Glorifying criminals deeply rooted in Arab popular culture

Glorifying criminals contributes to the creation of a culture of violence.
Sunday 10/02/2019
A scene from the Tunisian series “Chouerreb” which investigates the life of Ali Chouerreb, a notorious Tunisian criminal. (Courtesy of Lotfi Abdelli)
Between myth and reality. A scene from the Tunisian series “Chouerreb” which investigates the life of Ali Chouerreb, a notorious Tunisian criminal. (Courtesy of Lotfi Abdelli)

The Arab collective memory is filled with characters who are glorified in folk tales but who were originally thieves and criminals.

The phenomenon of glorifying and creating fake heroes in Arab folk tales was critically examined in a series of books. The authors raised the question of why Arab societies refuse to look at such characters as evil and cannot see the evil of their deeds.

Among the works that touched on that are “The Blood of the Mamluks” by Walid Fikri, Ibrahim Adnan’s “The History of False History” and “A Moment of History: 30 Tales from Arab Times” by Mohamed Mansi Qandil. The topic has been the subject of discussions on social media and cultural seminars.

Why do outlaws become folk legends and what is the secret behind perpetuating the popular heritage about bandits, freaks, scammers and violent men and even weaving fairy tales around them?

Some critics made the link between cultural roots and what is happening today in terms of violence, extremism and vandalism. Social acceptance of these fake heroes and the refusal of communities to condemn them serve as an encouraging factor in spawning generations of killers and terrorists.

Each Arab country has its own folk heroes. A critical examination of the heroes and their deeds, however, reveals that many of these celebrated characters were criminals. Official narratives in Arab countries condemn in the strongest terms “popular” criminal figures but this condemnation does not seem to affect the popular view of those figures.

Unfortunately, this unnatural reality is made worse by the aggressive propensity of works of fiction, theatre and cinema to turn these criminals into myths and present them as models to emulate.

Some pointed out that even great writers accommodate public taste in this domain. Egypt’s great novelist Naguib Mahfouz recorded the exploits of these folk heroes in “Al-Harafish” and portrayed an outlaw from the 1960s named Mahmoud Suleiman as a mythical hero who was a victim of treachery and betrayal in “The Thief and the Dogs.”

The phenomenon is commonplace in many Arab countries, prompting Ashraf Mansour, professor of philosophy at the University of Alexandria to say that “the depth of penetration of this attribute in Arab society contributed to the growth of terrorism.”

The issue becomes clear when we consider the number of outlaws who were turned into noble heroes by the folklore machine. One of these was the famous thief of Baghdad who went by the name of Ibn Hamdi and in other versions by the name of Ahmed al-Danf. It is reported that this criminal robbed only the rich. With the poor, he was kind and generous.

Still in Baghdad, there was also the notorious Ali al-Zubeiq, who apparently lived during the Abbasid caliphate and was loved by people for his heroism. However, the prince of thieves was Imran bin Shaheen whose territory was between Wasit and Basra during the era of the Buyid dynasty. Other famous historical rogues were Ibn Marwan and Ibn Fouladh.

In addition to the figures who survived in Arab cultural heritage, each Arab country also has its own criminal heroes celebrated in folk tales and fantasies. Mansour said this cultural aspect deserves further research into the characteristics of peoples and societies. He pointed out that there is greater interest in the Arab world in the phenomenon of outlaws and criminals, especially if they are endowed with brute force and daring.

Some experts pointed out that popular fascination with thieves and criminals is universal and cuts across all peoples and cultures. The story of Robin Hood during the Middle Ages in Europe is one example. Mansour also brought up the West’s fascination with fictional gentleman thief Arsene Lupin even though he was fundamentally an outlaw.

In Egyptian popular culture, many thieves and cutthroats became beloved models, like Hamido the “Bully” in Alexandria and Upper Egypt.

Explanations for why some criminals are idolised in popular culture vary. Some people, especially in the Arab world, insist that the common folk do not trust authorities and therefore tend to reject official versions of the activities and personalities of famous criminals.

It seems that any version that is contrary to the official narrative has better chances to be accepted by the general public, even it is illogical but the public is not interested in logic or common sense when it finds room for the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” So whoever is opposed to the authorities is right and a national hero.

Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdelmajid said that idolising violent figures and outlaws, in a place like Egypt for example, is because there has always been a centralised authority in the country and it was always oppressive. So people find it easy to sympathise with those who run circles around the authorities, even if they were criminals.

Overall, widespread injustices and their pervasiveness in Arab history were a major reason behind people’s refusal to accept the official charges against criminals, regardless of their crimes.

Radhia Taher, professor of literary criticism at Badji Mokhtar University in Annaba, Algeria, said the main reason criminals are glorified is the growth of the ideological trend based on the glorification of war.

Taher claimed that pre-Islamic concepts provide the ideational framework of Arab culture. The best proof of that is the continuing celebration of the poetry of pre-Islamic poets such as Amr ibn Kulthum, Antara ibn Shaddad and Imru al-Qais, which excels at glorifying vengeance and murder.

Taher added that the political tyranny that prevailed through Arab history helped in making people look at killers and criminals as heroes, because anyone who challenges the authorities becomes a hero and thieves who steal from the rich to give to the poor are friends of the people.

Egyptian novelist Nasser Iraq asserted that a quick look at human history would reveal that people have always needed heroes who would do what they couldn’t do themselves and who would realise their wishes. The bigger the injustices people experience, the greater their desire for a hero is, a hero who would save them and restore the virtue of the lost social justice. He insisted that, when a real hero turns out to be impossible to find, people would invent one to keep their hopes alive.

There are those who say that some governments have played a role in focusing people’s attention on violent figures and characters to keep the population motivated, especially following the wave of achieving national independence in Arab countries. However, the trend continued to exist at the level of the state institutions. The stories of Khalid Ibn al-Waleed, Oqba Ibn Nafi’ and other military conquerors and leaders are taught and glorified in Arab schools.

Glorifying criminals contributes to the creation of a culture of violence. Hani Sabri, sociology professor at Suez Canal University in eastern Cairo, said that creating and glorifying rogue heroes promotes delinquency by turning it into heroic acts.

He said a large part of the characteristics of the culture of violence in society is because of prevailing values in popular cultures that glorify acts of violence as heroic and rename acts of theft and lawlessness as recapturing one’s rights.

Sabri pointed out that there is an urgent need for the institutions concerned with culture in the Arab world to review the folklore of each country and redirect people’s attentions to other types of historical figures who were true models of creativity and scientific excellence.