SAMIR KASSIR, IN HIS 2004 REFLECTIONS on the “Arab malaise,” wrote bluntly that it was “not pleasant being Arab these days.” His own fate stands as testament to the depths of this unpleasantness.
On the morning of June 2, 2005, not long after writing those words, the well-known Lebanese journalist and historian left his apartment in East Beirut for the downtown offices of An-Nahar, the newspaper for which he wrote a weekly column. He never arrived. A bomb placed beneath his car detonated upon its ignition. The blast tore off the roof of the car and its driver’s side door and killed Kassir.
His murder was part of a cascade of bombings and assassinations that tore through the small country between 2004 and 2006. Its casualties included former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, former Secretary General of the Lebanese Communist Party George Hawi, and former editor of An-Nahar Gebran Tueni, as well as dozens of civilians. The social and economic catastrophe that has unfolded in Lebanon over 2020 is only the latest in a deluge of crises to have submerged the country in recent years.
But the notion of “unpleasantness” scarcely suffices to capture the multiplicity, richness, and depth of the contemporary Arab experience. Kassir himself would likely insist on that proposition. On March 4, 2005, in the midst of a movement of mass protest, Kassir wrote: “When the Arab Spring blooms in Beirut, it announces the time of roses in Damascus.” He never lived to see that moment of blossom nor the long winter that came to envelop it. But the time of roses did arrive in Damascus, if only for a moment, as indeed it swept across the whole region.
On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused his body with fuel and set himself ablaze in protest at the humiliation and indignity that he had suffered at the hands of government officials. Within hours, the streets of Sidi Bouzid, the small city in which Bouazizi lived, and then the capital Tunis, and before long Cairo, Dar’aa, Damascus, Manama, San’aa, Benghazi, Amman, Beirut, and beyond were engulfed in a tide of massive popular unrest. The people reclaimed their streets, and the tyrants began to fall. The defining chant of the period, heard in squares and streets across the region, was “the people want the fall of the regime.” Bouazizi’s final sacrifice served, at least for a moment, to demonstrate the power of a politics of despair.
History is rarely so kind, however, nor so linear. Ten years later, authoritarians have consolidated their grip on power, civil wars and imperial interventions have decimated societies, and many millions aspire to nothing more than sanctuary. Thousands of desperate individuals — to say nothing of entire families — have drowned seeking refuge from misery in the vast expanse of the Mediterranean. An entire generation whose social and political consciousness was molded by the revolutionary moment of 2011 have watched as their collective future appeared to disintegrate before them. Vast numbers are in prison today. Many were not so lucky.
But the horizons of dissent are long. The past two years have seen a resurrection of protest and upheaval across the region and, with it, renewed hopes for a brighter future. Massive demonstrations erupted in Sudan on December 19, 2018, exactly eight years and two days after Mohamed Bouazizi’s fateful act of self-immolation, leading ultimately to the deposition of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Various popular movements and demonstrations have also taken hold in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. Yet the spread of COVID-19 and the corresponding global crisis have for the most part forced these movements to a standstill, and nobody can say with any certainty what the future may hold for the region in the wake of the pandemic.
All of this to say that “unpleasantness” alone falls short of capturing the totality of the Arab experience in the 21st century. The reality is a contradictory mosaic of love, loss, hope, despair, humiliation, stubborn resolve, and a thunderous will to life. Within this grand artifice the personal, political, social, and national all bleed into one another, so that individual experiences are invariably intertwined with collective aspirations and visions of common destiny.
Dissonance and disorientation, then, are perhaps the most compelling hallmarks of the experience of being Arab today. One could characterize this experience in terms of counterpoint, to use an expression much favored by the late Edward Said.
In music, counterpoint involves the overlaying of independent melodies in ways that can produce momentary dissonances. Their interaction, however, constructs a distinctive harmony out of the whole. The contemporary Arab condition might be said to embody a kind of social counterpoint: a contradictory condition of disquiet and promise, loss and longing, alienation and desire.
