10 Books, 10 Years Later: Literature After the ‘Arab Spring’
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
A decade ago, mass protests in Tunisia led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been the country’s autocratic ruler for more than two decades. The protests in Tunisia inspired other popular movements in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond. For a brief moment, these protests stood as a global symbol of the desire for justice.
In the last decade, tens of thousands of books have been produced about these interlinked protest movements, often called the “Arab Spring.” Thousands of authors have attempted to explain, attack, justify, depict, decry the movements, and to predict the future.
The interlinked protest movements also inspired art of many different kinds, including theater, music, poetry, short films, stories, novels, memoirs, and other works that re-invented genre boundaries. Some, written in haste, were interesting only in the moment. Others still speak across space and time.
In this list, we take a brief look at ten literary works from five different countries. Each has a different way of depicting the 2011-12 uprisings and what came after.
L’Amas Ardent (The Ardent Swarm), by Yamen Manai, translated by Lara Vergnaurd.
This fast-paced political parable is set not in Tunis or Sfax, but in a remote village called Nawa. Instead of foregrounding the protests in Tunisia’s main cities, the novel explores how events changed—or didn’t change—life in a village. Most importantly for this particular village, a beekeeper has discovered that something is murdering his honeybees. Our hero-beekeeper first must discover what is killing his beloved bees, and then how to defeat these interloping murderers. In his search for a solution, he also must navigate the political events reshaping the country.
The City Always Wins, by Omar Robert Hamilton.
The City Always Wins takes us to the Cairo for the powerful rollercoaster of events that took place between 2011 and 2013, evoking the extremes of joy, dread,and despair that characterized those years. This cinematic novel follows two young people, Khalil and Mariam, as they attempt to bring about a political revolution. As the Egyptian graphic novelist Ganzeer writes, the novel is a “perfect time capsule of a time and place.”
Kol Haza Elhora’a (All That Rubbish), by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere.
This novel centers on a young Egyptian-American lawyer who is jailed for working at a nongovernmental organization that takes foreign funding. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel borrows from Egypt’s NGO trials, which started in 2011. All That Rubbish also borrows from other real events as it creates a compelling, kaleidoscopic view of the January 25, 2011, uprising and the events that followed, all told in Fishere’s compelling, fast-paced style. Although not in English, an excerpt appeared in Jonathan Smolin’s translation on Words Without Borders.
Al-Tabbour (The Queue), by Basma Abdel Aziz; translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.
This novel, originally published in 2013, is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where a centralized authority known as the Gate has risen to power in the aftermath of the “Disgraceful Events”—a popular uprising. In this post-revolutionary reality, citizens must stand in line at the Gate for permission to receive health care, educational opportunities, housing, and more. In the miles-long queue that follows, there are opportunists, truth-seekers, and many just trying to make it through the day. The novel is particularly deft in exploring the lives of women.
Otared, by Mohammad Rabie; translated by Robin Moger.
This fierce and vibrantly angry novel is set in 2025, fourteen years after a failed revolution. The central character is Ahmed Otared, a former Egyptian police officer who joins a police-led “resistance” to the city’s occupation by the Knights of Malta, with horrifying results.
You can find more Egyptian works at the digital archive Politics, Popular Culture, and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar
This memoir, by the immensely gifted Hisham Matar, centers on Matar’s return to Libya in 2012. There, he searches for news of his father, who was kidnapped and imprisoned by the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in 1990. The book contains worlds within worlds, opening doors onto Libyan history, relationships between fathers and sons, art, prison narratives, and more.
Shams ‘ala Nawafidh Mughlaqa (Sun on Closed Windows), edited by Khaled Mattawa and Laila Moghrabi.
This book itself has become part of the ongoing struggle over Libya’s future. The collection, published in the spring of 2017, is more than 500 pages long, and it brings together recent literary works by 25 different Libyan writers, as well as two essays by prominent Libyan critics. Although initially well-received, the book became a target of social-media attacks, and it was retroactively censored and condemned by Libyan authorities, who stated that its content was against “public morality.”
Taqatu’ Niran: Min Yaumiyat al-Intifada as-Suriya (A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution), by Samar Yazbek; translated by Max Weiss.
This book is Yazbek’s journal from the first four months of uprising in Syria. In it, she paints a portrait of what was going on in the country as well as her own struggles to protect her daughter. The book contains moments of tremendous hope while also documenting terrible brutality. An important historical account of the early protests across Syria from the point of view of one of Syria’s acclaimed contemporary writers.
Al-Kha’ifoon (The Frightened Ones), by Dima Wannous; translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.
A brilliant and terrifying split-personality novel set in the early days of the Syrian civil war. It centers on a psychologist’s office where the novel’s two lovers, Suleima and Nasseem, meet. In the novel, two echoing women (Salma and Suleima) tell their stories in alternating chapters, and they are eerily similar stories of fear, disease, violence, and families turning against each other. The novel is full of vivid and terrifying descriptions of the effects of fear.
Souq Ali Muhsin (Ali Muhsin Market), by Nadia Al-Kokabany
Peaceful protests broke out in January 2011 in front of the University of Sana’a, where women and men both briefly hoped for change. This novel explores the hope of the time, but also the ordinary opportunism—selling things to protesters—and the shocking violence. Although not in English translation, there is an excerpt, translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes, on Words Without Borders.