First published at BIKYAMASR
Only a few days before commemorating a year after the day when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the harassment inflicted on him by a municipal officer – the germinal seed of the Arab Spring – we were met yesterday with the news that the School of Arts, Letters and Humanities at Manouba University in Tunisia, has been closed until further notice after the Dean of the School, Habib Kazdaghli, was briefly abducted and detained by Salafists protesting the ban on the niqab and preventing female students from taking exams.
That this rather curious event took place in Tunisia – the iconic country of the Arab revolutions – and that has deteriorated into an indefinite closure is not necessarily a thermometer of what is taking place during and after the revolutionary momentum in the Maghreb, but it does raise some eyebrows and the observers – at home and elsewhere – cannot help but ask themselves whether this will become a trend followed by other measures. Unlike Egypt and Libya, Tunisia has a strong secular tradition that preceded the recently deposed regime and it is highly unlike that this will be an isolated incident, or that the Tunisian public will remain indifferent.
The question that needs to be asked here is why arts in general, and art in particular, is important for the revolution and what does it have to do with the Arab Spring. During the years of the Cold War when totalitarianism still existed in its early 20th century form, embodied in the Soviet Union, political theorist Hannah Arendt said as early as 1966 that the clearest sign that the Soviet Union could no longer be called totalitarian in the strict definition was the amazing recovery of the arts during that decade. In other words, the Soviet Union would fall because of art – indeed a radical proposition.
This bold proposition was laughed at by many of the most prominent observers who never thought totalitarianism would collapse during their lifetimes. They were proven wrong.
One of the most outstanding and distinguishable aims of tyranny are always the destruction of private life, which is so safely anchored in the solitude of the artist and the writer and that in protecting private life, prevent the destruction of the public space by avoiding the crafting of that ideal type of superfluous person that is necessary for totalitarianism to win over.
This apparently simple lesson on political science is not without relevance for the movement we know collectively as the Arab Spring: It would require an excess of faith in people to think that it is possible to successfully carry out a revolution that is not preceded by a long period of evolution in which we witness not only change or transformation, but in which reason and the apparatus available to us to understand and experience the world is turned upside down.
The arts in general constitute that visible space in which we can inspect very closely the results of the revolutionary operation.
Films in the Middle East have always played an important role in showing us not the change but the ideal place of the change, being that style in art that in venturing between the artistic and the entertaining, succeeds in reaching out for a far wider audience than that of those who read great works of literature and attend exhibits in well-known galleries.
Without forgetting Tunisia, one is compelled to think about that film “Vivre Ici” (2009) of Mohammed Zran who filmed in his hometown of Zarzis the story of an old Jewish apothecary and that when premiered in Abu Dhabi elicited angry reactions about why he had chosen to follow the story of a Jew and not that of an Arab. Armed with a great deal of patience, the artist explained that such was the story of his town, where religion did not play a major role in the life of people.
Regardless of the great deal of prohibition and censorship, even though film production has significantly dwindled in the Middle East in recent decades, production has not been completely halted and we have had a chance to learn about those films especially because they were banned more than because they were successful.
In Egypt, for example, the censorship law from 1947 (that includes “loose morals”, politics, religion, “seditious ideologies” and violence) has appeased the sensibilities of traditional audiences and made nearly every type of films impossible.
However, art never waits for history to fix its constraints and as it is the already famous case of Iranian film, many forms of art have developed that have given voice to many types of expression and feelings without breaking the rules imposed on art. In the West it is unthinkable that art can maintain its dignity and autonomy under censorship but perhaps this is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union to which Hannah Arendt was pointing – the aesthetics of silence. The reactions to films that tackle thorny topics in society are no longer a matter of surprise: More censorship, ban, condemnation, threats and then oblivion.
We are very used to living in a Middle East where issues like homosexuality, nudity, abortion and atheism provoke immediate outrage, for example when Egyptian film-maker Maher Sabry released his film “All My Life” (2008) that he had hoped would be the first balanced representation of homosexuality in the Arab world. The film was never allowed a public screening anywhere in the Middle East and a religious cleric called for the immediate burning of the film. It did not stop there, but went on to become a matter of controversy when the director of an anti-AIDS program in Egypt said the film was a painful blow to their efforts to combat HIV. At the same time that the figure of the “khawal” or overtly homosexual male continued unmolested occupying a prominent place in Egyptian film from all times.
