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
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:56
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, and La Syrie promise [“Promised Syria”], 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.
The Novel as a Historical Document
Truth to tell, Aswany had already tackled the same subjects in his previous novel, The Automobile Club of Egypt. This tells the story of a class struggle set in the 1940s, inside a prestigious club that was able to boast no less than King Faruk amongst its members. But with J’ai couru vers le Nil, he chooses than current events. And it is an act of courage for which even the usually less generous literary critics have given him credit. Indeed, Elias Khoury wrote the following in an opinion piece published in the daily al-Quds al-‘Arabī on 9 August 2018: “J’ai couru vers le Nil is, in my opinion, the only complete literary record of the revolution and the tragic destiny to hit the young people killed, imprisoned and tortured by the diabolical alliance between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. […] The novel’s importance resides in this, namely, its exceptional ability to marshal and document the facts and pay tribute to the memory of Egyptian suffering by telling the story of the revolution’s youth and the way in which the army and the Brotherhood have hijacked their dreams of change. […] It is a significant novel because it provides an important record of the January 2011 revolution and the new generation that ‘assaulted heaven’ despite the fact it lived in a stagnating political world where, after many years of tyranny, the only organized forces were the secret police, the military and the Brotherhood. […] [Nowadays] the counter-revolution seems to have succeeded in creating a new tyranny even worse than before and one more shameless in its breaking of every humanitarian convention. The courage of Aswany’s novel lies in the fact that it has broken the silence. For this reason it deserves to be read as a testimony to our times and to the Egyptian people’s shattered dreams.” Thus, using fictional characters but sticking to the real facts, Aswany presents the two generations of Egyptians from various walks of life and with different leanings who personally experienced the revolution during the first months of 2011. The first generation—that of the fathers—covers a broad spectrum ranging from the head of the secret services to the driver working for a factory’s management, from the CEO of the same factory to its workers, from the promising lawyer who has ruined his career through politics to the figure who probably constitutes the novel’s best portrayal: Ashraf, the failed actor, the middle-class man who lives off unearned income and finds his own redemption as he watches the revolution spreading beneath his own windows. This is a generation in which the mothers—characters who are nearly always less meaningful—serve, at most, as a corollary to and mouthpiece for their husbands. The second generation, on the other hand, that of their sons and daughters, does not want to hear of gender inequalities and seeks to do away with those relating to property. Generally educated, well informed and connected, when they are not these things they nevertheless possess a self-awareness that clashes with the traditionalist rhetoric. These are young people who are breaking with their past, either out of ideological disagreement with their fathers and mothers or because of the country’s evolving material living conditions.
La Syrie promise, for its part, recounts the author’s family chronicles by giving an account of a good four generations. The first is that of her paternal grandfather and all those who went through the first half of the twentieth century and, thus, the last decades of submission to the Ottoman Empire and the moment of its dissolution. The second generation is narrated personally by the author’s father and covers the years of the struggle for independence (achieved in 1946), the eruption of pan-Arabism and the various expressions of the modernisation taking place in the Arab world right up to the establishment of a police state, with its corollary of the suppression of every form of opposition. The third generation is that of Hala Kodmani herself and her contemporaries, who grew up either within or beyond Syria’s borders in a state of disaffection with their country; a generation that only with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution rediscovers its origins and re-finds a profound sense of belonging and pride in its Syrianness and Arabness, with all the activism that this brings. The fourth—to which, as in Aswany, ample space is devoted—is the generation of revolutionary young people, whose existence no one suspected, when judging by outward appearances; young people who communicate online and see Internet and the social networks as the only possible alternative for getting round the emergency laws and creating a virtual venue of aggregation where they can meet and count on each other. A generation that expresses itself in a different language from the one used by the preceding generation, particularly regarding gender equality.
In both cases, therefore, at least one focal point is highlighted: the weight of the younger generations who—and this is a fact that must never be forgotten—constitute between 60% and 70% of the entire Arab population, varying from country to country.
