MIDDLE EAST PROGRAM:  Discussion Paper (“Curfew”)                              (P. 1 of 2)

May 15, 1973  

          Sitting through a curfew on a sunny afternoon in Beirut is perhaps as good a time as any to ask oneself the questions, why are we here and what do we hope to accomplish?  The unsettled conditions in the area add urgency to the questions, and our persistent requests for reconsideration of projected budget figures for our program in FY74 and 75 oblige us to state our program plans as coherently as possible.            

          The answers to these fundamental questions cannot be found in current events, however compelling they may be for our attentions. Perhaps the best justifications for the Foundation’s programs overseas are always to be found in its ability to work on the problems of the middle distance, near enough to be visible but so far off that governments tend not to give them the priority they will soon deserve. In the Middle East, where so many aspects of life are politicized, the ability to select key development problems for dispassionate attention may be more than usually valuable.   


Al Mina section  Tripoli,   Lebanon      1973


          Arab society is a culture at once mired in tradition and confused by foreign currents from West and East. In its purest form, Arab culture is of the desert, where life has been sustained in some of man's least hospitable surroundings through a remarkable cultural adaptation. The qualities of generosity and hospitality, fierce pride and individualism, capacity for endurance in the face of natural and unchangeable hardships, fanatic loyalty and dogmatic belief, are so necessary for desert survival, but so ill-adapted to modernization.  

          There is, of course, an urban tradition as well, the world's oldest, intermingled and interacting with the desert culture. The values of the townsmen, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, are far from the puritanical rigidity of nomads, but even in the Mediterranean cities of the Arab world, the tribal culture is admired if not imitated. Indeed the amalgamation of values and traditions in the Middle East, stemming from successive invasions of men from the desert, from the Nile Valley, from the Russian Steppes, Turkey, and Europe makes it impossible to be precise about the cultural traditions of the Arabs. It is, nevertheless, useful to identify the main strands and influences as we design our Middle Eastern program.  

          Islam, the predominant religious tradition in the area, is historically one of the world's most tolerant faiths, but for reasons not fully understood, it seems to offer resistance to modernization. Perhaps the lack of hierarchy in religious organization, or the historical roots of the religion in conquest, or the subsequent closing of the door of ijtihad (change through consensus), or the identification of religion with the state, are contributing factors to the relative lack of development in Islamic countries. Or perhaps Islam has historically appealed to countries less endowed by nature.  

          Language, too, is a cultural attribute of the Arabs that is rich and noble in history, but linguistically unsuited to modern requirements. Printing is still done in characters that imitate handwriting; grammatical refinements are so extensive that only life-long scholars can use them well; and the living language which people speak is not as a rule written: only classical Arabic appears in print, rather as if European countries wrote only in Latin while speaking French, Italian, and Spanish. The intimate association of Arabic with Islam increases resistance to change.  

          Perhaps because of the rigidity of certain aspects of their culture, modernizing Arabs and Arab societies have sometimes bypassed their own traditions and adopted foreign notions and institutions. They are hardly alone in this; societies in Africa and East and South Asia have done the same thing. Secular schools replaced the Koranic, universities on the western model replaced or transformed the mosques as sources of higher learning, foreign languages became the languages of scholars, armies were modeled on the British or French, and industry, often, on the Russian.  

          It could be argued that Arab ambivalence over the adoption of European patterns of education and organization is sharper than that of other cultures. Historical competition, sometimes violent, with European states, and the sheer proximity to an economically more successful culture, may increase hostility; while religious similarities and again, proximity, lead to a deeper meshing of cultures than elsewhere. But, basically, the problems of development are similar to those of traditional societies in the rest of Asia and Africa.  

          As elsewhere, there are forces of change in the Arab world despite the resistance of tradition. Able and energetic people can be found who are eager to reform the education system, simplify the language or at least improve methods of teaching it, improve the efficiency of government, and raise crop yields. They are the people to whom we relate most directly.  

          The Arab task of modernization has of course been complicated by two exogenous factors of enormous importance: Israel and oil. Both tend to push the knotty problems of social and cultural development into the background, and both increase the attraction of the Middle East to the great powers. Because of its geographical position, the Middle East would, doubtless, have had a prominent place in the world's attention, but with the addition of these two factors, the limelight is dazzling. In particular, the Arab confrontation with Israel all but monopolizes government attentions, so that the middle-distance problems suggested earlier have scant chance to receive that concentrated effort which they deserve.  

