Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iranby Nasser Weddady
From a gay man secretly mourning his lover's suicide in Morocco to a young woman denied schooling because of religious discrimination in Iran, Arab Spring Dreams spotlights some of the Middle East's most outspoken young dissidents. The essayists cover a wide range of experiences, including premarital sex, the lack of educational opportunities, teenage/i>
From a gay man secretly mourning his lover's suicide in Morocco to a young woman denied schooling because of religious discrimination in Iran, Arab Spring Dreams spotlights some of the Middle East's most outspoken young dissidents. The essayists cover a wide range of experiences, including premarital sex, the lack of educational opportunities, teenage marriage, and the fight for political freedom. They also highlight how repressive laws and cultural mores snuff out liberty and stifle growth and consider how previous movements - particularly the American civil rights struggle - might be channeled to effect change in their own countries. Beautifully written and profoundly moving, these stories present a decisive call for change at a crucial point in the evolution of the Middle East.
“Some of these young writers possess more clarity than all the pundits combined.” Times Literary Supplement
“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.” The Telegraph, London
“A slim volume that successfully presents 'treasures, surprises, and rewards.” Kirkus Reviews
“The genesis of this lean essay anthology actually preceded the protests in Tunis and Cairo by more than five years…Many of those visions now appear prescient…Arab Spring Dreams is a powerful boost for young people in the Middle East who seek to lift the curtain of obscurantism from a region desperate for daylight.” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs
“. . . Immediate and raw, the essays in this collection provide glimpses of daily life in countries where civil rights do not exist. Though the essay contest seemed like a quixotic gesture at its inception in 2005, it turns out to have been prescient.” Publishers Weekly
“You are now holding an exceptional book. It is particularly now when the eyes of the whole world are anxiously set on the Middle East that I am so eagerly looking forward to getting to know the stories which often do not make themselves heard among the brouhaha in the media. The essays collected here are a particularly important testimony and close to my heart as they are written by young courageous people who dare to dream of the things their parents never dreamt of. The book clearly demonstrates that no matter where we live or what religion we follow, certain fundamental values are universal.” Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and the former President of Poland
“This is a wonderful book, and a stirring testament to the truth that the desire for freedom and democracy transcends the boundaries of nationalities, religion, ethnicity, race and gender.” Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
“For too long, American readers have looked to unreliable intermediaries to learn what's on the minds of the Arab youth. But now two of the most promising young thinkers from the region have offered up a gem, Arab Spring Dreams, giving us access to their generation's most authentic voices. To further their worthy plight for freedom, let us begin by lending an ear to their moving narratives.” Roya Hakakian, author of Journey from the Land of No and Assassins of the Turquoise Palace
“These are extraordinary and ordinary stories that underline an immutable truth: people want to live as free beings with dignity and equal rights. This collection of powerful testimonies is gripping, heart-breaking, and inspiring, offering the only antidote to the abyss of a society lacking rule of law: educated hope. These pages reveal that the struggle for civil rights in the Middle East is still ongoing--and will require allies the world over who recognize the universality of the struggle for human rights and the responsibility borne by those of us living in freedom.” Thor Halvorssen, President, Human Rights Foundation
“Arab Spring Dreams offers a compelling journey through the hearts, minds and souls of the generation that rocked the world's most repressive region. A first-hand account of the struggle for democracy in the Middle East, and a terrific roller coaster of burning frustrations and passionate aspirations. Buckle up!” Ahmed Benchemsi, Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law
“Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady have assembled a chorus of new voices from across the Arab and Iranian Middle East, and all of the voices are young, and all of them are plaintive. Not everyone among the contributors to this anthology sees things the same way, but everyone is filled with yearning for a better future, and the yearning is touching. Will the better future come about? One thing is certain: a better future for the Middle East and for the larger world will come about only if people from different corners of the world do a better job of speaking to one another. Arab Spring Dreams contributes to that noble cause. And Ahmari and Weddady are writers to watch.” Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism and The Flight of the Intellectuals
“This book is the essential portrait of a generation, an intimate explanation of the forces and frustrations that are shaping the Middle East. If you care about women's rights, religious freedom, or basic human dignity, then these are stories you need to hear.” Lara Setrakian, Foreign Correspondent, ABC News/Bloomberg
For too long, American readers have looked to unreliable intermediaries to learn what's on the minds of the Arab youth. But now two of the most promising young thinkers from the region have offered up a gem, Arab Spring Dreams, giving us access to their generation's most authentic voices. To further their worthy plight for freedom, let us begin by lending an ear to their moving narratives.
Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady have assembled a chorus of new voices from across the Arab and Iranian Middle East, and all of the voices are young, and all of them are plaintive. Not everyone among the contributors to this anthology sees things the same way, but everyone is filled with yearning for a better future, and the yearning is touching. Will the better future come about? One thing is certain: a better future for the Middle East and for the larger world will come about only if people from different corners of the world do a better job of speaking to one another. Arab Spring Dreams contributes to that noble cause. And Ahmari and Weddady are writers to watch.
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Arab Spring Dreams
The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran
By Nasser Weddady, Sohrab Ahmari
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2012 American Islamic Congress
All rights reserved.
"I AM NOT AYMAN!"
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, was for a good part of the twentieth century the Arab Middle East's political and cultural engine. During the first half of the century, the country boasted a relatively pluralistic society ruled by a weak monarchy not entirely free from British meddling—despite the country's formal independence in 1922. Attracted by a dynamic economy as embodied by Cairo's stock market—one of the region's first— European expats were drawn to pre-Nasser Egypt. Religious minorities like Egyptian Jews and Christian Copts also thrived.
This relatively prosperous period, however, was marred by entrenched poverty among Egyptian peasants, as well as by the monarchy's inability to rid itself of corruption. Not long after independence, the Muslim Brotherhood was born as a reaction to the wide secularist influence on the country's affairs. Despite being formally banned for much of their history, the "Brothers" have exerted enormous influence on Egyptian society and the wider Muslim Mideast—and continue to do so today.
Modern Egypt is more closely associated with the brand of Arab nationalism embodied by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Leading a "Free Officers' Movement," Nasser seized control of the country in a bloodless coup in July 1952, unseating Egypt's last monarch, King Farouk. Nasser and his heirs violently suppressed the Brotherhood and instituted military rule that persists to this day—despite the nonviolent 2011 revolution that overthrew longstanding dictator General Muhammad Hosni Mubarak. While nominally secularist, the Mubarak regime—like those preceding it—was deeply illiberal. This regime suffocated Egyptian civil society while, in a perverse dynamic, empowered reactionary voices like the Brotherhood.
In our opening essay, the contributor places herself in the shoes of a closeted Egyptian gay man and describes his frustrated attempts to stay true to his identity against enormous pressure exerted by a repressive state and an intolerant society. The essay was written against the backdrop of the so-called Queen Boat Incident in 2001, when Egyptian police raided a floating disco on the Nile, arresting fifty-two men who were without female partners. The suspects were subjected to invasive physical examinations to "establish" their homosexuality, accused of being "agents of Israel," and tried on a range of vice charges.
The incident received a great deal of attention from both the regional and Western media. The Egyptian government's sudden crackdown on a tolerated underground gay scene—vividly described by our essayist—was shocking and unexpected to Egyptians and outside observers alike. It crystalized the precarious nature of individual liberty in Mideast societies, where civil rights restrictions are not always enforced but can suddenly spring into effect at the whim of rulers.
The protagonist's inability to translate his web-based identity into the real world parallels the essayist's own self-censorship. For while she offered what is most likely a fictionalized account, the contributor nevertheless insisted that her piece be published anonymously.
THE SCREECH OF TIRES SNAPPED HIM BACK TO ATTENTION, RE-placing the thoughts buzzing around his brain with an anxious immediacy. He stared at the cab driver behind the wheel, her mouth opening and closing over and over for no apparent reason. Her fillings flashed silver at him every few seconds. Her windows were up, rendering her comically mute despite her traffic-induced rage. He had had enough. He would walk the rest of the way. As he did, his mental disarray did not prevent him from giving due respect to the nonexistence of traffic laws in Cairo.
He approached the alleyway that served as one of the city's pickup spots, noting with equal amounts of jealousy and fear the men standing around. They swaggered, clothes torn and tight in the style associated with male homosexuality. Their faces attempted rebellious outrage with courage implied in their plucked eyebrows and slightly rouged cheeks, these visible signs distinguishing them from "real men." And yet he imagined he could detect in them an uncertainty—trepidation born from knowing that others had been taken away for doing just this on other Mondays, Wednesdays, Anydays. He imagined he could see in their cocky stances a readiness for flight.
He had picked this particular spot knowing that it was slightly less conspicuous than others, just in case it were to turn out that he had been tricked all along, and that he had cultivated a relationship with a decoy. He saw Tariq standing a few meters away, wearing the blue striped shirt he had been told to look out for. Never in their online conversations had he shared with Tariq a picture of himself, preferring safe anonymity to the promise of future intimacy. He had not worn his blue-striped shirt, telling himself he did not like the way it looked on him. He could do enough recognizing for both of them.
He held back, trying not to stare at the man he had been talking to for the past eight months. They had planned numerous meetings before. He had many times approached the date with queasy anticipation, calling it off at the last minute. A fictitious business trip one time, an imagined death in the family another. Tariq's patience had brought him here today. A vice informant would not wait this long, he told himself. An informant would not invest so much time creating plausible details.
