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No Need for the Great Arab Spring Novel

By news editor, on 3 February 2012

Abdelkader Benali and Hisham Matar discuss literature and revolutions at an event attended by Stefanie van Gemert.

With Time Magazine recently choosing ‘The Protester’ as Person of the Year 2011, it seems a relevant question to ask whether art is capable of protest, of revolting against tyranny.

On 26 January the authors Hisham Matar (In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance) and Abdelkader Benali (Dutch Writer in Residence 2011-12 at UCL, Wedding by the Sea) discussed this topic at ‘Time Travels in Literature and Politics’: literature and its response to political suppression.

The event was timely – as chair Jo Glanville, Editor of Index on Censorship, pointed out: it was exactly a year after the uprising in Egypt. Matar and Benali are both rooted in the Arab-speaking world: Benali was born in Morocco, before moving to the Netherlands in 1979, aged four. His first novel, Wedding by the Sea (1996, English transl. 2000), discusses a theme that he would often revisit, that of the intermingling of East and West, aptly visualised by his latest title Oost=West (2011, ‘East=West’).

Hisham Matar’s personal history is uncomfortably topical: his father was considered a threat to the Libyan authorities, and was abducted by the Gadaffi regime in 1990. Matar has not seen or heard of his father since.

The Arab Spring and Gadaffi’s downfall made Libya world news in 2011; Matar’s novels (2006 and 2011), however, made readers around the world familiar with living under the Libyan dictatorship on a far more personal scale.

It is exactly this personal scale that Benali and Matar say is essential to literature written in response to political events. Their own writing seems to focus on small gestures, family ties, relationships.

Neither of them feels the need to write ‘the Great Arab Spring Novel’. “That simply sounds ridiculous,” Benali said. The two writers share a fear of ‘Big Histories’, especially when it comes to describing the recent revolutionary events in the Arab countries.

Benali expands: “9/11 has brought the Big Story back. And it is suffocating. I am looking for more nuances.” When Benali lived in Beirut during the Lebanese war in 2006, he felt it was important to speak to people on the ground. The chance meetings he described as a result were very different impressions of war than the ones the Dutch media presented. Matar: “It is difficult to understand what it is – what we call – the Arab Spring. I don’t claim I do. I find it tough to pronounce.”

Because of his personal history, Matar is often seen as a natural spokesman for freedom of expression. But the author quickly says that writing never made him feel particularly brave. To speak out against the dictator Gadaffi brought more anxiety and instability to Matar’s life. “It was perverse, more so than heroic; it was a tangible trauma. I secretly admired the ones who could stay quiet.”

Benali can relate to the attachment of shame to writing. His debut novel was written at his parents’ place, in a house that contained no more than two books, the Koran and the Yellow Pages. He was told to stop reading before his eye sight would turn bad. “I wrote about my family whilst I was living under their roof. I felt sad and guilty, watching them as if I were an anthropologist. It was as if I took revenge on them.”

“Literature is rebellious by nature, because it detaches itself from reality,” according to Matar. And, therefore, writing is a solitary protest: “In the end we are alone, because we distance ourselves through writing”.

I might argue otherwise, saying that Benali’s and Matar’s writing has brought readers closer to political events – both up close and personal. Though the exact rebellious impact of literary writing is impossible to measure – and may even be quite uninteresting – this event showcased a humanity and humility in writing from the Arab world, and a variety of protests against Big Narratives that are so much favoured by oppressors.

The event Time Travels in Literature and Politics was organised by the UCL Department of Dutch, with support from Index on Censorship and the Royal Dutch Embassy. Abdelkader Benali is the Dutch Writer of Residence at UCL in 2011-2012. His visits are sponsored by the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

Stefanie van Gemert is a PhD-candidate in Comparative Literature and a teaching assistant in modern literature at the Department of Dutch. Her research focuses on the reception of postcolonial literature in the Dutch and English literary fields.

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