Reflections | The Cultural Struggle Continues: Writing the Arab Spring

In his latest column, Professor Roger Bromley reflects on the role of Arab writers and artists -from Egypt, Palestine, Syria and beyond - in the political upheavals raging across the region.

New in Ceasefire, Reflections - Posted on Friday, November 9, 2012 20:28 - 0 Comments

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Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir Square (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Poetry, as Auden said, may make nothing happen, but a number of writings emerging from the Arab Spring are designed to explore what Mourid Barghouti claims:

One of its charming miracles is that through its form, poetry can resist the content of authoritarian discourse. By resorting to understatement , concrete and physical language, a poet contends against abstraction, generalisation, hyperbole and the heroic language of hot-headed generals and bogus lovers alike….Poetry remains one of the astonishing forms in our hands to resist obscurantism and silence. (Originally published in New Internationalist # 359 -August 2003)

The great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who was imprisoned and then exiled from his homeland, said that: “The cruellest degree of exile is invisibility, being forbidden to tell one’s story for oneself….The conflict over the land becomes the conflict over the story….In this sense the entire Palestinian people is exiled through an absence of its story.”

For so many writers, imprisoned or exiled for their commitment to cultural, social and political liberty, it is this absence of story which drives them to defy their jailers or those who occupy their land. For others, however, who either remain in their homeland or are finally permitted to return to it, there is another form of imprisonment, not literal but temporal – they, and all those who share their oppression, become prisoners of time, part of a narrative of displacement.

My focus in this column is on the relationship between cultural forms, politics, and modes of resistance, a relationship which is rarely direct, or even explicit. Gerald Raunig, in Art and Revolution, describes art and revolution as ‘neighbouring zones’ with ‘temporary overlaps’ – ‘not to incorporate one another, but rather to enter into a concrete exchange relationship for a limited time….transitions, overlaps and concatenations of art and revolution become possible for a limited time, but without synthesis and identification’. (Raunig, 2007:).

Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer, addressed this issue in a piece for the Guardian last August, and argued that attempts at fiction right now would be too simple as ‘the immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form’ and that it takes time to process events and transform them into fiction. She says that her duty as a citizen right now is to participate, march and support the protests, ‘to tell stories as they are’. She sees the citizen and artist as separate at this point but acknowledges that she may turn to fiction later, using stories perhaps from the revolution.

Soueif cites Darwish who spoke of the difficulty of being a Palestinian writer who ‘has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist –on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive.’ He asks how he can achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions and how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times. Resisting the banal and the repetitive, or merely echoing propaganda, is a major challenge for writers in situations of conflict.

If many of the writers have absented themselves from fiction for the moment, for the past decade or so, many have produced what Soueif calls ‘texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare’ and, one might add, works of comedy, caustic irony, and satire. Not surprisingly, a number of these texts are now being re-published and/or translated from Arabic or French.

Of course, there is an element of opportunism in this at times, with publishers re-branding texts as ‘the Arab Spring novel’ or ‘the novel that predicted the uprising’ but they are being produced at a particular conjuncture in which it is possible to see that what was produced at different times, in various genres and in disparate ways, as representative of a convergence, a zeitgeist even. Hindsight enables us to see these narratives as bearing witness through the process of writing and in the context of storytelling.

One other prominent Syrian artist who had his arms broken and fingers crushed by the regime is the cartoonist Ali Farzat. Not a writer, of course, in the strict sense – in fact most of his cartoons are captionless – he has, through parody and caricature, created a space for political satire and presented a diagnosis of oppression and the abuses of power for more than thirty years. The brutal symbolism of the attack by masked gunmen from the regime has only reinforced his central theme of the regime’s crackdown and repression, its corruption and the struggle to secure the freedom to create. He sees his art as part of the fabric of the revolution which he said, as many others have, was victorious ‘when we broke the fear’.

Describing what it is like to be an artist in a culture of silence, fear and obedience Ferzat speaks of the need to bypass censorship which he did by addressing issues – suppression, dictatorship, lack of rights, hunger – but not identifiable persons. However, he now does characterise the personalities of the regime in detail. He sees his role now as contributing to the cultural struggle to produce a larger narrative. Very recently, a new Facebook page Comic4Syria has become a site for numerous anonymous illustrators to post ant-regime comic strips, many of which carry the slogan ‘alsha’ab yurid isqat al-nizam’ (the people want to topple the regime), the declarative statement of agency which began in Tunisia and took root across all the revolutions.

In the context of Syria, it is timely that Samar Yazbek, novelist and author of A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) was in early October named the winner of the PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage for the book. She dedicated the honour to the ‘martyrs of the Syrian revolution and all those women who are working in silence, in particularly difficult circumstances inside Syria, and to those who move among the downpour of bullets and artillery fire, the tanks and fighter jets, in order to carry on the revolution of the Syrian people toward establishing a free and democratic society.’

