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The International Symposium on the Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists: Testimonies and Readings

[From left to right: Samir Sassi, Ibrahim Abdelmajid, Wasini al-A’raj, Mehdi Mabrouk, Kamel Zoghbani, Francesco Leggio, and Kamel Riahi. Image from Agence Tunis Afrique Presse.] [From left to right: Samir Sassi, Ibrahim Abdelmajid, Wasini al-A’raj, Mehdi Mabrouk, Kamel Zoghbani, Francesco Leggio, and Kamel Riahi. Image from Agence Tunis Afrique Presse.]

In the grim depths of winter, the Arabic novel keeps the sun of the Tunisian Revolution shining. Although the sun of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring is still playing hide and seek, it is imperative that artists, writers, and poets find a venue to discuss the cultural and artistic sides of the revolution. On 18 and 19 January 2012, an international symposium on the “Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists” took center stage at the Ibn Rachiq Culture House in Tunis.

The symposium included the participation of an exceptional list of writers, including Algerian writer Wasini al-A’raj, Egyptian writer Ibrahim Abdelmajid, Libyan writer Mohamed Lasfar, Italian Arabist Francesco Leggio, and from Tunisia Kamel Riahi, Samir Saasi, and Kamel Zoghbani. The participants tackled the context of literature during the years of oppression leading up to the Arab Spring and the situation after the uprisings, attempting to examine the role of the artist and the writer in the popular insurrections against injustice and despotism.  

On the occasion of the opening of this symposium, Mehdi Mabrouk, the Tunisian Minister of Culture gave a speech highlighting the importance of the Arab Spring and the manner through which it facilitated new perspectives for fictional writings. He stated that authoritarianism destroyed imagination and changed the level of intellect from an organic one capable of critical thinking and analysis into prevailing pessimism and negativity, arguing, “Silence became the last excuse in front of death and dishonesty.” The Arabic novel, according to Mabrouk, was audacious as it cracked authoritarianism. Conversely, he illustrated how the Arab Spring proved that life is possible without a dictator. His speech was characterised with humorous remarks and sarcastic comments on the authority, such as borrowing the title of Kamel Riahi’s novel The Scalpel, suggesting that literature must use the scalpel to stab the buttocks of the authority. He concluded with an emphasis on the need for literature that properly fits into the context of the revolution. “Literature must be beautiful,” said Mabrouk.

Wasini al-A’raj, the prominent Algerian novelist and university professor, began his lecture by reminding the audience that political discourse is something ephemeral and goes with the wind, but the literary discourse, when genuine, will become a part of the individual memory, and eventually, the collective memory. According to him, the Tunisian Revolution paved the way for other Arab Revolutions and gave literature the opportunity “to express itself.” He raised the following question: “Is literature a reaction or an echo of the revolution, or is the writer just a bearer of a situation and a bearer of a conception?” Al-A’raj suggested that writing is the “soft element” that gives value to humanity. By “soft element,” he meant the writing about the Arab Revolutions without divinisation or glorification or the introduction of a superman. He called on writers to depict an ordinary protagonist, one who gives value to humanity and nobleness. He encouraged writers to express that which others do not, and to be rebels in an exceptional situation. “Now everyone speaks about the revolution,” said al-A’raj, “but nobleness is to say something that the others do not say. Besides, the space of democracy is of paramount importance in boosting the literary work, but the writer must not wait until he/she will be provided with such a space.”

In remembering recent Algerian history, al-A’raj questioned the reason behind the victimisation of about two hundred thousand persons in the nineties. He stated that writers at that time fell under two categories: Those that went hand in hand with the authority, and those that assumed its responsibility. He added, “I wrote the novel Sayyidat al-maqam: Marthiyyat al-yawm al-hazin (Mistress of the Shrine: Elegies for a Sad Day, 1995) to express myself within literature and not inside politics. In my novel Jumlukiyat Arabia (Reponarchy of Arabia), I conversed with authoritarianism and made Dinazade say things that Shahryar did not want to listen to.” Jumlukiyat is a coined term that combines jumhouria, meaning republic, and muloukiat, meaning kingdom.

What is striking about Jumlukiyat Arabia is that it is a parody of One Thousand and One Nights. Wasini al-A’raj’s work dives deeply into the realms of the oriental despotism through the depiction of the Arab dictator in all his facets, through a highly sophisticated artistic and fictional style that draws upon One Thousand and one Nights. The novel essentially gives a powerful voice to women and the marginalized, while denouncing the one-sided vision of the dictator, portraying him as a person who is inept and weak.

The next speaker, Tunisian writer Samir Saasi, spoke about his literary experience in the context of the revolutionary atmosphere. His 2003 book, Bourj Erroumi: Gates of Death, named after the most notorious prison in Tunis, became a bestseller after the revolution. Sassi discussed his novel, which unveils the atrocities committed under the former regime, namely the torture in Tunisian prisons. He raised an important question about the continuity versus the interruption of prison literature after the Arab Revolutions. “I wrote for the purpose that those tragedies would not be repeated and that the suppression of human souls due to the differences in points of view would stop. In my novel I was neither a hero, nor totally submissive. I did not call on for retaliation,” said Sassi, who wrote his novel while in prison to combat frustration and overcome torture.

