SPREADING THROUGH American living rooms last winter, as live broadcasts streamed from Cairo's Tahrir Square, was an overdue recognition that Arabs and others in the Middle East were not so different after all, not inhibited by their culture and religion, for instance, from wanting modern political and economic systems. A young, university educated woman articulated in eloquent English her plans for reform. An older man, a shopkeeper, was ready to die to change a system he knew in his gut was wrong. Those who have spent time in the region could not help but feel relief, not only at the bursting-forth of new momentum for change, but at the shift in perceptions here at home. Then came the pop video "Voice of Freedom" by Mostafa Fahmy, showing families in the streets singing of their hopes for the future. The week Hosni Mubarak left office, "Voice of Freedom" reached 1.5 million YouTube hits.
This many could relate to. Protesters were not shouting for Allah to kill Jews and Westerners. They were demanding decency and dignity. Ordinary people rallied against violent intimidation and structural discrimination, for better jobs and an end to money-grabbing cronyism among elites. In Tunisia and Egypt, in Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Yemen and Syria, movements of various sizes and varying agendas began to form. Each country came into focus as distinct. Once these folks began inhabiting the west's laptop screens, we grew anxious to get to know them better. We craved — and still crave — more back story.
How timely, then, is the anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Edited by Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism, the collection came out late last fall just before protests in Tunisia started the season of change. Digital media may have spurred aspiration into action, but it's the region's wealth of stories and poems that have animated the spirit behind the recent events. Al Jazeera's live webcasts were crucial, but so were the words of poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi's "The Will to Live," words activists chanted in Tunis as they began the wave of uprisings in January:
If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.
Tunisians recited these words in the 1950s as they fought for independence from France, and this year their children and grandchildren revived them. This poem, and others by al-Shabi, spread with the speed of a mouse click to Alexandria and Cairo, and now provide comfort to the friends and family of unarmed civilians recently killed by the regime in Syria (more than 1,500 as of this writing).
Aslan's collection makes clear that the Arab Spring of 2011 reflects not just frustration with 30 years of despotic regimes but a century spent grappling with a postcolonial search for identity. While Middle Eastern leaders strutted through the 20th century on the world's political stage an...