x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Every single Arab is a leader - at least in our own minds

Negative titles are always harder to get rid of than positive ones. But hopefully all of these changes taking place in the region will help to change the stereotypes of the Arab world.

'A joke is a vaccine for grudges," says one Arabic proverb. So what better way to introduce a sensitive topic than with a joke?

There are many versions, but this one was told to me by a friend as a group of us were drinking Arabic coffee at a popular local cafe.

"There are two boats racing, one manned by a Chinese team, and the other by an Arab team. Why does China win every race? Because in their boat, there is one leader and 10 rowers. In the Arab boat, there are 10 leaders and one rower."

Of course, I don't condone stereotypes of any kind. But all the Arabs at that table laughed out loud; there must be a grain of truth in it.

Everyone is celebrating the changing times in the Middle East, with peaceful uprisings in some countries and more violent revolts in others that have a long history of oppression and neglect of human rights. Enough political analysis has been written about this and where it's all heading, so I'd rather focus on the kind of discussions happening inside the homes of some regular Arab families that I know.

It has now become a popular pastime to report "sightings" of recently deposed figures in the Middle East, such as the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. According to "eyewitness" reports, he seems to be popping up all over the Arab world.

There is a particular group of people who revel in tracking the wife of Tunisia's ousted president, saying that she's been spotted in Dubai, shuttling back and forth from Tunisia. Discussion of her whereabouts is especially popular among Tunisian expatriates. Their on again-off again relationship with their leaders doesn't seem to end after they have been removed from power.

Perhaps that's natural. Some of these figures have been around for a lifetime, so how can Arabs immediately give up their obsession of knowing, or presuming to know, what is going on in their lives?

I'm not sure why, but regardless of what Arab country you are from or what dialect you speak, you will agree that we generally have a hard time being second-in-command if there is the slightest chance of being first. Once on top, we want to stay there forever.

That trait is not limited to Arabs, but it has become a stereotypical association with any Arab figure who rises to the top. Politics aside, regardless of where you stand, if you lose your position, then you should show some grace in how you accept that fate.

The most recent example was in Lebanon when Saad Hariri lost control of parliament. Without taking sides, I do want to point out that there were frequent reports of how poorly Mr Hariri received the news. I don't care who is backing whom and what labels are being used, there is nothing wrong with stepping down when that is what is required of you.

No one likes to lose, I understand, but giving someone else a chance doesn't have to be such a bad thing.

A stereotype that really got me recently emerged when a delegation of western officials forgot I was among them. One commented: "Oh dear, not another group of Arab refugees."

They were talking about the crisis in Libya, and how the borders were flooded with tens of thousands of nationals and expatriates fleeing the violence. The line captured exactly what older Arabs have been fearing as we all watch people defy their eccentric leader Muammar Qaddafi.

"It will be like Iraq, unstable and bloody, and the global community is fed up with us always being in crisis," one former politician, a family friend, told me.

Over the past few decades, and especially in the past 10 years, stereotypes of Arabs as "dictator", "refugee" or "terrorist" have only grown more common.

Negative titles are always harder to get rid of than positive ones; that is the nature of the world. But hopefully all of these changes taking place in the region will help to change the stereotypes. These jokes have gotten old already.