Yazbek’s own narrative reproduces a very similar world to the one described in her dedication. A permanent resident of Syria until late last year, from an Alawite family close to the regime, and a single mother with a 15 year old daughter, she writes on several levels. At one level, the book is an attempt to produce a narrative of self against the grain of ascribed identities but it is also a chronicle of a siege, both private and public. Active in the opposition, and sometimes impatient with the pace of collective processes, she is also mindful of her role as a writer: ‘Somebody has to smash the narrative of this criminal regime with the truth of the revolution. This is a revolution and not a sectarian war, and my voice as a writer and a journalist must come out in support of the uprising, no matter what the cost.’ (230)

The book is built around the counterpointing of the narrative of the regime with the emergent narrative of the uprising. We should not under-estimate the cost as Yazbek was literally and figuratively caught in the crossfire: ‘where an individual or a political or military group is within range of two or more lines of fire, from both enemy and ally alike.’ The trope ‘within range of two or more lines of fire’ is an organising strategy throughout the text. Abused, brutalised and detained (5 times) by the regime, she is constantly under fire from her family as a ‘traitor’ and her understandably anxious and frightened daughter. At one point, she begs her mother to appear on State TV to announce her loyalty to the President. Eventually, the pressures, the danger and the threats mount to a point where she and her daughter take flight from Syria (in Paris now).

A very long way from a room of one’s own, she is constantly monitored and followed, her Facebook hacked into, and she is forced to move home. ‘There is[she says] a prison inside me’. The book is organised calendrically, covers the period from March to June 2011, and takes the form of a diary and personal notebook. Armed with nothing but her conscience, she charts the struggle with her silence when confronted with the language of blood.

As a writer her challenge is to craft an alternative language and, as she moves around the city of Damascus in the face of death and constant fear of detention, she is searching for a voice to articulate what she sees and hears in taking on a regime which has colonised sight and hearing. Her diaries, she says at one point, were helping to keep her alive – her ‘walking stick in those days’.

More self-consciously literary than Soueif and more introspective, she is never self-pitying or self-indulgent but sustains a dialectic of the philosophical and the poetic – ‘fear means you are still human amidst the rubble’ – often looking for literary analogies – ‘I’m a character in a realist novel’, feeling that she is in a movie about an occupied Palestinian town, but is also aware that these analogies are inadequate and that, after the protests, she is ‘carrying home documents of flesh and blood, of wailing and bullets, and the faces of murderers who don’t know where they’re going.’

The challenge for her as writer, as eye-witness and observer is to find a language and form to articulate these documents in a way which can take apart the regime narrative and piece together an oppositional one. She achieves this through a range of different strategies, combining personal testimony and reflection with the chronicling of extensive interviews with, and testimonies from, activists, media dissidents, doctors, male and female prisoners and friends, some of whom disappear and are never seen again.

Often these testimonies are electronically recorded but sometimes she chooses to transcribe them in colloquial dialect which she feels is fresher than modern standard Arabic. At times also, she uses one particular interview to represent a range of similar voices. In the face of exhaustion, fears for her daughter, powerless and dependent upon Xanax and nicotine, she is conscious of the need for an evidence base to serve a future purpose beyond the immediate. Like Soueif, she is writing in, and of, the present for the future: ‘that’s how things are in this country…’ is a frequent refrain.

Unheroic, ‘stumbling like a cartoon character whenever I walked’, she nevertheless is motivated by the urgency of the situation to ‘continue roaming the streets, nervous, out of breath, frightened, biting my fingers.’ (49) Bounded by anxiety and fear, she ‘domesticates’ the horror by the frequent referencing of her adolescent child who feels abandoned and in constant need of assurance.

At one juncture, Yazbek asks ‘what kind of dialogue is supposed to take place between an artillery turret and an unarmed house?’ which, apart from referring to the temptations of dialogue offered by the government, also puts into perspective the scale and distance between herself and her struggle, and the contextual power differential now that she is a ‘rogue’ Alawite.

Although unable to write at times because of the enormity of the events, she is also on occasions able to stand back from the immediate to pause, reflect upon the situation, and speculate. The negative side of this is a feeling of autistic detachment from herself as though she is just an idea: ‘I drink my coffee and believe that I am only thinking about a woman I’ll write about one day. I am a novel…I’ll write about it all one day if I manage to survive.’

In a climate of distrust, suspicion and terror, this is not just a piece of idle rhetoric because, no longer publishing articles or a presence on Facebook, she is threatened that if she keeps on writing she will be ‘disappeared.’ Once when detained, she is taken to prison cells and told that it is ‘just a short trip to make you write better’ and hence she becomes aware that it is only her interviewed testimonies which will enable her to break out of her silence one day.

Feminist, activist, writer, mother, daughter and now exile, Samar Yazbek chronicles ‘stories of heroism that will be told for generations.’ It is her response to the question posed earlier about the duty of the writer. In keeping the narrative alive she has produced a document not just of the past but for the future: ‘a Syria for tomorrow.’

Roger Bromley

Roger Bromley is an academic and author who has published widely on a range of topics and, in recent years, has written mainly on postcolonial culture and diaspora, refugee and asylum issues, particularly in relation to cinematic representations, and on post-conflict cultures. He has worked in UK higher education for 44 years until his retirement in 2010. Currently, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, Visiting Professor in the Centre for Transnational Writing and Research at Lancaster University, and Associate Fellow in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa.

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