the matter drop. I also knew that N, who is from Ukraine, meant no malice with her remarks.

N entertains some stereotypical views of Arabs that come straight out of Hollywood central casting. Thus, she has expressed her surprise – and approval – that I can actually take care of a baby and do household chores. Her views are all the more surprising considering she's married to a Muslim from Bulgaria, a country where the Muslim minority is less religious than the majority.

And N is not alone. Although certain Arab stereotypes are positive, such as our reputed hospitality and generosity, I regularly encounter people who make automatic assumptions about me based solely on my background. One recent incident almost startled me into dropping my glass of wine when a young woman I know shrieked in loud surprise: “You drink alcohol!?” Although drinking alcohol is strictly speaking haram, you don't have to be a non-believer like me to enjoy it – millions of believing Muslims knock back their favourite tipple every day.

Some stereotypes of Arab men with which we have to contend are less harmless. For example, one American Jew to whom I was introduced through mutual Israeli friends and with whom I corresponded for some time in a bid to build better mutual understanding, was ultimately unable to overcome his prejudices and accused me of viewing America as the “Great Satan”, of lacking the faculty of self-criticism, of having a secret agenda and of being a terrorist sympathiser wearing a mask of moderation.

In the popular imagination, the Arab man is not so much fun as fundamentalist, never a fan but always a fanatic, and whose only claim to fame is infamy. After all, the world's most famous, and infamous, Arab is Osama bin Laden. Although his video and audio releases are keenly awaited and garner the kind of global attention most pop artists could only dream of, he is not the kind of role model the vast majority of Arab men aspire to.

Simply sharing his first name can prove problematic, as my brother has discovered a number of times. One surreal incident occurred when he went to a bank in London to open an account and the clerk phoned his superiors to say: “We have a guy called Osama here, should I open an account for him?” My brother was so infuriated that he left immediately.

The media, particularly the rightwing and conservative end of the spectrum, has a lot to answer for in this vilification of Arab men. Hollywood – where the overwhelming majority of Arab characters are reel bad villains or aliens from some Planet of the Arabs – is an extreme manifestation of this trend.

Although contemporary British and some other European television and tend to be more nuanced and human in their treatment of Arabs, the situation on this side of the Atlantic also leaves a lot to be desired. My wife is often confounded by the European fixation with Islamism and conservative Islam. While watching a recent Belgian documentary that featured women who had converted to Islam and married ultra-conservative Muslim men, she wondered why such programmes never featured mixed couples like us or our friends: modern, a-religious, laid-back.

In fact, given the endless torrent of negative images of Arab men in western popular culture, ordinary people might be excused for believing that elves in Middle Earth are less mythical than men in the Middle East who are secular, modern, peaceable and do not oppress women. Arab women, whose struggle for I write about regularly, garner far more – often genuine – sympathy in the west than Arab men, but much of the compassion is condescending and ideologically, even politically, driven for faceless, voiceless, invisible victims.

So, what is behind this almost casual hatred and vilification? Many cite the September 11 attacks in 2001 as an important turning point. While prejudice against Arabs, and Muslims in general, certainly increased after these atrocities, the growing demonisation and the public debate it sparked also, and perhaps ironically, led to more people developing greater understanding and sympathy towards Arabs.

But history did not begin on , nor did anti-Arab prejudice. It has a long history in the west, dating back to the colonial era and even the earlier, mutual love-hate relationship between “Islam” and “Christendom”. While there were some orientalists who were Arabophiles, particularly in their admiration for the “noble and honourable” Bedouin but not for the “wily and cunning” city Arab, orientalism as a whole lent a respectable academic veneer, as so convincingly demonstrated, to crude .

In this view, the Arab is indistinguishable as an individual, unchanging, backward, passive, deceitful, ruled by lust and sexuality, and “in all the centuries has bought no wisdom from experience”, as Gertrude Bell, who played a crucial role in creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan, once put it.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 30 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

    View all posts

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

9 thoughts on “The Arab man’s burden

  • josephine

    Great article but I was blown away by the comments..human stupidity and ignorance never fail to surprise me… guess we are still milling around in the soup of the dark ages..

