The Arab Mind

The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai, is one of the most interesting books in my personal collection of books about Arabs and Arabic language.

I acquired this book in 1978 before traveling to the Middle East with a group of college students. The Arab Mind was among a dozen or so books that were required reading in our curriculum — which included middle eastern history, and Arabic language. That semester was the most intense and memorable part of my college education. We traveled to Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey. I remember trying to keep up with constant daily reading assignments which had to be completed in airplanes, and tour buses — in between lectures and walking tours of historic sites. We earned 17 credit hours. However, I nearly failed Arabic language; receiving a D in that class.

The Arab Mind sites on my bookshelf next to the Arabic English Dictionary.
The Arab Mind sits on my bookshelf next to an Arabic/English dictionary.

Author of ‘The Arab Mind’ – Raphael Patai

Raphael Patai was a Hungarian-Jewish anthropologist, ethnographer, and historian. He moved to Palestine in 1933. Patai studied at rabbinical seminaries, and received a doctorate in Semitic languages. Along with having studied Arabic, Patai was fluent in several languages including English, German, Hebrew and Hungarian. In 1947 Patai moved to New York, and became a U.S. citizen in 1952.

The Arab Mind was first published in 1973, with the latest edition appearing in 2002. Patai also wrote The Jewish Mind, which was first published in 1977.

Although Patai was a professor at colleges and universities in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, many of his scholarly writings were published here in Detroit by Wayne State University Press.

Criticism of ‘The Arab Mind’

Can you trust a Jewish scholar — writing about Arabs? Asking a question like this might betray a bias toward both Jews and Arabs. The book has been criticized as “reductionist and stereotyping.” A 2004 review in The Guardian calls it a book “packed with sweeping generalizations”. Brian Whitaker said ‘It’s best used as a doorstop’. A Boston Globe article claims the book’s methodology is “emblematic of a bygone era of scholarship focused on the notion of a ‘national character,’ or personality archetype”.

In my estimation, some of these criticisms are unwarranted and overlook the clear disclaimers that Patai includes in the book — warnings about generalizations and stereotyping. Perhaps the critics suspect a sinister motive in writing such a book. Nevertheless, the following story illustrates the friendship that developed as two friends studied Arabic and Hebrew together.

Learning Arabic With A Friend

The Arab Mind - book cover
The Arab Mind – book cover

Mr. Patai recounts the following story of building a friendship while learning the Arabic language: “Soon after my arrival in Jerusalem, I got acquainted with an Arab teacher and scholar, a shaykh of the famous al-Azhar of Cairo and a scion of one of the great Arab families of Jerusalem, Ahmad Fakhr al-Din al-Kin-anī al-Khațīb. Although Ahmad was several years my senior, we became good friends, and throughout the fifteen years I spent in Jerusalem we met at least once a week on the average, with the avowed purpose of enabling him to practice and perfect his Hebrew, and me my Arabic. It was through Ahmad that I gained first an insight into, and gradually a familiarity with Arab Jerusalem. He introduced me to many of his friends, and taught me the delicate arts of bargaining in the bazaar, slurping Turkish coffee, and ‘drinking the narghilą’. When the tension between the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine mounted, Ahmad and I promised each other that, should one of us be in danger of his life, the other would take in him and his family to shelter and protect them.” (page 3)

“The empathy and warmth of Raphael Patai toward the Arab people are evident throughout this book. There is neither animus nor rancor nor condescension. Arabs are portrayed as people who, like all people, have virtues and vices. Patai’s description of his relationship with the Jerusalem sheikh, Ahmad Fakhr al-Khatib, is indicative of the esteem in which he held his Arab friends.” – From a book review in the Middle East Forum

A Typical Arab Male?

In the author’s words: “The typical Arab male — who, of course, is even more of an abstraction — than the statistically derived ‘average American’ — remains a patient, good-natured, but also volatile and excitable, naïve and yet shrewd villager of about twenty-five years of age, married, with several children, supported by a deep trust in Allah, possessed of a strong sexuality, illiterate and yet having an exquisite mastery of the Arabic language and the treasures of its oral folklore, devoted to kith and kin and yet prone to conflict, torn between the traditions of the past with their code of honor and the increasingly intruding demands of the future, proud of being an Arab, yearning for a life of leisure but resigned to spend his relatively short span on earth working the land with the sweat of his brow.”

Words and Actions

Patai claims in his preface to the paper back edition (1976) that Arabs have a “proclivity for substituting words for actions” that “in the Arab mentality words often can and do serve as substitutes for acts, and that “verbal utterance… achieves such importance that the question of whether or not it is subsequently carried out becomes of minor significance”.

Arabic Eloquence: Exaggeration and Hyperbole

A linguistic observation: “Eloquence for the Arab is an achievement akin to the attainment of masculinity (or masculine maturity) From the same verbal root is derived the noun ‘mubalagha’, which means verbal exaggeration or hyperbole. To the Arab mind, eloquence is related to exaggeration, which is not meant to be taken literally but… serves the purpose of effect.” (page 49)

Arabic speech patterns are like music and are characterized by emphatic assertion: “Compared to the eloquence of the simplest illiterate Arab, the use of English by the average American appears as a series of disjointed grunts… The mastery the average Arab has over his language is accompanied by two related traits. One is stylistic elaborateness, the other stylistic exaggeration and overemphasis.” (page 50)

When two Americans meet in the morning, one will say ‘Good morning’ and the other will answer ‘Good morning” (Or simply ‘mornin’.) Arab linguistic sensibility would be offended by such invariant (simple) repetition. “The general rule is that every phrase of courtesy must be returned by a more elaborate phrase.” So if an Arab greets someone in the morning, he might say: “May your day be prosperous.” to which the other would reply: “May your day be prosperous and blessed.” (page 51)

In his mind, as well as the mind of his Arab interlocutors, exaggeration and overemphasis register as simple statements.
A section about exaggeration and overemphasis – from page 59 of The Arab Mind

The Arab Mind – Summary

In summary, The Arab Mind is a helpful book for understanding the Arabic language, and Arab culture. Here’s a note I wrote in the back of the book in 1979: “In writing his book, Raphael Patai wanted to describe some peculiarities and common characteristics of the Arab mentality. He wanted to avoid generalities and thus had to describe who an Arab is and carefully explain the limitations in analyzing group aspects of the mind.”

In writing his book, Raphael Patai wanted to describe some peculiarities and common characteristics of the Arab mentality. He wanted to avoid generalities and thus had to describe who an Arab is and carefully explain the limitations in analyzing group aspects of the mind.
My handwritten notes in the back of the book. (1979)

We are all children of Abraham, and sons of Adam — created in the image of God. As God told Abraham… “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” To my Arab friends all over the middle east and in my home town of Dearborn, Michigan I say: “May your day be prosperous” to which they reply… “May your day be prosperous and blessed.”

Sources and Related Links

  1. Raphael Patai ~ Reviewed on 8-Dec-2020
  2. The Arab Mind ~ Reviewed on 8-Dec-2020
  3. The Jewish Mind ~ Reviewed on 8-Dec-2020
  4. Best Used As A Doorstop ~ Reviewed on 8-Dec-2020
  5. The Arab Mind Revisited ~ Reviewed on 9-Dec-2020
  6. A recent edition of the book – on Amazon ~ Reviewed on 9-Dec-2020

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