Kamel Riahi, the Tunisian novelist, began his talk by stating that the writer, as well as the citizen, must challenge the status quo. He said: “Literature must burn like fire through the friction of consciousness against reality.” He gave examples of writers from Tunisia who denounced dictatorship, such as Lazhar Sahraoui, Kamel Zoghbani, Hedi Thabet, Mohamed Jebli and Fadhila Chebbi. Riahi also spoke about the interior exile or interior alienation that substituted the classic exile. He stated that literature which dealt with corruption, unemployment, and marginalisation was relegated to an inferior position. Speaking about his novel The Scalpel, Kamel Riahi said: “I created a mysterious character that is of the mokh-khakh (brain suckers). It is a piece about dictatorships, because it does the same thing that the brain suckers do. In the novel The Gorilla that I started it in 2007, I touched upon an event that everybody witnessed, when a man said to be a fool climbed the 7th November clock, consequently stopping traffic. I was dreaming about such a thing and it happened in reality. I was dreaming about climbing the top of the 7th November clock and stopping the wheel of the system.” Kamel Riahi suggested that the artist or writer who does not disrupt the status quo is not genuine, and art that makes a truce with the system is meaningless.

The Libyan author Mohamed Lasfar spoke about his writings that were censored under the Gaddafi regime because they denounced dictatorship and injustice. He discussed his new novel, Salt, about the Abu Salim massacre that harvested hundreds of souls, among which was his brother. He also introduced his book, Libya’s Patient Revolutionaries, which panoramically narrates various scenes of the Libyan Revolution. The book describes the songs that were sung, the paintings that were painted, and the prayers that were performed to honour the martyrs. Lasfar stated that the artist’s duty after the revolution is to disseminate the values of freedom and dignity because “the reader needs the culture of freedom, coexistence, and creation.”

Francesco Leggio, Italian Arabist and translator, who studied Arabic in Tunisia and who translated many works into Italian, such as Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s Memory of Flesh and Tayeb Salih’s Season Migration to the North, gave a lecture titled “The Arab Revolutions in the Eyes of the Other.” He said that he was hesitant to accept the invitation because he was not convinced of the theme of the symposium. According to him, literature needs distance to react to unfinished event. He supposed this symposium would speak about the instigative and revolutionary aspects of literature. In his speech, Leggio cited memorable moments from Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture: 

“Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it[…]”  

According to Leggio, Arab regimes fear literature and independent writers because they are dangerous as they remind readers of “the possibility of the existence of a better world.” He analysed three works. First, he examined the experience of Kamel Riahi in his book, The Scalpel, in which he attempted to break all the symbols of authority and enfolded them into a civic disgrace. For instance, he took the robe of veneration off Ibn Khaldoun and made him join the marginalised, while the former regime was commemorating his death. Second, he talked about Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s Memory of Flesh. According to him, though commercial, this work is not devoid of social and political criticism. Third, he highlighted the centrality of history in Wasini al-A’raj’s works. He concluded with a quote from Llosa’s Nobel Lecture, “Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom […]”

In brief, the symposium opened new doors for the literary expression of a greater social movement, potentially paving the way for future symposia. However, the absence of women writers resonated with participants and audience members, who were angered by the lack of representation of women involved in the resistance against authoritarianism in the region, such as Alia Tabai, Massouda Abou Bakr, Rachida Cherni, and Amel Mokhtar.

Nevertheless, novels that were written before the revolutions tackled the themes of dire poverty, shattered dreams, despair, the use of religion as a sanctuary, sexual deprivation, political oppression, torture in prisons, and suppression. All these themes were boiling in the cauldron of a silent society that was waiting for the moment to ignite and mobilise. Those novels illustrated the catastrophes resulting from dictatorship. Some even prophesied such rebellion and insurrection.

The fact that the Arab Spring happened in the streets through insurrections and riots leads some to underestimate the role played by writers and artists in this Arab Spring. This might be related to the lack of emphasis placed on literature in Arab society. But those writers who chose to denounce dictatorship in their works contributed in a way or another to this Arab Spring. Samuel Johnson once said: “Little things grew by continual accumulation.” These novels could be considered as one of the bricks that led to the buildup of these revolutions through the formation of such “revolutionary consciousness.” It should be noted that in the latest years, some writers disseminated their ideas and some of their writings through blogs and other tools of social media, which were effective mediums to relay their work and messages to the youth.

This Arab Spring will challenge the engaged writer because the path is still long. Writing the revolution is not just depicting scenes of confrontations with the police or depicting torture in prisons; it is also a painstaking journey that necessitates deeper thought, deeper horizons and deeper discourse. 

The writer should liberate himself/herself from the cocoon of current political issues because it would be just a fever in the heat of this revolution. He/she should dig beneath this political side to unravel the social and cultural dimensions that led to fettering the intellectual and the layman alike. He/she should sow seeds of hope and seeds of a constructive thought that question all taboosbe they social, religious, or sexual. He/she should continue to denounce any authority that tries to silence, repress, and alienate people in their own country. Hence, an Arab novel like this may acquire universality as it adopts universal values of freedom, and human rights, simultaneously acquiring the status of a “grand narrative” that plays an important role in this post revolutionary context.

For the revolution to acquire the status of genuineness, writers and artists should demonstrate that for this revolution to yield effective democratic change, it must be built on a solid base that takes into account the encouragement of free creativity and culture, fostering the dreams of the Arab people to be reinstated in their humanity after decades of suppression and oppression. The role of writers and intellectuals is to show that the revolution is not an occasion to relish in the toppling of the dictator, but instead, it is a long path and a painstaking process that demands hard work. In doing so, the revolution will be a source for the creation of novel artistic forms, adding vigour, vitality, and weight to the Arab novel, and positioning it higher alongside world literature.

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