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Published on February 10, 2005

Colonisers and buffoons

History professor at l'Université Paris IV, then at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales; director of the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches du Moyen-Orient Contemporain in Beirut; and currently chairman of the Arab Contemporary History Department at the Collège de France: Henry Laurens is a charming scholar. Unpretentious, lucid and casual, he curses Cairo traffic -- a familiar evil since his year-long stay in the city in 1981-82 -- with the passion of a local taxi driver.

The first question, about la chose franco- arabe ("the Franco-Arab thing") extracts one of many easy smiles. "I like this expression very much," he confirms, quick to recognise the term coined by one of the most prominent translators of the Quran, French orientalist Jacques Berque (1910-1995), during his inaugural speech at the Collège de France in 1956, the year of the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt.

Like any product of history, Laurens explains, some of the chapters of the "Franco- Arab thing" are darker than others; yet, again like history's products, it has its own, separate, dynamic. After all, it was during the worst phase of Franco-Arab relations that the term was born. "To me, it is clear that there are elements of resonance between French civilisation and Arab civilisation. There is a reciprocal interiority. We must stop speaking of the other as though they were the 'other'. Us this, them that... as if we were completely exterior to one another. Well," Laurens affirms with remarkable clarity of mind, "we the French now have, because of history, an Arab side to us."

Arab culture was incorporated into French society with the translation of the Arabian Nights three centuries ago, he says, which led to the assimilation of Arab elements into a European cultural identity. "Arabs are simply part of ourselves," Laurens shrugs in a matter-of-fact way. Similarly, at least for some Arab countries, he adds, French civilisation in particular and European civilisation in general has come to constitute an aspect of cultural identity. "Instead of attacking or criticising that which may seem exogenous (as opposed to what may seem authentic), that which comes from outside, min al- wafed," he says in flawless Arabic, "I believe our authenticity of today is in knowing how to benefit from all the 'parts' that are within us, whatever their origin. To attack the reciprocal elements we have mutually incorporated is tantamount to self-amputation." This, he stresses, balancing his coffee cup on the tips of his fingers, is the "chose franco-arabe" -- a reality Henry Laurens explored in countless articles and through three volumes chronicling the intellectual atmosphere and the realities of Bonaparte's presence in Egypt: Orientales I-- Origines Intellectuelles de l'Expédition d'Egypte; Orientales II -- L'Orientalisme Islamisant en France ; and, most recently, Orientales III -- La IIIème République et L'Islam.

More than two centuries later, Laurens finds it "tragically amusing that Mr George Bush's speech prior to his invasion of Iraq was very similar to Bonaparte's as he embarked on his invasion of Egypt", with both proclaiming that they are embracing the mission of liberating the country they are to invade. However, Laurens stresses, his voice animated with discernible scorn, "in Bonaparte's case there was real power in his speech and a long intellectual preparation, whereas in Bush's case, it was buffoonery." What is even more tragic, Laurens adds, is the metamorphosis of a friendship between America and the Arabs -- manifested in American universities in the region and the US role as supportive emancipator from European colonialism -- into today's sad state of affairs as America "has stepped into an altogether different logic, that of domination by force", a subject Laurens treats extensively in his latest publication: L'Orient Arabe ˆ l'Heure Americaine-- de la Guerre du Golfe ˆ la Guerre d'Irak (A Colin, 2004).

What the Arabs should do, Laurens believes, is to take the Americans at their word. "You want us to be democratic, sure, but let's be it to the end, with a democracy that respects the Arabs' national dignity," he gesticulates earnestly, adding that Arab societies would become all the stronger under fully democratic regimes -- an invaluable advantage. "Yet," he is quick to stress with a shuffle on his seat, "this also implies the regulation of important political questions, the most pertinent of which is Palestine," the subject of his two volumes published by Fayard under the title La Question de Palestine.

"Hizbullah and Hamas are not terrorists but nationalists. Once you brand them as terrorists, you cannot talk with them. This is the mistake that America has made. In fact these groups are ready to talk," Laurens was quoted as saying in an interview. To him, the solution is obvious, especially in the presence of "reference texts" like those that came out of the Taba discussions, the Geneva discussions between non- governmental parties and the International Court of Justice. "These are all pieces of a now coherent whole which could yield a more or less acceptable solution," he insists, explaining, with notable intensity, that the problem today relates mainly to procedure. The procedure followed thus far -- in the Oslo Accords, in the roadmap -- tends to stipulate partial, transitory measures until mutual trust is obtained before settling the more serious, decisive issues of Jerusalem and the refugees. "In actual fact, however," the scholar summarily declaims, "this can never be achieved, simply because trust is impossible until those very issues have been settled. Once the future of Jerusalem and the refugees is mapped, only then can transitional measures designed to cement trust be hazarded."

It has been said of Henry Laurens that his orientalism is perfectly conscious of its historicity, subject to the critical scrutiny of the late Edward Said, to whom Laurens dedicated the second volume of his Orientales. "Edward Said has always been an intellectual reference for me, despite our methodological differences -- he a literary critic, myself a historian," Laurens says, lamenting Said's departure. A devout follower of Said's writings, Laurens had been particularly touched by his last articles, which contained some very beautiful and very wise warnings, to use the historian's words. "He was enough of a critic and a humanist to denounce not only some Western positions against Arabs but also the Arabs' lack of openness in recent times. I think Edward Said's last message was the mutual necessity of openness and dialogue, which I can only support."

But does French public opinion support Henry Laurens' message -- the Franco-Arab thing? "I do have readers," he chuckles modestly, "but they are only a few thousand... And many of them are students, who one day will become professors." His optimism is reassuring, as he mentions the 20,000-30,000 French students currently enrolled in Arabic Studies. "Among the French cultivated public there is real interest in Arabic literature, manifested in a continuous demand for translations. In France, the Palestinian cause is extremely popular, as is Mrs Leila Chehid, the Palestinian delegate. All categories of Frenchmen flock to intellectual meetings attended by Mrs Chehid; it's full house wherever she is because they are interested in listening to her," he smiles, adding with a certainty one can only share, "there are new realities in French society."

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