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Middle East and Africa

The Revolutions Seen through Literature’s Prism

Readers in a popular bookshop and library in Damascus in 2010 [ILO - Apex Image / Flickr]

Even a mere quantitative analysis of Arab literary output during the years preceding the protests of 2011 would have revealed the turmoil already existing in North African and Middle Eastern societies. Nowadays, the prevailing idea is one of a distressing and inhumane future, but not everyone is giving up

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-08-29 21:52:11


Even just a quantitative analysis of Arab literary output during the years preceding the protests of 2011 would have demonstrated fairly clearly the simmering unrest in North African and Middle Eastern societies. During the period immediately following the uprisings, writers mainly sought to hand the actions and emotions of the street demonstrations down to posterity. Nowadays, the prevailing mood is one of a distressing, inhumane future, but not everyone is giving up.


The European reader wishing to experience the revolutionary Arab uprisings in 2011 from the inside can rely on two novels that are ultimately complementary, even if they could not be more different: J’ai couru vers le Nil [“I ran towards the Nile”] by the Egyptian Alaa Al Aswany,[i] and La Syrie promise [“Promised Syria”],[ii] by the Syrian Hala Kodmani.


The differences between the two works are many and diverse and they concern both the authors and the plots. Alaa Al Aswany is probably the best-known Arab writer both in his homeland and outside it, whilst Hala Kodmani is an investigative journalist working for the French press. Aswany writes in Arabic, Kodmani in French. Aswany lived in Cairo until 2018, whereas Kodmani has been living in Paris from her earliest childhood. Aswany pursues the form of the realist novel, giving voice and substance to characters who are to mirror and represent the various souls of society during the historical moment he is narrating. In what is her first and probably only novel, Kodmani has invented a hybrid literary genre that, in the form of correspondence between herself and her father (who died a few years ago), records her own and other peoples’ reactions to the mobilisation of the Arab streets.


The complementarity resides in the fact that the two novels fill each other out. Assuming the characteristics of a snapshot of society taken in the here and now, J’ai couru vers le Nil tells of the euphoria marking the eighteen days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and breaks off after giving an account of the first drifts and signs of the counter-revolution to come. La Syrie promise, on the other hand, pursues a more markedly historico-political reconstruction by covering—live from Paris—the frenetic succession of dates on which Tunisia, the Egypt recounted by Aswany, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and—on 22 March—Syria all rose up; only to stop abruptly on 20 February 2012, when it had become clear that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was not going to fall and that the other regimes were reacting. Thus in both cases, one can recognise the desire to keep the analysis for the moment in itself: as if conveying a barely veiled request to shift attention from the national causes, the uncivil wars to come and the complex tangle of existing international relations in order to bring it back to people, citizens and ordinary folk.


Despite their differences, the two novels converge in their authors’ intention to tell certain facts from the inside; facts that have often been interpreted wrongly by commentators and even more frequently dismissed in an excess of superficiality. Here, conversely, those same events are presented as a milestone in Arab history taken as a whole and, albeit almost imperceptibly, lead one to think that they are destined to reverberate for a long—if not a very long—time.

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