Feb 2, 2006

Sharabi on "Why are Arabs so unsuccessful?" (book review)

My mother told me about Hisham Sharabi (History Professor at Georgetown University) long time ago, but I didn't get to read some of his books until recently, and I have to say I am extremely impressed.

Sharabi simply tries to answer the question: "Why Arabs behave in a way that lead them to be so unsuccessful in the past few hundred years?"
The answer to a large extent is "We are raised to be dysfunctional". The solution that follows is "to revise the methods of raising our children and revise the values the society forces on them" in order to change our situation in the future.

All this seems a bit "too obvious". But Sharabi's brilliance shows in his attempt to scholarly analyze the Arabic Society in terms of psychological and sociological forces, and come up with clear and detailed recommendations. His diagnosis does NOT apply to ALL people in the society - but it applies to the majority of "normal" people, who go to school and graduate and just go on living and multiplying until they die.

His theory can be roughly summarized in three points: (see Patriarchal Society book)

1- Our society is mostly "patriarchal", in that there's an "oppressor leader" in all social sittings (father in the family, teacher at the school, and government in the country, etc.). Social values teach us to respect this leader and not to disagree with him - largely to be subdued.

2- This continuous oppressing authority causes followers to feel:
  • Inability: one feels he cannot do anything on his own.
  • Reliance: one feels he's in constant need for others' help to do anything.
  • Blame-game: since one feels unable and does not take-initiative, one becomes good at learning how to blame others for all problems.

3- These behaviors cause many of the society-wide problems we see today:
  • Consumerism: our society feels "unable" to make things. We are not an industrial society. We do not "make", but mostly just "consume".
  • Khawaja-syndrome: We "need" foreign expert help. Anything foreign must be great. Anything local must be worthless.
  • Conspiracy Theory: We are a "great nation" but all these people are conspiring against us. It's never our fault. We blame "others" for the misery we live in.
  • Condemtation: "Nashjob Wa Nastanker" - we are very good and quick at showing our dissatisfaction of any "change" in the world that went wrong. We never seem to put ourselves on the "side that attemps the change".

I do not fully agree with Sharabi's books (I think he goes a bit too far at times). But I love two major things about his books:

  1. I really commend him for a very accurate and clear Arabic writing. Most (and I mean 90%) of Arabic texts today are filled with hollow and ambiguous statements that add no meaning at all. Sharabi's book feels like an English textbook for its accuracy and lean style. Every word has a very specific meaning that will not get confused or reused differently throughout the book. It gave me faith again in Arabic as a scientific language.

  2. Sharabi's method of using classical Psychological and Sociological frameworks to analyze Arabic society is eye-opening. Questions like "how would slapping a kid on the face affect his relationships 20 years later?" are discussed in a very scientific way and backed by real social studies. I have a new respect for psychology after reading this book.

Bottom line: Highly recommended. 4.5 out of 5.


  1. Thank you for this detailed account of Dr. Sharabi's book. I worked for him at his center in Washington, DC; he was a brilliant man. His death was very unfortunate to all.

    You are right in terms of his book's style seeming like it is an English one; if I am not mistaken, I believe he actually did write it in English and it was translated back into Arabic at a later point in his career.

    If you liked Sharabi, you might also like the late Samih Farsoun's books, also, Naseer Aruri's works are interesting. I would also highly recommend Samir Amin's works.


  2. Thank you for this article, although i acclaim that i'm an intellectual, and heard of Sharabi, but to be honest, i've never read any of his books,and to my astonishment it was that i discovered that I can find some answers to why we "Arabs" are dysfunctional,because its always on my mind,and I don't know how to answer,or where to begin searching for an answer.
    Thank you again, hope to see new articles that may help some to find a glimps of "yes we can do feeling".

  3. Dana,
    Wow! it must have been great working with Dr.Sharabi. Kudos to you. What did you study? and where are you working now? My guess you are still working on similar interesting areas.

    Regarding the book, my understanding is that he wrote it in Arabic and then back to English. But, I'm not sure. English-like styles in Arabic can result from people thinking in English but writing in Arabic, translations, or just accurate writing :-) Ibn Rushd's writing (which I didn't read much of) strikes you as very accurate and dense also.

    I will definitely look for the other writers you've recommended. Would you please write a short paragraph about each - just so that I can have an idea what books to get them?


  4. Salam Eyad,
    Thanks for your comment, and it's great to find people interested in such literature. I really recommend Sharabi's books as one point of view. There are many other writers, and they each have their own "theories and perspectives".
    Your words encourage me to write about Malik Bin Nabi. Inshallah will do soon.
    I'm looking forward to articles you write about the same subject.

  5. Hi Mohamed,

    I checked to be sure and the book was actually published in English first in 1988 as Neopatriarchy: a theory of distorted change in Arab society and from there on translated into Arabic in 1989.

    I would not say I worked with him but rather for him. He was my boss as the director of the Center for Palestine in Washington. But he was very charming and caring and intellectuals always loved coming to his center to champion the cause of Palestine and the Palestinians.

    As for the authors I recommended, here is what I think:

    Dr. Samih Farsoun was a professor of sociology from Palestine who published profusely on Palestine and the Palestinians. Most of his books address the effects of occupation on the fracturing of Palestinian society and also expand on Palestinian culture, ways, and society. I would recommend his Palestine and the Palestinians.

    Naseer Aruri is also a Palestinian professor of Political science who till this day champions the Palestinian cause and addresses American imperialism and interests in the Middle East. This is an old article he published on Counter Punch, a fantastic left wing US magazine, http://counterpunch.org/aruri1028.html. I would also recommend his Dishonest Broker: The U.S. Role in Israel and Palestine.

    As for Samir Amin, well, I think he is the one you might enjoy the most. He is Egyptian, I believe and he is very much a Marxist in training and pedagogy. He writes mostly in French, I believe, but most of his works have been translated. He is an expert on Arab nationalism and he is a critic of American imperialism and globalization at large. I would recommend Against Militarization and War: Confronting the Empire.

    Enjoy the readings and feel free to email me for more recommendations!


  6. Thanks much Dana for the info you've provided. And you are right, Neopatriarchy was first published in English. I think I confused it with "Introduction to Studying the Arabic Society", which was first published in 1970 in Arabic. In this book, Sharabi first presents what became known as "Nitham Abawi". (in this book he calls it Nitham Batraki - in Arabic).

    By the way, do you have a Blog?

  7. Ah, Dana, you didn't leave an e-mail. What is your e-mail?

  8. Sorry,

    my email is 3dmo@qlink.queensu.ca. No blog though! :) Just a complete stranger who enjoys reading other people's ideas and thoughts and occasionally comments on them!

    Looking forward to hearing from you.


  9. Salam ya 7amadah..

    This is very similar to the analysis that Hatim Bazian proposed.. Which I am sure is probably inspired by this writing.