After the Spring: Thoughts on Cultural Production and the Selling Power of Change

by Naira Antoun and Aimee Shalan
[Image from the Royal Court Theatre website.]
[Image from the Royal Court Theatre website.]

“After the Spring: New Short Plays from the Arab World.” Performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, August 2011.

As part of their international “Rough Cuts” project, the Royal Court Theatre specially commissioned a series of four short plays from the Arab world in a program entitled “After the Spring,” in response to the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. All four writers had previously participated in the Royal Court project when it was first established in 2007 and their first plays for “Rough Cuts,” which were staged as rehearsed readings at the Royal Court in 2008, have now been published in a collection edited by Elyse Dodgson, entitled Plays from the Arab World. Readings of the newly commissioned plays, directed by Simon Godwin, took place at the Royal Court for two nights in August earlier this year. The first performance was followed by a discussion with Egyptian playwright Laila Soliman and Katherine Viner, Deputy Editor of the Guardian, while a discussion on Syria with Mohammad Al Attar and Scottish playwright David Grieg followed the second performance. The production of these new plays, during an unprecedented upsurge in demand for Arab works of art and literary events, raises important questions about the selling power of change, the nature of cultural production, and the complex relation between art and politics.
Make-over, by Moroccan playwright Kamal Khallidi, concerns the repackaging of the Moroccan prime minister in the face of mounting protests. It opens with the prime minister speaking with his barber of twenty-six years about the unrest. After his advisor arrives, the conversation turns to the make-over. His advice centers on a Facebook page, a Shakira concert, “selling” change, and learning how to be “street.” Before long he has sacked the barber and replaced him with Nicole, a stylist and photographer, who was responsible for the PR for Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential electoral campaign in France.

Voluntary Work, by Egyptian playwright Laila Soliman, is set in the home of a philanthropist, where she has established “The Call Center of the Revolution.” In between taking calls from martyrs’ families, as well as calls dealing with military trials and the military’s “virginity tests,” the volunteers discuss the situation. Through their debates about the revolution and counter-revolution (the play is set about three months after the fall of Mubarak) we witness the wide range of political views that have attached themselves to the uprising. The play ends when one woman takes a call, only to discover that her brother has been arrested.

In Beirut-Masnaa, by Lebanese playwright Arzé Khodr, a man meets a woman with a young child in a minibus. Both are trying to reach Damascus—he to visit his daughter, she to go home. The two agree to split the fare for the whole minibus, as there are no other passengers around. On hearing on the radio that Jordan has closed its borders with Syria, they switch it off before the driver returns. Along the way, it becomes increasingly clear that despite her initial façade of disinterest, the young woman is deeply invested in the uprising and is concerned for her husband, who has been arrested. When the driver discovers the news about Jordan he abandons the young woman at the border with Syria against the protestations of her fellow passenger, who is not as desperate to get to Damascus. They watch as she goes off to try to find a taxi for the next part of her journey.

Online, by Syrian playwright Mohammed Al Attar, sees three young Syrians communicating online over a period of a few days in mid-April. Punctuated by announcements of the date and times of the emails, messages, and posts, the pace varies and the tension builds. Sherif in Damascus tells Selma in Paris of the arrest of their friends, which he witnessed. He is wracked by guilt for not having intervened, and as he expresses his guilt and reflects on the rapidly unfolding situation, he is able to be open with her in part because she is far away. Amir, who calls himself a cyber-warrior, sets up a Facebook page for their arrested friends. The three swing between optimism and pessimism as hope mixes with fear. Amir is planning to go to Doha or Beirut, but changes his mind at the end of the play when he delivers the news to Selma that Sherif has also been arrested.

Change and its Selling Power

All of the plays speak to the ways in which the rhetoric and imagery of revolution, hope, and change are employed by different actors in different social contexts. A highly cynical appropriation of revolutionary ideals is dealt with in Makeover. The advisor to the Moroccan prime minister recognizes that repression will not work; it will just create a “pressure cooker” effect. In response to the prime minister’s instruction to block Facebook, the advisor suggests the opposite: the creation of spaces for people to speak. “Sell them hope, the hope of change,” he says, describing this as “the magic ingredient for Arabs these days.” Apart from his plans to make the prime minister more “street,” it is this word “sell” that encapsulates the approach he advocates for a regime to weather the storm unchanged—creating the appearance of change through the commodification of revolution. The replacement of the aging barber with the PR manager for Sarkozy’s electoral campaign points to the way that a regime struggling to survive looks to Europe for a model that will prove more effective than explicit repression. Outlining their strategy to the prime minister, the advisor and PR manager project an image of Che Guevara and then superimpose the face of the prime minister over it—the play gesturing towards the commodification not only of the Arab uprisings, but resistance and insurrection more broadly.

