One consequence of studying the contemporary Middle East is the two-fold worry that all new writing on the subject will, first, say what has already been said and, second, say it in a particularly long and tiresome way. To both of these points, ask yourself how many more turgid Edward Said-like riffs on “neo-colonialism” or “neo-imperialism” you could stomach, or how many analyses of the sociopolitical effects of Islam you could read, before you resolve to cast off such an ossified field for good.
It is refreshing, therefore, to pick up a collection of brief personal essays on the subject of what has been naively termed the “Arab Spring” and to be relieved with both clarity and brevity. Arab Spring Dreams, edited by the reformers Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Ahmari, brings together the personal vignettes of brave young writers from the region. The genre is what one might call flash non-fiction: brief, searing, emotional snapshots of life in repressive environments. Flash non-fiction works on the micro, not macro, level. We are spared geopolitical theorizing in favor of local color, to wit:
“The screech of tires snapped him back to attention, replacing 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.”
The very slightly confusing pronouns aside, this passage could be many things: the beginning of a Frederick Forsyth novel, for instance, or one of those off-beat profiles of global eccentrics from The New Yorker. In fact, we have just been introduced to the twenty-two year old anonymous author-narrator of a piece titled “I Am Not Ayman!” Why is he not Ayman? Well, Ayman, a pseudonym for the author, is a gay man in Egypt, which is kind of like being a Jew in 15th century Spain: your identity is contingent on the whims of creed-obsessed despots. You can pretend to be something you’re not or you can take your chances on being who you actually are. In this case, the narrator is contemplating whether to identify himself to a potential lover. Doing so brings with it the possibility of being “outed” to the Egyptian secret police, as well as the more revolting possibility that the potential lover himself is the secret police.
Indeed, sexuality and intimacy figure prominently in many of these accounts, and this may be because these are always the first human impulses to be squashed by any kind of tyranny. We are reminded elsewhere that in Iran, gays are faced with the “choice” of either execution or “sex reassignment.” This is only slightly better than the Sudanese notion of “corrective rape,” which is as literal as it sounds.
Other stories come from writers in Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. The themes are similar — political repression, inequality, family tension — but each story is beautifully unique in its style and delivery. It is hard to imagine a more enlightening and human book on a subject that is most often the province of robotic wonks and “analysts.” If there is one problem with the book, however, it must surely be the foreword by the aging feminist carnival-barker Gloria Steinem. This mendacious and pointless essay is written in the self-promoting tones of someone long out of ideas.
“This collection of brave and honest voices from the Middle East will inspire you,” writes Steinem, doing her best impression of a moderate. Those with longer memories may recall Ms. Steinem’s interview last year with Newsweek, in which she claimed that Mohammed Atta, leader of the terrorist-murderers of American Airlines Flight 11, was driven by his being “ridiculed by this authoritarian lawyer father who told him that even his older sisters were more masculine than he.” Therefore, “he became addicted to proving his masculinity. How clear is that?”
Well, that about clears it up for me. Does this not disqualify Steinem from writing the first words of an otherwise serious book about the Muslim world? And if not, why so? When given the chance to denounce the obvious causes of misery in the region, Ms. Steinem instead chose to prevaricate with the fourth-rate sociology for which she has long been known. After whetting our palettes with that amuse-bouche, she serves her delicacy:
“Why is it that the oldest cultures so rarely create a hierarchy by separating ‘masculine’ from ‘feminine,’ mind from body, intellect from emotion, humans from nature?”
To the Gloria Steinems of the world, all non-Western people are the same and must be standardized to fit a pre-fabricated meta-narrative. Details be damned: the problem with the world is that there are just too many Westerners spoiling the soup. Ironically, the contributors to this volume would disagree, as do some of its admirers. On the rear of the book, for instance, is a laudatory blurb from Azar Nafisi, author of the brilliant Reading Lolita in Tehran and a writer who transcends the terms “left” and “right” while honorably repudiating the whackos of both sides. One wonders why a writer of obvious skill and depth was passed over for a droning has-been of dubious expertise.
Once you take it as a given that non-Western problems invariably have Western origins, you forfeit any claim to know what makes a truly stable political culture. Building an open society is hard work. Oddly, both radical leftists and nation-building Wilsonians seem to agree that democracy is in some way contingent on Western civilization: the former believe it cannot occur in the presence of it, the latter that it cannot occur in the absence of it. Both are, in the final analysis, woefully unprepared to deal with real problems and real people. Both see humans as mere pieces on Adam Ferguson’s chessboard: automata reacting to materialist forces, or automata in need of being moved by enlightened idealists. The purveyors of bloodless sociology thus can never be counted on to produce anything other than bloody misery. That someone like Gloria Steinem is still considered an appropriate choice to pronounce on human rights is one of the reasons why the dreams referred to in this book’s title may well remain unrealized.
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