Despots in the Sand: A Quizzical Memoir

Ihab Hassan in Agni:

10020The Arab Spring, a blast of the hot, Khamsin wind. Spring, I said to myself, how many centuries then did the Arab Winter last? Or was that “Spring” merely an interlude, heralding yet another ice age? But give hope its due. A Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouaziz torched himself and the Middle East blazed.

Look what happened within a few months: the president of Tunisia fled; the president of Egypt sat in an iron cage; the Libyan dictator, dragged from a ditch, died of a bullet fired from his own golden pistol; and the Yemeni has just “resigned” after thirty-three years of misrule. Earlier, the ogre of Iraq had been hanged. And any moment now, the tyrant of Syria, sitting under the sword of Damocles, may find his head in his lap. Interestingly, only the kings of Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, though they spurn constitutional monarchies, have been spared.

Take Egypt, where I was born. When the youths of Tahrir Square evicted the latest pharaoh from his palaces by the Nile, I thought: groovy! Then I wondered: is this the land I left seven decades ago? Finally, I saw—saw even before the Muslim Brotherhood swept freely into the Egyptian Parliament, even before other generals continued to hold power with invisible hands—that this Arab Spring would be like no other spring: it would leave the landscape of the Middle East both verdant and sere.

So, what had this dubious season to do with any of us in our addled, interactive world? What, I needed to ask, had it to do particularly with me? Tectonic shifts have tilted many lands a fraction toward democracy. Were these changes relevant to me? Did the Arab Spring touch me deeper than the news of any other day? And what of those jihadists, broken-mirror images of the despots, how did they relate to me, kinsmen in a shadow world?

The answers, I fear, may be subject to the inevitable opacity of introspection. Who can strike clear through the mask? Opacity and, worse, indifference at this stage of my self-exile.

More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]