Eid Mohamed and Ayman A. El-Desouky (eds.) 2021. Cultural Production and Social Movements after the Arab Spring: Nationalism, Politics, and Transnational Identity. I.B. Tauris, London and New York.

The keyword for this edited volume is transnational. It deploys the transnational as a cultural output of the Arab Spring, the popular uprisings that swept several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in two waves, the initial one in 2011 and the latest in 2019. Interestingly and to the exception of one single essay by Hager Ben Driss on the poetry of Tunisian Sghaier Ouled Ahmed’s incendiary poetry, all contributions seem to be fascinated with works that are either a celebration of multiculturalism or transhistorical. In doing so, their essays are narcissistic projections of what the editors aim for the Arab Spring to be remembered, a culturalist quest for some mysteriously lost and regained identity, the one caught between past and present, modernity or traditionalism. In reality, though, these projections, regardless of how apparently nuanced or informative, stand at odds with the core principle of the uprisings: a class struggle seeking the foundation of an egalitarian society.  

The editors start with the premise that the social explosions, otherwise dubbed the Arab Spring, cannot be explained by postcolonial or nationalistic theories. The latter are anachronistic and unhelpful. The uprisings, they add, far supersede the capacity of a single idea or approach to account for the ideological, cultural, historical, or economic realities “that have unsettled the power structures of state formations and processes of subjectivation…” (p. 1). It is not difficult to note that the book’s core question veers into an identity quest imagined to require assimilation to European multiculturalism, or so the material advances of Europe are supposed to be premised. For purposes of lending that quest a heavy and serious endeavour, the book hinges its rationale on “…the deeper reality [that is supposed to have fueled the uprisings, precisely those] …collective modes of knowing, and of knowing collectively, beyond institutional politics, national and postcolonial histories, and the established discursive modes of expert sciences and intellectual discourses.” (p. 2) Hence, the preaching of transcultural is almost in tandem with the reigning neoliberal order, which seeks to simultaneously resolve two contradictions: the fall in the rate of profits and the squashing of the class struggle through banalising immigrants and immigration as a free and conscientious choice. With one contribution, Katie Logan, one cannot overlook in her reading of Etel Adnan’s 1993 novel, Paris, When It’s Naked, an infantile admiration of the European Union and an evocation of reproducing the ‘melting pot’ in the Arab World.  

Western discourses of social mobilisations, the editors trust, cannot account for the recent changes taking place in the MENA region. Social movements such as the ones that spearheaded the studied uprisings are presumed to have become governed by new modes of social mobilisation, namely the internet. Hence, there is little, if at all, historical continuity between past and present struggles in the Arab World. The book lies in four parts, comprising twelve chapters: four in the first and third and two in the second and the fourth. They are contributions by scholars of social and human sciences.

The first part trusts that the Arab Spring marks the emergence of a multiplicity: ideological, cultural, religious, educational, class-based, and gender-based. It claims to find and marshal a methodology rooted in the dynamics of the Arab Spring. A methodology that breaks away with the old norms of study “…sublimation of the Other—and especially of the United States as pervasive—has built an idea of fragile Arab communities… [together with] the emergence of the digital citizen opens ways for conceiving oneself differently from decades–, if not centuries—old narratives.” (p. 23) Through shuttling back and forth from the mother countries to the hosting places, Diaspora communities are deemed to facilitate the perceived need for change. Thus, the transcultural reality fueled exasperation with the likes of Mubarek and Ghaddafi, and triggered a new mode of digital citizenship that undid censorship and broke rigid borders. Caroline Rooney, in her contribution, proposes that even old enmities (Jewish and Arab) are no longer operative, and the new generations are receptive to the undoing of political manoeuvrings and discourses.

Part II investigates a culture’s diversifying and assimilative practices that help to re-narrate identity after traumas. At stake in this is a rethinking of the idea of inclusiveness.” (p. 5) Negotiating a new, universal identity wherein Facebook plays a key role is what Ben Driss notices in the poetry of Sghair Ouled Ahmed (201). This poet used to write with a universal audience in mind for which he sought not only solidarity but the need to register a different hypothesis or vocabulary with which he, the poet, “…rectif[ies] the Western grammar of revolution.” (p. 84) In the name of reclaiming one’s history and saving it from the falsifications by victors, Jeanna Altomonte finds the Iraqi artist, Adel Abidin’s 2007 interactive installation, Abidin Travels: Welcome to Baghdad a recreation of Iraq and Baghdad’s millennial history in Western capitals. With its subversive character to neo-Oriental tropes pushed by heavy Western media, Adidin’s installation is supposed to “…promote social and political change in regions affected by war.” (p. 102). The logic of the essay goes assumes that the simple fact of living outside Iraq (in diaspora) facilitates new esteem for the Iraqi as a productive and respectable subject. 

