Amid all the uncertainty wrought by the Arab Spring, one consequence was entirely predictable: that it would unleash a glut of hastily-written books trying to make sense of it all. A new one arrives here on The Sunday Telegraph foreign desk nearly every week, sent to us by authors torn between getting their book out while it’s topical, yet still not really knowing how it will all end.
They are, it’s fair to say, a mixed bag. Some are dense tracts written by academics who haven’t seen any of the events first hand, some are high-speed cuts jobs that are impressive only in meeting publisher’s deadlines. Others are the usual polemics that see the whole thing through the prism of malign US foreign policy, ignoring the millions of young Arab activists who insist this was very much their revolution, which they started with precious little help from anyone else.
So when a book called Arab Spring Dreams arrived on my desk recently, I was initially tempted to add it to the pile of unread tomes in our store cupboard. It looks rather like a text book, while the concept – a collection of human rights-themed essays by young writers from around the region – suggests the “worthy but dull” category.
As they say, don’t judge the book by the cover. Inside is an eclectic selection of essays that offer some of the best insights I’ve come across into the Arab world. They have been compiled by the American Islamic Congress, an organisation dedicated to promoting tolerance between faiths, which over recent years has organised an annual international essay writing contest for people under 26 – the kind of folk who have filled the likes of Egypt’s Tahrir Square in the past 18 months.
The essays, all published under pseudonyms, cover everything from run-ins with security forces, through to education (and the lack of it), sex (and the lack of it), and politics. But the book’s editors, who have compiled them with a Western readership in mind, have done a good job in creating a read that is far more accessible than the average academic tome.
First, each essay is prefaced by a well-informed précis of the author’s native land. Which is handy if you don’t know much about Kuwait, for example, with its Roman-style categories of citizenship, or Mauritania, where informal slavery persists to this day. Second, none are more than about three pages long, which is great for anyone, who, like me, has limited energy for this kind of stuff after a long day at work. And thirdly, the editors specifically requested the essay writers to avoid the Israel-Palestine issue, which gets a disproportionate share of attention given the horrors – and, now, triumphs – in the rest of the region.
Instead we hear from random voices in different, less explored parts of the Arab world. An Algerian talks of her memories of growing up during the Islamic insurgency in the 1990s, when her teacher was kidnapped and tortured to death. An Egyptian, taking part in 2005’s rigged elections, describes his dismay as he sees people selling their votes outside the polling booth. And there is the Yemeni student who, after criticising a university cleric for saying that “women are the spit of Satan”, is presented with a medal saying “blasphemer and atheist”. Depressingly, it is given to him not by the cleric himself, but by his fellow students, both male and female.
While the essays show that much of the region’s repression comes from the attitudes of ordinary people as much as their rulers, they are a reminder that intelligent minds are out there, and that not everyone in the Middle East is an embassy-burning, Rushdie-hating extremist – a view occasionally expressed here on the comment sections of Telegraph blogs.
As it happens, it was the Rushdie affair that inspired the book in the first place. The essay writing contest was the idea of the Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-educated Syrian who became disillusioned with radical Islam after the fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran. He pointed out to the American Islamic Congress that while the Muslim world had vast, well-organised networks of people pushing extremist visions, nobody was doing the same thing for liberal ideas. “What we need is an essay contest on liberty with significant cash prizes,” he said.
Indeed, while Iran, being mainly Persian, is not part of the Arab world, some of the book’s most vivid writing comes from there, courtesy of a young Iranian who, after reading George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, realises he is living in his very own religious dystopia. It is, he says, a “perennially self-righteous society”, allowing its rulers to justify extraordinary acts of brutality. “While you (in the West) are fighting for the rights of pandas over there, people are still being stoned to death in my country.” He writes that many Iranians are now so fed up of religious rule that if the regime ever falls, “Iran will form the biggest community of atheists on the planet.”
Another good essay comes from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which the book portrays as little more than a gigantic welfare state, where citizens get state-funded education and housing in return in exchange for “absolute submission” to their royal rulers. This peculiar brand of monarchical Marxism has remained largely untouched so far by the Arab Spring, although it’s worth pointing that Saudi Arabia has hardly let any foreign news journalists in the past 18 months, something that even the Libyan and Syrian regimes have done in limited fashion.
However, turbulent forces are still at work there, as the essay “Monologue with the Prince” reveals. An idealistic 25-year-old describes his excitement over an invite to attend the “Expeditionary Forum for National Dialogue”, which is billed as a chance to air his views on freedom of speech to senior Saudi royal.
A fat chance, as it turns out. First, he is warned in advance not to say anything controversial. Then, when His Highness finally arrives as the forum’s guest speaker, all the audience gets is a long sermon about how wonderful the kingdom is, and why change will have to be very slow indeed. His Highness then departs without taking questions.
Disillusioned, the student then discovers blogging as a way of expressing himself – an outlet now chosen by millions of the youngsters at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Another member of the audience, however, finds a rather different outlet for his frustrations. Six months after the forum, he “martyrs himself” in Iraq.
Like the excellent “What’s really wrong with the Middle East”, by the Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, Arab Spring Dreams scratches well beneath the surface of the societies concerned and probes into their psychological and social fabric. And in doing so, it proves that contrary to the claims of so many Arab politicians, not everything that is wrong with the region is someone else’s fault.