“Ninety years have passed, while we stand tall like electricity posts, staring blankly into the skies, like idiots. Entire civilizations pass above our heads. Earthquakes pass beneath us and yet we feel nothing. We know nothing. And we remember nothing. Neither God agrees to stay with us, and nor do the prophets.” – Nizar Qabbani
The legendary Syrian poet used these words to describe Arab weakness and fear in the 1980s. In yet another poem, he says, “Who will declare the obituary of the Arabs?” In a third, he addresses Arab leaders and asks: “When will you go away? The stage has collapsed over your heads, and people in the audience are cussing at you, and spitting. When will you go away?”
Nizar, writing from Beirut in the 1960s and London in the 1970s and 1980s, was a voice for the oppressed across the Arab world.
For obvious reasons, much of his poetry was banned in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Saud Arabia and even in his own Syria. Often he was accused of “harming public morale” by exposing weaknesses in Arab society, calling on people to revolt against their military governments.
Many other Arab intellectuals spoke with similar boldness – if not more – during the long years of Arab military dictatorships. They include Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus, Syrian poet Mohammad al-Maghout, Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Najem, Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawwab, and many others.
All of that literature, however, suddenly sounds obsolete because it no longer applies to the Arabs of today. All generations since the war of 1967 were indeed “staring blankly into the skies, like idiots” but the young generation of today – that of the Arab Spring – does not merit such a derogatory description.
Simply put, people have put Nizar’s words into action, and revolted. All political literature similar to Nizar’s suddenly lost its meaning the day the Tunisian revolt started exactly one year ago, on December 17, 2010. These young Arabs are no longer weak, nor are they willing to tolerate their miserable political conditions any longer.
Throughout history, intellectuals usually excel when freedom of expression is limited. Often it is because they felt challenged and provoked into expressing their views in unconventional means, through analogies for example, or parodies.
This was the case with all intellectual output in the Arab world, starting with Gamal Abdul Nasser’s police state in Egypt in 1952. One needs to review Russian literature during the communist era, Iranian cinema under Ruhollah Khomeini, Egyptian plays under Gamal Abdel Nasser, or Iraqi poetry under Saddam Hussein, to see how creative writers, actors and poets were in expressing themselves. This was to get their message across, while avoiding arrest.
Poets like Nizar and Mohammad al-Maghout would probably not have been as legendary as they are today had they operated in fully democratic societies in the 1970s. Sometimes, intellectuals would be given leeway to express themselves, under the watchful eye of the government, hoping that their shows or poems would “defuse” public discontent.
This was the case with Maghout’s plays, for example, that were performed on stage by Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham from 1974 onwards. These intellectuals would be given a “green light” to talk about corrupt policemen, or a minister, traffic violations, poverty, and in one or two notable cases, malpractices of the security services.
Such criticism would always be vague, where it could apply to any country in the Arab world and would never be directed at any specific regime. He often set them in make-believe countries, like “Arabstan”.
Knowing what kind of regime he headed, Saddam almost always banned these works, believing that they were talking about him directly. He almost always took it personally, banning all of Lahham’s works. Any young Iraqi in possession of a Duraid Lahham videotape was subject to arrest in Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s.
Muammar Gaddafi, however, lived in complete denial, often encouraging these works because “they cannot possible be referring to Libya, since Libya is heaven on Earth” – as far as he was concerned.
Not only did he promote the works, but hosted such plays in Tripoli, although every one of their punch lines perfectly applied to Gaddafi’s Libya. He was particularly fond of a TV work that took place in another fairytale land called “Wadi al-Misk” where one madman corrupts society from top to bottom, arrests people for expressing their views, and sets up useless projects to satisfy his ambition – and madness. This protagonist, played by Duraid Lahham, dresses in colorful outfits, exactly like Colonel Gaddafi.
Gaddafi would always roll over laughing at the work, ordering re-runs on Libyan TV, saying: “That must apply to Saddam’s Iraq, but certainly not Libya!”
That raises a serious question: what will be the fate of all novels, poems and plays authored from the 1960s onwards, which speak of Arab autocracy, corruption, weaknesses and deficiencies?
They have been turned from “timeless classics”, as often described by literary critics, into “temporary political literature” that now belongs to a bygone era. These works used to sell for two reasons, apart from their literary boldness, but both reasons no longer apply.
One is that people read these works because they mirrored what was really happening in society. They reflected pain and hardship that ordinary Arabs could not dare express, for fear of being arrested in different Arab capitals. And because of Arab censors, these works were popularized the minute they were banned, often forcing people to photocopy and distribute them in secret, often on university campuses, where dissent was always high.
Now as Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia all herald a free press, where freedom of expression is tolerated and in fact encouraged, these works will lose much of their appeal.
And for an 18-year old today, although such literature might have inspired the Arab Spring, it will no longer apply to their lives, once the Arab Spring succeeds.
All of that literature will seem outdated, irrelevant and in fact boring to a rising Arab generation that will emerge after the Arab Spring, perhaps five to 10 years from now.
One day, they will definitely see the light, yet again, where need for them re-arises, perhaps when the Islamists coming to power today turn into another Hosni Mubarak or another Gaddafi. –
This article appeared in Asia Times entitled, “Where are the poets of the Arab Spring” on December 8, 2011.