Stories of revolution and rivers that run dry

The author encounters a plethora of narrations that examine in the most beautifully chaotic of ways the reluctant hope and the lingering pain that sediment within the word, ‘revolution’.

It was, we were told, a sold out event. The date was September 15, 2012, the venue the Southbank Centre in London and the weather uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Over 18 months had passed since the story now known as the ‘Arab revolutions’ began to unfold in Tunisia, and the programme in my hands promised “a day of discussion, music, performance and exchange” titled The Arab Revolutions: What You Need To Know. The speakers were all young (a marked difference from the academic conferences I have become more accustomed to attending) and all excellent public speakers. They were all also involved in their people’s on-going revolutions.

I had pen and paper with me, eager to capture traces of encounters with revolutions that eluded me, and elude me still. The lights in the hall, however, were soon switched off and spotlights cast on the six speakers on stage, effectively throwing the audience into darkness and my pen and paper into redundancy. We were given a twitter hashtag and encouraged to join the conversation online; unlike my personal choice of medium, tweeting is uninhibited by the need for light. With the spotlights shifting all attention to the stage, event curator (and award winning author) Ahdaf Soueif told us that the event was for those who were seeking to understand the Arab revolutions in depths they were unable to access, and through narrations they were not privy to, but that it was not just an event about happenings elsewhere. Soueif offered the thought that it was also a day, “that belonged to those of us who are Londoners, with a sense of belonging, a sense of belonging to the city’s cultural institutions, to the city”. 

Before I could even begin to taste the promise (a tantalizing one at that) of an Arab London that is not Edgware Road, yet another London - the London of legal institutions - made its presence felt: the speaker from Syria was unable to attend for visa issues; something about submitting the wrong visa form in that labyrinth of legality. 

I keep on going back to the event’s name: The Arab Revolutions: What You Need To Know. I expect that those seeking a ‘beginner’s/dummy’s guide’ of sorts to the revolutions  (a run down of the dates, main actors, main players, and likely next developments) would have been disappointed. Judging by how most speakers structured their talks, this seemed to be the suggested guidance given to them. Yet somehow from within this expectation to inform - and perhaps because it quickly became apparent that none of the speakers could satisfy it - emerged a plethora of narrations that examined in the most beautifully chaotic of ways the reluctant hope and the lingering pain that sediment within the word, ‘revolution’. 

What’s in a name? 

Rafik Omrani from Tunisia was the first to speak. He told us that the revolution may have started in 2008 when the miners at Hawd al-Najmi went on strike to protest against their living conditions, only to endure a brutal suppression by the Tunisian regime. He told us that they call it the revolution of December 27, commemorating the day Mohammad Bouazizi set himself alight, an act that propelled the Union of Solicitors to take to the streets in protest, the Union of Artists to follow after them, and a general strike across all of Tunisia after that. “Some call it an uprising, others a revolution”, he explained. Rafik was emphatic though about what the revolution is not called. It is not called the revolution of January 14 (the day Ben Ali left: “his departure was a success but we know the struggle is just beginning”, and it is definitely not the Jasmine Revolution (“it’s a ‘touristic’ name, but the revolution was bloody, remember, not another tourism attraction”). 

Maryam al-Khawaja from Bahrain spoke powerfully about her people’s “inconvenient revolution”. Ignored for economic reasons, including trade ties with Asia, the Gulf, the UK and US, silence over the brutality of the Bahraini regime continued even after the Emir brought in foreign armies (from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to intervene on his behalf. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did speak, Maryam reminded us, she said it was Bahrain’s “sovereign” right to allow foreign troops in. Maryam shared stories of strength, of Bahrainis who returned to the (now demolished) pearl the day after the bloodiest of fights, the day after many lost their dearest loved ones. “This is not an Arab Spring” she proclaimed with a voice so powerful, so reverberating, that it left me wondering if disguised within it is a shy but earnest plea; it is not “Arab”, she continued, because the label ignores the bravery of and losses endured by the many non-Arab communities across the Middle East, and certainly not a “Spring” because, well, “if this is spring then what will winter look like?” It’s a bloody revolution, a continuing tragedy, she insisted. Countless many Bahrainis who bravely took to the streets demanding their just rights were immediately suspended from their jobs and are today unemployable in Bahrain, struggling and unable to make ends meet – for daring to demand justice. And the silence, the echoing silence, continues. 

