Hassan Khader
Al-Ayyam (Opinion)
January 12, 2010 - 1:00am

The following is a quote from a Reuters article published in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi on November 30:

“Princess Ferial, 71, daughter of King Farouk and Queen Farida, died yesterday in Switzerland. She was born in the coastal city of Alexandria on November 17, 1938. She left Egypt with her father on the 26th of July, 1952, a few days after the revolution that ended the reign of the dynasty of Mohammad Ali which was replaced by a republic a year later. In a press release from Cairo, Lotus Abdul Kareem said that Ferial suffered from cancer. She was the oldest of King Farouk’s girls. In the Fifties she enlisted in a secretarial school, worked as a secretary and taught typing. In 1966 she married Jean Pierre, a Swiss citizen who died in 1968. They had one daughter, Yasmine, who lives in Cairo, who was with her mother when she died. Ferial was the last surviving daughter of King Farouk after the death of her sisters Fawzieh and Fadia. Ferial’s body will arrive in Cairo tomorrow, Tuesday.”

At the bottom of the article, a reader by the name of Saeed posted a comment, one of many similar comments that are prevalent on the website of that paper, which stated:

“In 1966 she married Jean Pierre, a Swiss citizen who died in 1968. They had one daughter, Yasmine. Does this mean that the Muslim Princess married a Christian and they had a child together? Did she convert to Christianity or did he convert to Islam? To me, this is more important than the news of her death.”

How do we account for such a comment?

At first glance, we have little idea who Saeed is. We obviously know that he is one of the readers who found this article interesting and worthy of a comment. We also know that he is Arab and Muslim. But we have no idea of how old he is, what he does for a living, or what country he is from. We may be quite sure that he lives in an Arab country. Whatever knowledge we have of Saeed notwithstanding his near-total anonymity actually only increases his value as a representative of a demographic group. He is an Arab who can read and write, uses the internet, and feels compelled to comment on public issues.

From his comment at the bottom of the article, we can deduce additional information about his interests, education, and maybe political inclinations too. The death of a princess, for instance, is irrelevant to him. The fact that a princess who lived in exile, worked as a secretary, taught typing and was widowed after only two years of marriage does not prompt him to reflect on the tragedies of life that are the common lot of all humanity. His only concern is to scrutinize her marriage and make a determination of whether it was in compliance with sharia law.

Although the article does not directly address the issue that bothered Saeed, the husband’s foreign name must have set off alarm bells in his mind. The clanging in his head was so loud that he decided that the only way to seek relief was to purge himself of it in writing.

In a sense, as Saeed was pondering all these troubling questions, he also provided us with further information about himself: he is a supervisor of the behavior of others, making sure they comply with sharia, and sees it as his role to bring these concerns to the awareness of other readers who might have missed that point, thereby helping them to differentiate between what is wheat and what is chaff.

At this stage of our analysis, we can safely say that the information provided to us by Saeed tells us more about his own attributes as a representative of a broader cultural and political group than about himself as an individual, given our lack of knowledge about his age, country, level of education and full name.

And in fact, he is not entirely anonymous anymore. Most probably he is in his twenties or thirties. That is a safe assumption since according to the estimates 60 percent of the population of the Arab World is young. He is probably unemployed. At the present there are 21 million unemployed people the Arab World. Or maybe he works in one of those armies of bureaucrats that are in effect forms of thinly-veiled unemployment in many countries.

The world Saeed lives in has a hundred million illiterate human beings out of a population of 328 million Arabs. Since he can read and write website comments, he must have had some secondary education, and probably graduated from some university in the Arab World, universities that rank among the lowest rungs in the world in the field of higher education. In all probability he resides in or nearby a city, since 53 percent of Arabs resided in cities ten years ago and 61 percent will in ten more years. More importantly, Saeed grew up in a world divided between rich and poor. The oil rich, who are a very small segment of the Arab population, own all media outlets, financial institutions and labor markets and have managed to impose their impoverished and irrelevant culture on the others.

We therefore actually know quite a lot about Saeed.

But there is one additional point that we will borrow from José Ortega y Gasset, who in 1930 pointed out that what was threatening Europe then was not the rise of “the masses,” but rather the fact that “mass man” was made up of individuals who had no respect for knowledge and specialization. In the past, it was assumed that people who work in politics, fine arts, the humanities and sciences were people who have talent and expertise. This assumption no longer exists, because knowledge and specialization lost their social significance and hence the “satisfied young man” or “mass man” has acquired the belief that he should pontificate on every issue, and is so infatuated by the idea of equality that nobody can understand or know more than him.

That is Saeed.

He reads the editorials of Abdel-Bari Atwan in Al-Quds Al-Arabi. He is in love with the Qatari Al-Jazeera. He absorbs the rhetoric of the sheikhs and “thinkers” he listens to. He volunteers to be the guardian of morality. He assumes for himself the position and status that enables him to set the priorities in a world where 54 percent of doctors and 26 percent of engineers emigrate, and half the student population prefers to stay in foreign countries; a world that occupies the lowest levels in all indexes that measure freedom. Why do we need doctors, engineers and educated people when we have Saeed?

With such Saeeds, have a happy new year!


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