Casting off the invisibility cloak

by on May 4, 2012

Casting off the invisibility cloak

Write down: Arab.
a name with no friendly diminutive.
a patient man, in a country
brimming with anger.
My roots have gripped this soil
since time began,
before the opening of the ages
before the cypress and the olive,
before the grasses flourished…
– Does my condition anger you?
(Mahmoud Darwish)

It was the eighteenth century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseauwho first questioned the Enlightenment principle of “progress at all costs”. In The Social Contract, hebrilliantly set out his scathing critique of what he saw as society’s fettering of mankind’s inherent freedom. But even Rousseau could not have predicted that his vision of the natural man, free from the “chains” of modernity, would go on to inspire a cultural and political narrative that pitted one society (and one culture) against another, and to create an “us and them” rhetoric that would shape the realpolitik boardroom discussions the world over.

This rhetoric would eventually become so distorted by petty nationalism and thinly-veiled racism that when Samuel P. Huntington published his theory of the “Clash of Civilisations”, few seemed aware of the intellectual legacy cached behind Huntington’s neo-conservative agenda. An agenda that has been proved devastatingly wrong by recent events in the Arab world.

The notion of the Arab exception – that there is something inherent in the makeup of Arab peoples that is contrary to the very principle of democracy – has arguably been laid to rest by the popular uprisings that have swept through the Middle East over the past 14 months. And yet, despite the long and often bloody history of political activism in the Arab world, it is only this most recent uprising that has been deemed worthy of note by the rest of the world. 1918, 1920, 1936, 1948, 1979, 1991; these are all dates that are ingrained in the collective history of the Arab peoples and that mark mass protests across the Arabic-speaking regions. All of these revolts were either silenced internally or ignored externally; the Arab remained, for all intents and purposes, completely invisible.

It is this “invisibility” that lends itself to the title of Marwan Bishara’s recent book. Bishara professes to present a counter-narrative to the Western media’s portrayal of the Arab Spring – “that an oppressed people who have suffered passively suddenly decided that enough was enough and thanks to Western technology and inspiration, spontaneously rose to reclaim their freedom” – by grounding the events of the past year in the “long social and political struggle” of the region’s history. The ensuing historical commentary (or “voyage”, as Bishara dubs it) presents a welcome change to the immediate and often sensationalist media coverage that has been ever-present throughout the uprisings.

The Invisible Arab should have publicised itself simply as another journalistic eye-witness account, rather than an academic work

It is clear from the outset what Bishara is trying to do in The Invisible Arab; what is less clear is whether he achieves his goal, or whether he inevitably falls into repeating the same tired clichés and stereotypes as every other media professional reporting on the Arab Spring. It is in this respect that Bishara’s role as a political analyst for Al Jazeera begins to overshadow the contents of his book – opinion that is presented as fact.

There is a sense that Bishara is merely joining the bandwagon and making the most of the world’s sudden interest in the Middle East. This, of course, is no bad thing on its own, but for a book that professes to provide a counter-narrative to the mainstream media storm, it falls disappointingly short. Bishara is also too preoccupied with what he calls the “miracle generation” – today’s Arab youth – stressing what is different and new between them and their parents and grandparent’s generations rather than what is universal to them all: political activism.

The Invisible Arab brings little that is new or interesting to the current debate, and only succeeds in skimming the surface of the Arab world’s long and rich history of political opposition and protest. Moreover, for a work whose title seems to so glaringly to point towards the intellectual legacy of Edward Said, it surprised me that Bishara was dismissive and fleetingly brief when I asked him about this aspect of the book during its launch at London’s Frontline Club.

I do not for a moment doubt Bishara’s intelligence or reporting skill; however, The Invisible Arab would have done better to publicise itself simply as another journalistic eye-witness account rather than an academic or historical work. Taken as the former, it is brilliantly readable, engaging and interesting. Taken as the latter, it is simplistic, overly personal and lacking in academic rigour.

 

 

The Invisible Arab was published by Nation Books on 31 January 2012

 

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Sunday Express.