Yet is it even possible to speak of a collective “Arab experience”? We are dealing, after all, with approximately 400 million human beings, spread across 22 countries and an increasingly large diaspora, composed of a rich diversity of ethnic and cultural histories, linguistic traditions, religious beliefs, political struggles, and economic and social conditions. Indeed, the boundaries of “Arabness” itself are deeply contested, and the object of long historical dispute. One of the great crimes of contemporary Orientalist discourse is to portray such grand personified entities as “the Arabs” or “the Islamic world” as a monolithic mass of essentially interchangeable persons and societies, reducible to some (inevitably contemptible) cultural essence.
In reflecting on the discontinuities contained within the contemporary Arab experience, we insist on its rich multiplicity. We insist on the historical contingency of our present and the place of human endeavor in making and shaping our future in the face of ahistorical and often racialized narratives of cultural or religious determinism. Nevertheless, in culture, literature, and public discourse, one can identify the contours of shared experiences that together make up something like a collective consciousness and social imaginary. In other words, common narratives — sometimes real, sometimes imagined — provide points of convergence for the otherwise discontinuous experience of being Arab today.
Three such points of convergence are the Arabic language, the (ongoing) colonial experience, and a burning sense of powerlessness interposed with bursts of hope and euphoria.
It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the Arabic language to Arab identity, past and present. Indeed, there is no credible way to articulate a definition of Arabness today except in terms of the language and its native speakers (and their descendants). For Arabness remains a complex, textured, and historically contested designation. Contrary to the illusions and myths of all varieties of nativist, there can be no coherent ethnic or genealogical definition of a people composed of such a multitude of cultural and political traditions, migrations, and displacements.
Arabic etymologists have even suggested that one of the earliest meanings of the word arab was “disparate peoples mixed or mingled together.” In other words, the word contains within it both inherent disunity and an attempt at integration. The essential continuity is the Arabic language itself, which over the centuries has acquired a cultural status nearing a kind of sanctity, on account of its being the language of classical poetry and the divine revelation of the Qur’an.
But this continuity is itself constituted by a kind of fragmentation, for the most distinctive feature of the Arabic language is its diglossia: the divergence between its written literary register and its many colloquial varieties. The colloquial dialects of Arabic vary wildly in their mutual intelligibility. For example, the speakers of Levantine dialects across Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria will understand each other without difficulty and will generally be capable of fairly effective communication with Iraqi and Gulf Arabs, subject to varying degrees of effort. Most will also be able to understand the Egyptian dialect, well known for its speed and clipped tones, as it acquired a kind of universality as the language of cinema and music in the 20th century. But a Syrian has almost no hope of following a conversation carried out in wholly colloquial Moroccan or Algerian, given the vast differences between the dialects in grammatical composition, vocabulary, foreign loanwords, and pronunciation. In the face of such difficulties, the conversing parties will often revert to a kind of simplified classical (that is to say, literary) Arabic, or attempt to neutralize the more distinctive features of their colloquial dialect.
Against the background of this rich mosaic of spoken dialects, the literary register (or some approximation of it) remains the language of most written communication: novels, poetry, newspapers, and legal practice, as well as the spoken language of formal contexts like news broadcasts, political and religious speeches, and academic lectures. Known as fus-ha — literally, “the most eloquent” — the literary language has a powerful lyrical quality to it, difficult to articulate but immediately perceptible to its speakers. It is almost mathematical in its precision, formed out of a system of mostly trilateral roots that communicate the general flavor of a given word. From each of these roots, various paradigmatic forms are derived to convey some particular meaning: causative, associative, intensive, passive, and so on.
The existence of the literary language allows for a particular kind of eloquence, as Edward Said argued, embodied in seamless, dazzling vacillations between the demotic and the classical for rhetorical purposes: to convey intimacy, grandeur, and emotional force as required. Said points toward the oratory of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab nationalist leader of Egypt and a towering figure in the Non-Aligned Movement, as an illustrative example.