In short, both novels give a face and a voice to the condition that the demographers—first and foremost Philippe Fargues with his Generations Arabes—call the “demographic transition crisis,” a phenomenon that they link to the “degree of literacy in a population and, more specifically, to the moment when, in a given society, half the men and women between 20 and 24 years old are able to read and write, that is to say when the first generation with a literate majority reaches adulthood.” It is a change of cultural pace that cannot fail to be painful because it triggers a process that destabilizes the “balance of authority in families. The spread of birth control that follows the higher level of education threatens the traditional relations between men and women (and the husband’s authority over his wife). Whether occurring in isolation or in conjunction, these breakdowns of authority disorient society and frequently produce a transitory collapse of political authority […]. In other words, the era of literacy and contraception is also, very often, the era of revolution.”
The young Arabs who took to the streets in 2011 are legitimately part of this process and it is a cause for wonder that the demographers’ theories have barely been cited in mainstream discussion. Just as those of another category: that of the scholars who observe, at close range, the shifts and changes occurring in the cultural context and have for years been emphasising in their research how the young Arabs appeared frustrated in their exuberance, naturally straining as they were towards universality and painfully in line with modern times and the rights/duties that such times ought to bring. Or again and more specifically, the reports on the Arab world produced by the United Nations Development Programme, which clearly showed towards which co-ordinates the populations were moving.
Chronicles of the Dissidence
It has been primarily the literary scholars, however, who saw their expectations confirmed during the 2011 revolutions recounted in both J’ai couru vers le Nil and La Syrie promise. From even just a quantitative analysis of Arab literary output over the last few decades one could clearly deduce that the reality had moved beyond current stereotypes. To demonstrate that political dissidence has always been widespread, for example, it was enough to look at the broad and by now “canonical” theme that goes by the name of “prison literature” and treats of the detention undergone by many Arab intellectuals (Muslim, Christian or secular, without distinction) who have spent months or sometimes years within the four walls of a cell because of some explicit act of opposition to the policies of a government in office or simply for belonging to one of the opposition parties. At that time—to demonstrate the continuity of this phenomenon—the European reader had at his/her disposal, by way of example, the literary works of the Saudi Abdul Rahman Munif, with his À l’Est de la Méditerranée; the Moroccan Abdellatif Laabi, with Le chemin des ordalies; the Syrian Ibrahim Samuel, with the tales that make up L’odore dei passi pesanti; the Egyptian Latifa Zayyat, with The Search: Personal Papers; the Moroccans Fatna El Bouih, Aziz El Ouadie, Abdellatif Zrikem and Noureddine Saoudi gathered together in the anthology Sole Nero. Anni di piombo in Marocco and the Iraqi Sinan Antoon, with I‘jaam. An iraqi rhapsody; authors who were to be followed in more recent years by The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer by the Syrian Mustafa Khalifa, and A Rare Blue Bird Flies With Me by the Moroccan Youssef Fadel, to cite but a couple. At a closer inspection, they all bear witness to the same process under way in all the Arab countries.
The same quantitative analysis also seriously undermined at least two other arguments that had been taken for granted. To belie the out-dated assertion that Arab women have no voice, it was enough to look at how, in just a few years (1995–2000), the female narrative output went—varying from country to country—from a meagre 5-15% of the total published to a robust and widespread 50%. And to refute the entrenched certainty that Arab societies were irredeemably split into a well-off, “Westernized” elite and an uneducated, traditionalist rabble, it was enough to take a quick look at the biographies of the most recent generations of writers; biographies that highlighted how a notable chunk of the population was made up of young, educated proletarians whom it would be difficult to categorize as lower middle-class but who were ready to become its driving force.