In Voluntary Work, the mechanism of a “Call Center of the Revolution,” bringing together people with opposing worldviews, highlights how the idea of the January 25th revolution is called upon for different political ends. There is nothing tying the people in the room together apart from the embrace of the revolution. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of post-Mubarak Egypt today, with those who see themselves as revolutionaries ranging from long-time activists and workers to bankers and entrepreneurs. Many unlikely candidates in Egypt are taking on the revolutionary mantle, from the sycophantic newspaper editors who hastily took down pictures of Mubarak to companies such as Coca Cola and Vodafone who have been using the revolution in their advertising.

Voluntary Work also raises important questions about the concept of unity lying behind the flag and behind the revolution as a symbol. At one point, the philanthropist gets the volunteers to salute the flag and sing the national anthem, and later she attempts to set the anthem as her ringtone. She declares that it is not the time for schisms between liberals, socialists, Islamists, or Salafists, while another volunteer, Ahmed, a banker, waxes lyrical about the unity during the eighteen days in Tahrir Square that brought men and women, the secular and the religious, rich and poor together, only to be met with cynicism from Nadeem, who is a blogger. While the others lay emphasis on unity and standing together, Nadeem is keen to bring out the real differences between them, raising the questions: What is unity? Is it necessarily fictional? Moreover, is a fictional unity necessary to the revolution, or must the schisms in society be addressed in order for the revolution to proceed?

A debate about the call for a sit-in also touches upon the question of who represents the revolution—of who has the right to call for a sit-in and who does not. Nadeem—the most radical of the volunteers—makes repeated references to civilians being tried in military courts, to “virginity tests,” and to the military’s as-yet unfulfilled promise to retry the detained revolutionaries in open and transparent civilian trials. Consequently, despite being the most radical or revolutionary character, he is labelled a counter-revolutionary by another of the volunteers, the banker. What is interesting here are the ways in which the revolution acts as a signifier, as people with a range of political views attach themselves to it, while the related label of “counter-revolution” is also used to discredit claims and demands that might reasonably be understood as calls to fulfil the demands and principles of the revolution.

Personal Investments

While Make-over explores the commodification of revolution, and Voluntary Work touches on its potentially illusory embrace, Beirut-Masnaa and Online focus more on the very real cost of investing in the protests. In Beirut-Masnaa the young woman, who is unable to keep up the facade of indifference as her strong political beliefs and allegiance to her activist husband spill out, is ultimately stranded at the border with her baby. The extent of her investment in the uprising is revealed through a different kind of deception as she enters into a conspiracy with her fellow passenger to prevent the driver from discovering that Jordan has closed its borders. In this way, the play brings to the fore the tension between survival and solidarity. While the young woman has no faith in the man behind the wheel (rightly, as it turns out), the allegiance of the other passenger provides the only hope of achieving her objective. Ultimately, however, whether or not she arrives at her destination is dependent upon the driver and his political stance. When he realizes the truth, he has little sympathy. His own livelihood is threatened by the uprisings in neighbouring countries and he is hoping for things to get back to normal, as he used to be able to make two journeys a day. While material concerns drive the revolution, they also have the potential to stand in its way. “You want to start a revolution,” he remarks, “you have to pay the price. Nothing comes for free.” Taking a chance on one’s livelihood is ultimately a personal choice, and as a result the onus of maintaining the hopes of the collective would appear to lie with the individual. The risk is, however, that others will fail to live up to that responsibility, and as a result those who have invested in collective action will be left to their own fate.

In Online, a collective investment in hope is likewise predicated on personal loss. Recalling a friend who had been in prison stating that he was more optimistic when he was incarcerated, when things were as bad as they could get, Sherif suggests there is no option but optimism. His is a very different concept of hope than the one being peddled by the prime minister’s advisor in Makeover. It is paradoxically once agency is confined and choice apparently obliterated by a demoralizing state of oppression that hope is given free rein. Sherif is nevertheless deeply troubled by the tension between his individual autonomy and his role as a social agent. Not only does he blame himself for not intervening when his friends were arrested, he also feels culpable for not sharing their fate and struggles to come to terms with the consolation Selma offers when she remarks, “I don’t think they’d be better off if you were with them.”