The recording of Nasser’s attempted assassination in Alexandria in 1954 provides an electrifying demonstration of this phenomenon. After the failed assassin fired eight shots at Nasser, panic erupted in the mass audience, but the Egyptian revolutionary leader remained at the podium and appealed for calm. His voice trembling with emotion, he exclaimed (in fus-ha):
My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor. Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor, and freedom in you. If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser. […] Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you, and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.
In addition to making possible a particular form of eloquence, fus-ha has served to forge a remarkable degree of historical and geographical continuity in the language. One can still return today to the pre-Islamic poems known as the Mu’allaqat (literally “the Suspended Ones”) — which according to legend had been suspended on scrolls of linen on the walls of the Ka’aba in Mecca — and read them without great difficulty despite being written over 1,400 years ago. It is this continuity that lends coherence to the otherwise disparate condition of “the Arabs.” It has allowed for the construction of an uninterrupted historical mythology of language and continues to unite societies today as a medium of expression that carries a quality of divinity as the language of worship, literature, and national consciousness.
The role of the literary language in constructing a kind of unity out of disorder is made even more apparent once we reflect on the place of classical poetry in Arab social and cultural consciousness. It is commonly said in Arabic that “poetry is the record of the Arabs” (al-shi’ru diwan al-‘arab). This saying, I think, conveys two ideas. First, it captures the status of classical poetry as the highest literary form, the very pinnacle of human expression. Second, it suggests that the literary canon of Arabic poetry just is the historical record of the Arabs — that their sense of peoplehood is constructed, to a large extent, by this literary tradition.
In his epic Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam, Elias Khoury touches on the role of Arabic literature in constructing a shared mythology of Arabness. He writes that “the ancient Arabs built their literary legend on the triad poet–prophet–king. This schema began with Imru’ al-Qays, who was a poet and a king, and reached its apogee with al-Mutanabbi, a poet and prophet who aspired to kingship.” It has been suggested that fus-ha emerged as a common language of rhetoric and poetry across pre-Islamic Arabia between tribes that otherwise spoke distinct colloquial dialects. In other words, it owes its very existence to the place of poetry in the social environment of the Arabian Peninsula at the time. Language was the last vehicle of immortality, the final defense against the machinations of time, which threatened to relegate the triumphs and conquests of even the greatest of kings to the bleak silence of the desert. Why else, as Khoury asks us to reflect, would Saif al-Dawla, Emir of Aleppo, allow al-Mutanabbi to sit beside him and pour praise upon his own ability to immortalize the emir in poetry?
However, for all its powers of immortalization, even the Arabic language has not avoided the dissonances of our age. After all, Samir Kassir wrote his reflections on Being Arab in French, and I write here in English. The Nahda (Renaissance) movement, which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, produced a vibrant reawakening of classical Arabic and its literature, but the language has suffered in recent decades under the burdens of social and economic fragmentation. For a long time, colonial powers had imposed their own languages upon a native bureaucracy while consciously marginalizing indigenous languages, unleashing a process of dislocation that persists today as families and societies have come to regard English and French as gateways to social mobility and escape.
Today, a substantial proportion of the population, while native in their colloquial dialects, will struggle to compose even vaguely sophisticated prose in the literary register. Loss of language has become representative of a wider sense of loss of home, a deep and pervasive alienation with one’s homeland, one’s predicament, and oneself.
My own experience with the Arabic language is in some ways illustrative of these dissonances, though naturally influenced by my class position. For as long as I can remember, Arabic has been to me the language of family and intimacy and has carried an emotional resonance that feels lacking in the colder, more detached expressions of the English language. But the latter has been the language of my education and, more often than not, the language of my thoughts — more precise, suggestive, and amenable to my control. Arabic, for all its lyricism, is somehow out of grasp, unwilling to yield entirely to the dictates of my imagination. The two exist in an uneasy state of neither war nor peace.
Growing up as a Jordanian Palestinian in a British School in the United Arab Emirates, use of Arabic was banned except in obligatory Arabic classes. Outside that context, it represented a threat to the authority of our non-Arabic-speaking teachers. Those Arabic lessons — and, too often, their teachers — were often regarded with derision, little more than a formality to comply with the requirements of the Ministry of Education. None of my non-Arab classmates (who formed a majority of the student body) left school with anything resembling even a cursory grasp of the language, despite in some cases having attended the school for their entire lives.
