Messages from Tahrir, edited by Karima Khalil;Revolution in the Arab World, Contributors of Foreign Policy Magazine; The Road to Tahrir Square by Lloyd C. Gardner; On the State of Egypt, Alaa Al Aswany; Karama! Journeys through the Arab Spring, Johnny West.
The Arab Revolt of 1916-18 reshaped the Middle East and brought fame if not fortune for one British army officer: T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence’s account of his exploits, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, later became a classic, but it was not until eight years after the conflict ended that his book first went on sale.
In the meantime, Lawrence had rewritten the text from scratch, having lost his manuscript at a railway station, and then revised the draft endlessly – even fretting about the aesthetics of its typography, adding or deleting words to ensure that the last line of every paragraph ended in the right-hand half of each page.
Eventually, in 1926, a couple of hundred copies were printed and sold at a loss that almost bankrupted Lawrence.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom may be an extreme case, but the laborious process of creating a book has tended, at least in the past, to make authors and publishers disdainful of haste, and sometimes of profit too.
Today, though, as a new Arab revolt transforms the region again, no one wants to wait eight years to read about it. Far more than in the past, book publishers seem eager to keep pace with current events. The mere fact that they can contemplate doing so is a result of advances in technology that can shorten production time (once they have the text) to weeks rather than months, and on rare occasions even to a matter of days.
The Arab Spring is ripe for such treatment: a series of momentous events crying out for discussion and explanation with the kind of depth that only books can provide. But despite the technological advances, books still face a struggle when they try to compete for immediacy with newspapers and television.
One way around the immediacy problem is to cheat a little à la cooking programs on TV: Having shown how to prepare a cake, they don’t keep viewers waiting while it bakes in the oven. Instead, the presenter reaches into a cupboard with the words, “And here’s one I made earlier!”
That, more or less, is what happened with Revolution in the Arab World, published by Foreign Policy magazine on February 24, 2011 – less than two weeks after the fall of President Mubarak. Its 70,000 words were compiled in the space of 10 days, and printing time was eliminated entirely by issuing it only as an e-book.
An impressive achievement, perhaps, but what the book actually consists of is a collection of articles published earlier by Foreign Policy as the events unfolded, plus some updating and a newly written introduction. While there may be some convenience in gathering these texts in one place, a reader’s comment on Amazon highlights the disadvantage: “I found this to be a pretty decent work but the problem is I had already read most of the analysis in the news … and the key points seemed to get a little repetitive.”
Another in the “prepared earlier” category, though in many ways more valuable, is On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution, a compilation of newspaper columns by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany. One benefit here is that the book makes these available in English translation for the first time. Relying on a single author (rather than almost thirty in the case of Foreign Policy’s e-book) also gives it more coherence in terms of content.
Al Aswany’s hugely popular novel, The Yacoubian Building – first published in 2002 and later made into a film – might be considered a precursor of the Egyptian revolution: a powerful indictment, from top to bottom, of the country’s social and political decay. Cumulatively, and in non-fictional form, Al Aswany’s newspaper columns provide a similar message, every one of them ending with the same sentence: “Democracy is the solution,” a play on the Muslim Brotherhood’s famous slogan, “Islam is the solution.”
American involvement in the Middle East has long been a subject of debate, but Lloyd Gardner’s book, The Road to Tahrir Square, is the first to examine it in the context of the Arab Spring. On one level, this is a straightforward history of US-Egyptian relations since the Second World War. At the same time, it offers a critique of the confused and often self-contradictory American policies that both sustained the Mubarak regime and ultimately contributed to its downfall.
“Would Mubarak have felt able to pursue his repressive policies had he not enjoyed full American backing across nearly three decades?” Gardner asks, though the question is largely rhetorical. The Egyptian system – combining a security state with crony capitalism and industrialization “of a semi-feudal nature” – could not have been sustained without US military aid. “It was not that the Americans wanted to promote uneven development in Egypt,” Gardner writes, “but that they could not bring together otherwise conflicting goals in any other way.”
The book ends by pondering briefly the road from Tahrir. Wisely perhaps, since it’s probably still too soon, Gardner does not attempt to map out a way forward, though he makes a persuasive case for a fundamental rethinking of America’s role in the Middle East.
It is much to Gardner’s credit that readers of his book are unlikely to guess the conditions under which it was written. His American publishers, New Press, came up with the idea in February “as the Tahrir Square rumble began,” setting April 22 as the completion date, Gardner told me. He then embarked on what he describes as “a 24/7 schedule,” emailing each chapter to the publisher as soon as he finished it.
Fortunately for him, he wasn’t starting entirely from scratch. As a diplomatic historian specializing in US foreign policy, he already had a good deal of material at hand and could draw on help from librarians and archivists at Rutgers University. Even so, assembling a thoughtful and factual work in such a short time is quite a feat.
No less remarkable is Johnny West’s book, Karama! Researched and written entirely after the start of the Arab Spring, it is a sort of political travelogue covering Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Among other places, he revisits Sidi Bouzid, the hometown of Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution, and the district in Alexandria where Khaled Said lived (and eventually died at the hands of the Egyptian police).
West’s book does show signs of hasty writing (occasional passages that an editor with more time might have cut as superfluous) but its value lies in the insights it provides – insights not easily gleaned from the contemporary news reports. The people he meets on his travels have now had enough time to reflect but not enough to forget, and their stories are told with subtlety and nuance. In Tunisia, for example, he encounters revolutionaries and security forces who fought each other by night, and yet spent their days sitting side by side in the same cafes.
In contrast to Gardner’s world of international diplomacy, Karama! is very much a street-level view of the Arab Spring. The risk in a travelogue format is that it can easily become too anecdotal and befogged with trivialities, but West has steered a judicious course that combines readability and depth. As a former Reuters correspondent in the region, he knows the broader political context and, where necessary, takes pains to provide it. For instance, he carefully avoids the common journalistic trap of presenting Islamist movements too simplistically.
Another type of book emerging from the Arab Spring is what might be called the souvenir category. Messages from Tahrir, edited by Karima Khalil, brings revolution to the coffee table with a glossy collection of photographs showing “the creativity and eloquence of the signs many protesters carried, from the bitterly determined to the scathingly funny.” One man stands with a whistle in his mouth, pretending to be a referee and waving a red card aimed at Mubarak. Another wears a cooking pot on his head for protection.
Produced by the American University in Cairo Press, the book is beautifully presented but, overall, gives a rather sanitized impression of Egypt’s uprising by omitting its more violent aspects. The baltagiyya (the regime’s thugs), for example, are nowhere in sight.
The book certainly conveys a positive image of the Egyptian public – which is perhaps its main point – and readers (or, rather, viewers) may spend a pleasant few minutes flicking through the pictures. Still, it is doubtful that this adds much to our understanding of what happened.
In a similar vein, a little book in Arabic has come out called Al Shaab Yurid (The People Are Demanding), which gathers together slogans and jokes from the Egyptian revolution. Documenting these is a worthwhile exercise in itself, but the book is tiny – about the size of a cigarette pack and quite a lot slimmer. Although there may be some novelty value in this, contextualizing the slogans would have given it more substance, as well as more usefulness for posterity.
The commercial possibilities of the Arab Spring will no doubt keep publishers, authors, and their agents brainstorming for a while yet. It is doubtful whether any of the resulting books will survive as long as Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but we might reasonably ask how many will still be read, say, five years from now.
Gardner’s book certainly ought to be, since it raises so many larger questions about US policy. Al Aswany and West, in their different ways, have also produced books that deserve to last, capturing the spirit of a moment in Arab history that is bound to become less vivid as memories fade.