3 February, 2014Issue 24.2Politics & SocietyThe Middle EastWorld Politics

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By What Alchemy? Testimonies from the Arab Risings

Peter Hill

Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel (eds.)
Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus
I.B. Tauris, 2013
304 pages
ISBN 978-1780765402

It is now nearly three years since the start of the great wave of popular risings and demonstrations that the Western media dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. Much water and not a little blood has flowed under the bridge since then, and we are left with a new military regime in Egypt, a bitter and intractable conflict in Syria, and a continuing struggle against repression in many other Arab countries. The sometimes breathless enthusiasm with which the risings were greeted in the West—after we had got our heads around the idea of Arabs rising up at all—has deteriorated in some places into cynicism or resignation.

This book comes as a welcome antidote to both attitudes. It brings together eight personal testimonies from writers involved in or present at the demonstrations and risings: testimonies for the most part sensitive and intelligent, avoiding both the simple mythologising of ‘revolution’ and the tired disenchantment with all politics that so often seems to follow it. Among the writers in the anthology are some extraordinarily brave and committed people, but they seem to avoid presenting themselves and other participants in the risings as heroes. Even the most active in demonstrating and organising appear at times as bystanders to events which escape from their control or even from their comprehension. Malek Sghiri, a leader of the Tunisian student union, describes himself not only in Tunis, planning strikes and publishing bulletins, organising a deliberate strategy against the regime, but also back in his home town of Tala, participating as just another footsoldier in a chaotic and unorganised battle against the police, and finally in the prisons of the regime, subject to brutal torture.

Others went to the demonstrations specifically to watch and record. Ghania Mouffok presents herself as a “witness”, going among the demonstrators in the quartiers populaires of Algiers to collect words, comments, and images. There is often a distance between the writer and the bulk of participants in the insurgencies. Ali Aldairy, in Bahrain, goes into the streets to try to overcome this distance. He goes consciously, as an intellectual with a duty to his people: not to betray, to stand by them. But this kind of attitude can bring dilemmas of its own. Jamal Jubran, watching the repression of the Yemeni demonstrations, wrote: “From afar, I watched my colleagues fall one after the other. I lacked the courage to take part and protect them. I’m just a writer, I told myself, my job is to write…. I’m no hero and I never will be.”

The distance between witness and participant is often one between generations. Mouffok, observing the young demonstrators of Algiers, writes: “They’re not like me; they’re entering an era that I’ll leave behind. I come from a time gone by which was filled with melancholy…. in the shadow of tanks, I did not revolt.” That is one perspective: admiration at the commitment and self-sacrifice of youth, and a hint of shame that they are achieving what the older generations never dared to. But there is also a certain apprehension, the caution of old campaigners. Jubran writes:

The day the students filled University Square I was profoundly happy, full of a joy I had not felt for many long years. At the same time I feared for my heart, that it would be swayed by this joy, caught up in a feeling that was destined not to last and which would fizzle and die like all those moments of hope. My soul was not strong enough to bear another setback and defeat.

The experience, even the caution of those older generations, is valuable: we are reminded, in a series of glimpses, just what a long history of dissent and rebellion these Arab peoples have had. The books of the Syrian dramatist Saadallah Wannous on Mesrati’s father’s shelves in Libya, the “highly educated Marxists, humble and unselfish” from whom Jubran learned his trade in Yemen, Malek Sghiri’s family’s history of political opposition since 1864, all these various traditions, surviving in the shadow of tyranny, remind us that the sudden events of the ‘Arab Spring’ are only one episode in the story.

Carrying those traditions has never been easy. Jubran’s account of his own childhood and youth in Yemen, like that of the young Libyan writer Mohamed Mesrati, seems almost designed to exhibit his vulnerability to the harsh social and political conditions of these countries. The two accounts bear witness to a human cost for political honesty, in social ostracism as well as direct repression, which is far beyond the recent experience of a country such as England. These regimes and repressive social forces affronted one’s own personal dignity; and by standing up to them one could win back a personal self-respect. “When we rise up like waves”, writes Mouffok, “we win back our bodies, rediscover our spirits, and answer only to ourselves.”

It is impossible to grasp the nature of the events of 2011 if one thinks of them as ‘political’ in a narrow sense or as motivated by simple economic concerns, if one does not see their intensely personal, even existential aspect. The risings can be understood, in one way, as a polar reaction to the particular malaise, a compound of frustration, apathy and fear, that gripped so many Arab countries before 2011. “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence,” wrote Blake, and one can see a demonstration of this in the various accounts of life in these countries in the long years of repression—to the point where any action of opposition, even self-immolation or engagement in an apparently hopeless struggle, could seem a simple necessity. In Yasmine El Rashidi’s description of Cairo,

young men, in tight, faux-designer jeans and T-shirts… loitered on car hoods smoking cigarettes and watching girls walk by… it seemed as if the population …had taken to the streets, out of sheer listlessness….There was an increasing lack of jobs, of opportunities, of possibilities for a better life.