The Arab students fared little better, many having internalized a kind of colonial contempt for the language, resulting in invisible, but much-felt, boundaries of communication between themselves and their families and communities. I was no exception, having felt deep frustration at the sense of leading two incoherent lives, and wishing to do away with the “Arab life” that felt at times superfluous if not pernicious. One wanted to experience the sure-footedness, the intoxicating self-confidence of the British teachers and students, who appeared never to have any real doubt about who they were, what their place was, and why they were there.
English literature was perhaps my strongest subject and remains a great love of mine to this day. But the texts we studied more often than not bore no relation to my own experiences. At no point in my 14 years of schooling did I really learn anything about the region in which I lived, its history, struggles, or literary traditions. I diligently studied the Romantic poetry of Keats and Wordsworth and their sensual representations of a topography that was utterly unfamiliar to me. I could recite some commentary about their reflections on nature, but I had no conception of what the English countryside was actually like, nor any concrete image of the beaches and cliffs about which I read.
The result was that I often felt as though I was engaged in a performance of sorts. I, and those like me, inhabited a strange middle ground, lacking stable boundaries between theater and reality. I mastered a remarkable ability to conform almost anywhere but never really felt at home, living instead in margins and peripheries, struggling to make sense of an identity that seemed to slip away and dissolve again just as I tried to define or grasp it. I lived, as Said put it, between worlds, in a state of “standing civil war.”
It was only when I moved to England for university, where it quickly became apparent that there was no denying my essential strangeness, no hope of overcoming that lingering sense of being perpetually out of place, that I embarked upon a concerted project to reconnect with the language that I had neglected and perhaps hoped to forget. I started more or less from scratch, studying the intricate grammar of classical Arabic and, with the help of family members, acquainting myself with a rich literary canon whose presence I had been entirely oblivious to. I read the novels of Ghassan Kanafani, Naguib Mahfouz, Radwa Ashour, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Ghada al-Samman, as well as the modern poetry of Ahmed Shawqi, Mahmoud Darwish, and Nizar Qabbani, at times venturing to study fragments of the classical canon through Imru’ al-Qays, al-Mutanabbi, Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri, and Amru Bin Kulthum. Over the past few years, I have reached a point at which I can write articles and essays in fus-ha, but the ideal of real eloquence remains elusive and I suspect ultimately impossible to achieve.
This small personal experience with the Arabic language is illustrative of many of the discontinuities of the contemporary Arab experience: the centrality of migration and dislocation, as well as a kind of alienation from one’s cultural heritage and, in the end, oneself. Such doubts often find expression in various manifestations of self-loathing or else in demonstrations of allegiance to some form of exclusionary nativism. Historically, the latter, like its counterparts around the world, has manifested itself in the brutal repression of Amazigh, Kurdish, Assyrian, and other minority communities. Both are sought as vehicles of escape from a state of permanent expectancy and disorientation. Both, in the end, doomed to failure.
The modern trajectory of the Arabic language can also be told as one dimension of the story of the colonial encounter. For the Nahda movement arose directly out of this encounter, at the same time a product of rich engagement with European cultural and literary output and a project of opposition to European imperialism. More recent fractures in the Arabic language are themselves also a product of the dislocations unleashed by over a century of direct and indirect imperial domination. Perhaps more than anything else, it is empire, in its historical and present practices, its mythologies and representations, that conditions the experience of being Arab today. It pervades a vast range of phenomena, intruding deeply into our relationships with our communities, our families, and ourselves.
This is manifest above all at the level of political economy. The region’s status as simultaneously a part of the global economic periphery and yet also a critical site of resource extraction and geopolitical contestation has defined its present condition. Its borders were drawn up as part of a deliberate apportionment of interests among the great powers, with blatant disregard toward the aspirations of its inhabitants. Authoritarian political regimes were established and continue to be propped up by imperial powers to entrench this process of extraction and domination. The region is now home to tens of thousands of foreign troops and a staggering number of military bases. The prevailing social contract is deeply enmeshed in these power relations and has produced stagnation, astonishing inequality, and conflict.