And then there was Osama Muttawa and his voice. Narrating his Libyan story, he began by describing it as a war, a bloody nine-month war. “We dismantled a regime, but is that a revolution?” he asked. Osama told us that their date of choice to “launch” the revolution was to commemorate a past massacre by the Gaddafi regime, but – and here his tone of voice quickly changed to playful – “the most important thing about the date was that it was approaching”. The audience responded with much laughter, laughter that grew louder after Osama’s next joke: “There is an Arab fetish with dates”, he smirked, “Oct 6, and now [the revolutions]...”.  His injected playfulness so sharply contrasted with the overall tone of his narrative. Osama spoke of promise, of new social contracts, new social bonds and new forms of community that emerged during the course of the war. The revolution brought out, in his words, “the very beautiful and the very ugly”. Osama told the story of dismantling a horrifically brutal regime successfully …  but with the most stringent tones of sadness in his voice. The effect was electrifying. It was as if the voice and the story were “speaking” simultaneously, but producing two very different tellings. 

It was a form of telling I was to encounter several times during the event. A screening of Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq’s Karama Has No Walls, a documentary that chronicles one of the bloodiest days of the Yemeni struggle (karama is Arabic for dignity), ended with an interviewee describing the events as “a tragedy, a tragedy that changed Yemen’s history”. Yet he related the “tragedy” with a voice so calm, so at peace with itself, it almost sounded blissful. In a later panel, Khalid Abdalla, a filmmaker from Egypt, contemplated in passing the incomprehensible conundrum at the heart of being a martyr’s parent; mothers celebrating the sacrifice of their sons and daughters, and at the same moment wishing that it never had to happen.  

Over a coffee break a fellow attendee exclaimed that she felt the films being screened were very bloody. Attendees and audiences are odd transitory communities. I presume my fellow attendee had been expecting to hear clean stories of political change, of good people taking over bad governments and living happily ever after, or at least entering on the path towards that happy ending. As for me, images of mothers in pain but ululating haunt me still. There is a force so inexplicably compelling in a zaghrouta (trill/ululation) when the impulse is to cry. 

Rowing against the current of sanitization

Some questions never leave you. The juxtaposition in Roland Barthes Mythologies between the faces of Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn has never really dissipated since our first encounter. Barthes was intrigued by the eternal and the transitory, the enduring and the contingent; In Garbo’s face he saw the face of antiquity, in Hepburn’s charm the 1950s as a moment in time.

Greta Garbo’s face, wrote Barthes, most closely resembled the Platonic ideal: a complexion of flawless clarity, flour-white and expressionless, a face not drawn but sculpted as if a mask. As a kind of absolute state of the flesh, this face-object was never revealed as maturing or degrading, “her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection” (1993: 56). The iconographic age of awe, continued Barthes, progressed towards an appreciation of charm characterised by the individuality, uniqueness and peculiarity of Audrey Hepburn, a face full of intricate complexities with none of the essence left. “As a language” he wrote, “Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance”. As such, “The face of Garbo is an Ideal, that of Hepburn is an Event” (1993:57).

From the (arguably) vantage point of 2012 I wonder what would happen if we contrast Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn’s faces with that of Lady Gaga. Is Lady Gaga’s face, like that of Audrey Hepburn’s, also an event characteristic of this current moment in time, or is it something entirely different, a haunting ideal in its own right, but one that celebrates not the lack of expression but an excess of it, and not clear and clean complexions but bodies at once fascinating and grotesque.

For Bakhtin, the grotesque is a celebration of life precisely because the individual [body] dies. It opposes “sterile eternity” (such as, we might suppose, Garbo’s face) with images of a pregnant and birth-giving death. This historical life, Bakhtin insisted, is in a process of becoming. It “leads man out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and the stable.” It has, then, not Garbo’s perfection, nor the charm of Hepburn’s individuality; it is not an ideal, nor an event … but a plethora of potentiality.

Stories of revolutions are stories of beauty too, of beauty and timelessness. They can be stories narrated in their approximation to an ideal. In this sense, they can be narrations of beautiful people overtaking ugly governments where reminders of the bloody cost of the revolutions and the later electoral victories of ‘Islamists’ become inconvenient truths. [It’s okay though, because the ideal is yet to be attained, and when we are closer to it (which will, incidentally, mark the point when the narration starts to approximate the familiar western story) we can drop these inconvenient events from the narrative]. With time, the bloodiness will be forgotten, the Islamists cast as a hiccup, and the revolutions will be told as beautiful, classically beautiful: clean, eternal and ideal.  