  • why are you guys so concerned with being liked and accepted by Europeans? I never hear Arabs worrying out loud about what black people think of them.
    You boys seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with our women. why is this? Your not European so why is it so important to you? Why do you covet the company of women that aren’t a part of your culture? I don’t care who says I’m a racist or how moderate a Muslim you are I don’t want to see your brown eyes and black hair in my living room. In fact its a rule in my house; no Muslims or Arabs of any sort are allowed in the house, even Arab children, unless I’m present. The wife didn’t like it when I first made my wishes apparent, she is an architect and works with some Muslims. When I explained my concerns about Arab social-political Imperialism against the backdrop of our common history and 9/11 and global Arab migration, she agreed and its fine now. All parroting and relocation, your Louis V. your BMW, doesn’t make you a European. All the police states in the world will not make us like or accept you so give up. We can take back our ancient right to defend our borders as Christian men without being uncivil. You fiddle with any of my family’s women and you will get a visit from a nice group of Rugby players near you. No bombing no protests. Just a quiet chat.

  • Justice is the single most important quality that a person can possess. Each individual’s life should be guided by justice. Justice consists of never doing harm to anyone else—either to another’s person or property. The essence of justice is founded in the respect of private property. One great fault is passive injustice, which is to stand by and allow another person to be wronged. Passive injustice occurs when we chose to remain silent because of our own needs or through preoccupation. Justice can even be extended to those who have wronged someone else by avoiding excessive retribution. Except for those who have committed the most heinous crimes, such as parricide, even the guilty deserve an attorney’s best effort. Part of justice is generosity, but an individual should never give more than he or she can afford. We should not ruin ourselves by giving, and we should give with a sense that our generosity will truly help. Morality is built on keeping one’s word, or “fides.” The Romans believed that the empire was built on integrity. However, the individual must be practical. At times, keeping one’s word is wrong.

  • Individuals and mobs are two different measures. Wine drinking Arab men, who like to walk the streets dressed as Cher on Thursdays, are not hard to imagine at all. What is impossible to imagine, is a signficant Arab male population, saying “No,I am against this,” when the imam calls for the faithful to murder Jews and Americans. Probably because it’s never happened.

  • What you do is defend Arab “secular” men. It seemed to me like you are saying “hey, we’re good guys. We even drink! It’s those conservative religious men who oppress their women.”
    All you did was push back one stereotype while propagating another.

  • Pingback: RealTime - Questions: "Are arabs and arabians the same?"

  • KhaledDiab

    Very valid points you raise. The funny thing about those who subscribe most to stereotypes of Arab men as women-haters often hold a misogynistic worldview themselves.

    I think some in the west, partic…ularly in North America, are not aware that someone can be both Arab and Christian, or even non-believing.

    Yeah, I wrote once about the cultural aversion to pork that Arabs have – it’s like eating dogs or, even worse, cockroaches, in the minds of Arabs.

  • Ahmed Mansour

    I loved your article, and then got really annoyed by the readers’ comments. I think we are doomed for life, it is much easier making people in the west believe we have 8 legged camels, than it is to try to convince them that some of us are …normal human beings. What I cannot understand, is why people immediately look at us in a funnay way if we don’t drink or eat pork. Jews don’t eat pork, and they don’t eat shellfish and they even have a much more complex way in defining what is kosher and what they do not or should not eat, yet I have never ever heard anyone in the west criticising this fact about Jews.

    Via Facebook

  • Nick Accad

    Jeez dude, the feedback on CIF is brutal, touched a nerve?

    You are more than welcome to tell them that it’s not just Arab Muslims that have a problem living “in the west”, as a baptized Christian who was educated in a French Catholic school,… and who shares the same first name as Santa Claus, I’m still looked at as if I’m lying about my own existence.

    Also, about the pork, until I lived here for a few years, I was hesitant eating it, not for religious reasons, but because I saw how pigs are raised in Egypt, and that probably the same reason most Arabs (Muslims or otherwise) don’t eat it, it’s a cultural thing, not really religious.

    Alcohol, where do I start? People make fun of me because I hardly ever finish a beer per party, if I have 5 beers in a month, it’s a record, I just don’t drink, and I know Muslims who cannot stay away from the bottle more than 8 hours, what does that mean? Nothing, some people like to drink and some don’t. I guess the fact that alcohol was not cheap or readily accessible when I was growing up had something to do with it.

    And the root of the matter, our view of women. Since I have known you for ..oh what is it? 20 years now? I can tell everyone that you personally did not acquire the “western” view of women recently or after you got married, neither did I, neither did any of the people in the group we used to hang around with. Was I, or were we, all of us, living in a different Egypt growing up???

    I would have liked to send this comment to CIF, but I don’t have the time, you’re welcome to share it there if you want K.

    Nice article, keep ’em coming

    Via Facebook


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Enjoyed your visit? Please spread the word