A qualitative analysis of the same literary output, on the other hand, highlighted how the female writers, just like their male colleagues, chose to tackle the themes relating to social and political engagement (one of contemporary Arab literature’s central subjects) and actively developed a biting social criticism that sided against the rampant corruption and sclerotic traditions. The subject of sexuality, in particular, was tackled from personal angles that presented relatively new themes such as, for example, unsatisfied sexuality and betrayal by their companions on the streets and between the sheets, albeit sometimes making choices of a declaredly individualistic stamp and demanding, each in her own way, a split from the preceding generations (a new sort of rebellion against fathers and mothers). Indeed, the youngest of them had often rejected every call to engagement: they devoted themselves to the “little everyday things,” they rebelled against the traditional canons and they talked about sex explicitly, making room for the body’s sensations and pleasures, sexual relations and, sometimes, homosexual ones.
Then the argument that took Arab youth’s predominantly religious leanings for granted was also called into question. To see this, it was enough to take a quick look at the registers deployed by young writers in their narrative works: in many cases these echoed, very faithfully, the exploits of the Italian “cannibal” literature of a few years ago. From Morocco to Iraq, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, talented young Arabs disillusioned with politics, unwilling to get involved with social issues, withdrawn into their experience of themselves, inspired by the Internet and the new cinema and forced to live on the edges of history, had not only produced and continued to produce texts that are often of a good quality but had also offered and continued to offer readers the opportunity to look at the existential changes occurring in a society considered to be conservative and traditionalist but that is actually “globalized” and thus prey to those identity shake-ups that are caused —at every latitude—by sudden change. In those same texts, the reader would also find confirmation of the repercussions on everyday life of social, political, economic and cultural phenomena that have been “pre-occupying” Arab public opinion for more than two decades: the propensity for appearing rather than being, the purchasing of consumer goods as status symbols, the by-now mass tourism, the rampant privatization of the labour market, the cultural impoverishment, the decaying sense of state affiliation, the decline in ethics and morality, the exaggerated careerism, the unbridled consumerism and even, every now and then, requests for salvific ecological policies. The same subjects, if one thinks about it, that are also well known to European public opinion, now accustomed to finding them cited and commented on in the lifestyle columns that the press regularly dedicates to the grievances against the consumer civilization’s inherent evils.
And thus, in light of this re-visitation of the Arab cultural output during the years straddling the second and third millennia, the young people recalled in J’ai couru vers le Nil and La Syrie promise cease to be one of history’s unpredictable variables and, far from being born overnight, declare themselves to be the product of an ongoing process.
A First Appraisal
But if reading the past with the lenses of the present is fairly straightforward, predicting the future is quite another thing. On the tenth anniversary of the 2011 revolutions, it is possible to attempt a first appraisal of the decade, albeit with some difficulty caused by the time it takes to produce literature and the even longer time required for its translation.
During the two-year period 2011–2012, it immediately became clear that silence does not suit revolutions and that, as a consequence, neither the publishing market in the countries where the revolutions were playing out nor the one in the countries that were witnessing them from afar were going to remain silent. And in fact, in Egypt (to take the most densely populated country and the one traditionally most active in the publishing field), in Cairo’s many bookshops—those bookshops that mushroomed over the last few years in a city that had always lacked independent commercial businesses dedicated to books and reading—as well as during the annual Book Fair (which took place 22 January–7 February 2012, with Tunisia as the guest of honour), unusually successful sales figures were recorded thanks to the very high number of texts dedicated to the eighteen days in Tahrir Square. Individual chronicles, mostly, narrated in diary form both by writers of recognized fame (such as Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Meghid, Nawal al-Sa‘dawi or Mekkawi Sa‘id) and by young emerging authors. The desire to consign the emotions and actions filling those crucial days to posterity seems to have been the main feature of an output that only in a few isolated cases has taken the genuine form of literary docu-fiction (Hisham al-Khishin and Ahmad Sabri Abu-l-Futuh) or graphic novel (Ahmad Salim/Rami Habib and Muhammad Hisham ‘Obayah/Hanan al-Karargi) but that, in any case, has proved so vibrant that it pushed a publishing house linked to the Ministry of Culture to dedicate a whole series to the “creativity of the revolution.”
