Making sense of the Arab Spring

Libyan writer Hisham Matar first came to prominence in 2006 when his debut novel, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel, later translated into 22 languages, was a hit with many critics. One reviewer described it as “a knockout—emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written” and another thought of it as “a poignant tale of personal and collective betrayal”.

Matar has followed this with An Anatomy of a Disappearance, which came out earlier this year. His latest novel begins with the line: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest”—a sentence that refers to the real-life story of the disappearance of Matar’s father, who sank without trace into Muammar Gaddafi’s prison system. Matar, now based in the United States where he holds a teaching job, has become a constant presence on television screens and in the opinion pages of some of the world’s top newspapers in which he explains, mostly to a Western audience, what is taking place in the Arab world. This is his interview with the Mail & Guardian.

Were the revolutions sudden or gradual?
I speak as an artist, as a novelist. It is obvious looking back one can see reasons for what happened. You can see that what happened is a result of a series of events and consequences. Yet, still, it was miraculous because, whenever we witness uprisings against incredibly ruthless regimes, it is, on some level, miraculous.

Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to throw off its dictator. What is your comment?
Certainly, but I don’t know how useful that is to understanding the overall picture. Retrospectively, every­thing seems to make sense. The so-called Arab Spring was one of those moments when history, which normally moves at a glacial pace, suddenly goes through these sharp dramatic shifts. Perhaps, instead of spending too much time, however, wondering what triggered these events, it might be more interesting to ask what has actually taken place.

I often assume that I know what happened in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. Sometimes I wonder about that. I don’t think I fully understand or know the scale and magnitude of what has taken place or the repercussions that will undoubtedly unfold over the coming years. I think novelists are, on some level, ill-equipped to respond quickly to events, in their art but also in their person.

What can be said, though, is that there is a dramatic shift taking place in the public imagination of these countries, by which I mean there has been a deep and radical reconsideration about what it means to be a society, a people.

The horizon of national expectations has shifted even beyond what the most audacious had hoped. The future doesn’t seem solid or predetermined. That has excited extraordinary hopes and anxieties, but also stimulated civic society and cultural life in the Middle East. It’s difficult to know much beyond that.

Your work portrays the view of the world from the point of young men. Please explain.
The narrative of my first novel, In the Country of Men, is situated in a time in Libya when the borders of what was possible seemed incredibly rigid. It was interesting to me to try to express that reality and history through a young mind recalling a particular moment in his childhood, perhaps because adults are very good at accepting certain parameters, taking them as given. Children are also good at that but they don’t have the same advantage of hindsight. Children assume that what exists is going to last forever.

That freshness and that intensity of engagement helped me to focus on the way the political reality of Libya during those years, the late 1970s, affected private life. But speaking this way has always felt inappropriate and inaccurate. Mainly because what is in a novel I’ve written will forever and by definition remain veiled to me.

It seems Gaddafi was an institution that tied Libya together. Now that he’s gone, who will keep Libya as one state?
Describing Colonel Gaddafi as an institution isn’t accurate. His government was structured around the cult of his personality. The whole structure of power was centred around the logic of his family. The rest of Libya was treated as subordinates to the family, given hand-outs and told to shut up. The relationship infantilised Libyan public life. The regime was determined to undermine every institution. To this end unions were dismantled, many journalists were killed or imprisoned. Even ministries couldn’t function properly and the army itself was not a professional army with a proper structure. It resembled a proper army only during Libya’s war with Chad. After the war, the army was dismantled into a few loyal militias because it excited Gaddafi’s suspicions and anxieties.

Therefore the impression that Gaddafi offered a structured institutional reality to Libyan public life and that now that he is gone there is a vacuum is inaccurate. There’s a vacuum but a vacuum in a different sense. He left us with rudimentary institutions. But what has been a surprise is how Libyans have responded.

The desire to find a way out of this malaise without descending into an endless cycle of vengeance and retribution is sincere. This is why the example of South Africa, with all of its problems, is uppermost in the minds of Libyans. So although Gaddafi left Libya a weak nation, the response by many Libyans so far elicits some positive feeling, even in the most cautious of people.

There are remnants of the Gaddafi regime who have reinvented themselves as revolutionaries. What do you think of this phenomenon?
We have to make a distinction between people who were key to creating and sustaining the Gaddafi reality—people like Moussa Koussa or Abdul Ati al-Obeidi—and ordinary civil servants. The first sort is not part of the present administration. And it is hard to imagine that changing.

Islamist parties have made gains in the recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Is this part of the Islamisation of North Africa?
The term Islamist is a very bizarre one. I don’t really know what it means. It professionalises cultural and political positions in ways that are unhelpful. Political parties that are inspired in their policies by Islam and who are committed to democracy should be allowed their chance at running for office.

More critically, it seems to me, is whether voters will use this new opportunity to express civic responsibility or merely to secure personal interests.

In this, the Arab voter might not prove to be very different from any other on the planet.

Percy Zvumoya is the Mail & Guardian’s arts writer

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