Laughter is not the Arab way
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 May 2007)

Aside from inheriting money, the best way to get rich in the Arab world is to find yourself an emir. Young men sometimes set out in search of an emir, as young men elsewhere might search for a guru or audition for Donald Trump's The Apprentice.

Emirs, Arab nobility, cherish a bizarre prejudice that makes them wildly popular with ambitious businessmen: By ancient tradition, they consider it undignified to deal with money. So each needs an associate to handle the actual business. Since the best sort of emir maintains close connections with his government's oil rights, the associate, if clever, can become quite rich.

This process of mutual dependence grounded in folkloric custom fascinated Fuad I. Khuri (1935-2003), a first-class social anthropologist. He was an Arab who spent much of his life as a scholar analyzing Arab customs with the methods he learned in the United States and taught at the American University of Beirut. He left behind a memoir focused on his distilled observations. It's finally appeared under the unlikely title he chose: An Invitation to Laughter: A Lebanese Anthropologist in the Arab World (University of Chicago Press).

Laughter is not the first sound that comes to mind when someone mentions Arabia. As Khuri wrote, "In Arab culture, laughing loudly in public demeans one's character." Prostitutes laugh, and inferior males, but powerful men are solemn. As Khuri noted, an Arab avoids displaying a light heart. Typically, an American being photographed puts on a smile; an Arab adopts a look so solemn it would be appropriate for Judgment Day.

Khuri was not an ordinary Arab, or an ordinary anthropologist. Laughter was frequently his response to the societies he studied. He investigated African villagers and other traditional subjects, but he loved studying prosperous societies. He decided quite early that a rich man (in the Arab world, just as in ours) can often be much funnier than he imagines.

He quotes an old Arab proverb, "An ugly horse that wins the race is praised for its good looks." The rich don't understand that in this saying they are the horse. They find themselves praised, by everyone around them, for their wisdom. Whatever they say is taken seriously. An associate of a Saudi emir said, "When he sneezes, we sneeze."

Khuri, it's clear, loved to follow the rather over-assertive habits of rich Arabs who wanted to display their wealth. He mentions an Arab who asked that Harrods department store in London be closed so that his wife could shop in private. (Michael Jackson did him one better by closing Tokyo Disneyland for a day of fun with his entourage.) Khuri knew of Arabs using mink coats as bathrobes. When he took a ride on a private plane he discovered that even the toilet handle was gold.

Studying business relations, he noted that few who serve emirs can count on lifetime employment. Emirs notice when their associates get rich enough to exhibit emir-like behaviour. They may then abruptly terminate the relationship. People see emirs as unpredictable, but that's only their management style. To maintain their status they often keep associates waiting for hours, or forget to return their calls. It is the duty of others to be dependable.

Like Lebanon itself, Khuri existed simultaneously in the West and in the Arab world. Not all Arabs were amused by his work. Most of the books and papers he wrote in Arabic, such as Tribe and State in Bahrain, were banned in several countries. English translations, on the other hand, circulated freely. In the eyes of some officials a book in English has less reality, and is therefore less dangerous, than a book in Arabic.

Late in his career, Khuri was part of a group trying to establish an association of social scientists in the Middle East. At the founding meeting, he suggested they prepare an agenda and work through it according to Robert's Rules of Order. A senior Arab scholar said that Robert was not an Arab and the Arab way was consensus. They all talked freely and achieved nothing but went home believing they had done the right Arab thing. Khuri ends that story with a Lebanese proverb, "Plenty of ejaculations but no pregnancies."

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