On the whole and albeit paying the price of its inevitable fragmentation, the European publishing market has, over the same period, offered a pretty representative sample of what was being published in Arabic and English. And indeed, in Europe, too, just as in the Arab world, the texts that have been most published and have aroused the greatest interest have been the chronicles and daily diaries, the anthologies of op-eds casting light on the revolutions’ premonitory signs, the retrospective reconstructions of events, the poetic works, the collections of testimonies gathered live and the volumes marshalling bloggers’ posts.
Between Disenchantment and Expectation
As far as Arab literature in its most genuine form (the novel) is concerned, the works produced in more recent years would mostly seem to have discarded the theme of the revolution. They investigate, rather, the causes and effects of its failure. A glaringly example is the novel You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice by the Tunisian Hassouna Mosbahi, in which the disorder generated by the 2010–2011 revolution and the onset of the physical and moral violence are emphasized. Indeed, violence is elevated into a paradigm of the fragility of a whole people pessimistically and almost relentlessly described as weak and immature. Elsewhere, there appear dystopian novels that present an inhuman future with little hope of redemption (as in Egypt, for example). A-temporal novels telling of a monstrous world infected by violent conflict and the ideological void also abound (as in Syria). If a change can be detected, it is more in the language than in the themes, more in the languages (graphics, videos and music) than in the classical forms of narrative.
And yet, here and there, works are being published that seem to follow the tradition of the historical novel or the historical reconstruction out of what seems to have every appearance of a duty not to forget or a spur to remember that, every now and then imposes itself. Something that assumes various aspects and is articulated in different ways according to the style and will of every author: the memory of a great and glorious past now forgotten, the memory of traumatic events that still weigh on the present, the memory of historical benchmarks that explain today’s dramas, the memory of abuses of power suffered during the time of the protectorates and mandates and, above all, the memory of a peaceful everyday life snatched with difficulty from the jaws of life’s hardships but, precisely for this reason, pursued with obstinate determination in peoples’ affections, loves, intergenerational relationships, passions and dreams of a better tomorrow. To give a single example that may serve as a counterpart to Hassouna Mosbahi’s novel, Ali Bécheur, the “grand old man” of francophone Tunisian literature, cautions in his passionate Les lendemains d’hier, “One day goes enchantingly well, the following day is disenchantment, except that disenchantment lasts longer than enchantment, infinitely longer. […] If democracy is an endless pontificating, denigrating and strutting about, very well then, let us pontificate, denigrate and strut about. It is too soon. The little waves are insignificant; only the rollers produce movements of any depth. Let us wait.”
And while we have been waiting, we have witnessed—in 2019 and early 2020, ten years on from the beginning of the Arab revolutions—new, massive and primarily youthful protest movements in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. We have gone back to seeing the orderly demonstrations by young men and women who are mostly educated, informed and connected and possessing a self-awareness that jars with traditionalist rhetoric. Young people who are breaking with their past, either out of ideological disagreement with their fathers and mothers or because of the country’s evolving material living conditions. A generation, that is to say, that appears to be acting in continuity with the demonstrators in 2011, just as the demonstrators in 2011 appeared to be acting in continuity with the generations that had preceded them in the many liberation struggles.
With the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the movements have, out of necessity, mostly disbanded. However, by exacerbating existing inequalities and socio-economic disparities, the coronavirus has been giving rise to fresh street demonstrations in Lebanon, Iraq and other countries in the region. Cautious ones also in Egypt and even in Libya.
Is this a new wave or the roller? To know the answer, we can only wait and see whether—and how —it will be written about.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
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To cite this article
Elisabetta Bartuli, “The Revolutions Seen through Literature’s Prism”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 109-118.
Elisabetta Bartuli, “The Revolutions Seen through Literature’s Prism”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/the-revolutions-seen-through-literature-s-prism