It is of the nature of such “pestilence” that even the consciously committed can be embroiled in it. Jubran describes his own profound resentment against President Saleh of Yemen and his party as “a kind of reverse racism”. “I admit it”, he continues: “my hatred grew inside me…. I began to despise everything around me. I became a hateful person.” Mesrati writes more explicitly of something that El Rashidi, from Cairo, hints at: the way in which social frustration could be transformed, for young men and boys in particular, into an urgent and predatory sexuality: “At Martyrs’ Square, where the pupils of all the city’s schools were packed together as tight as nuts in chocolate, we would rush to claim a place next to the girls from Jamila College, elegant and beautiful with their alluring smiles.… I got in among the girls, where, like everyone else, my questing fingers poked and prodded in every direction.” The parallel to the many cases of rape and harassment in Tahrir Square are evident.

Some of the finest writing in the anthology comes from those who remained trapped in defeat and conflict: the Saudi Safa Al Ahmad and the Syrian Khawla Dunia. Al Ahmad travelled to various Arab countries during the risings and was “overwhelmed with the magnitude of what” she “witnessed” in Libya. But she too was “just that, a witness. I stand in awe of what my fellow Arabs have achieved, wondering if anything close to what happened in Tunisia, Egypt or even Yemen would happen in my country.” Always asking the question: why is this not happening in Saudi?, always driven to apologise for her country, introducing herself everywhere with the phrase “I’m Saudi. I’m sorry”, she travels back to Saudi Arabia itself, to find herself a subject of attention of the religious police, who “could randomly humiliate and terrorise an entire population in the name of Islam”. She travels to Qatif, where young Shia activists confront the government while their sheikhs try haplessly to mediate. She is trying to understand. “Saudi Arabia, even though I was born and raised here, is a mystery to me. Its history grudgingly unfolds in fits. Very little is what it seems”.

A similar sense of defeat and more particularly of confusion permeates Khawla Dunia’s narrative. The interest of Dunia’s account lies to no small extent in the fact that she participates in the hesitations and uncertainties of so many Syrians—and outside observers—faced with the initial Syrian risings and the subsequent civil war. “How confused and muddied it all seems”, she writes, “in our hearts as in our streets”. In those early months, one was as likely to come across distortion, disinformation, or conspiracy theories as the truth—to the extent that, for Dunia, the act of going around the country finding out facts could come to seem the most important form of activism In this land of silence and rumour, how could one come to a decision: for or against—what, exactly? As Yeats wrote, of another civil war:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty

Dunia, a lawyer and civil rights activist, wishes to be fair-minded and responsible: “I’m for calm debate. I never champion one side at the expense of another. All I want is the truth.” She has her “misgivings at rumours of Salafist involvement [in Latakia] and the seemingly sectarian divisions that had started to appear between the city’s Sunni and Alawite communities.” But how can one come to a considered decision in this atmosphere of confusion and fear—one, moreover, deliberately perpetuated by the forces of the Ba’th regime? She writes: “they have started shooting at anyone holding a mobile phone or camera.” For it is the regime that has made Syria into a “Kingdom of Silence”, divided up its people into fragments, like the pieces on a chessboard, “unable to leave their square without the player’s helping hand”. It is an illuminating metaphor for the way in which the regime had tried to “turn the country into an archipelago of disconnected islands, to prevent Syrians from sympathising with one another”. In this division of the people, in the lack of any forums or channels through which a popular or civic consciousness could form, apart from those of the Party and state, lay the secret of the Ba’th’s power. In this light, the work of those who tried to forge such a united consciousness in the heat of the conflict itself, discovering their common purpose as ‘citizens’, is impressive, even if their actions were undertaken at the eleventh hour and against the odds. If the Syrian rising, between the Ba’th, the Salafis and foreign interference, ends in defeat, then we must learn to respect the defeated.

This collection offers testimony, not analysis. But within the testimony it offers insight as well as commemoration of that moment of Arab history when, suddenly and unexpectedly, that half-forgotten entity ‘the people’ re-emerged as a historical agent, to challenge the regimes that had ruled so long in its name. In its sense of the malaise prior to 2011, the book presents powerful evidence of the motives of revolt. Reaching back into the past, it connects the ‘Arab Spring’ to a longer history of dissent and opposition. In Sghiri’s account in particular it gives an idea of how some of the demonstrations were actually organised, which may help to dispel the impression among some Western commentators that they were simply the product of youth, unreflective anger, and Facebook. But the great question which this compilation raises is still: what was the nature of that transformation? By what alchemy were the people whom the authors describe in the run-up to 2011—the listless young men and women on street corners and at internet cafes—transmuted, if only for a moment, into revolutionaries, with that blend of outrage, responsibility, and wild hope? How, in the kingdoms of silence and fear, did so many people find it in them to raise their voices and proclaim that they were no longer afraid? It would be unfair to expect an answer from this collection of personal accounts, though it can give us important hints. Perhaps it is finally an unfathomable question, locked in the depths of innumerable hearts, and fading even now into memory. But one cannot doubt the sustaining value of that experience, even as the Arab countries enter another period of uncertainty and struggle. The energy of a revolutionary moment is not extinguished in a single flash: it burns on in memory and imagination, to give light for the future.

Peter Hill is reading for a DPhil in Oriental Studies at St John’s College, Oxford, and is currently on a research placement in Beirut.