Or would he? He looked around once more, suspicious, trying to find ill will lurking in the faces subjected to his exacting scrutiny. He cleared his throat. Then he took what he imagined some novelists he had read meant by "a measured breath." Sweat trickled into his eyes, a burning rivulet of building anxiety he was trying to keep under control. He turned toward Tariq, preparing for a step, only to be rooted to the spot when their eyes met. Tariq smiled tentatively, hesitated, and then started forward, perhaps deciding that the physical description traded online so many times matched enough to counter the absence of blue stripes.
He felt panic rising in him. His eyes searched frantically in Tariq's clothing for telltale signs of hidden handcuffs, a gun, something, anything out of the ordinary. He debated what to do, realizing that he was out of time when Tariq stopped in front of him, smiling shyly. "Ayman?" He had forgotten for a moment that he had never given his real name (yet another safety measure). He looked around frantically, switching his gaze from one potentially menacing figure to the next in the gloomy dark. He was suddenly screaming, his lungs expelling the night's mistrust in hot, hysterical denial:
"I am not Ayman! I am not Ayman! Get away from me, you faggot!"
He turned around, not noticing everyone around him likewise fleeing, the disturbance upsetting a confidence made fragile by stories of baton rapes, capture, jail, and ruined lives. Like a flock of nervous gazelles prepared by natural selection for a life of constant victimization, they ran. He eventually flagged down a cab. His ragged breath and frenzied thoughts slowed down to normalcy. He got home, turned on his computer, and started an email:
"Tariq habibi—sorry I couldn't make it." He paused, searching. Would Tariq believe that the person he met earlier tonight was someone else? He decided, just in case, to erect one more barricade against identification. "One of my patients needed an emergency C-section. Maybe we can try this again soon? Yours, Ayman." An ob-gyn, he mused. He would read up on the field tomorrow, to be able to speak authoritatively about it the next time they chatted online.
He turned his computer off, realizing for the first time how tired he was. He sat hunched over for a while, thinking about the events of the night. He looked around his apartment—a testament to how diligently he had disguised his "criminality" from everyone around him out of fear of imprisonment or worse. His apartment, he thought, was very masculine. He bought furniture only in muted, dark colors, fearing his neighbors (all potential informers) might find his tastes too flamboyant for a man. Expensively framed prints of female nudes decked his walls, replacing the Playboy and Haifa Wahbi posters of his college days.
His daytime persona, too, was carefully designed to project straightness. He had cultivated a gruff rumble of a voice, so different from the soft-spoken stereotype Egypt had of its gay men. He went to the gym religiously, a result of once having been called a sissy by a drunk in the street. He looked over at his computer, the only vehicle through which his sexuality could find expression—as long as it remained unclaimed by a name, a picture, an address, or any other carelessly overlooked detail.
He wondered at times whether he overreacted, whether what he had to fear was more in his head than a real threat. He was well aware that his paranoia knew no bounds, and yet he saw it as more of a protective mechanism than an oppressive one. He knew, despite his wonderings and what-ifs, that his secret must never know another. He thought of the recent Queen Boat incident. He reminded himself of the harsh sentences handed down to the young men captured that day, the forced anal exams used to "prove" homosexual conduct, the bogus charges of prostitution and drug possession. He turned off the lights on his nudes, his brown leather couches, his sports magazines, and made his way to the bedroom.
It was the time when he felt least alone, lying in the dark as he was now, imagining all of the men like him dreaming impossible dreams. Sometimes he imagined ridiculous happy endings for all of those sad little lives in their little Cairo flats. He never dared think of one for himself, though, lest his dreams lead to incautious action. He had long ago resigned himself to a life of missed connections and fleeting intimacy. He wondered for a short moment how he would explain his many fabrications to Tariq if and when they met at last. Would that entire cities, countries, governments could change for them! He rolled over, closed his eyes, and turned himself off.CHAPTER 2
MONOLOGUE WITH THE PRINCE
K.N.—Saudi Arabia—Age 25
Saudi Arabia is named after the family which, during the early twentieth century, forcibly united hitherto autonomous tribes and provinces in the Arabian Peninsula to form a monarchic state. At the time of its founding in 1932, the House of Saud struck a bargain with the ultra-conservative Arab clerical class, giving it free reign over all social matters in exchange for legitimacy.
Modern Saudi Arabia is a welfare state funded by enormous oil and gas revenues. Citizens are exempted from paying taxes and provided with free state-funded education and health care. These privileges—as enticing they may be—are not part of a social contract as understood in the West. They do not give rise to citizenship rights and duties but rather operate as one half of a corrupt trade: the ruling monarchs administer their country's natural resources by divine right and without any checks and balances on their power; citizens receive privileges in exchange for absolute submission to the rulers. Non-governmental and other civil society organizations are banned in the Kingdom, and no citizen is allowed to belong to or form any political group. Free speech is severely curtailed, and individual liberties are not recognized as such.
