The Arab Spring – an Update

Mare Nostrum: The 7th Biennial European Writers’ Council

5 May 2013 at 17:01

The Seventh Biennial European Writers’ Council was held in Valletta – Malta on 11 April 2013

Here is my prsentation

Mare Nostrum

The 7th Biennial European Writers’ Council

Discourse/Disorder: Literature Narration of Revolution and Social Upheaval

Update on the Arab Spring by historian and novelist Adel S. Bishtawi

 

I- Novelists and Historians

 

I do not know much about cholera so I do not know if love is possible in the time of cholera, or if writing about El amor en los tiempos del cólera is at all possible in such times.

What I can tell you is that in the late 1990s I took the natural course followed by many other authors and moved from writing short stories to writing novels.  Between 1998 and 2001 three of my novels were published – Traces of a Tattoo,Times of death and Roses and Gardens of Despair.

I was happy about my new literary course, and I was looking forward to publish my fourth novel but I could not complete it. As if suddenly, happiness became elusive, the content barren and the words failed to express the simplest literary images and ideas. A period of grief and disappointment surged outward from the personal to the general.

Like other areas, the Arab World knew cholera and other diseases that were largely eliminated, but many other types of cholera persisted – political cholera, social cholera, economic cholera, literary cholera, intelligentsia cholera and several other types that depleted the bodies and souls of tens of millions of Arabs almost everywhere, and sucked out the fresh air other nations enjoy.

Then the killing started in earnest. In one of the most futile and bloodiest wars known in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein decided in 1980 to invade Iran. Ten years later, he invaded and occupied Kuwait thus initiating a UN sanctioned response in what is known as Desert Storm. In 2003, Iraq itself was invaded, and three years later fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah to be followed two years later by Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Therefore, during a visit to Amman I told a close friend that I have never in my life seen so many veiled women and asked him for an explanation. He pointed right towards Iraq, left towards Israel, and said: “There is killing on this side and killing on the other – the veil is used to shield them from both but it is also a gesture of defiance.”

In Times of Death and Roses, I wrote about love in the final years of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) because love can be a unique weapon against killing, but there was so much killing that even love seemed to me at the time a desperate act of helplessness. However, killing alone was not the reason that restrained my literary instinct. The ancient Arab World has seen many dark times but none, in my opinion, was darker than the period that started in the mid 1950s under what is known as the nationalist Arab governments. Most of these governments presented their subjects with a poisonous cocktail of murder, persecution, impoverishment and mass confiscation of personal liberties and freedom. In return, the governments promised people security.

Now, it often happens that when nations trade their freedom for security, they end up with neither freedom nor security. The promises were false but the agony was real. From one end of the Arab World to the other, governments, with certain Western help, thrived and became more powerful. Soon the atmosphere became too stifling, and like many others, I had no choice but to abandon Syria.

Abandoned as well, was most literary writing. The novelist in me went into a coma and I began to write about history. In 2005, I published History of Injustice in the Arab World, which was banned in a number of Arab countries. My message was simple:

“Arab dictators are the Berlin Wall of the Arab World,” I wrote, “and like the German wall, they will come crashing down.”

“In the end, justice will be done”, I wrote,” but justice is more often taken than given away. There is nothing without value, aim or price. To expel fear from their world, Arabs must first expel fear from themselves. To see light, they have to open their eyes. To march into the age of freedom, they have to leave the caves of emotion and militancy that reside in their minds. To recover their lost lands, rights, dignity, security and prosperity, and to keep all these for themselves and their children until God inherits the Earth, they have to devise new strategies that suit our age and discard old beliefs that have exasperated the theft of their lands, rights and dignity, weakened their economy and spread injustice. Unless they do all this, Arabs will not take the correct decision and the thugs who confiscated their ability and right to make decisions will confiscate their right to make the decisions once more.”

II – The Arab Spring

The nuclear weapon in the arsenal of Arab regimes is fear. Once broken, the survival of these regimes becomes precarious and their demise will be just a question of time. Probably without knowing until it was too late, the American invasion of Iraq broke the Arab fear. Like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Saddam had the standard deluded mind of a brutal dictator, but Saddam’s delusions were on a grander scale. As such, he was the largest boulder blocking the road to freedom. Once removed, all other Arab dictators were mere pebbles.

Now, when one looks at the Arab World with some depth, one may realise that Arabs generally are one race. Regardless where did it start or where will it end, the Arab Spring would have started anyway. An inch sometimes can be a mile, and despite the obvious setbacks, the move forward appears to me irreversible.

When one studies the Arab revolutions thus far, one may find that they started with least legitimate regimes. Finding the next pebble may not be difficult – just count the number of presidential posters of the heads of the states in Arab capitals and the capital with the largest number of posters is likely to be the next target.

Will it stop?

Unlikely. I believe the movement is unstoppable. Most observers who know the nature of the regime expected the difficulties in Syria. Its eventual collapse may be a lesson to other Arab dictators to avoid bloodshed. The key is not to kill demonstrators. Once killed, the end of the regime becomes inevitable.

III – Discourse and Disorder

In many ways, the failures in the Arab World are not simply the failures of the regimes. They are the failures of the people as well. Aside from Algerians, Arabs in general have not paid for freedom the heavy price paid by Europeans and others. They are paying it now. The failures in the Arab World are the failures of individual and collective consciousness and awareness. They are the failures of writers, journalists, artists, teachers and students alike. One could list institutions, but these are either none-existent or largely ineffectual.

Unless one claims that dictatorship is an ‘order’, it could be argued that most of the Arab World has no ‘order’. If there is no order, there is no disorder. What one can see is a massive failure the reasons of which are many. As a writer, I do believe that writers and thinkers are the guiltiest. When one studies many published works, one may notice that most writers are writing about the past not the future – about things that happened, not things that should happen.

There comes a time when a writer has to employ his creativity not simply to educate, express and convince, but to provoke and incite the people to rise and claim their freedom. The young should be credited for the revolutions, not writers and thinkers. Very few professional Arab writers enjoy financial independence. Many are employees of government departments, and their voices have long been silenced by their need to earn an income. This, along with and other reasons, may explain why the Arab World was turned into a sordid collection of kingdoms, sheikdoms and republics of silence.

Arabs in general are guilty of trading their freedom for false security and many writers may be viewed guilty for having traded their natural instinct to demand justice and freedom for their daily bread.

It is primarily for this reason that a number of writers of new Syria found it imperative to discard the Syrian government’s controlled Writers Union and build a new one. As a founder member, I can happily report that the new Association has been launched in Cairo and it is beginning to deal with the challenges of a new order.

IV – Spring Worries

Many people inside and outside the Arab World are worried about the Arab Spring. They should not. Many would like the spring of freedom to slow down or to stop completely. They are wrong and their fears are unwarranted. Those who can help should do so. Those who cannot should wish Arabs the freedom they deserve. If the Mediterranean and the countries beyond are freed of injustice and murderous, dictators there will be stability. A large and important area of the world that bred violence and fundamentalism for decades may at last help in promoting a new and true spirit of tolerance, peace and economic prosperity.

Others, who have not noticed yet, should open their eyes for they may discover that the history of the world has entered a new phase of hope and encouragement. These are two of the cherished aims, but there is a price. Revolutions divide, and the political, economic and social upheavals may last 10 years or more. However, one has to remember that the universe itself was created by a revolutionary upheaval.

There are difficult times ahead after which freedom and peace will prevail. My hope is that both will be achieved with spare time to finish my fourth novel.

Adel S. Bishtawi

Historian and Novelist

Credit featured image: مركز الروابط للدراسات الاستراتيجية والسياسية

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