          The Arab/Israeli dispute is such an important threat to world peace that it would be tempting for the Foundation to do whatever it could in aid of a settlement. I have argued earlier, and still believe, that this would be a mistake. The Foundation has little to offer to the search for a settlement that cannot be found elsewhere. Good ideas are not failing for lack of funds, and we have no special wisdom to bring to bear on the conflict. It is not the sort of problem that can be solved if only someone thinks about it hard enough. On the other hand, we have much to lose by engaging in well-meaning peace efforts. No position on the conflict is universally regarded as positive, and the best most mediators achieve is to be roundly criticized by both sides. Direct efforts in search of peace, or even in search of a dialogue in conferences to which both sides are invited, should, in my opinion, be left to others.  

          This does not mean that our efforts will make no impact on the stability of the region over time. They may have little immediate impact, but if we are at all successful in our programs, we should help to reduce the likelihood of Middle Eastern states stumbling into conflicts they know they cannot win simply because they don't know what else to do.  

          The history of the inter-war period was one of avoidance by the Arabs of negotiations and discussions with the Mandate power over the question of Jewish immigration. In 1948, after the infant United Nations arranged a thirty-day truce, the Arabs, led by Egypt, refused to extend it, even though their leaders knew they had no military reserves to mobilize. In 1967, Nasser pushed a bluff too far and received a humiliating defeat in a war he did not want, despite his volatile speeches and posturing.  

          This whole sorry history of mismanaged policy is, in my opinion, traceable to a sense of inferiority at the negotiating table and a need to use external crises to cover domestic failures. If Arab governments can gain confidence in their abilities to lead their people successfully into the modern era, they will, in my opinion, be less likely to make tragic miscalculations internationally.  

          This does not suggest that once they are able to get their muscles together the Arabs may gang up and throw the Israelis into the sea. No responsible official statement has been made for years that threatens the existence of Israel. It may mean that the Arabs would eventually have the confidence to face the Israelis across a conference table (although there may, of course, be some controversy over its shape).  

          Another indirect contribution to the eventual settlement of the dispute may be made by our work in the social sciences on both sides of the border. If, through the social sciences, Arabs and Israelis can more profoundly recognize some of the social and cultural issues involved, we believe that both will deal more effectively with the dispute.  

          Oil is generally considered to be more of a blessing than a problem, and of course it is, but as a blessing it is mixed. The presence of oil is greatest in those areas that are least populated and culturally least developed. Politically, the oil-rich states tend to be rather conservative, except for Libya, which has a conservative religious position but a radical international posture, hostile to both East and West. For these states, oil has produced several problems in terms of their development: 

1)     It has forced the pace. Saudi Arabia and Libya are confronted with complex international and domestic decisions from which they could have been spared for decades, were it not for the demands put upon their respective societies by windfall wealth.  

2)     It has sapped the motivation of the people. Kuwaiti children can't, for the life of them, understand why they should study hard and learn to do things that they can hire done quite cheaply. Adults are able to preserve the traditional disdain for hand-soiling toil with which most developing societies are forced to compromise.  

3)     It has distorted priorities. Oil-rich states tend to invest heavily in construction but to neglect the social aspects of development. In Saudi Arabia, for example, twenty million dollars was spent over six years in building a remarkable irrigation scheme in the desert for the benefit of the bedu, without doing rudimentary planning for resettlement -- surely the more difficult aspect of the scheme. Indeed, the existence of large funds may permit societies to avoid painful social and economic adjustments for a time, but this merely defers development.  

4)     Like Sweepstakes winners, the oil states find themselves popular with a large assortment of people, and do not know whom to trust.  

          The Arabs might do best to withdraw from the rest of the world, retreat into isolation and sort out the meaning of modernization for their culture, just as the Meiji Japanese did, or the Soviets between the wars, or, perhaps, the present-day Chinese of Mao. The painful processes of adjusting relationships among classes, religious communities, families, and occupational groups, and, most difficult of all, of learning to live with machines, can be done, it seems, most coherently when a society is not too heavily influenced by outsiders.  Perhaps, like the Japanese, the Arabs might teach many to read foreign languages, but few to speak them, thus making the knowledge of others available while minimizing personal intercultural contact.  

          But this course is not open to the Arabs, at least not now, for reasons of geography, resources, and international politics, and for the reason that the Arabs are not united. 

          The same factors that would make it difficult for the Arabs to retreat behind a veil and engage in their own style of cultural revolution accentuate the importance of the region for the rest of the world. Enough has been written about the energy crisis in recent months to make self-evident the fact that the stability of the Middle East is of concern to all who use fossil fuels and don't have enough in the ground to meet their own requirements. Political crises, so chronic to the area, also affect the entire world, and represent the current number one threat to world peace. A scant five years from now will find some Arab governments with financial reserves large enough to affect the stability of the currency of even the largest western power.  

          The chronic instability of the Arab world in the past twenty years is all too reminiscent of the century Latin America spent in turbulence, with small cliques engaged in endless struggles for power, rising to the top on waves of popular discontent but, once there, unable to do better than their predecessors. Without seeking to draw too fine a parallel, it does seem as if regions of the world can become enmeshed in recurring cycles of disorder when they confront problems of large dimensions with leaders of small.  

