A Memoir examining the last 50 years of Middle East history
Originally published on Global Voices
Author Amal Ghandour. Photo used with permission.
Through her journey as a privileged member of a generation that came of age politically in the 1980s, Ghandour offers a unique lens through which to understand the region’s intricacies. From the dawning quietude of the 1970s to the complexities of the post-Arab Spring uprisings’ era and the complicit silence of her generation. This Arab Life provides a rich and illuminating examination of the region’s dynamic past and present.
In an email interview with Global Voices, Ghandour delves deeper into the themes of her book, and reflects on the ongoing struggles and challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mariam Abuadas (MA): You argue that the 2011 Arab uprisings revealed the difficulty in dislodging police states in MENA. How can civil society and the next generation more effectively counter these authoritarian regimes?
Amal Ghandour (AG): In exploring how civil society might confront authoritarian regimes more effectively, we need to be sensitive to the richness of Arab contexts. For starters, we need to define it. This sphere typically includes NGOs, independent political parties, non-state trade and labor unions, professional associations, the independent press, even the private sector. But in most Arab countries, civil society is anemic and beholden to the state; many of its actors are neutralized and its space sprawling with NGOs working in their little silos.
To be effective in transformational change and/or countering repression, this civic ecosystem has to grow claws, and police states have proved very adept at clipping these. It’s a complex dynamic.
Politics is never static, and the reality is that ours are particularly fluid times. The uprisings may have failed in this first round, but so have the regimes. We are at a kind of impasse. The ruling systems have a serious dilemma: they are quite capable of repression, but they are utterly incapable of delivering for the people.
But we really need to be careful not to generalize, and to take each country on its own. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
MA: Based on your excavation of the past and the regional developments today, what direction do you envision the region taking, and where does the generation of the “silent” Arab bourgeoisie fit in that future?
AG: It’s early days. We need to appreciate the unpredictability of the moment and parse the region. Each country and corner of the Arab world has its own peculiarities, rhythms and prospects. Still, we can discern a couple of region-wide emerging patterns and trends.
We are in a post-ideological age strangely unencumbered by grand ideologies of any bent, including, I dare say, Islamism, which has been bleeding for quite a while now. The political arena has been wiped clean. It’s cathartic and disorienting.
In recent years, we have seen post-Islamism beginning to gain strength in the Middle East. And today, we see signs that the Saudi Kingdom and Islamic Republic are poised to lend momentum to its expansion.
Israel’s own trajectory strongly suggests that we are upon an extremely dangerous time for both Israelis and Palestinians. The impunity with which the Israeli state is putting on full public display its racist, anti-Palestinian, and fundamentalist character is almost sure to provoke major crises between the river and the sea, whose consequences could well be seismic.
And where does the silent Arab “bourgeoisie” fit in all this? I tend to be at my most skeptical when it comes to my “class.” We have proved ourselves hardcore pragmatists and committed incrementalists. We may be very well aware of the urgency of our problems, but unless our interests are genuinely threatened by the status quo or the situation becomes untenable, I suspect we will content ourselves with quiet advocacy — if that.
Cover of the book This Arab Life. Photo provided by the author and used with permission.
MA: How does the historical commentary in the book account for the narratives of the “non-silent” Arabs, the unsung heroes that challenged the status quo? What is the biggest lesson that can be offered to a new generation risking their lives on protest frontlines, or working to defend civic space in the region?
AG: Oh, boy! You’re breaking my heart here. I certainly hope that the book is not misunderstood as being in any way dismissive towards the many unsung (and sung) heroes that grace our contemporary history. They count and have their place in our story even if their efforts, in the end, did not succeed in guiding us towards a more promising present.
But I certainly think that these heroes in their context and time deserve more attention, and we have recently seen superb scholarship with such purpose and emphasis. Elizabeth Thompson’s How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs stands out in this genre.
As for the lessons for those fighting on the frontlines, there are few. One of the most consequential constants in our Arab predicament is incessant, often aggressive, foreign interference in our affairs. Those activists you mention have no genuine regional or international allies, and when they do, it’s a fleeting, cynical and capricious alliance. That presents a genuine dilemma. You can’t insulate the political battlefields.
Protests alone, no matter how loud and frequent and big, will not deliver regime change or systemic reforms. Mobilization is not organization, and fury is not strategy. The key to sustained grassroots pressure is organized politics: mass disobedience campaigns, sit-ins, strikes, agitation, worker and professional bodies joining and fueling dissent. Of course, police states are particularly adept at breaking or fragmenting it.
We have seen activists in more than one Arab country quickly grow very confident, even euphoric, at the first sign of seeming trouble for regimes. They tend to underestimate the resilience of the system, overestimate their own strength and misjudge the level and extent of dissent required to force a serious conversation with the state.
So, apathy has no place in this picture. Every inch counts and every small victory matters to people’s quality of life.
MA: In weaving together your childhood within the political context of the region’s history, how difficult was it to present a historical accounting of events while avoiding rosy retrospection? How did this impact your writing process?
AG: Memory is a deceptive friend. You think it’s there to give your past depth and perspective, but oftentimes it plays tricks on you. I was aware that, in looking back on my childhood and teenage years, my recollections might paint them as happier and perhaps more hopeful than they actually were. My renderings of old Amman and Beirut, as well. I wanted to be faithful to that uncertainty in the text. And so, my descriptions are often infused with a tentativeness that is alert to the passage of time and the mind’s hesitations.
MA: How can women writers more effectively tell their stories in a region where women engage in high levels of self-censorship, and are faced with both physical and digital attacks on their free expression?
AG: That’s a very good question, and, alas, I have no easy answers. The truth is that we (Arab men and women) live in very difficult settings. The rules for one and all are onerous. What little breathing space we enjoy is, to a large extent, determined by family, education, income, locale, social context, character. And what is quite bad for society at large is even worse for us women, for all the obvious reasons.
It’s just a very hard slog. And there is no path to progress but persistent, relentless, nimble pushback. Look at what Iranian women have achieved in education and the literary field, for example, over the past 40 years in spite of the Islamic Republic’s belligerence and society’s own prejudices. Look at them now. Is it an unvarnished triumph? Of course not; but it certainly is a feat. And it’s instructive, not only about what can be accomplished but also about what it takes to make strides.
Recently, throughout the Arab world, new media platforms and digital rights organizations have emerged. This young generation is truly intrepid, showing a lot of grit and creativity in both wrongfooting and circumventing social strictures and state controls.
I am not entirely pessimistic on this front. It’s an evolving story. There truly is nothing static about it.
Written by Mariam A.