Revolutions can also be told as events, that is, stories of historic time as a vertical line. In these narrations the revolutions are charming in so far as they are organised, planned, and coherent: as long as they undisputably unfold towards the ideal. Only two forms of vertical movement are recognised, ascent and descent, one is clearly characterised as better than the other. Within this vertical linearity there is the option of making the path appear more individualized (choosing differently coloured tiles and railings, for example, and calling it “cultural” variance) but the path itself is the much trodden one of currently existing western democracy.

In a panel titled Another Brick In The Wall Omar Hamilton was asked by one of my fellow attendees about the influence and effectiveness of Gene Sharp’s teachings on the activism in Tahrir and their use since then. This has been a persistent inquiry in all London events I have attended on the, “Arab revolutions”. Sharp’s works, you may say, are event-driven: they measure political change in accordance with game-plans constructed out of “case studies” from all over the world, then individualised to specific contexts. Revolutions as game-plans are about “measurable change”: the ousting of a regime, the ratification of a new constitution, the holding of elections, each enabled through a set of tactics succeeding each other from within an overall strategy.

Yet, is that what the revolution was really about? Omar’s response to the question above was superb, I thought. In the first instance he said, “We started a revolution in Tahrir and three months later I hear that some American academic had been behind it all,” and after the laughter subsided he continued,

“You have to understand, people were working together in new ways, there were civilian barrios, 15 of them in fact, working together; that was the revolution. Sharp had nothing to do with that. I just wish these new forms of working together had persisted after Tahrir.” 

What would things look like today if these new forms of working together had persisted? I wonder. The incident reminded me of a Sufi story: “There was once an American tourist being shown around a shrine. He and his guide came to a light burning on a kind of altar. “That flame” quavers the aged Oriental custodian, “has been burning for a thousand years…”. The American leans over and blows it out. “Well, it’s stopped now, hasn’t it?”

Who knows what forms of politics had emerged to share the responsibility of keeping the flame burning? Once the flame has been blown out the candle itself (the object) and not the knowledges surrounding it (those that kept it alight) becomes the focus. The single knowledge of blowing out a flame comes to replace all other kinds of possible knowledges.

The stories of revolution that I encountered on that Saturday at the Southbank were stories of potentiality, narrations as double-tellings where the focus remained on the bloody and on the inconvenient, where the vertical time line of ascent and descent was negated in favour of a historic account that celebrates life and its contingent continuity. Not so much stories of success as much as they are stories of strength and resilience, of Omars that stayed in Tahrir, Osamas that fought on in Libya, and Maryams that continue to do so even after the pearl is no longer there in Bahrain. They persist even when unsure how things will turn out, even when frustrated, even when they think there is no hope - none at all – at the very moment that these disappointments haunt them 

In answering a question about facing the possibility of death in Tahrir Omar Hamilton explained that, 

“There were days where death was everywhere but everyone was working together so beautifully that you thought ‘it’s okay if I die today, it’s okay’. Then the very next day, when things don’t go quite the same… you really didn’t want to die on that day.”

I remember laughing when he said that, alongside many others. One remarkable truth he so casually exposes is that disappointing moments were there from the start; they did not ‘emerge’ later with the military council or the election of the ‘Islamists’. The shadow of ugliness, as Osama from Libya made so clear earlier on in the day, was there all along, inextricably linked to the beautiful, inseparable from it.

One of the trailers screened (the full film is still in production) was about checkpoints (the checkpoint of Qalandiya specifically) and I think about love. The trailer never said so, but there was an intensity that suggested it. What do checkpoints have to do with falling in love? The film’s name implies a possible answer: Though I Know the River is Dry. Not a river that has run dry, but a river that is; as if from the beginning, as if this has always been its state, as if this is and has been the story of the river – of rivers – all along 

The lyricism of dry river bends 

It must be said that assessments of “effectiveness”, “influence”, and “measurable change” persisted not just through the questions of my fellow attendees. The art-activists themselves discussed different mediums of intervention using a lexicon of strategy: the visual is very powerful but cinema screens are few and inaccessible, music is easily shared, graffiti is becoming more popular, the written word still has a place. Even if Gene Sharp was denied credit as an instigator of Tahrir, the mechanism of reasoning underpinning his work (or rather, the reasoning that he captured in his work: thinking of political change as a campaign with a game plan – or, an event) seems to emerge from a constitution of the social widely embedded. This constitution of the social is expressed differently, still they all emerge from the same lexicon of political legibility. In other words, they get their bearings from the same image of the ideal. 