Egypt is not unique in this respect since similar phenomena have occurred in Lebanon when Marc Abu Rached’s film “Help” (2008) telling the triangular story of a delinquent teenager called Ali, who lives in a van in a junkyard with a prostitute called Soraya and her gay friend Janot. It was surprising that a film of the kind – that does not involve sex – would be banned in an apparently liberal place like Beirut but the story goes that the real reason behind it was that it has to do with the participation of actress Joanna Andraos in the film: She was not only one of the stars in the film but the daughter of Antoine Andraos, a member of Lebanon’s parliament from the March 14 Alliance. Politically motivated or not, the film was banned and though it was available in small stores all over the Middle East, what was prominent about it was nothing but silence.
This year we also heard about Maryam Keshavarz’s film “Circumstance” (2011), an Iranian film shot in Lebanon about the underground life of lesbians in Iran and that of course will never be screened in Iran or elsewhere in the region for that matter.
While we remain shocked about the existence of these films themselves or the idea of a woman posing naked – undermining the potential value they have in a cultural revolution – the public does not seem entirely shocked about things far more heinous than “loose morals.”
It is not only the tragic events of the revolutions that have left thousands of dead all over the place but the well-known figures of rape and violence against women and young men, the ignorance and rejection of thousands of HIV carriers, the mistreatment of foreigners, the rampant anti-Semitic rhetoric and xenophobia and widespread poverty only to mention a few. The art that is needed for a cultural revolution is certainly not an art about what we call Arab Spring, only because art loses its value and independence when it becomes a tool of political persuasion and alas, becomes another tool for propaganda – the Soviet Union comes to mind again.
The art – and the films – that will tell the history of Arab Spring will not be Hollywood-style scripting the lives of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Saaid but rather, those films that will confront us with the real questions that can change and define life as we know: What is our identity? How do we respond to questions of sexuality and gender? Can we lead a meaningful life without religion? What happens when the traditional values of the home break down?
The answer to these questions – or at least the questions themselves – is necessary in order to be able to live in the modern world; it is not only that the revolutions are likely to call into question many of our traditional values and concepts but also that the most elementary concepts of the true, the good and the beautiful have remained shattered in the world for over a century now and in spite of the countless theoretical attempts, the reparative efforts have been to no avail – except in the production of art.
Recently, the Doha Tribeca Festival showcased an uprising of Arab films shot straight from the street and there was the question of whether Arab Spring had managed to liberate filmmakers. The answer to this question, though not complete, can be partially found in the events that took place in that Tunisian university. Yet we should expect in the future a rising constellation of filmmakers telling again the stories that were left untold for so many years and that stand far beyond any political messages.
One of those rising constellations is, among others, Yemeni artist Ibi Ibrahim, winner of the GLAAD award for best emerging artist in 2010, who will release his short film “Sounds of Oud” (2012) that tells the story of a traditional couple that emigrates to America and once there, is faced with the challenges of the breakdown of tradition and with things much more fundamental – love, passion, desire. A film set in New York, in the English language, and yet with the emotional imagery of our traditions and landscapes.
What is striking about his work and others of this generation that we have seen and will continue to see in the future, is not only that the films are still being produced in these times but that we are leaving behind a conception that has plagued Middle Eastern art in general for decades: The ennui of the topics enforced by the constant surveillance and censorship – the village, the family life, the mother, Islam, the fatherland. I would call this a thematic renovation rather than merely aesthetic refurbishing and this is exactly what Arab Spring deals with, not at the level of politics but in the everyday life of the men and women that take part in it.
We must leave behind at long last the thick veil of censorship that we impose on ourselves either for the sake of political convenience or fear anchored in tradition; art in the Middle East should not be an expression of savages trying to convince a Western audience about its potential emancipation as if inviting international organizations to walk through a zoo inhabited by endangered species. What is truly revolutionary about art in dark times is that it bestows upon people the dignity required to do what it takes to carry through what the real demand of a revolution is: To change life.