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Ellie Violet Bramley

Writing in a Time of Revolutions

n Monday, esteemed Arab authors assembled at West Hall at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for a day of literary readings and a panel discussion revolving around the place and effect of Arab writers in light of the current uprisings that have gripped the Arab world.

Titled “Writing in the Time of Revolutions,” the event was chaired by renowned Lebanese author, academic and ex-Fatah Movement member Elias Khoury. The panel consisted of Cairo- and London-based author and commentator Ahdaf Soueif, impassioned Bahraini poet Ali Al-Jallawi, jovial but hard-hitting Syrian author Khaled Khalifa, Yemeni novelist and academic Nadia Al-Kokabany, and Tunisian author Kamel Riahi. Together they created a compelling, staccato narrative about what it means to be a writer in times dominated by revolution.

The choice of venue was apt and ironic. AUB has long been a gathering spot for intellectuals and revolutionaries; however, Lebanon remains relatively removed from the revolutions taking over the Arab world. Khoury agreed, pointing candidly to the examples of his two mother countries: Lebanon, with its crippling confessional political system, and Palestine. Though both were pioneers of revolution, they have failed at growing their own seeds of revolution. 

Reflecting on the relationship between authors, writing and revolution, one can safely say it is long and complex. Writing as a response to or an incitement of revolution or political and social discontent is nothing new. Throughout history, novelists and poets have used revolution as a touchstone for their creativity. But the Arab Spring is a unique phenomenon and the Arab adage, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” was not the only one called into question at yesterday’s event. For Syrian novelist and scriptwriter Khalifa, this time, the revolution has caused misgivings about the strength of the pen versus the strength of the sword.

Khalifa gained acclaim with "In Praise of Hatred,” which was first published in 2006. He spoke movingly of having "dreamt over and over that I was a wrestler, a boxer, a karate master, anything but what I am, so that I can protect a child from certain death by tank shelling."

In the shadow of Homs, who wouldn't feel troubled by his inability to take direct, life-saving action? Where Khalifa once felt sure of the worth of his trade, now he feels his convictions have been demolished, and his "egotism" has been dislodged by the Syrian revolution.

He spoke of how writing makes him aware of the impotence of writing, and of his linguistic nakedness in this time of revolution. Creatives can be hard on themselves, and such critical introspection is intensified in such troubled times.

Similarly, the relationship between the proletariats and the intellectuals has often been tested and developed in times of discontent. Kamel Riahi believes it is the role of the author to envision a better future for his country. Khalifa disagreed, saying it was the people and not the intellectual elite who started the Syrian revolution, though intellectuals had, paradoxically, long awaited what finally came as a surprise. 

Despite Khalifa's insecurities and dislodged certainty in the importance and impact of writing, he seems now to have renewed pride in the "glory" of the Syrian population who, though paying a high price, are in the process of discovering their country for themselves and creating their own Syrian folklore.

For Soueif, it was the younger generations in Egypt who took the lead, their parents following on. But for Riahi, the revolution was led by those sitting behind their computers, and who can say whether they are young, old, professors or unemployed?

For Nadia Al-Kokobany, a Yemeni novelist, short story writer and academic, the relationship between her pen and the other activities of the revolution is difficult. “As martyrs fell, writing became more and more painful. As their blood fell, so my pen wept," she wrote. “My pen shivered as it tended their wounds.” But it is in the aftermath, once Yemen is free and society ripening, she can see the start of a happier symbiosis: "My ink will come to life and write all this down."

In the poetry that Al Jallawi recited, dynamic and visceral, something of the "violence of language" that Zizek explores was seen - while bullets fly, "we were the ones who bombarded them with our dead bodies." The life that his poetry draws is one where death certificates are issued even as birth certificates are being finalized.

For Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif her take on writing on the Egyptian revolution from Tahrir Square has been to insist on optimism to convey a message about her faith in possibility. For her, the revolution has opened the possibility of dialogue. Writing for British newspaper The Guardian last year, she said that "in Egypt it was silence or shouting. Now it's a great conversation."

Her reading took the tone of a love letter to Cairo, unrequited but endlessly passionate. “All I could do was insist that I loved her. And she acted like she didn't care,” she read. Soueif asserts her love for Cairo, despite what she calls “the clown being made out of her” with plastic palm trees being adorned with green and red light bulbs.

For Riahi, there is a victory in producing something that is aesthetically special. Asked about the future output of Arab creators who often rely on now-deposed enemies for their creative impetus, Riahi said there would never be a lack of adversaries. In Tunisia, Ben Ali may have gone, but what's left is fertile ground for enemies, he said, and in a time of greater personal freedom, creative texts of resistance will be abound.

Jallawi’s poetry speaking of "sadness that bubbles up like coffee,” was reminiscent of Mahmoud Darwish's writing on Arabism in “Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982.” The process of brewing coffee becomes for Darwish a kind of possession of his dawn; a dawn that is otherwise filled with Israel "rockets, shells, or jets." In a parallel, Khalifa last night cited these revolutions as a period of glorious self-discovery, and one that literature will be there to add valuable ink to.