North Africa, West Asia

Leaks, hacks, and scandals: a conversation with Tarek El-Ariss

On the radical transformations affecting Arab culture in the digital age.

Tugrul Mende
14 August 2019

New practices of reading and writing are being produced today, new concepts of knowledge are being defined, and new critiques of power are emerging. These changes are the subject of Tarek El-Ariss’ new book Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019). He is Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth. One of his many research interests include contemporary Arabic culture, literature, and art; new media and cyber culture; digital humanities; Nahda literature and gender and sexuality studies; as well as psychoanalysis and affect theory, just to name a few. Many events are taking place in Dartmouth dealing with Arab authors and artists, for example on September 28, Mashrou’ Leila will perform at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth. Back in Spring we talked via Skype about his new book and on how culture is changing in the digital age.

Tugrul Mende How did you first come across the topic of digital culture and more specifically of leaks and hacks in the Arab context? Could you describe your research and approach and how they differ from your previous work?

Tarek El-Ariss: I got interested in this topic when I started witnessing new critiques of power that did not correspond to the traditional left or right, Islamists or secularists. At the same time, new forms of writing including experimental writing started to emerge in the late 1990s. I became involved in tracing these changes that gradually constituted a break with previous writing and protest models. When I was finishing my first book, the Arab uprisings happened. I was about to finish my last chapter when I realized that the new phenomenon that I was describing was not only about aesthetics but that there was a political dimension that has drawn these things together. This was the point where I tried to understand this intersection between new writing practices, new aesthetics, and a new generation of people writing in Egypt, Lebanon but also in the Gulf.

In addition, technological innovations started to shape the landscape in the 1990s with the advent of satellite television and the internet. This was happening against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin wall (1989), the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and the first Gulf war (1990). The intersection between technological and political developments played a pivotal role in shaping critical trends and new aesthetics. Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals theorizes this kind of intersection by identifying new forms of critique of power, writing, and media that pushed some scholars such as myself—trained in the Nahda, 19th and 18th centuries, the Enlightenment, etc. – to reflect on, and confront these events that were challenging fundamental categories such as modernity, the public sphere, adab as a civilizing process, the novel, and the nation state. All these constellations of literature, politics, ethics, and community were conceived around the 18th century in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and beyond. These constellations were being reshaped in fundamental ways and this is how the book tries to situate itself historically. The interest lies in looking at questions of technology, new media, different concepts of power and political subjectivity as they were being shaped from the 1990s onward.

TM: Your research began in the late 1990s when social media was still in its infancy. How did you connect new writing and literature to media and political development in the Arab world?

TA: When I first got interested in this topic, I used to go to Cairo where I would meet young authors and acquire their books—I have the entire collection of the publisher Dar Merit which is located in Downtown Cairo. Merit published Ahmed Al Aidy’s novel Being Abbas Elabd in 2003 but also Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building in 2002. These authors eventually played a major role in the Tahrir uprising. Dar Merit became a forum for literary and political discussions, in other words, it served as a kind of revolutionary hub. A lot of these authors and activists became active on social media and on Twitter especially. Following YouTube and creative and political blogs, Twitter exploded, expanding the debate online. This was the moment of the ‘visual’ that became amplified with the uprising.

Though I am trained as a scholar of literature and I was interested in new aesthetics and the novel especially, I discovered new political configurations, a new dissent strategy and new forms of critique of power emerging. The digital sphere is not really separated from the material. The digital sphere is not happening in a virtual ideal world. It is directly connected to the physical interactions that were happening on the street. The digital phenomenon is one of the themes discussed in the book, and the material and the virtual are completely interconnected. I realized that literature was no longer about representation or a vehicle for creating consciousness but also about the embodied experience which is material as well. There is the question of immediacy and simultaneity that collapses the necessary distance for representation and alters the traditional understanding of literature.

TM: The author Ahmed Naji is often discussed in your book. What particular aspect do you find fascinating about him?

TA: I have been following Naji’s work for a long time. His novel Using Life was published with the series I edited for the University of Texas Press in 2017. His book was not censored when it was first published in Egypt but after a while, when a selection was published in the journal Akhbar al adab and one person complained that this selection contained sexually explicit passages that made “his blood pressure drop.” The reader had obviously a physical reaction to the text. There is the question of embodiment and material effects which also landed the author in jail. The author becomes constrained physically. This makes you, as a literary critic, question the meaning and effects of literature today.

When analyzing Naji’s work, I do not only have to take into account the literary value of his work but also consider a whole economy and series of events that involve imprisonment, collapse and the campaign on his behalf. Eventually, there is something about the role of novels and literature which is also being transformed. This is what we as critics need to take seriously. The difference between the real and the fictional is collapsing in the digital age. The author permanently enters his/her text.

