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Stanford scholar sees revolution in the literature of the Middle East

Comparative literature professor Alexander Key says the seeds of rebellion were evident in creative works – from literature to rap music – long before the Arab Spring unfolded.

With lyrics addressing the anger felt by the disenfranchised Tunisian population, the Tunisian rap song Rais Lebled (Mr. President) quickly became an emblem of the Arab Spring uprising.

Singer El Général opens with a message of despair, and at the same time of newfound power: "Mr. President, here, today, I speak with you in my name and the name of all people who live in misery.  It's 2011 and there's still a man who's dying of hunger.  He wants to work to survive, but his voice is not heard!"

Its revolutionary message was so threatening that the Tunisian rapper was imprisoned a few weeks before protests began in Tunisia.

"The choice that the rapper made to take agency was part of the change that was happening politically," said Alexander Key, an assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature at Stanford.

The song is one of many cultural artifacts that Key is examining in his research about the literature of the Arab Spring. 

Key, a scholar of Arabic whose research centers on mediaeval ideas about language, eloquence, philosophy and poetics, was inspired to explore the literature of the Arab Spring  as he watched the dramatic revolution unfold in the public squares, in music, novels, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. 

Key said that the very definition of "literature" has expanded to encompass song lyrics and social media feeds, which have become important platforms for writers and revolutionaries. All these types of literature showed signs of revolution before the Arab Spring.

Like other creative works produced in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Rais Lebled addresses "a series of economic and social complaints about injustice and corruption.”  

These same complaints, Key said, have been made steadily for at least a decade in literature, showing that the years leading up to the Arab Spring may have held clues to the unrest that finally reached the breaking point in 2011.

The specter of revolution

This type of explicitly anti-establishment literature has not always been prevalent.

When we step back into the 20th century, noted Key, we find similarities between Arabic and western literature – both toy with the genre of the novel, play with multiple narrators, dismiss chronology, and grapple with the many possibilities of language.

Yet, Key said, in the first decade of the 21st century something changed.  The western model was no longer as attractive, and some authors of Arabic literature moved towards narratives with one unequivocal voice. 

"A number of books decide to cast aside that modernist/post-modernist formal structure and multiple viewpoints in favor of a single, clear, programmatic, position," Key said.

That position expressed anger and frustration at decades of corruption and violence in the Middle East.

Until this shift, rebellion and protest had been limited to the margins of Arabic literature, with some notable exceptions such as Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.

Key explained that this phenomenon of rebellion in literature happened in the years leading up to the Arab Spring: "Modern Arabic literature as a genre doesn't have protest centrally embedded in it until these novels in the 2000s. Clear statements like El Général's were less common at the beginning of the 2000s than at the end.

One of these moments of literary unrest and protest can be found in the Egyptian graphic novel Metro: A Story of Cairo, written in 2008 by Magdy El Shafee.  It is the story of a software designer who sells shoes, wants to start a tech company, and eventually becomes a successful beggar. Ultimately the hero's talents and hard work are all in vain.

"Capitalism doesn't function, you can't be a small businessmen, it's too corrupt, the system is too rigged," said Key.

Key noted the stereotypical negative figures that fill the pages of the work: the fat bureaucrat, the corrupt man, the hungry young kid on the street.  These tropes are part of the shift toward the strong, univocal message of being fed up with the status quo.

The graphic novel speaks to the harsh conditions experienced by working Egyptians trying to scrape together a living, said Key.  Even the most promising young Egyptians were being broken by the system. "People were getting hungrier and angrier."

Another example of growing discontent within Egypt is Ahmed Khaled Towfik's 2010 novel Utopia, where the reader is confronted with a terrifying picture of Egypt in the year 2023.  Similar to Suzanne Collins's novel The Hunger Games, Towfik's work describes a segregated society where the rich live in a bubble and the poor are treated like animals. The message, like the one in Metro, is starkly black and white leaving little room for discussion.

Utopia is not merely a warning of what is to come, but rather a depiction of the horrors of modern Egyptian society. "The system is dystopic and it's gone beyond just rumbling dictatorship and the lack of agency to real painful, brutal and horrific horror stories," Key said.

Redefining 'literature'

In his course The Arab Spring in Arabic Literature, the readings range from mid-20th century protest poetry to the Twitter and Facebook pages of prominent literary and social figures, redefining and modernizing the notion of what is literature.

During the Arab Spring, Key said, "I was looking at big news sites...  and I wasn't really getting a sense of what was going on."

The conversation was happening outside the mainstream media, he said. "It was happening on Facebook, it was happening on Twitter, it was happening on blogs, it was happening on comment pages, and then from that little nucleus it was spreading out into mobile phone text messaging and into everything else."

The students have taken this broadened perspective on literature in stride.  Hart Goldman, a sophomore majoring in Physics, said the course "has forced me to ask questions about the role of literature and music in social change or as a representation of that change."

Ali Baqueri, a freshman majoring in International Relations, speaks of the "reaffirmation that literature is stimulus to change like nothing else."

"However bad things are, no one is ever going to shut up and just take it for 20 years," Key said. "That dream is gone. The Arab president for life is over."

Alessandra Aquilanti is a doctoral candidate in Italian at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

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Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu