This is an extract of a review I wrote for The Arab Review.
a name with no friendly diminutive.
a patient man, in a country
brimming with anger.
My roots have gripped this soil
since time began,
before the opening of the ages
before the cypress and the olive,
before the grasses flourished…
– Does my condition anger you?
It was the eighteenth century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau who first questioned the Enlightenment principle of “progress at all costs”. In The Social Contract, he brilliantly set out his scathing critique of what he saw as society’s fettering of mankind’s inherent freedom. But even Rousseau could not have predicted that his vision of the natural man, free from the “chains” of modernity, would go on to inspire a cultural and political narrative that pitted one society (and one culture) against another, and to create an “us and them” rhetoric that would shape the realpolitik boardroom discussions the world over.
This rhetoric would eventually become so distorted by petty nationalism and thinly-veiled racism that when Samuel P. Huntington published his theory of the “Clash of Civilisations”, few seemed aware of the intellectual legacy cached behind Huntington’s neo-conservative agenda. An agenda that has been proved devastatingly wrong by recent events in the Arab world.
The notion of the Arab exception – that there is something inherent in the makeup of Arab peoples that is contrary to the very principle of democracy – has arguably been laid to rest by the popular uprisings that have swept through the Middle East over the past 14 months. And yet, despite the long and often bloody history of political activism in the Arab world, it is only this most recent uprising that has been deemed worthy of note by the rest of the world. 1918, 1920, 1936, 1948, 1979, 1991; these are all dates that are ingrained in the collective history of the Arab peoples and that mark mass protests across the Arabic-speaking regions. All of these revolts were either silenced internally or ignored externally; the Arab remained, for all intents and purposes, completely invisible.
It is this “invisibility” that lends itself to the title of Marwan Bishara’s recent book. Bishara professes to present a counter-narrative to the Western media’s portrayal of the Arab Spring – “that an oppressed people who have suffered passively suddenly decided that enough was enough and thanks to Western technology and inspiration, spontaneously rose to reclaim their freedom” – by grounding the events of the past year in the “long social and political struggle” of the region’s history. The ensuing historical commentary (or “voyage”, as Bishara dubs it) presents a welcome change to the immediate and often sensationalist media coverage that has been ever-present throughout the uprisings.