Lately, against a backdrop of soaring unemployment and a massive youth bulge (in a country suffocated by octogenarian royals), the regime's corruption and mismanagement have increasingly jeopardized even this basic social bargain. Our next essayist paints a vivid portrait of the impact of this breakdown on Saudi youth.
I FELT SO LUCKY WHEN I WAS SELECTED FROM AMONG THOUsands of students to be one of six representing my university at the Expeditionary Forum for National Dialogue. The Forum was supposed to tackle issues of tolerance, development, and—remarkably for Saudi Arabia—free expression. As its name suggested, the central theme of the Forum was dialogue. I was thrilled to get a chance to express myself in a public setting, if just this once.
But it was not meant to be. Just before we headed to the Forum, a senior university official warned us to be very careful about what we said. "Better yet," he admonished us, "don't say anything at all." The Forum is just a "formality," he explained, so best not get too excited thinking it was going to change anything in this country.
He was right. Before we were even allowed to enter the conference center, one of the Forum leaders—a ridiculous figure with a stern face—appeared before us to set the "ground rules." "I warn you," he yelled. "I warn you to measure every word before uttering it." Some dialogue.
The sessions themselves consisted of one official after another lecturing us. The agendas and topics of discussion were all preset and non-negotiable. The first speaker was the minister of education, Dr. Mohammad al-Rasheed, pontificating on the finer points of state education policy. I was briefly heartened to see a few students raise their hands after his talk was over. Would they actually challenge him? Would they question the repressive nature of Saudi universities?
If only. The "questions" were actually expressions of the most nauseating flattery prewritten by the Forum organizers. (Still, you had to admire the students for reading the dull queries as earnestly and diligently as they could.) The Forum only went downhill from there—one self-important government deputy minister and policy adviser after another droned on and on at us for what seemed like an eternity.
The headline session, billed as the most important, hosted His Royal Highness Abdul-Majeed bin Abdul-Azeez al-Saud, prince of Mecca. A few minutes before the prince's arrival in a seemingly endless convoy of black Mercedes sedans, we were ordered to leave the main conference room and move up to the second-floor balcony area. When we arrived there, we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of security officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, all armed to the teeth. It seemed as though there were more policemen than students! It was hot and claustrophobic on the balcony, while the floor below was almost empty save for a few Forum leaders and journalists.
His Royal Highness gave a speech you could read in the opinion pages of any third world newspaper, repeating the usual clichés: "We have to thank God that our country is one of the best in the world, for the wisdom of our royal family, and for the wise government officials who provide us with security and safety around the clock ..." And on and on. (As for reform, he explained that it was coming but that it would call for patience, a lot of patience, because change comes slowly....)
While the prince was ranting and raving about the many blessings of Saudi life, I heard the voice of the Egyptian comedian Adil Imam saying his famous comic phrase: "There she goes again!" At first, I thought I was daydreaming—only to find out that the voice was coming from my friend Mansour's cellular phone. He played that clip over and over. My attempts to stop him were in vain. I thought we were all about to get into big trouble. But, hey, that was Mansour's way of "dialoging" with the Prince. He inspired other students, who played the sound of fireworks on their phones. In our culture, this signals that the speaker is lying. Suppressed laughter was heard. The officers started getting suspicious but eventually decided it was just a matter of kids being kids.
A few minutes later, the prince finished his speech and left without addressing questions or comments.
I did not find a way to express myself freely until I started my own blog about a year after the Forum. On my blog, I can share some of my viewpoints and feelings—even though what I publish constitutes less than a fifth of what I actually think. My friends and family members are concerned about my activities in the Arabic blogosphere. They remind me of the many Arab bloggers who are jailed—or worse—for committing political thought crimes on the Internet. Some of those jailed for thinking inappropriate thoughts are kept imprisoned even after finishing their long sentences.
I appreciate my friends' concern, but I do not understand how a human being can live without expressing himself. How long can we endure this suffocating atmosphere? Although we live in a country whose oil incomes rank as highest in the world, prices are soaring, unemployment among the youth is high, and even those who find jobs are barely able to make ends meet.
Excerpted from Arab Spring Dreams by Nasser Weddady, Sohrab Ahmari. Copyright © 2012 American Islamic Congress. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Nasser Weddady is the Civil Rights Outreach Director of the American Islamic Congress. He helped design and administer the "Dream Deferred" essay contest, and has helped lead several high-profile campaigns to free imprisoned dissidents in North Africa, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and beyond.
Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist. His columns, feature stories, and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
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