East Is East and West Is West: Thoughts from a Puzzled Mind

By Jamil I. Toubbeh

Recorded history informs that the East and the West are culturally inextricable; history also informs that this inextricability has been shaken over time by religious, geopolitical and economic conflicts of short and long duration.

If one were to rank-order conflicts around the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Arab World, both Muslim and Christian, would top the list. Despite the fact that most of these conflicts have been externally instigated, they have been, and continue to be perceived in the West as a continuation of violence that began at the dawn of biblical history. I have lost track of the number of occasions when that perception of the Arab World was summed up in the statement, “these people have been fighting each other for thousands of years”, a statement that President Obama only recently reinforced with “Where there is conflict, they call us, not the Russians…”. Mr. Obama’s context was not India, or China, or countries in Central and South America. He was referring to Arab leaders–and certainly not to the millions who have been participating in the ‘Arab Spring’.

Of course, one cannot deny the fact that the “Cradle of Western History” was and sadly continues to be, the battleground of the famous and infamous, and home of Hollywood’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. But history is, or should be, an unbiased record of past events devoid of human values, emotions or judgment. Where might is believed to be right however, there is invariably distortion of past events. For example, had Germany defeated the Allies in WWII, the story of the holocaust would have been at best attenuated or at worst, swept under the rug of German history. Another example: the U.S. obsession with shielding Israel against international sanctions while imposing sanctions against Russia for its policies toward its neighbor, Ukraine.

The practice of botching history is generally far more common among elected and unelected officials and rulers than among academic historians or the lay public. Once in position of authority, officials and rules have the power to make or fabricate history at will. Not so academic historians and lay people: they must protect their academic integrity and rank and, respectively, either their shallow knowledge base or simply their integrity among societal peers-e.g., being labeled ignorant or illiterate). History and faith often clash with faith or personal beliefs. When archaeologists fail to find evidence, theologians, especially televangelists, may derive evidence from the word, colored by road maps and other visual and auditory cues.


The recorded history of Western intervention in the Arab World is no different from that of conquerors and colonists since the 15th century. That history is marred by violence, pillage, neglect, and unfulfilled promises. In retrospect, one might conclude that, per capita, the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Ancient Egyptians, Hittites and Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula left less damage to the societies of the conquered than modern warriors or colonialists. That history is anathema to educators in Western public and parochial schools where world history had already been inculcated into young minds in Sunday schools. One Israeli leader referred to Israel as a “Villa-in-the-Jungle’–surely underscoring the racist Israeli perception of the Arab World’s inhabitants while, at the same time, feeding the fires of past orientalism, to wit: journalist Mark Twain, the European painters of the 18th century, the overseas private security personnel in the Iraq war .


Is there perceptual reciprocity between the East and the West? I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and grew up in a multiethnic, -religious and -cultural environment. Although I was born into a Christian family, the environment tended to attenuate my faith, skewing it toward secularism, the common trend among peers and older people in my community. As an undergraduate student in Illinois, I found myself surrounded by intensely devout people whose religiosity often clashed with my secular beliefs. Even in that environment there was a common denominator: respect for others–a value that has been a beacon in my life.

In my travels across N. Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and further east, Pakistan and India, I searched for this element in my life among the people I worked with—the educated, the laborers, and the government functionaries. I found myself to be a clone of the people I encountered; their world was neither East nor West but a continuum of humanity in all its colors and tongues. The mental link remains as viable now as it was at the height of the Arab Renaissance across the Middle East, N. Africa and Spain. The subject of religion and state was broached only once at a mandatory meeting with the Minister of Tourism in Pakistan, as my son and I were trekking to K2 as part of the 1995 US expedition. At that meeting, the minister informed leaders of the expedition that “whereas the U.S. system separates state and religion, we [our system] don’t”. In the valleys of the tallest mountains in the world, the Muslim chants echoed like Gregorian and Byzantine chants.

As a child, my own geography encompassed Greece (Athens), Italy (Venice), Spain (Cordoba, and Tunisia (Kairawan)—all within a stone’s throw of the mind. At the turn of the 18th century, Syrians (people of present Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan) headed toward the sunset—the Americas. They mixed with their historical and cultural cousins in metropolitan cities in N. and S. America. Unfortunately in the West, the perception of a broken bridge between East and West has assumed more than a reality of distance, but also that of existence. That reality is not representative of the very large community of Arabs.


In his ballad, East and West (1889), quoted below, Rudyard Kipling may have missed a simple fact. Though his two men may have been equal, their memory banks were sufficiently different as to alter the intended meaning of the ballad’s last two lines. Those lines, usually ignored in common usage, underscore the popular belief in the cultural separateness of the East and the West. Perhaps these ignored lines represent, not necessarily our misuse of poetic imagery, but our knee-jerk response to the word ‘East’ in forums that deal with the Arab World. The demise of the Southeast Treaty Organization (SEATO), an extension of NATO, did not need resuscitation by the West for obvious geopolitical reasons: its proximity to the Soviets was far more important than the threat of communism. Would Kipling write these lines today? Perhaps not. Would I, a Palestinian American, write these lines? You bet, because I still believe that East and West are inextricable.

