From the Editors
Accompanying the ongoing events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya has been an emerging narrative of an “Arab awakening” that has been launched by so-called Arab revolutionaries. One can see this slogan, “the Arab Awakening,” promoted through various media, not least by the increasingly popular Al-Jazeera news channel. In a recent article entitled “It’s Arab and it’s Personal” the “awakening” is declared to have the power to “rewrite history” ultimately unifying the “Arabs” in their goals and slogans. The “Arab street” is boiling with its internet-connected “youth” and we get fancy catch phrases like Uri Avnery’s “the genie is out of the bottle.” What we have before us, besides the blatantly Orientalist claims that have been brought up recently on Jadaliyya, is a re-production of a series of tropes originating in the late nineteenth century Arabic speaking lands of the Ottoman Empire.
The “original” Nahda (or awakening) of those times continues to be the autogenetic basis from which various claims concerning “Arab” identity propagate. That Nahda—before getting into this Nahda—is inherently conflicted; it is formulated through multivalent and opposing projects that somehow constitute a set of enduring propositions: one, the Arabs after receiving knowledge from antiquity somehow lost it hence the infamous narrative of “decline” that has underlined almost all discussions of Arab identity in the past two centuries. Two, that the Arabs assume the position of translators (and preservers) of knowledge in the history of world civilization. They are thereby “indebted” to the Greeks (for knowledge of medicine), to the Christians, to the Europeans, and last but not least to serendipitous times. Three, the Arabs have been victimized by a series of unfortunate events, (ghadr al zaman, surruf al dahr) such as the burning of libraries (Alexandria and Baghdad), the invasions of others (Mongol, Mughal, Crusaders, Turks, Europeans, and more recently the Christian West), and the progress of other civilizations in industry, science, and trade. Thus, it is through the Nahda logos, which in itself becomes a mythical phase of history through which history itself is formed and constantly re-formed for the Arabs, that the Arab is forever bound within a set of oppositions, modern/premodern, civilized/barbaric, developed/underdeveloped, secular/sectarian, tribal/ civic, Islamic/Christian Arab and so on.
As such, the nineteenth-century Nahda is foundational for modern Arab identity; it is constantly imagined and re-imagined as the very condition of believing in a national belonging of what it is to be an Arab. It is re-imagined through the works of Anis Nsuli, George Antonius, Mohamad Abed Jabiri, Salama Musa, Abdallah Laroui, Albert Hourani and others, who have all engaged with the question of the Nahda linking it to the problematic of modernity and enlightenment on one hand and national identity on the other. I would like to argue that the problematic of the nation is itself the problematic of the Nahda. On these grounds, the similarity of tropes between that “Nahda” and this ‘Nahda’ becomes more curious.
The relationship between them can be seen as that of an original to its copy, for they cannot simply share a proper name arbitrarily—even if we were to see them from the Saussurian perspective of the arbitrariness of the sign. Without singling out either as original or copy, I suggest that one is seen as the translation of the other, the Nahda always already translates into Nahda, and it becomes an iterative sign, a return through progression. In fact, we can only attempt to analyze either Nahdas ex-post facto or perhaps, ex-nihilo. This means, that both Nahda’s (original and copy) translate themselves and each other into fractured parts: the awakening from slumber, the dream becoming real, and fantasy absolved. In this sense, all the struggles for liberation, by a large diversity of people, across the region in the past hundred years becomes comparable to the previous slumber (before the past Nahda) of four hundred years in which the ‘Arab’ is said to have dozed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. ‘Arab’ history has an endemic fixation to its mythical tropes, it seems to form and re-form itself along the same logic of modernity/coloniality.
In both nahdas the question to be asked remains the same, why is it that in moments of the ‘now’ of the seizing of presence that society seeks to historicize? Why is it that in the ephemeral moments of conjunction of space and time, identity is rehashed “awakened” from its “deep slumber”? Is the ‘Arabization’ (the re-claiming of the curse of the lack) of the upheavals not a sad prediction of their fated inescapable slumber? A predilection even? Is the ‘Arab nation’ at all separable from the many lacks that condemn it to its perennial self-hood: the lack to be modern, to be as Arab as the ancestors, to speak Arabic as Arabic wills, to even become a ‘nation’?
Is one allowed to ask amidst the fervency of struggles for liberation and the incessant need for some quick identitary fix whether the current re-mythification of the Nahda and its ill-fated Arabs is truly inescapable? Maybe that way, we can begin to think of new projects of the “political” for “society.” Maybe then, this elusive “we” can realize “history” in its actual lived reality, in the bodies and flesh of communities, and the possibilities of real change.
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