Rather than the declarations that “the fear barrier has been broken” that we have become accustomed to hearing with regard to Arab countries, in particular Syria, here we have a constant negotiation with the barriers of fear. It is this constant negotiation—as opposed to the absence of fear—that provides for the recognition of people’s bravery and their agency. It is not that people are no longer frightened to protest openly in the streets; they do so in spite of their fear. While Selma voices her apprehension that the personal price of the revolution might be too high, Amir suggests, when Sherif is arrested at the end of the play, that there is no limit to the sacrifice people are willing to make. “Maybe they want to take everyone,” he says, “and that’s fine.” Collapsing the distance between optimism and pessimism, the play opens up space for an interrogation of the collective courage and political potential of the seemingly powerless.

Social Media Narratives

“Charity without politics is the ultimate wank,” Nadeem says at the “Call Center of the Revolution” in Voluntary Work, adding that he has written a blog post about it. It is perhaps impossible to address the Arab uprisings without also addressing the role of social media, not necessarily because of its centrality to the uprisings, but its centrality to the ways in which these uprisings have been understood by many commentators and observers. “Is this a Facebook/Twitter revolution?” is a question many of us have tired of hearing. Are activism and organizing occurring online, on the streets, or both? Beirut-Masnaa is the only play of the four that makes no mention of social media. The young woman, sick with worry for her husband, reminds us that imprisonment, torture, and fear are not cyber-phenomena.

In Online, the role of social media is addressed in a way that goes beyond reductive or depoliticizing questions. Amir, the self-proclaimed cyber-warrior, tells Selma in Paris that he cannot watch more videos. He worries that he is either anaesthetizing himself or needing a daily fix, articulating a dilemma that many observers across the world, sitting behind their computer screens, will have grappled with.

Sherif is open and honest with Selma, telling her not only what he is doing, but about his fear and helplessness, his disgust at what he perceives as cowardice for not intervening when their friends were arrested. He does not talk with anyone else this way; he tells her, “Sometimes it’s good that you’re not here, so I can say what I actually feel.” At another point, he writes to her while she is offline that he finds it even easier to be honest with her when she is not reading his message in real time. Does distance enable truth? Does distance lessen the fear of being judged for being fearful?

Far away in Paris, Selma says she feels doubly helpless. Sherif writes to her the next day: “You’re on the other side of the world, but both of us are the same distance from Samir” (one of their imprisoned friends). Distance and proximity here are not simple opposites: physical distance on the one hand is mitigated by the immediacy of online activity, yet the immediacy bridges the impassable distance from Samir for neither—one being hundreds of miles away, the other perhaps within walking distance. In this respect, Online defies any simple narrative of the uprising being brought about by a transformation in the ability of “regular” people to consume and produce new kinds of media or make connections simultaneously across the globe and across the street, and so imagine their relationships in the world differently.

Cultural Diplomacy and the Voice of the Artist as a Privileged Commodity

Collectively, the plays work effectively in bringing out not only commonalities but also differentiations between countries, regions, and constituencies. During the question and answer session after the second performance, David Grieg suggested that most people in the UK see the Middle East as a homogenous world and that the plays represented for many “a crash course in Middle Eastern politics,” especially in terms of diversity. His comments assumed a non-Arab audience and positioned the plays first and foremost as products of cultural diplomacy—seeing culture not only as what distinguishes nations or regions, but also as a vehicle through which to understand each other. Given that these shorts are the products of a new phase in a Royal Court project to encourage plays by young Arab writers that was launched in collaboration with the British Council, and given the sudden surge in appetite in the UK to know more about the Middle East following the uprisings, this perspective is perhaps unsurprising. Certainly, when asked by David Grieg what he would want an audience to take away from his play in response to Syria, Mohammed Al Attar replied, “We deserve for you to know more about us.” There is, however, a danger that the plays may be valued more for what they communicate to non-Arab audiences than for their artistic merit, or indeed the more critical issues they might raise. During the post-performance discussion, the focus on what a non-Arab audience might learn about the diversity of the Middle East overshadowed some of the key dilemmas and questions that the plays collectively raised.