If art is assessed by how much it can “impact” on currently existing reality, there will be nothing there for the moments of transformation when that very constitution is reconfigured. Here’s a story about the popular Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm as told (more or less) by Khalid Abdullah in a panel titled Frontline Avant-Garde (I think Khalid and I got very different readings out of this story, though): Ahmed Fouad was interviewed by one of the local channels from inside Tahrir. “Why haven’t you written anything about the revolution?” the interviewer asked, seemingly irritated by the poet’s “silence”. Ahmed Fouad slowly turned around to gaze at the many banners furnishing the square, many of which carried his verses or word plays on his most popular lines, he pointed to them and said, “Who says I haven’t?”.

The danger is that whatever falls below the radar of “impact” – like Ahmad Fouad’s poems when he first wrote them – will become so rare, and with time so illegible, that they will one day be mistaken for silence. I was reminded here of Engin Isin’s closing lines in Being Political, on the poet being the first to face expulsion in Platonic kingdoms. The closing lines of his book, I think, are worth quoting for this purpose at considerable length, 

“Long ago Socrates already thought that the rivalry between poetics and politics was ancient. If philosophy stood as a metaphor for the rational and natural language of citizenship, poetics perhaps stands as the metaphor for the language of becoming political. It arises at a moment when it becomes possible to conceive of oneself differently, to reorient oneself toward the other, and to reconstitute identity qua alterity… Yet, the fundamental question about poetics is not that it is “political” in the simple sense of serving particular interests but in the sense of creating, embodying, and transmitting a perspective from which good from evil, noble from base, virtue from vice, honour from dishonour, greatness from pettiness, magnificence from poverty are made distinguishable, and by virtue of that fact they are also made questionable and contestable.  These forms of alterity are created dialogically and are open to reversals, reinterpretations, and contestation. It was through these complex and open solidaristic and agonistic strategies that poetics became political, and it was these uncertain possibilities that frightened Plato, the ultimate philosopher-king, and led him to expel the poets from the city.” 

The poet, to Engin, was expelled because his verse contains the potentiality of reconfiguring forms of alterity; verse, in other words, that cannot be measured for impact as political change yet verse that contains the potentiality for transformation. Now consider this: that Arabic feminist story-telling is always told as a story of something “to come”, a river not defined by its bends (dry they may be) but by its measurable current (or the lack of it).

“What about Arab women?” asked a fellow attendee who identified herself as a ‘westerner’, “I’d like to support in some way but feel it is not welcome”. The six speakers on stage visibly shifted their bodies, clearly expecting this question but still finding it as uncomfortable as I do. “The question of Arab women has been the baby of the western media,” said Soueif, “Let me be clear about this,” asserted Maryam as powerfully as ever, “Arab women do not need saving. They were not only a part of the revolutions, they were leading them, and they will continue to lead them even if the men give up”, she insisted. Maryam said that the stories of female bravery coming out of the revolutions are inspirational and demonstrate that Arab women are learning, “but the effort needs to be grassroots, it needs to grow out of this learning, it cannot be an import”. 

Osama agreed, he said that during the course of the revolution Libyan women just seized roles thought inappropriate only a few months before, reconstituting centuries-old social configurations in a matter of days. “It will come” he insisted, “there are new forms of community being created”. Jamal Mahjoub pointed to the multiple struggles Arab women were engaged in: on one level over their marginalization in society and on another against injustices facing wider society as well. There is no distinction between both struggles, he said. “Feminism will come, it will, but it will be not be identical to western feminism”.

Stories of Arab feminism, it seems, are still only narratable as rivers in single seasons, rivers where the current is “to come” and where water is to flow “one-day” because countless many inspirational women are undoing the dams erected somewhere unspecified “up-north”. 

This is not to belittle the importance or significance of Arab women assuming new leading roles in the revolutions and after, of course that too is to be celebrated. Still, can we not point to these newly emerging forms of a “feminism to come”, a feminism that is detectable and recognisable so long as it operates within the matrix of currently existing feminism, without dismissing the feminism of the dry river bends?

And it has been dismissed, dismissed for so very long that one barely ever manages to find traces of it. It is a hunt that lured Hasna Lebbady to return to her hometown of Tetoun in Morocco in search for the stories her grandmother used to tell her. It was no easy feat and Lebbady describes the problems that emerged from trying to locate and then rely on the memory of women who, once upon a time, were these stories’ tellers. The difficulties however did pay off. The treasure of a book collects stories of feminist protagonists never once described as beautiful or pretty, but always in the course of the story revealed as smart, witty and able. The stories never end with a scene of a wedding or mentions of marriage, instead the tales’ finales are always encounters between the female protagonist and a male other who finally recognises the heroine for everything she is.

