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Writing Revolution

Nico Hobhouse

Oxford Student PEN in association with IB Tauris and English PEN
Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus
St Anne’s College, Oxford
30th May 2013

On the evening of Thursday 30th May, Oxford Student PEN welcomed Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel, two editors of a recently released collection of essays, Writing Revolution: The Voices From Tunis To Damascus. They came to speak about the new book and were accompanied by Mohamed Mesrati, a young Libyan activist and author of the book’s piece on Libya.

Each of the essays collected in Writing Revolution was written shortly after the Arab uprisings in early 2011, and the authors all directly participated in the events in their respective countries. As such the collection bears witness to times and changes that we have all heard about through the media but have rarely, if ever, seen through the eyes of the protagonists.

Layla and Matthew commissioned eight different writers from eight different Arab countries to contribute. Even this commissioning process proved difficult. Layla recalled the shocking phone call she had with the Syrian journalist, Khawla Dunia, in which she attempted to explain the project while simultaneously attempting to evade the attention of Syria’s notorious phone monitors. As she blustered along nonsensically, avoiding the use of such key words as “activism” and “revolution”, Khawla cut in: “You want to know why I’m engaged in the revolution? Because it’s about our dignity. This is also why I will speak with you on the phone as I please and I will write as I please.” That Writing Revolution got off the ground at all is testament to this spirit of bravery and defiance.

The authors were set no parameters within which to operate and this freedom, combined with the obvious fact that they are all of different nationalities with unique stories to tell, means that each of the essays has a very different and individualised tone. Mohamed explained that at the time he was asked to write he was planning to return to Libya from London—feared, in fact, that he might never return. Thinking that this could be the last chance to record all the ideas that had been brewing throughout his life, and especially in the months following the revolution, his initial contribution was a wild conglomeration of reflections that was gradually cut down to satisfy the demands of the word count. Even in its reduced form his essay is a free-roaming exploration of such diverse topics as the subversions of his childhood (mostly centred around unnerving school teachers by drawing penises in class), the realities of life under Gaddafi, Libyan folk tales, the persecution of his playwright father and the secret political activism of his mother.

Some of the other essays are less playful and lack something of the cautious optimism that underpins the accounts of the “successful” revolutions. Safa Al Ahmad opens her tale of the failed protests in Saudi Arabia with the words she feels she has to utter whenever she meets women from other Arab countries: “I’m Saudi. I’m sorry.” Ali Aldairy bemoans the intellectuals in his native Bahrain who refuse to condemn the killing of peaceful protestors, describing how in February 2011 he leafed through opinion columns in the local papers and “looked for a word repudiating murder and repression. Nothing.”

But even with these reminders of the disappointments that have scarred the Arab Spring from the off, the overall atmosphere of Writing Revolution is hopeful. This is not because any of the writers express a na√Øve confidence in the future. The hope instead comes from an unwavering sense that the change seen in the Arab world since 2011 is inevitable. Time and again the same motif crops up: it is impossible for people to live under the yolk forever. Ghania Mouffok expresses this sentiment in his essay about Algeria, recording the “demands” of a young protestor who says simply, “We demand to breathe, and that’s a big enough demand in itself.”

Writing Revolution is unlikely to further the various revolutionary causes themselves. Although most of the essays were originally written in Arabic they have all been translated into English (for which the translators received an English PEN award) and the book has not been released in any of the countries it describes. However, as both Layla and Matthew emphasised, their intention was never for the book to change the political landscape—that is changing fast enough on its own. Rather, they wanted to give Arab writers, so long unheard in the West, a chance to step up and tell their own stories. For if the Arab Spring has meant anything it is that Arabs will no longer settle for being victims, for merely being talked about. They can and will speak for themselves.

Nico Hobhouse read Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and is the author of Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.