TM: How do these writers address issues differently than their predecessors?

TA: In the Nahda starting in the 19th century you have this whole idea of adab, the ideology of adab, adab as disciplinary project of tahdhib (disciplining) which creates an idealized nahda citizen who is modern and civil, and corresponds to the Habermassian subject of the enlightenment who is able to make rational ethical decisions. This ideology of literature was challenged in the 1960s by someone like Sonallah Ibrahim and his novel That Smell for instance. This adab as a project becomes hijacked by dictatorial regimes to exclude what they don’t consider to be adab or working in the interest of power. Adab’s aim is thus no longer to create the liberal state, but on the contrary, to oppose it. This kind of adab project that hinges on tahdhib is not only the disciplinary in Michel Foucault’s sense but also tahdhib in the form of beating, punishing and torturing. That sets up qillat adab, the anti-adab, the alternative of this adab, as the playing field of activists and authors such as Wael Abbas or Ahmed Naji. These figures are practicing a form of critique that unsettles and undermines the ideological project of adab which has been used to discipline through ministries of culture and the police and vice squads (bulis al adaab), for instance. The institutions of the state become centralized in the hand of a small group of people who are trying to define what culture and literature are.

TM: How do you think adab is redefined, or is getting a new meaning in the digital age?

TA: In the second chapter, we have Wael Abbas practicing qillat adab (uncivil, disrespectful, impolite, rude behavior). Here I play with these notions of incivility, rudeness, insult, impoliteness that cannot be controlled. The whole point of adab is to discipline the subject. This is the kind of alternative adab practices or anti-adab that I explore through the literary but also through forms of conversations and confrontations on Twitter, through campaigns online against certain authors which are trying to discredit them as not abiding by official standards of adab. Chapter 5, “Cyber-Raiding” focuses on a Saudi woman author who was attacked online. Her novel and her personality are not separate. The cyberraiders cut up her novel which they deemed blasphemous and shared it online. There is something about the wholeness of the novel, a piece of adab, that is fragmented, that is breaking down, forcing critics to contend with new definitions of what the novel is, of what literature is. The digital is not just simply destructive which is what I am trying to say here.

Cutting up the novel points to new reading and writing practices that are emerging. We need to understand this process because we continue to operate along the lines that a novel comes out and a review is published. It is something about the canon and how the canon is formed, and in what way the media allows this canon to be formed. There are different practices, you share and post, you rematerialize the novel, and what we call the novel. This is how adab is being redefined and new reading practices and public formations are happening.

TM: What made you choose to focus on people like Wael Abbas or Mujtahidd?

TA: I take case studies and analyze them and then connect them to a wider environment instead of doing a comprehensive account of all activists or twitter users in a particular time and place. Wael Abbas and the people I have followed were used as a focal point in my case studies in order to talk about this new critique of power, the collapse of a certain subject, imagined, sustained by a disciplinary narrative of adab. Moreover, what is fascinating in Mujtahidd, the Saudi blogger I take up in chapter 3 (“The Infinite Scroll”) is a break with modern adab because we see Islamic references and literary elements from the Arabian Nights, we see a historical collapse, an opening of portals into the genres and ideologies and forums of story-telling that draw on the classical genre of akhbar, and on a wide range of cultural modes.

We don’t know who Mujtahidd is. He appears as a fictional character that operates as a real person revealing secrets and leaking news online. This collapse between fiction and reality and the author and the medium allows this character/person to communicate, to expose, to practice a form of fadh (exposure) thereby introducing not only a different perspective on politics and power but also a new way of seeing. The first thing Wael Abbas does to get people interested in politics is to buy a camera and start taking pictures and videos in the streets of Cairo. Little by little, he uploads them on YouTube. It’s the same with Mujtahidd, he is bringing you a different way of seeing, by being something like a mystic who is able to see in ways that baffle and create bewilderment on the part of his followers. I am interested in Wael Abbas whose body and heart are on Twitter. There is this recircuitry of the body, a recoding of the mouth that is happening online. This really makes our previous model of literary and political analysis obsolete.

TM: Your book was listed on an Essential List on Media Studies on Jadaliyya. How do you situate your new book in this environment?

TA: My book argues that we need to work and bring our knowledge together in order to produce a new understanding of what we are observing today. As a literary scholar I have to go to media studies and digital humanities and Islamic references. I have to constantly learn and step outside of my area of expertise because this new environment needs a literary scholar because it’s also about story-telling, but it requires a media scholar and other disciplines as well. We are entering into very interdisciplinary terrains that are requiring forms of collaborations, forms of training that are no longer bound by well-defined disciplinary formations. My work is interdisciplinary not simply by choice, but by necessity. I encourage people to follow these phenomena, to learn how to step outside of their intellectual comfort zones and engage with a fast-changing environment.

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