There is a point in time, and this is not the place to closely examine when nor how, but there is a point at which “vernacular feminism” was abandoned. In its place was substituted the Greta Garbo ideal that uses a language highly rationalised and measured and advances discourses of empowerment and a feminism “to come”. This is not merely a matter of different modes of expression; the abandonment of vernacular feminism issues in a loss of the knowledges internalised within this language, knowledges born from historic encounters with power and domination. Foucault has named them “subjugated knowledges”, disqualified for lacking a ‘required’ level of scientificity, but the reappearance of which he saw as crucial for criticism to perform its work. I wonder what the river bends would look like today if generations after Lebbady’s grandmothers’ continued to tell feminist tales over weaving looms.

I have a story to share with you, a story untold on that particular Saturday at the Southbank Centre. It is the story of a group of Jordanian women and men (over 200 of them - or so the story goes) who on a warm July evening of 2012, in one of the busiest streets of the capital Amman, stood side by side holding A4 papers on which they communicated feelings of pain, frustration and strength … in the vernacular. “My honour is located between my ears” was my favourite. “I do the dishes too” read one (held by a young male), and another: “My mother’s name is ‘Aysha’”. 

Commenting on the “feminist human chain” Raghda Butros wrote that it, “transformed the discourse from one in prescriptive English in air-conditioned hotel meeting rooms to one in colloquial Arabic, on the streets where it belongs”. The air-conditioned hotel meetings may have been in Arabic too - proper fusha Arabic that is, the language of rights having become widely translatable - but the significance of what Raghda picks up on is the power of a language (and within it a knowledge) that has been abandoned for the more “polished” discourse of resolutions (which always include numericals in their names). Truth be told - and in Amman it is a truth widely recognised - Raghda’s blogpost is one of the few supportive ones. On the whole the initiative was trashed – the choice of word is no exaggeration – and the participants subjected to the most abusive of slander.

I guess it depends on who the storyteller is, but the seeming “unreadiness” among Jordanians to reconfigure gender relations is not the only narrative that can emerge from this story. Instead of an assessment of Jordan’s “openness to feminism” and a premature conclusion, there is the invitation to explore the power of different feminisms (in the plural); if the papers held by the participants in the human chain had appropriated slogans like “Say NO to honour crimes” or “Amend clause 360 of the penal code” in place of “My honour is between my ears”, would the initiative have received the same violent reaction…or would it have been ignored? 

Transcending forever afters

It was an uncharacteristically warm Saturday, for a mid-September day. I had attended principally to listen. I realise now that I had also been longing to find traces of my self in narratives that were not my own. During the course of the day I found my self travelling back and forth from a place of admiration to one of frustration, but it was a horizontal, fluctuating movement, not a vertical one. I emerged with no clean or clear sense of belonging, but I also left engaged, preoccupied, burning to commit to the empty paper which the switching off of the lights had disturbed. 

Belonging to the Arab London of established cultural institutions promised by Soueif at the very start of the event eluded me still, indeed I felt no closer to it than to the Arab London of Edgware Road. Yet I still had within reach the corporeal experience of eating a falafel sandwich in London and, as I left the Southbank on that warm Saturday evening, I had two choices of a falafel sandwich within a 15 minute walk: the first from the quickly expanding chain Yalla Yalla just a few steps away, and the second from a delightful Arabic stall a beautiful walk down the river and into Borough Market. 

The embodied act of eating a falafel sandwich in London always produces the same peculiar experience: during the ten minutes it takes me to finish my falafel sandwich I am unequivocally, undisputedly and with absolute certainty an Arab Londoner. It always feels wonderful (absolutely wonderful!) for ten full minutes. However, the gratitude (that most nourishing sense of gratitude!) is overwhelming when – with the last bite of falafel - the feeling of clarity subsides and I am free[-er] to fall back into an incomplete and non-finalised metamorphosis yet again. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is not the ideal that is timeless, or beautiful.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

Further reading

Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) Rabelais and His World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 

Roland Barthes (1993) Mythologies; selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers. London: Vintage. 

Raghda Butros (27/9/2012) “Women as People” Oecumene Blogs, last modified July 17, 2012, last accessed September 27, 2012 

Michael Foucault (1994) “Two Lectures”. In: Culture/Power/History, eds. Dirks, N., Eley, G. and Ortner, S. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Idries Shah (1977) Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour. London: The Octagon Press.

Engin Isin (2002) Being Political. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Karama Has No Walls”, last modified October 14, 2011

Hasna Lebbady (2009) Feminist Traditions in Andalusi-Moroccan Oral Narratives.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gene Sharp (2005) Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers 

 “Though I Know the River is Dry”, last accessed September 27, 2012