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky shall stand presently at God’s Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East or West Border, nor Bread, nor Birth,
When two strong men face to face, though they come from the ends of the Earth.


What we are witnessing in the Arab World today is a product of Western colonial and geopolitical policies, pre- and post-WWI. The policies’ primary focus was the fracturing of Arab societies, the building of foreign and local garrisons, and the establishment of barriers against indigenous ventures that would compete with colonial interests and/or products—elements that are antithetical to the establishment of civil societies. Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon (Source: Wikipedia) defines ‘civil society’ as the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or individuals and organizations in a society, which are independent of the government. The term ‘civil society’ encompasses freedom of speech an independent judiciary, etc., elements that make up a democratic society. The loss of British and French credibility in the Arab World, in the mid-1950s, gave some hope that geopolitical changes might bring about changes in Arab societies. That hope was short-lived.

The Suez War of October 1956 (aka “Crisis”) brought to an end British and French geopolitical and economic hegemony in the Arab World. In collusion with Israel, the tripartite aggression failed to regain control of the Suez Canal and to depose Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser. The failure of the tripartite mission created a power vacuum that was filled by the U.S. under the leadership of President Eisenhower. It was Eisenhower who demanded an end to the aggression and a retreat from occupied Egyptian territory. For this writer, the U.S. lost the hearts and minds of the Arab people in Israel’s 1967 aggression that led to occupation and annexation of Arab land—large chunks of Palestinian and Syrian land. America’s unconditional support of Israeli-Zionist goals became a blinding obsession of every U.S. administration since President Johnson’s. U.S. foreign policy in the Arab World today is ‘made in Israel’, edited and field-tested by AIPAC, and rubber-stamped by the overwhelming majority of the more than 500 choir of the Union.

Presidential doctrines since the Eisenhower Administration assumed imperious power whose justification was ideological (communism) and economic (oil and commerce). Lately, the George W. Bush Administration described U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “crusade”, introducing a religious element in an otherwise geopolitical, neocolonial venture. The word “crusade” more often than not appears as ‘Crusade’ and, nearly always, refers to an act instigated by a religious institution (e.g., a church). Zionist leaders since the Reagan Administration tangoed with the Christian Right to tunes of mutual interests—both are crusades of different colors, but Crusades nonetheless.

The gap between East and West widens as Israel pursues causes that trigger sympathy and support for its perceived beleaguered and endangered society, while the US turns its back again to still another genocide in Gaza, declaring that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer on its priority list, stretching the gap to its extremes.


Are we so naive that we think that al-Qaida, Jihad, ISIS, or any other similar present or future entity, is a sub-human species that sprouted out of the quicksand of the Empty Quarter to kill and maim at random and for no rational cause? How do these groups, who presumably threaten Western national interests, differ from pre-Israel’s Haganah, Irgun and Stern? Are there moral or ethical standards for terrorism? And is hypocrisy one of them?

Terrorism instigated by an individual, a group or a state implies intentional use of intimidation and/or violence in the pursuit of political aims. Hypocrisy aside, ethnicity, religion, color, culture and power do not alter the meaning of terrorism.


In a previous commentary title, Walls, Castles and Imperious Embassies (The Palestine Chronicle, January 21, 2008), I likened US’s “wall” in the Arab World to the “wall” of Crusader castles that stretched across the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, noting, “nowhere else in the world today does America have more firepower than in the culturally alienated Middle East: armadas in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Gulf (of…). America owns the skies over the Middle East and North Africa; its aircraft have access to bases in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and in any of the UA Emirates, in particular Kuwait. America’s wall around the Arab World is nearly impenetrable; its castles within this wall are far more numerous than the Crusaders’, and surely far more sinister, especially when one considers that the US is a most religious country and one whose political machine is greased by 80 million Evangelicals, Dispensationalists, etc.)”.

Would not the investment of three trillion dollars in building Arab civil societies have yielded better outcomes than fractured and now-disabled societies, as more wars, more violence, and more security systems slowly erode our own civil rights and mobility?

No civil society is immune to crime or violence; they are to extremist individuals and groups who use violence to propagate ideologies that are inconsistent with international laws or laws that protect human rights and liberties. East is West and the twain does meets in civil societies.

– Jamil I. Toubbeh, Ph.D., Fellow ASHA, is Senior Researcher at Center for Asian Health, Temple University. He spent a year as a Regional Fulbright Scholar in the Middle East. Dr. Toubbeh is recipient of the Native American Eagle Feather for outstanding contributions to the health of Native Americans with disabilities, and has also been recognized by the Chair of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities for his contributions to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is author of Day of the Long Night: a Palestinian Refugee Remembers the Nakba (McFarland & Co.) as well as scientific political essays. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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