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Living the Arab Spring: personal accounts of popular uprisings
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BEIRUT: Thousands (and thousands) of words have been written about the so-called Arab Spring. From speedily assembled media reports trying to keep track of the swiftly shifting situation on the ground, to books dedicated to the events in individual countries, there has been no shortage of reportage, expert opinion and academic analysis of the movements that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East since late 2010.For some, Arab Spring-themed tomes might be getting a bit repetitive, but a new anthology of personal accounts from those who were at the heart of events in their respective countries offers a different kind of insight into what it means to be caught up in a nationwide call for change.

“Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus” collects first-person accounts by eight writers from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The collection is edited by Layla al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel and Nemonie Craven Roderick, with a foreword by exiled Syrian journalist and activist Samar Yazbek.

Penned by four women and four men, the entries offer a balanced overview of events that have had dramatic consequences for gender equality and women’s rights. Gender aside, what unites these authors’ accounts – which are in equal parts terrifying and inspiring – is their recollections of the two emotions dominating their experiences of protest: fear and hope.

When describing the authoritarian states they seek to overthrow, several authors draw comparisons with George Orwell’s “1984.” Others recount feeling a joy tinged with jealousy while watching demonstrations unfolding elsewhere, only to be overcome by crippling fear when the protest movement arrived on their own doorsteps, putting friends and family in danger.

Student activist Malek Sghiri’s accessible – if somewhat lengthy – exploration of the myriad factors behind the Tunisian uprising that began in December 2010 is coupled with moving descriptions of the raw emotion behind the first protests. A harrowing account of the week he spent in prison, where he was subjected to repeated interrogations and brutally tortured, tells readers more about the bravery of Tunisia’s revolutionary figures than any news report.

Penned in May 2011, cultural journalist Yasmine El Rashidi’s account of Egypt’s uprising is a heartbreaking, beautifully written record of the hopes and fears of Cairo demonstrators during the early days of the revolution, when the longing for freedom from the long-entrenched regime overpowered any misgivings about what was to replace it.

Rashidi’s entry ends on an ambivalent note as she shares her uncertainty about Egypt’s future.

“My relationship with this city, with a culture, with my home, has forever been changed,” she writes, “[and] my memories of the 18 days, the revolution, are mere fragments of a larger journey and search that I now wait to complete.”

In light of the turmoil engulfing the country nearly three years on, it is clear her tentative hopes for a democratic Egypt have yet to materialize.

Perhaps among the most interesting accounts are those from Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, whose protests were largely overlooked by the international press.

Journalist and author Jamal Jubran’s deeply personal account begins with an explanation of the racism he faced growing up in Yemen, as a result of his mother’s Eritrean origins. Finding escape first in cinema and then in the power of language, he highlights the importance of the written word in confronting injustice and overturning authoritarian rule.

Researcher and cultural critic Ali Aldairy provides an in-depth account of the protests staged at Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain and looks at how political events, in which he played a key role by disseminating information via social media platforms, have affected his sense of self. Aldairy was one of few brave enough to write about what was happening at a time when local media chose to – or were pressured to – ignore it.

Safa al-Ahmad’s “Wishful Thinking” is equally illuminating, providing an insight into what it means to call for regime change as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Ahmad, who works as a freelance journalist, describes travelling to Libya and Egypt to witness the uprisings first hand and her exasperation at the lack of cohesion that prevented a similar movement in her homeland, in spite of equally powerful hardships and frustrations.

Fittingly, the book closes with a moving account of the early months of the Syrian uprising by lawyer, writer and activist Khawla Dunya.

She describes the initial wave of unarmed protesters in Syria – and the regime’s increasingly violent response to it – as “the revolution of the mobile phone versus the bullet.”

Recorded in July 2011, Dunya’s account is filled with hope and wry humor, despite the horrors she has witnessed. After writing about the regime’s tactic of blaming protesters’ deaths on armed gangs and Salafists, she recounts a march in Douma in early April 2011 in which demonstrators of all ages took to the streets after the authorities agreed to a cease-fire.

“It seemed that the armed gangs had chosen to take a day off at the same time as state security,” she writes, “so there were no incidents worth mentioning.”

A collection of personal accounts that are accessible, informative and deeply compelling, “Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution” is imbued with the kind of heartfelt, often poetic description absent from the impersonal content of news reports and history books. Its stories take a series of events that may have previously seemed distant and brings them fascinatingly – sometimes unsettlingly – close.

Most of the writing dates from 2011, and as such doesn’t address the aftermath of the initial wave of uprisings. The sense readers are left with, however, is that these movements are far from over – something which is as true today as it was when these accounts were written.

“Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus,” edited by Layla al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel, is published by Penguin Books and is available from local bookstores.

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