But the practices and myths of empire also manifest themselves in the spheres of culture and consciousness. Today, there is a widespread sense that the most significant decisions about the lives, economic prospects, and collective futures of the people of the region are made in distant metropolises. The overwhelming power of foreign actors, and the patterns of domination and subjugation that this power produces, appear inescapable. One’s life prospects often seem utterly beyond one’s control. And the decision to leave behind one’s home, family, and everything that is familiar in pursuit of a better life elsewhere, for those lucky few for whom it is possible, rarely feels like a choice.
Certain names and dates are by now engraved in the Arab social imaginary: Sykes-Picot, Balfour, Churchill, Sharon, Blair, Bush; 1916, 1917, 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2014. For the overwhelming majority of Europeans and Americans these carry little if any meaning, except perhaps for vague impressions of historical “greatness” among some of the names. By contrast, their mere mention is sufficient to evoke feelings of despair among many Arabs. Invasions, occupations, sieges, and campaigns of ethnic cleansing and division, all form part of a kind of imperial continuity, variations on the same theme.
The question of Palestine, the calculated dispossession of its inhabitants and creeping colonization of its territories, lies at the heart of this relationship. On one level, this is something of a historical truism: the geopolitics of the region has manifestly been shaped by the occupation of Palestine and its many reverberations for regional states and global powers. But this statement is also true on several deeper levels.
For the dispossession of the Palestinian people has come over time to serve as a symbol of all that has been lost, a living testament to the “triumph” of empire and a national condition of despair. In the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the loss of Palestine becomes something like the loss of Eden — it is the tragic fall of the entire Arab world. The Palestinian experience of dislocation, exile, and permanent occupation has become emblematic of the phenomena that would come to characterize the general Arab condition in later decades. Trump’s so-called “deal of the century,” concocted with the complicity of authoritarian Arab regimes, is the latest crown jewel in this process of subjugation and domination, “yet another declaration of war on the Palestinians,” in the words of Rashid Khalidi, before which regional actors appear either unable to oppose or wholly uninterested in doing so.
This imperial continuity has been very present in the decade of unraveling since the 2011 uprisings. Global powers have found themselves at times supporting and arming authoritarian client states as they brutally suppressed domestic unrest, at times unleashing massive bombing campaigns on others in the name of democratic revolution, yet always insisting on the defense of their “vital security and economic interests.”
The case of Libya provides a vivid illustration of some of these contradictions. By the early 2000s, the Gaddafi regime had become something of a pet project of the Blair government in the United Kingdom. In 2009, Peter Mandelson, a central figure in the New Labour regime, holidayed with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s son and heir apparent, at the Rothschild family villa in Corfu. Today, Saif al-Islam is wanted under an arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. But, as if suddenly awakening to the brutality of the Gaddafi regime, the UK government in 2011 participated in the NATO military intervention in Libya. An intervention which began under a UN Security Council Resolution mandate purportedly to end attacks against civilians quickly mutated into a full-throated project of regime change from the skies.
That project reached its apotheosis with the brutal death of Muammar Gaddafi. Slumped over the hood of a car, his face smeared with blood as he begged for mercy, Gaddafi was repeatedly and humiliatingly slapped, beaten, and dragged along the ground by his hair. One video showed the dictator being sodomized by a knife or bayonet, before apparently being shot dead.
Libya was for the most part then left to its fate. Those who had frothed at the mouth at the spectacular display of NATO military power seemed to harbor comparatively little interest in postwar planning or the future of Libyan society. The country descended into a state of misery, becoming the hub of a new slave trade and the center of people-smuggling operations for countless desperate individuals and families seeking a better life in Europe. Many drowned as they sought refuge in the very same states that had decimated their cities from above. Today, Libya is in the clutches of a civil war, the opposing sides of which are armed and supported in turn by different Western and NATO allies.
