WE are now approaching the third spring since the initial revolutions, but the Arab Spring of 2011 continues, with the civil war in Syria escalating, Mohamed Mursi taking ‘despotic’ powers in Egypt and fresh turbulence in Libya.
It is difficult to assess the rapidly unfolding territory of the Arab Spring. Ziauddin Sardar locates the revolutions within what he describes as our current “postnormal society”, meaning “the in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged and nothing really makes sense”.
Hamid Dabashi similarly argues that the Arab Spring has already moved beyond “race and religion, sects and ideologies, pro- or anti-western”. He uses the term “post-ideological” to describe the uprisings.
Both terms suggest that increasingly people are challenging the previously pervasive idea of a clash of civilizations. As Dabashi indicates for all their problems, tensions and uncertainties, the Arab revolutions are neither straightforwardly secular nor religious, and the revolutionaries are proving that the region “is no longer the middle of anybody’s East”.
When they began the uprisings that swept Arab countries surprised many commentators in the West and in the ruling classes of the Middle East, because they were accustomed to stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims and the working classes as backward, obedient and craving authoritarian rulers. Even as recently as April 2012, former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman claimed that Egyptians were not ready for democracy — and we’ve seen many western headlines and news articles taking similar stances.
However, these revolutions, each one seeming to ignite another, have revealed a very different image of Muslim Arabs as progressive, politically informed and independent-minded. Arabs have felt outside the course of history for decades, so now there’s a real dynamism. But of course there are also serious, and justifiable, anxieties about the future.
Cultural production and art is not only reflecting, but also anticipating resistance. For example, the Egyptian film Sarkhet Namla (An Ant’s Scream), which deals with poverty and protest, prefigures the revolution: it came out around the time of Tahrir Square, but was completed by October 2010.
Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian author of The Yacoubian Building, also made some prophetic statements collected in his book of essays, On the State of Egypt. He writes, “The time has come for us to leave our seats in the auditorium and create the next scene ourselves”. This sounds like a call for revolution, and al-Aswany was proven right. Al-Aswany was also instrumental in prime minister Ahmed Shafiq’s resignation after only a month in power, after he attacked Shafiq on television in March 2011 for being a Mubarak-regime holdover. This is an example of writers directly causing political events.
Graffiti is street-level art calling for change. In Egypt, in particular, there were and are many witty placards, signs and graffiti warning the regime to get out and stay out. British-Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab even saw a “mobile nuts-and-seeds stall” in Cairo soon after the fall of Mubarak, with “social justice” stencilled onto it.
The cartoonist Ali Ferzat in Syria was picked up by thugs hired by Bashar al-Assad and had his hands broken: the same hands that had produced great satirical art. His cartoons had changed from veiled criticism of the regime to explicit criticism of al-Assad and his cronies. One of his cartoons depicts al-Assad sweatily clutching a suitcase as he tries to hitch a ride with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, who’s driving a getaway car. This kind of cartoon was too much for the regime, so they tried to silence him, as regimes often do to artists who speak the truth to power.
In music, Eskenderella is a group of young people formed a few years ago to sing protest songs. The group was of questionable legality until Tahrir Square, when, according to Ahdaf Soueif, their music could be heard openly on Egyptian streets for the first time; the song ‘Regaiyeen’ (‘We’re coming back’) was especially influential.
In the Muslim world and beyond, the arts are less likely to be locked away in compartments or considered elitist as they are in the West, and more likely to be part of everyday life. In Arab countries and the nations of the subcontinent, for example, many of the great poets have had their verses set to music and sung by the most popular singers (think of Noor Jehan singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz). This often surprises westerners like me: it’s as though Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were being sung by Rihanna! Robin Yassin-Kassab told me in an interview, “working-class Arabs have as much access to poetry as the higher-class people. In the Middle East, poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani become towering nationalist figures, in a way that’s almost unheard-of for poets in the West.”
Artists have therefore used their popularity to push for change during the last two years of revolution. In Syria, an amateur poet, Ibrahim Qashoush, who wrote the song ‘Bashar get out’, had his vocal cords ripped out and was then murdered by the regime. The actress Fedwa Suleiman led the early Syrian demonstrations against al-Assad, despite being from the same minority Alawite sect that he comes from; this was initially helpful in minimising sectarian violence against the Alawis, who make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s population.
Writers, artists, and film-makers have been and are at the forefront of revolutionary activity, but also, as we have seen, are being sickeningly punished for their courage and farsightedness. Yet what is the role of literature in this conflict?
Aside from the direct political activism undertaken by al-Aswany, the imagination has a crucial role in revolutionary activity. Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet and novelist who migrated to the US after the Gulf War of 1991 but has recently returned to Iraq, argues that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were sparked by poverty and oppression but fuelled by “poems, vignettes, and quotes from novels [which] were all there in the collective unconscious. The revolution introduced new songs, chants and tropes, but it refocused attention on an already existing, rich and living archive.”
He cites 1934 verses by the late poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, ‘To the tyrants of the world’, which were used as a slogan in his home country of Tunisia, and spread to Egypt and beyond. These are worth quoting at length by way of a conclusion:
Hey you, the unfair tyrants …
You the lovers of the darkness …
You the enemies of life …
You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds; and your palm covered with their blood
You kept walking while you were
deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land
Wait, don’t let the spring, the
clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you …
Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from
Beware because there is a fire
underneath the ash
Written in the second person to make the poem direct and accusatory, its tone is insulting and full of righteous anger. The apparent calm of the spring belies the coming apocalyptic weather and an ominous, fiery future rising out of the ashes of the tyrants’ destruction.