Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus

“The process of finding the protagonists was not easy,” said Layla Al-Zubaidi, editor of Writing Revolution and director of the Southern Africa office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Cape Town. She added:

“If you ask revolutionaries to write, it is not easy because they have to sit back and reflect on what they are doing, and for that you need time, space and calm moments. If you’re in the heat of the battle it is hard to find that.”

Al-Zubaidi was joined by Matthew Cassel, a journalist for Al Jazeera English who co-edited the book, Mohamed Mesrati, a Libyan writer and journalist who contributed to the book, and Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini blogger who agreed to contribute before he went into hiding after a government crackdown. Abdulemam was representing his friend and fellow political refugee Dr. Ali Aldairy, who contributed to the project but was unable to attend the event. Rachel Shabi, a journalist who has written widely on the Middle East, chaired the event. She commented:

 “Most of the journalism that came out of the Arab uprisings came from people who rocked up after the revolution started.”

Cassel said that although Western journalists working for mainstream media outlets were a vital part of reporting the Arab Spring, alternative voices could provide a fuller picture of the unfolding events:

“We shouldn’t neglect the young voices that are happening in the country. . . . We need to give a platform to these voices.”

From Cairo to Damascus, Tunisia to Bahrain, the essays and articles highlight the drastic differences between the revolutions which have often been painted with the same brush by the mainstream media. They also explore the histories of the people and their countries, dispelling the myth that the Arab revolutions came from nowhere.

“We wanted to show how much struggle and how much sacrifice happened in the years leading up to the uprisings,” Cassel said, adding that “creative resistance” was a large factor in the uprisings.

Mesrati said that he found it difficult to write down what the Libyan revolution meant to him, when he was commissioned to write a piece:

“When my literary agent said I should write a piece of 3,000 words to 5,000 words, I wanted to write 7,000 words.”

He also mentioned that he wanted to write about Libya’s history and Gaddafi’s influence on the country.

Abdulemam, who went into hiding before he could write his piece, said that he would have focussed on the youth in Bahrain and why they had taken to the streets:

“I would have reflected on youth, what makes them so angry and what they are ready to die for. My essay would try to answer why the youth went out into the street and why until this day they have not gone home. . . . They have this hope that they will bring change. They are sure they will bring it. They don’t want anyone to insult them any more. That’s what makes me sure that change is coming soon.”

Throughout the debate, the editors and writers spoke about the other contributors they encountered along the way.

Aldairy, who was unable to attend the debate, “wrote his experiences from outside the opposition circle”, according to Abdulemam.  On the other hand, Al-Zubaidi recalled commissioning a piece from a Syrian writer while avoiding the use of the word ‘activism’, ‘civil society’ and ‘revolution’ on the phone in case it put her in danger:

“She finally said to me: ‘Do you want me to write an article about the revolution? I will say and write what I want. Don’t worry about putting me in danger, I will express myself.’”

Al-Zubaidi continued:

“When [some people] say how disappointing the Arab Spring was, and ask was it worth it, it disregards what these people are doing. You don’t want to risk everything if there’s no hope, and I think these people had hope.”

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