Culture and revolution: graffiti, protest chants, humor and Arab Spring

Lebanese author Elias Khoury gave a keynote speech Thursday.

BEIRUT: In the midst of the dramatic political and social changes which have swept across the region over the last two years, academics worldwide are seeking to explain the onset of the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring.

Having looked to history, economics, politics and social pressures for answers, eventually they look to culture. This weekend the Orient Institut in Zoqaq al-Blat has organized an ambitious series of talks by visiting academics, “Inverted Worlds: congress on cultural motion in the Arab region.”

The congress opened Thursday night with a keynote speech by Lebanese journalist, literary critic and novelist Elias Khoury, who shared some of his reflections on the uprisings.

“The Arab revolutions are still in the forming – we are still in the midst of a revolutionary moment,” Khoury began. “We are in the midst of a change which is very complicated, and which obliges people like me to be humble.”

Rather than focus on the theme of the congress – cultural output before, during and since the revolutions – Khoury went back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War in an attempt to pinpoint the origin of the regimes that became the target of the uprisings and their original (long-expired) claims to legitimacy.

His hourlong speech gave a thorough overview of the history of the countries in question, grounding the events of the Arab Spring in a historical context and comparing them to such antecedents as the Palestinian Intifada of 1987. That Intifada, Khoury argues, was started by children throwing stones, and is as such linked to children spraying graffiti in Deraa, the spark that ignited the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

“It is incorrect to compare the Arab revolutions to the collapse of the Eastern European dictatorships after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Khoury argued, because in that instance it was the ideology which collapsed first, whereas in the case of the Arab revolutions the regimes abandoned their ideologies long ago. They retained power, Khoury suggested, through a delicate balance, forcing their citizens to make a choice: dictatorship or Islamic fundamentalism.

While Khoury’s talk was not exactly an introduction to the themes of the congress – focusing on political history, rather than cultural movements – it did provide a good overview of the decades preceding the Arab Spring. His theories on how these regimes remained in power for so long seem a good starting point for the rest of the congress, which will explore their demise.

Each day’s program is into two sessions, exploring different themes.

Saturday’s talks take place in Hamra, at the Lebanese American University’s Gulbenkian Theatre. The morning’s theme is “Linear and non-linear narratives in the context of Arab revolutions,” and will focus on various narrative forms including music, cinema, video works, novels, blogs and social media and their role in the uprisings.

Speakers will include Marwan M. Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania/American University of Beirut) who will share his research on revolutionary graffiti in Beirut and Cairo, and Lotte Hasshauer (Freie Universit?t Berlin) on lyrical narratives and performative immediacy in Lebanese screenwriter, director and producer Ghassan Salhab’s films.

The afternoon program’s theme is “Sound messages: popular music and social and political transformation,” focusing on the role of music as a vehicle for ideas, whether social or political, through songs dedicated to patriotic movements and contentious or subversive lyrics.

Speakers include Ines Dallaji (University of Vienna), who will deliver a paper on the role of Tunisian rap during and after the Arab Spring, and her colleague Stephan Proch?zka, who will explore the lyrics of songs composed during or immediately after Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Simon Dubois from France’s Université Lumière Lyon II will discuss street songs from the Syrian protest movement, exploring their significance as symbolizers of an emerging counterculture.

Sunday’s program takes place at the Beirut Art Center. The first topic will be “Open rebellion: hidden scripts” and will feature Serbian speaker Sinisa Sikman on non-partisan youth movements and the power of nonviolent protest.

Speakers include Ala’a Shehabi, co-founder of Bahrain Watch, on youth resistance movements in Bahrain, and Abdulnabi Alekry – of the Bahrain Transparency Society – on the February 14 Movement in Bahrain and its sustainability and prospects.

The subject of the evening’s presentations is “Humor, Suffering and Resistance,” a discussion of the role of humor in dealing with political, social and cultural repression.

Speakers include Alaa Awad, from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Luxor, who will present a selection of humorous or ironic graffiti from Mohammad Mahmud Street in Cairo, while Mohammad Anwar and Hickam Rahma from Cairo’s Tok Tok Magazine will explore the role of humor and satire in Egypt’s new political system.

The final day of the congress will be held at the Orient Institut in Zoqaq al-Blat Monday. The morning session will reprise the theme of humor and the Arab Spring, beginning with Mona Abaza (American University in Cairo), who will present her paper on the role of graffiti in Egypt as both a means to communicate humor and insolence, and a form of memorial to the uprising’s martyrs.

Sara Binay (University of Halle) will explore the role of jokes as indicators of political and social change, and Anna Telic from the University of Vienna will discuss animated cartoons and the Syrian uprising.

Monday evening’s program will return to the theme of “Open rebellion: hidden scripts,” with presentations by Reinoud Leenders (University of Amsterdam/King’s College London) on social movement theory in the first few months of the Syrian uprising, and Libya specialist Faraj Najem on the state of the Libyan media before, during and after the revolution.

Yezid Sayigh, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut, will give a talk entitled “Whose army is it anyway?” exploring how different social and political groups perceive the army’s role and how the army presents itself to the public across various Arab states.

In addition to the program of talks, a hip hop concert is scheduled to take place at Hamra’s Metro al-Madina Sunday night, showcasing the soon-to-be-completed work of “Third Rail,” uniting the lyrical and musical skills of artists from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq.

“Inverted Worlds: congress on cultural motion in the Arab region” is organized by the Orient Institut in Zoqaq al-Blat and runs until Monday, Oct. 8. For more information please call 01-359-423 or see





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