An acute awareness of this colonial continuity has contributed to the pervasive feeling of powerlessness and despair which characterizes much of the experience of being Arab today. It is in this vein that Kassir wrote in 2004 that “the Arab malaise is also inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other — a gaze that prevents everything, even escape,” that “constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition […] ridicules your powerlessness, foredooms all your hopes, and stops you in your tracks time and again.”
It would be reductive and inane to suggest that the contemporary Arab condition is in its totality a product of empire. But collective powerlessness in the face of imperial aggression has come to represent a more pervasive sense of loss of control, a paralyzing inability to reclaim some authority over our common destinies and future. A multitude of causes contribute to this feeling, and its precise contours and manifestations are elusive and difficult to define. But I think there is a sense in which we have all felt this way: it forms a constitutive part of “what it’s like” to be Arab today. Whether it’s imperial aggression, authoritarian repression, or the brutality that we inflict upon each other and ourselves, all seem to contribute to the same numbing rhythm that hangs over our lives. The feeling is the same.
The essence of this feeling is captured, I think, in Hisham Matar’s pointed question: what do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return? It is this state of limbo, of permanent alienation and expectancy, that conditions much of the experience of being Arab today. In Darwish’s words, “Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”
For many, this feeling translates to an indefinite suspension of life that can ultimately last for generations. Many have been “waiting” to return to their homes or resume their lives for decades now. “Wait and see what happens” has become a refrain for entire societies. Decisions about where to live, what to do, how to exist are conditional upon the promise of some resumption of “normality” that remains unfulfilled. Those waiting “until the situation is clearer” have often found themselves waiting entire lifetimes.
These disorienting questions are made all the more painful by their insidiousness. For national trauma is, in the end, a deeply personal affair. It is, as Matar puts it, difficult to “fully […] understand the effects that watching one’s own people butcher and be butchered by our own” can have on a society. Something very intimate is lost. It disfigures every moment and bleeds into every aspect of our lives: our families, aspirations, personal relationships, even our romances. There can be no inward retreat, no solace in the quiet solitude of the self, for even the self has not escaped the clutches of this condition, its anxieties, disappointments, and neuroses. Loss and disorientation are everywhere and permeate everything.
But perhaps there is some consolation in this fact. For one is left with no real alternative but to throw oneself into the maelstrom, to seek some source of redemption, in love, in hope, and in struggle. It is precisely this politics of powerlessness that has produced the many moments of hope and euphoria that have erupted at various intervals in recent years. The decade since the uprisings of 2011 has demonstrated a staggering resolve among the people of the region to reassert some control over their lives and destinies, an unwillingness to submit indefinitely to this state of powerlessness and desperation. A monumental human price has been paid. One hopes that it has not been paid in vain.
In the end, it may be these many contradictions that really define the present Arab condition. The discontinuities and ruptures that permeate our languages, societies, families, and individual lives — an uneasy coexistence of loss and hope, misery and aspiration, disorientation and resolve. The dissonance is reflected beautifully, I think, in the tension between two famous verses of Arabic poetry, both of which have witnessed something of a renaissance in recent years, despite their manifest opposition to one another.
The first verse is often attributed to ‘Amr bin Ma’adi Yakrib, a seventh-century knight and poet who became one of the early companions of the prophet Muhammad. It contains within it a mournful expression of powerlessness and despair:
You would be heard if you called to living beings
But there is no life to those whom you call
Were it a fire that you breathed upon, it would illuminate,
But you breathe upon ash
The second, an anti-colonial ode from the early 20th-century Tunisian poet Abu al-Qassem al-Shabbi, comes from his poem “The Will to Life,” and is an expression of thunderous determination. It came to be chanted and recited in the streets and squares of the region in 2011:
If one day, the people will to live,
Then fate must obey
Darkness must dissipate
And must the chain give way
For my part, I prefer the second verse. Perhaps I have no choice.
Featured image: “Arabic manuscript with the Diwan of Mutanabbi, Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi, by the scribal scholar Abu-I-Tayyib Ahmad Ibn al-Hussain, c. 1300 CE, origin unknown” by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.