The famous provocative Russian designer and blogger Artemy Lebedev wrote in his blog today (my translation from Russian):
European (Christian) consciousness is built differently than the Eastern (Muslim).
The main unique property of the European culture is the ability to invent and create new things, technologies, items and products. Arab peoples are absolutely unable to invent something. Do we know anything Arabic? A television? A telephone? A car? At least one thing? My main complaint towards Islam is this – as a culture it is so egotistic, that I feel suffocated there.
Though very provocative in his use of language and in his criticism against ugly design, Lebedev is usually very secularist and anti-nationalistic. Sometimes, though, he does make some shocking and scathing remarks about ethnic and religious groups, such as this one.
It did make me think, however. Everybody knows that in the Middle Ages Arabs made many important advances in literature, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and other fields, but i really couldn’t think of an Arab inventor from the recent centuries. So i went to Wikipedia, opened Category:Inventors and descended to Category:Inventors by nationality.
There was only one Arab country listed: United Arab Emirates. Other prominent Muslim countries were Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Hmm. So i went to the page List of inventors, hoping that it would be more inclusive and easy to search. It didn’t help much – i found very few Arabs there, and they were mostly medieval characters.
And then i recalled that it’s the English Wikipedia. So i went to Category:Inventors by nationality in the Arabic Wikipedia. There i found several sub-categories for Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt. There was no category for UAE, even though one existed in the English Wikipedia, and none of the categories i found in Arabic had an English counterpart; the one that existed for Algerian inventors was deleted a few months ago, because it was empty.
I went over the articles in these categories in the Arabic Wikipedia. Most of them didn’t have an English counterpart. There was an article in English about Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbah, a Lebanese engineer, so i created Category:Lebanese inventors for him and now there are two Arab countries under Category:Inventors by nationality in English.
There was also an article in English about Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian chemist, and a couple of other scientists. All of them are probably great people, but reading the articles about them in English it seemed to me that even though it’s correct to call them “scientists” and maybe “discoverers”, they probably aren’t inventors. Of course, it’s possible that i misunderstood something, but it may also mean that for the people who tagged these people as “inventors”, this word had a somewhat different meaning. This may or may not mean that the Arabic word used in the category name, مخترع, covers both inventions and discoveries. The Al-Mawrid Arabic-English dictionary, which i use most of the time, says that this word means “inventor, creator, originator, innovator, maker, author”.
So, there’s a little lesson in cultural divide to be learned here. No, i don’t agree with Artemy Lebedev – i am certain that Arabs can and do invent things and the existence of articles about alleged inventors from Arab countries in the Arabic Wikipedia probably means that this is true. But currently chauvinistic people can take a look in the English Wikipedia, see that it has almost no Arab inventors and keep being sure that Arabs are, indeed, stupid and incapable of invention. Since Wikipedia is so easily available, they probably won’t bother to search for information elsewhere.
Unfortunately, my understanding of the Arab culture and language is too small, but surely there must be an Arab who will take this challenge and improve the coverage of Arab inventors in the Wikipedia in English and other languages.
One way to do this would be to run the script that i wrote for finding and categorizing articles without interlanguage links; if you know Arabic and Perl, please contact me and i’ll gladly help you to set it up for the Arabic Wikipedia.