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from the January 2016 issue

The “Arab Spring,” Five Years On

One of the most iconic chants invoked across the Arab region during the 2011 uprisings—“The people want to topple the regime”—has been said to echo a verse by Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi: “If, one day, the people want to live, then fate will answer their call.” For many, the immediacy and performativity of revolutionary poetry seemed woven into the fabric of the 2011 uprisings from the beginning. Poetry was sung in one of the most iconic videos to come out of the early days of the demonstrations in Tunisia and recited with brutal consequences in Bahrain. In the months and years that followed, literary responses were varied in form. There was a sense of heightened cultural production across the Arab world, and literature was no exception. In Egypt, for instance, the “flood of books on the 25 January Revolution” included novels, memoirs, flash fiction, and poetry—with varying degrees of success. Across the Arab world, there have been ongoing debates about which pre-2011 novels might have predicted the uprisings, and with the rise in works chronicling them, about where to draw the line between literature and reportage. In the rest of the world, readers have often reached to Arabic literature to understand more about recent events. 

It is then perhaps inevitable that, nearly five years later, we would ask a question we knew in advance would be impossible to answer: how does Arabic literature speak to the "Arab Spring"? Should we look to pieces that reflect the status quo? Or pieces that evoke different points throughout the last five years: hope, defeat, war, crackdowns, cautious democracy? Alternatively, should we intentionally select texts that go against the grain of expected themes for each country? Is it possible, or even desirable, for literature to reflect the reality of the past five years?

The uncomfortable quotation marks around the words “Arab Spring” above are our conscious nod to the fact that the term "Arab Spring" is a Western invention. The term is an allusion to the Prague Spring of 1968, and was first used by US political commentators years before 2011. Meanwhile, people actually involved in the uprisings more often than not used the Arabic equivalent of the term ironically. The words “Arab Spring” are a reminder that even as these events unfolded, they were understood in relation to European history and Western policy.

The pieces we have selected for this feature are all of the sociopolitical context of a post–“Arab Spring” era, but not about it. They are affected and informed in different ways by the reality of the past five years, without attempting to either directly chronicle or prescribe. They are, first and foremost, works of art and literature, valuable for their creative use of language and form. While we could by no means be comprehensive in our selections, we did strive for a selective variety: the four pieces featured are by authors from four different countries—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria—each working in a different form: novel, short story, graphic short story, and poetry.

From Tunisia, Chakib Daoud shares a dark graphic short story of one man’s reckoning from beyond the grave, including bribery and the trickle-down spread of corruption. (One reference perhaps lost to foreign readers is the mention of Chokri Belaïd, a Tunisian opposition leader who was assassinated in 2013. After Belaïd’s death, Salafis called him an infidel and threatened to exhume his body; in the final panel of Daoud’s comic, Islamists opening the grave have mistaken the narrator for the politician he happens to resemble.) Using stark imagery and a spare inner monologue, Chakib confines his narrator within dark spaces and limited choices.

Similarly, the doctor in an excerpt from Basma Abdel Aziz’s 2013 novel The Queue navigates difficult moral choices in an unjust world. The language of authority, in medical reports and legal documents, permeates the text just as the authority of the Gate permeates the characters’ lives. Writing from Egypt, Abdel Aziz was more prescient than she could have imagined at the time. “Nearly three years after writing The Queue, I find that everything around me is even more as I described it, and not only in Egypt,” she told us. “Vast, powerful control over our lives, people disappear every day and aren’t heard from again, and more than anything, people give excuses to the authority to continue its domination.”

In a short and poignant text, Syrian writer Noor Dakerli’s narrator struggles with the unexplained awareness that he will soon be “leaving this world.” Linguistic ambiguity and trippy, chaotic prose leaves that certainty unexplained, but brings the reader so closely into the narrator’s personal universe that it also becomes unquestionable.

Finally, from Libya, Hawa Gamodi’s "Awaiting a Poem" asks the fundamental question of what literature can do in the face of bloodshed and destruction. Her words illuminate the reasons we turn to language in the first place: ultimately, writing is her “resistance to the ruin.”

In bringing writers together for this feature, we have sought to showcase writing that engages with the sociopolitical context but is not solely defined by its expectations. Still, the changes of the past five years are written into these authors’ lives off the page as well. Daoud’s graphic novel first appeared in Lab619, a new Tunisian comics magazine. As a form, graphic novels and stories have flourished since 2011, driven by collaborative publications and growing collectives of comic artists like TokTok in Egypt and the longstanding Samandal magazine in Lebanon (Jon Guyer’s blog Oum Cartoon is an invaluable resource on the subject). The Queue, Abdel Aziz’s first novel, is in some respects an extension of her work as a psychiatrist working with torture victims in Egypt, and of her extensive academic writing against all forms of totalitarianism. Syrian author Noor Dakerli writes from Lebanon, to which he has fled, against a backdrop of the more than 200,000 Syrians killed over the past nearly five years, the more than four million who have fled, and the more than six million who have been internally displaced. His writing is suffused with the horror of current events, thoughts of suicide, and the feeling that, like the narrator of his story, he too may leave this world at any moment. Hawa Gamodi has long worked with an awareness of social and political limitations in Libya, writing under a pen name for years and engaging directly with questions of women’s rights and ability to express themselves. Yet the muted self-reflection of her poem betrays a heightened awareness of a public role, as she has engaged more directly in civil rights movements since 2011.

A feature such as this one cannot be representative of the diverse literatures of the Arab world. Two of the forms we have featured—a dystopian novel and a graphic story—have arguably flourished in Arabic in the past five years, though their rise has been informed by works that predate 2011. In the end, we hope the feature can also serve as a gesture toward other works that space did not allow, such as other recently prevalent forms—flash fiction, memoir, colloquial poetry—that have not been included.

More importantly, while we celebrate the variety of writings, and the discussions that can be had around them, we remain acutely aware of the absence of voices that have been and continue to be silenced. A few pieces of writing have managed to make their way out of prison walls in recent years—a notable example being Alaa Abd El Fattah’s and Ahmed Douma’s Graffiti for Two, written by passing notes between their respective cells in Tora prison in Egypt. So while literature should not be read as a lens on current reality alone, the very existence of such inspired prison literature is still an indication of the situation in many parts of the Arab world today. It implores us to ask questions about whose voices are being silenced and why.

© 2016 by Elisabeth Jaquette and Nariman Youssef. All rights reserved.

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