PEN 2011: Revolutionaries in the Arab World


Event: Revolutionaries in the Arab World, PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2011
Abdelkader Benali, Abdellah Taia, Rula Jebreal, Alex Nunns, Issandr El Amrani (Moderator: Jacob Weisberg)
Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue

The stage of the 92nd Y Unterberg Poetry Center on the Upper East Side erupts as fecund mother to us all, emerging from the voices of revolutionaries in the Arab world estranged from their homelands notes of triumphal hope in the face of the recent uprisings across the Arab world. Intellectually banished to the fringes of the Western world, now as onlookers to their homelands as theatre-goers, Abdelkader Benali, Abdellah Taia, Rula Jebreal, Alex Nunns, Issandr El Amrani and moderator Jacob Weisberg traverse the muddy pathways of revolution as that which can never be planned nor expected; that which defies historical analogy. As Nunns states in response to Weisberg's  inquiry as to what year these series of uprisings could be analogized to, "The year, to put it simply, is 2011." As Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return, renowned philosopher Gilles Deleuze's notion of repetition with difference, the night's discussions reveal an altogether new and long-desired face on cyclical revolts and uprisings in the Arab world.

Amrani notes that while being witness to the revolution was exhilarating, the results will not be felt for years to come. With the fall of decades-long false authority and violent control arose a state of insecurity which has yet to be sculpted into anything specific. 

When asked if she felt as if it were a revolution in Israel, Israeli journalist and television broadcaster Jebreal diverted to a story about how when she was young she read an interview with Qaddafi in which the eccentric dictator truly believed himself to be liberator of his country's peoples, an actor in-line with a well-drawn destiny. The question Jebreal poses is where does destiny end and responsibility begin as dictators and false Democratic leaders scramble wildly to assuage the fears of their populations through monetary concessions and public goods while simultaneously erroneously stating publicly the love their populations feel for them? In the face of such lunacy, people of all ages, genders and beliefs arose and temporarily the issues surrounding women's oppression (and others) disappeared and the movement became one of economic, social, sexual and political justice. As one woman that she interviewed stated, "This is history. This is everything."

Benali, a Moroccan writer who has lived in the Netherlands since 1979, notes that while growing up in Morrocco, he and others were never taught the meaning of the word society and the fact that they lived within one. It is a subtle yet powerful point quickly glossed over by other discussions, a point that has been emerging in the undercurrents of American society more an more often across the country in pockets. The knowledge that one lives within a society, that we are all together within a system, brings to light not only the faults within that vast system but allows for us to begin to imagine how we may make it better. The fruition of this when shared by a people no longer willing to settle for less than what they deserve are the revolts we have seen across the world, within the Arab world in particular. And one dares to imagine the day when once again, American people become no longer the fragmented consumers we are so often portrayed as and taught to become but rather realize ourselves as society and begin to imagine the possibilities for how we wish to reshape the system of relations we and our families and friends live within. 

For as long as he can remember, Taia states that Arab people have quietly been deriding the distanced wealthy that rule their countries but never was this in public. The most astonishing thing to Taia with the recent revolutions is the fact that people, of both sexes, of many religions, are on the streets and stating publicly (many for the first time), "Enough is enough." This blurring of the public and private and the reclaiming of public spaces from the fists of delusional, greedy dictators signals a promise of a new age in the Arab world for Taia, one that may one day allow him to return to his home country without fear of prosecution. Professional distance from the subjects on which one writes, states El Amrani, has become mute: "Emotion must be conveyed. You tell the truth with the information that you have."

The night was one of playful repose punctuated with moments of wit and consequential prose. I was left wishing that the discussion would have been taken one step further to discuss the linkages between the revolutions in the Arab world and the other uprisings taking place on varying scales across the world, whether they be in China, England, the United States, or Swaziland. To achieve relevance and effective action, the lens must be widened, the scope furthered. Petty differences put behind us, the linkages in a global movement for a better life and justice abound. Arising from the crumbling walls of traditional structures of information sharing, the conduits for change on the forefront of the global uprising amongst us carry within their every movement and interaction a new understanding of how the world operates, of the notion of the network. And while older generations will scramble to understand what is occurring (as they currently are) the movement will peak and recede as ebb and flow, punctuated at times with fantastical occurrences such as the recent events in the Arab world. 

It is cycle, it is repetition. But it is repetition with difference. 

Middle East, PEN 2011