Projects like the Royal Court’s “Rough Cuts” or the Mayor of London’s recent “Shubbak Festival,” which aimed to provide “a window on contemporary Arab culture and some of the finest artists working in the region today,” raise a whole raft of questions about the relation between art and politics. Should, for example, artists be treated as spokespersons for their countries, and if so, which ones? And to what extent are other voices being sidelined or ignored? It is worth mentioning that countries like Bahrain or Yemen are often overlooked, and it was noticeable that Palestine also did not figure in “After the Spring”—despite being included earlier in the project in “Plays from the Arab World” and despite being such a central issue for protesters across the region.

And then of course there is Iraq. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown noted in an article in the Independent earlier this year, people seem to have forgotten Iraq, not least because the harrowing art being produced “interferes with their rush to cash in on the mood of optimism” that they identify with the “irresistible story” of the “Arab Spring.” To what degree, then, or on what occasions does patronage carry over into politics? As Alibhai-Brown observes, the uprisings that started in December 2010 have instilled such an urgent demand for Arab works and performances that even the most apolitical artists have been affected. But does sudden social and political change free the artistic spirit, or end up narrowing its scope?

Artists in authoritarian states are often seen to play a particular role, whether through the expectations placed on the artist to produce something that shores up the regime’s world view, or the assumption that art is always already transgressive and as such is tasked with contributing to the pursuit of freedom. In the Western world, the artist writing in a context of oppression is often attributed with a romantic aura—all the more so in the case of the exiled artist, depicted as a brave individual banished from home for daring to speak the truth.

In late February of this year, Al-Jazeera English hosted a discussion under the title “The Political Power of Literature,” with three authors as discussants—Egyptian Ahdaf Souief, Libyan Hisham Matar, and Argentine-Chilean Ariel Dorfman. Dorfman expressed the view that all art is transgressive; that because these regimes are based on lies, even a love poem that encapsulates truth is a challenge. His words were reminiscent of the famous assertion by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that every beautiful poem is an act of resistance. But while there is undeniably something to be said for this perspective, there is also a danger that it ascribes political power where it simply does not exist, and in doing so obviates the need for politically engaged, brave encounters with messy and brutal realities—to say nothing of the reductive framework it imposes on works of art. And as Darwish himself asked, can a Palestinian artist not write a love poem that is simply a love poem? Is every woman in a poem by a Palestinian necessarily a representation of Palestine (falling into the somewhat tired association of “woman” with “nation”)? These questions have been raised time and again by artists and audiences. There are no simple answers. But the artistic responses to the Arab uprisings, together with the focus on “the artist” in many of the programs and events about the “Arab Spring,” precipitate a renewed grappling with these questions.

The privileging of the artist places certain forms of labor above others. In response to such an assumption on the AJE program, Hisham Matar expressed a wariness of the view that writers are fundamentally useful to revolution, suggesting that a writer serves a function just as a baker does—it is not more important, and perhaps even less so, he said. As a Libyan writer in exile, he went on to remark, he felt useless. Mohammad Al Attar talked in a similar vein at the Royal Court event, suggesting that currently his most useful role is primarily as a citizen, not an artist.

We also need to ask: who is recognized as an artist? For it is not simply that the voice of the artist is often privileged above others, but that many who might justifiably be considered artists are often excluded from this status. What of the Chilean arpilleristas under Pinochet’s dictatorship who with their arpilleras, quilted pictures, were able to evade the censor’s eye, which was scornful of this “women’s work,” and so were able to bring international awareness both to the torture and murder that characterized Pinochet’s regime and the struggle for justice against it? When the history of artists who spoke against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is told, will the story of Ibrahim Qashoush—the man who led the chants and rhymes he composed against Bashar and who, days after the videos circulated internationally, was found murdered with his vocal chords ripped out—be remembered?

What’s more, when we talk about political plays, should we not also be mindful of method? There is a great difference between a play written alone in a silent room and a play that is workshopped with those about whom the play is written. And is there not also a world of difference between a play that is about oppression, which instils in its audience righteous anger or pity, and a play that calls its audience to action? Is it not dangerous to collapse the distinctions between content, method, and effect?

The notion that the radical or dissident artist is a voice of truth and conscience, though problematic, can be mobilized by artists wanting to use the privilege ascribed to them to tell the stories of those who might otherwise remain anonymous—and to be aware of the ways in which this privileging is problematic is not to deny the potential power of their art. What continues to get overlooked, however, is the fact that the uprisings across the Arab world are being fuelled by popular forces that are quite distinct from the liberal elites who are being called upon by foreign audiences to articulate the opposition to the regimes.

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