          It may be significant that only two Arab heads of state have college degrees - Bourguiba of Tunisia and the Sultan of Oman. This is not a slur on the men themselves; it is symptomatic of the immaturity of the political processes and the social systems that elevated them to power. When Latin America endured its century of discontent, one might almost say the world didn't much care.  That can't be said of the present-day Middle East.  


          The question remains, what do we hope to accomplish as a small private organization working in this turbulent atmosphere. We are not content to fall back on the argument that the Foundation's presence is important precisely because of the strained relations between much of the Arab world and the United States. Our tenacity in continuing work in Egypt after 1967 has been much appreciated and, doubtless, does contribute in a useful way to communications and understanding between the Egyptian and American societies, but this would justify only a token presence.  

          There is a related justification, also inadequate in our view, that the Foundation is able to offer valuable support to western-educated and -oriented people who would otherwise be engulfed by the wind from the East or submerged by the tide of fundamentalist Islam. Western-educated Arabs are, indeed, a vitally important group, and they tend to be people we can work with most effectively; but our reason for being here is not primarily to preserve their western orientation. On the contrary, we seek in our programs more and more to encourage this elite group to adapt their foreign knowledge to the culture and environment of the Arab world, to go beyond mere imitation into the creation of a modern Arab culture consistent with its own past.  

          The modernization of an ancient culture with the minimal departure necessary from traditional values and beliefs -- that is the great task facing the Arab world and it is the task to which we seek to make our major contribution.  


          If one were writing about development from Bangladesh or Somalia, economic development would doubtless figure prominently among program objectives. It is important in the Middle East as well, but here one is continually struck by the cultural problems associated with modernization. Lacking an acceptable general theory of development, one is forced to rely upon one's own insights as to the factors that are important, or limiting, in a particular part of the world. What follows is a personal statement, an attempt to make explicit some of the perceptions of Middle Eastern development that guide my own decisions. I hope that in the next year or so our staff can together improve on the statement, or throw it out and come up with a better one. One of our most important tasks is to increase our own knowledge of the development process, as well as the knowledge of those with whom we work.  

          Development can be defined as the adaptation of a culture to a higher level of technology. I take culture to be the pattern of human interrelationships expressed in customs, manners, organizational rule and law, which a society follows in the utilization of its technology in pursuit of the general welfare. This definition may be deficient in that it implies that society is organized only for the exploitation of technology. Certainly, that would be overstating the case, but the associational aspects of technology and culture as defined here seem to be clear.  

           A culture is stable or mature, or perhaps one could even say developed, when the behavioral patterns of the society become well-adapted to the technology in use. Traditional societies are typically well-adapted to their technology, and their technology to the needs of the society, so they tend to be stable or mature until affected by an outside force. Outside force was not always required; new technology has been, and still is, invented inside western culture; but as far as the currently developing areas are concerned, the impact of western technology is so pervasive that internal invention of significant new ways of producing things is very rare.  

          It perhaps should be noted that a stable culture can be disrupted by the appearance of the products of another society's technology, and not solely by the introduction of the new technology itself into the society. Firearms and automobiles are obvious examples of external products that disrupt internal relationships, whether domestic technology has changed or not. 

          At this point, we should add a third factor in the development equation, geography. The forms of culture (the patterns of behavior) and of technology that characterize a stable society will tend to be affected by physical factors of resource endowment and geographical configuration.  

          All societies since hunters and gatherers have been characterized by a division of labor that results in a social product greater than could be achieved by the individuals working independently. Employment is goal-directed activity that fits into the pattern of the society's production; it is, therefore, a share of the division of labor.  

          In the development process -- that is, when a society begins to use a new level of technology -- great adjustments are required of the patterns of human interaction (customs, manners, rules of organizations and laws), and the patterns of distribution of the goods produced. This process of adaptation of social and economic relationships to the technology, and likewise the adaptation of the technology to the geography and traditions (previous patterns of relationships), inevitably involves social and political conflict.  

          For a period, at least, an ill fit between the technology on the one hand, and the skills and organizational forms employed by the people using it on the other, is also inevitable. Unemployment and underemployment are symptoms of this maladjustment between the technology and the physical and cultural characteristics of the society adopting it.  

          Within this framework, in order to enhance understanding and guide policy, one could study the problem of the poor fit, that is, the problems which inhibit the achievement of maturity at a given level of technology, under three headings: cultural, geographical and mechanical.  

          Cultural problems could be classified according to a number of headings, such as education, social discipline, social status of occupations, values surrounding work and leisure, and laws governing the relationships between social classes or people in various productive roles. The social sciences provide the tools for analyzing this set of problems.  

          The second set of problems is in the geographical arena, where one would analyze the resources available to determine which can best be exploited to meet human needs; such an analysis is already done in most countries. This type of exploration would not be affected by the general framework I am trying to outline, except that governments might show increased awareness of the social and cultural implications of the forms of technology chosen to exploit natural resources.  

          The third problem area is the mechanical: the adaptation of imported technology in the light of cultural and geographical factors. Appropriate technology is a term coined to recognize the importance of adapting technology in different places in the world. It is usually taken to mean only the adaptation of technology to factor proportions, whereas I would use it to mean adaptation to prevailing patterns of human interaction (culture), as well. Adapting technology to the extent feasible mechanically, so that its use requires the minimum disturbance of established social patterns, would ease the trauma of the development process.  

          To illustrate the application of this conceptual framework to Arab society, one may use as an example the printing press -- one of the seminal technological innovations of the West. We may ignore the geographical aspect in this case and look first at the mechanical. The first striking fact is that five hundred years after its invention, the printing press is not manufactured in the Arab world. Presses could, of course, be made here, but one would need to begin with rather simple machines, and the technology has advanced so rapidly in the West that it would not be feasible to invest in the design and production of machines capable of printing economically in comparison with imported machines.  

          Such machines have been adapted, to some extent, to meet local requirements -- they use Arabic characters. But the orthographic reform that Claude Garamond brought to the West in the 16th century, by designing separate letters for use in print, has not occurred here as yet, with the consequence that print must look like handwriting. Also, the script has not been simplified, letters must have different forms depending on whether they occur at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a word, and short vowels are not written as letters but as symbols attached to consonants, when they appear at all. All this means a printer requires around 500 characters to be well-equipped.  

          There are other problems of adapting the language to the machine, and vice versa. Arabic is written with extensive ligatures, which is convenient for the scribbler, but not for the printer. The word Mohammed, for example, is written with an economical four letters, but three of them are combined into one ligature, something like this:                     m

                           d h


This is an inconvenience for the printer, not only because he needs a separate typeface for each ligature, but also because it covers three lines vertically and makes the reduction in size of a printed page difficult.

          Other problems of the mechanical fit are much like those of adjusting to any machine, such as the difficulty of finding a person at once educated enough to be trained to maintain the press and willing to undertake such a filthy job, especially for the wages typically paid to people of the “technician class.”

          The cultural "fit" with the printing press can be viewed in terms of the uses made of its products. To begin with, there are few storybooks for children. This is partly because books are written in classical Arabic, which the young child doesn’t understand. Reading for pleasure by adults is perhaps more likely to be done in a foreign language than in Arabic. Novel-writing is not a highly developed art form, partly again because the words used to describe everyday human life, at least those most familiar to writers and their readers, are likely to be colloquial words, until recently, not suited for print. The scientific literature in Arabic is very thin, most of it in translation, as is true of the social sciences. Arab scholars tend to publish their best work in foreign languages, rather than in Arabic, for a number of reasons: the market is greater for a book in another language; greater prestige is accorded to publication in a foreign language and particularly in an international journal; scholars generally received their higher education abroad or in a foreign language at home and, thus, are professionally more at ease in it; standardized terminology for scientific and social scientific subject is inadequate in Arabic.  

          The technical potential of the printing press is clearly not yet fully realized in Arab society; vast cultural adaptations are necessary before they can be achieved. 

          One has only to observe high-powered automobiles thundering around Beirut's crowded streets to bring another example to mind. No culture has completely adapted itself to the automobile, or adapted the automobile to its needs, but in Lebanon the inappropriateness of the imported technology in mechanical terms is particularly glaring. Also apparent is the fact that the laws, customs, and manners that govern the use of the car in the West have not matured here: the etiquette that often otherwise governs interpersonal relationships has not yet evolved, traffic laws are inadequate and rarely enforced, and the driving patterns are more demanding on the machine and the operator than need be.  

          Modernization should not be viewed solely in the context of adaptation to and of specific machines; they simply offer the most obvious examples. One could take modern medicine as another form of technology that has too uncritically been adopted by the Arab world and other less developed countries. Vast sums are spent on hospitals and medical faculties that yield very modest returns in terms of the general health of the population, whereas expenditures on preventive medicine, where a real difference can be made, are comparatively meager. China's example of investing in paramedical training could contain lessons for many countries.  

          The development process, as defined by this model, is a pervasive one, and one that is less amenable to foreign aid than has sometimes been supposed. Yet there are a number of areas in which we believe Foundation assistance can be critically important in stimulating and supporting creative local efforts. We have selected a number of program themes, vectors of development, where we believe work on the middle-distance problems of cultural adaptation is most vital. (continued)

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