The Awakening of the Arab People

Abdellah Taïa

The revolution in Tunisia is an unexpected miracle, and the unrest sweeping through Algeria must be taken very seriously. For a very long time now, it has been said that the Arab people are asleep, subdued, and incapable of crying out. It has been said that the ruling powers in practically all Arab countries have been able to muzzle all movements of opposition. The Left has been dismantled. A political, ideological and intellectual void has been instated overall and maintained as the only space of life and death for citizens. This is all no doubt true. This is all a coherent summary of the scorn that Arab leaders have shown their people these the last five decades.

Everything possible has been done to impede the education of the Arab people, to prevent people from thinking, from feeling concern for the country where they live, for the problems of the society of which they are part. Even worse: people have been forced to turn toward a very radical and antiquated vision of Islam. Everyone needs to find meaning for their life. For certain Arabs, Islamism was the only possible path. For the simple reason that there were no others.

The void was absolute in the arab world. I am 37. I know what I am talking about. I come from that void myself as well. As a writer and as an individual, I write from that space of neglect. From that impossibility of existing otherwise than with your head down.

The breach between the Arab people and their leaders is very real. The rich, intimately connected to the spheres of power, continue to behave as if they were living elsewhere, probably in Switzerland, where they all have bank accounts full of money stolen with no shame. Culture, which could give meaning to life, has also been restricted to those who can afford it. What about our culture, the culture of the poor? There is no point: it’s folklore.

Even the Arab intellectuals have given up on the Arab people. Besides a few courageous human rights activists, only very few have sounded the alarm, done their work alongside the people, not in another sphere, on another planet. It is a sad thing: even today, these intellectuals regard their fellow-citizens with disdain, scorn, they prefer to talk about Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir or Albert Camus rather than help the Arab people renew their idea of themselves, reclaim their dignity, rise up. Rise up and exist at last by themselves. Protest. Cry out.

What is happening right now in Tunisia and in Algeria should be recontextualized in that framework. The people who are expressing themselves today, who are defying the forbidden, who, quite simply, can no longer take it, come for the most part from that void in which they have been deliberately maintained. If they are crying out today, if they are finally protesting, if they dare defy the ruling power and the rich, if they are courageously in the streets, it is because they have nothing left to lose. Death and power no longer scare them. Those Arabs who have been put down, who have been endlessly humiliated, are rising up, here, now, before our eyes. They were dead. They are miraculously reborn. The least we can do is express our solidarity. Supporting them here by honest words is our duty to them. Those Arabs in the streets, who do not live only in Tunisia or in Algeria, are speaking for us. Speaking to us.

To love the Arab world is first of all to love its people, to want the same democracy, the same consideration for that people. It means the end of such condescending words as: they are not like us, the Arabs, they live in another century!

The Arab people had been forgotten between the West which is obsessed by Islamists and Islamists who have become experts in international communication. Today the Arab people are coming back. They are raising their voice. They are supposedly disorganized, anarchic? There is no need for communications advisors in a revolt. The goal of the revolt is to overturn the violence these people have been forced to live under, in which they have had to die a slow death. The revolt needs a leader. That leader is taking a long time to appear. But he or she will, I am sure of it. He could, for example, be the lawyer and opposition leader Ayman Nour.

All this is good news. Really. This revolt in Tunisia and in Algeria is a source of joy. Of course, we regret the dead. Of course, we must condemn the repression. Of course… What is happening in those two countries reminds us of other attempts. In Morocco in the early 1980s, and last year. In Egypt, where the people regularly protest without any news of it reaching our ears. Elsewhere as well, away from the cameras and the front pages.

It is time to think of the Arab people in a different light. It is time to stop assimilating them to dangerous Islamists, or to see them simply as a friendly, hospitable people, forever smiling to the hordes of tourists in their beautiful countries. It is time to stop being blind. Arabs need freedom just like any other people. And when democratic sparks appear, the role of the West is to support the people, not their leaders who supposedly defend the Western world from the Islamist menace. I know how much this seems, to some, naive, idealistic. The dream always begins in the void, in naivete. It stems from an interior necessity.

After the magnificent revolt of the Iranian people in 2009, the movements that are sweeping the Arab world are, to my eyes, one of the greatest political and cultural events of the last five years. Something is moving there. A consciousness is being reborn. A life is rising up. Looking for its new path. The fight has meaning once again. A vital meaning. We do not have the right to turn our backs to that cry, to play the cynics once again. The revolution has begun in the Arab world, it has been several years now. Certain people are only today realizing it. The Arab people are waking up, more and more. Let us lend them a hand. Let us talk to them. Especially to them.

Abdellah Taïa is the author of Salvation Army