Part III highlights how migration enforces the sociopolitical collision around issues of cultural identity. As Melissa Finn and Bessma Momani argue, Settling in Canada surveys over 860 Canadian-Arab youth to explore the possibility of a transnational outlook on oneself and others through metissage. Differently put, in being a hybrid, that is, both Arab and Canadian, one leaves the parochial and ravishes inclusive, “…demarcating the inside and outside of cultural boundaries, and choosing positions on an issue-by-issue basis.” (p. 121)

Part IV stands apart from the other three sections in how it claims that “…identity is a false problematic.” (p. 7) and where the staging of the revolutionary/protest act in the artistic work cannot be taken for granted. The Houthi sarkha (scream) is found to be a self-contradiction in movement in the sense that it “serves the Houthi’s solidification of power but not without rendering the sarkha‘s context of the struggle against violations of Yemen’s sovereignty meaningless.” (p. 206) Embraced as an identity, the chapter finds that sarkha‘s capacity for galvanising the struggle for life in dignity is a false radicalism because it reduces complex history and culture into a follower of either the Sunni brand of Islam or Zaydi Shia. Hamid Dabashi’s essay on the art of protest carries out this section’s investigation of falsehood. He finds that radical art is precisely the one that cannot be recuperated and championed by museums and art galleries because that radical art lies at the interstitial and transitory, “specific to the moment of their staging” (p. 236). The ‘interstitial’ is his term for the truly subversive art as it haunts counterrevolutionary forces, the ones that have feasted on the Arab Spring’s propulsion for emancipation.

In asking what is about the self-immolation of a single man in Tunisia that sparkled the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, the first section finds that the answer lies with the emergent trans-cultural identities in the Arab World and beyond. What an elusive approximation to a point-black question! Instead of discussing the dictatorial orders as the latter unflinchingly pursued the extraction of surplus value/profit, thus stifling the possibility of mere survival, the contributions in the section project their own biases and jumpstart singing the song of capital, rendering the incendiary radicalism a quest for a transcultural identity and self-referentiality. The fluidity of movements is supposed to combat “the essentialism, ghettoisation and fundamentalism.” (p. 14) Any objective reader cannot miss the insult to the sacrifices of the activists who paraded the squares and streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It is fallacious to assume that technology (social media) galvanises the rebellious subject. Rather, the burdensome thresholds of exploitation and grab cancelled the possibility of decent living and triggered the way for a social explosion.

Resisting the tendency to represent and reproduce the revolutionary act, as with the fourth section, sound like a promising venue to embrace the universal. In practice, though, the area veers into the irreproducibility of the revolutionary act, less to give people the opportunity to register the act and more to fetishise it. The alleged distinction between the act and the reporting of the act reads as infinite masturbation with words. Indeed, how can one celebrate the photo of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s last breath or the one picturing Kurdish women of Kobani standing up to ISIS as the most radical with the same zeal as the nude photos of Alaa Elmahdy or Goldshifteh Farahani’s? Dabashi overlooks how the radicality in each contradicts the other in balancing the two as even remotely comparable. al-Sabbagh’s paves the road for the incendiary. At the same time, Elmahdy veers into voyeuristic and spectacle hence, how an authentic work of art has to reproduce the emergency, not just the emergence, of the revolutionary act.

Overall, the transnational and transhistorical as championed in this book seek to dispose of the incendiary content of the uprisings surgically. In making the uprisings look like an orgy for metissage, historical and intergenerational continuity is the target since only the one who embraces their history can convincingly shout ‘no’ to the neoliberal order. One cannot possibly develop the same stance toward their two histories—even if awareness is possible, acting and standing for the two roots is impossible. Sometimes, if not often, the two roots are mutually exclusive. That explains why metissage, transhistorical, and transcultural are the darling ideologies of the current neoliberal and counterrevolutionary orders

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524


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