In assembling Writing Revolution, journalist Matthew Cassel and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Layla Al-Zubaidi embarked on the ambitious task of compressing the huge transformations that have swept the Arab world into short stories from eight authentic voices from the region. (Most have been translated from Arabic into English, and the book won a PEN prize for writing in translation.) Zubaidi explains that the book was designed as an antidote to the over-analysis by so-called experts outside the region about what led to the events that spread like wildfire across the region towards the end of 2011. “A barrier of fear had been burst. The aim of the book was to chronicle personal histories from people who had been fully involved in these historic events. We wanted to put across an alternative, ‘insider’ perspective,” she told The Majalla.
It would be fascinating to see a word cloud of the book’s eight stories: it would likely show that, despite the unique circumstance and history of each modern Middle Eastern and North African state, many feelings are shared by people across the region. Words like “hope,” “dignity,” “anger” and “frustration” give us a snapshot of the uprisings, each word fuelling the next. These ideas are described by several authors in a way that makes them seem like the last drop that caused the cup to overflow.
The stifling vacuum of authoritarian politics, combined with the rawness of their own youth makes, it understandably difficult for some authors to express in words the cacophony of emotion that they felt during these revolutionary moments. Sometimes, you get the feeling that they are filtering their unique perspectives through a medley of Obama-esque rhetoric, dramatic film scripts, and nostalgic Arabic ballads. Several of the authors saw themselves as the vanguard of the revolution, and are clearly disappointed with their lack of agency in the often-dysfunctional political spaces that emerged afterward. Malek Sghiri, a student, activist and blogger from Tunisia, exemplifies this disappointment when he notes that “the youths and district activists who were [the Tunisian uprising’s] original activists are almost entirely absent from public life, when they should be the strongest political force in the land.”
The difficulty faced by Sghiri and so many of these leaderless networks of youth revolutionaries is that while they were very clear about what they did not want—dictatorship—they lacked the experience to articulate what they did, especially against the background of the socio-economic challenges faced by many of these states. The seemingly black and white politics of the street differs from the greys of compromise found in even the most democratic of political institutions. Movements that simply argue against something often struggle to articulate policies suitable for governing. When Sghiri writes that he is “worried that the political will hijack the debate at the expense of the economic and social,” you wonder how the later can operate without the former.
This does not, of course, mean that the revolutions can be said to have failed. Mohamed Mesrati, a Libyan writer and activist who contributed to Writing Revolution, explained to The Majalla that “of course it’s much better. You can express it’s much better: demonstrations and strikes are happening. We’re on the right way. It’s a very long process; we’re still exploding and getting used to freedom.”
Each of the eight contributions in this collection comes from a different country and allows the reader a glimpse into different writing styles and experiences. In her chapter, Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi vividly describes the combination of Cairo’s searing heat with a population, deprived of opportunity, simply waiting. She writes, “It seemed as if the population I had known had taken to the streets out of sheer listlessness.” Out of underreported Algeria, we learn from the impassioned journalist Ghania Mouffok that the word “freedom” is banned from children’s textbooks in favor of poems that praise the police.
Ali Aldairy, an author from Bahrain, explains the role of social media and how Twitter prompted many people to check out the protests.
Syrian Lawyer Khawla Dunia’s chapter is perhaps the most dated, having been written before the street demonstrations turned into a bloody civil war that has killed almost 100,000 people. But reflecting on that time gives a reminder of what could have been. She writes nostalgically about a moment in which she felt “optimism that these sacrifices will not be for nothing.”
Trying to find the right balance in representing the eight countries’ experiences was always going to be an impossible task for the book’s editors. Half of the authors are women, whose place is “going to be a crucial and inflammatory issue in this post-dictatorial world,” according to the editors. What does come through is that the selected writers lean towards the educated secular elite of these countries. Zubaidi explained that she and Cassel drew on their own networks to find “revolutionaries in the heat of the battle.” The Muslim Brotherhood voice is not represented, because their ideas are “well covered by the media.”
Zubaidi admitted to The Majalla that any book on the subject was always going to be quickly overtaken by events, but that theirs aimed to “capture” the moment as it passed. Interestingly, with future translations into Arabic, Turkish and German in the pipeline, the editors have not ruled out checking in with the authors in the future. This would make for a fascinating juxtaposition—an account of the Arab Spring five years on, from the perspective of some of those who were at the center of the storm.