A Revolution of Individual Voices

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, ed. Layla Al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel, and Nemonie Craven Roderick (Penguin)

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution is a diverse, necessary book that gathers together first-hand accounts of 2011’s “Arab Spring.” The eight pieces it contains (four by women, four by men) offer a view of events during those months that is both more detailed and more reflective than what was available in the Western media at that time. The authors of the individual pieces come from across the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Because these are individual accounts, they sometimes lack the context that a more traditional history or politics book would offer, but those individual perspectives are what make Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution such compelling reading.

As Samar Yazbek’s introduction reminds us, “these events have been long in the making…. What we witnessed on television was only a small part of a larger struggle that didn’t begin with the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, or end when one dictator took a plane to Saudi and another a bullet to the head.” These struggles continue though we (at least here in the U.S.) see much less of them, now that our rather homogenous press has moved on to other topics.

This sense of being “in the midst of” is another aspect of this book I find particularly compelling. We (the U.S. again) and our media seem to prefer stories that are limited in time and complexity, but these writers show us a movement in flux, in action. A revolution doesn’t end with the ouster of a particular leader or a single election. These revolutions continue to be fought, offering progress, but with little hope of tidy resolution. We may think of the Arab Spring as “over,” but it continues, despite the fact that our cameras are now trained in other directions.

The voices in these pieces vary widely by gender, nationality, and religious and political perspectives. In one sense, Arab Spring was a single movement, an upheaval crossing national boundaries, but it was also multiple movements, shaped by the unique circumstances of each region.

Malek Sghiri from Tunisia, puts his country’s struggle into the context of his own family history: “[my family] lacked immunity to the virus of revolution and resistance and it infected us all, uncles, aunts, sons and daughters.” At one point, when an interrogator tells Sghiri that he had questioned Sghiri’s father during a previous uprising, Sghiri responds: “I hope God grants you a long life that you might get to interrogate my son as well.”

Yasmine El Rashidi, author of “Cairo, a City in Waiting,” at one time did speech-writing for Egypt’s first lady, following official instructions to “stress [the government’s] work on poverty elimination,” but became a well-known blogger of the revolution.

Mohamed Mesrati of Libya relates his growing understanding of a childhood fable as a commentary on the silencing of the Libyan people: the populace, terrorized by the king’s elephant prepare diligently to present a request that the elephant be removed, but when the time to speak to the king arrives, their terror leads them to ask instead for a mate for the elephant “to enrich his life and bear his children.” Gradually, he comes to see the tale as tragic, rather then humorous.

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution won’t give you a comprehensive understanding of current revolutionary movements in the Arab world, but it will give you a taste of the lives lived by these revolutionaries, of the courage their protests demanded, and of the consequences they faced for their participation. I don’t know of any other resource offering such valuable, substantial material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *