Imagining the Arab Spring: A year later

The term Arab Spring allows us to craft a meaningful narrative out of individual events, the author says.

Jordanian demonstrators
 Elia Suleiman’s films use the technique of montage to allow viewers to exact their own interpretations [EPA]

Doha, Qatar – As we approach the first anniversary of the Arab Spring on December 17, 2011, when the young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011), set both himself and the Arab Spring alight, we may wonder what we are referring to when we say “the Arab Spring”. Or perhaps the better question is how do we characterise this unique phenomenon that spans across multiple countries across North Africa and the Middle East that we insist on categorising under a single phrase?

In less than a year, three tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have collapsed: the first two with few casualties and maximum of peaceful public participation, and the third with a violent crackdown by the ruling regime and a reactionary foreign intervention. The events in Yemen now suggest that the fourth tyrant is also on his way out, while in Syria, heroic struggles for liberty continue to clash with a brutal dictator and his ruling junta. At the same time, from Morocco to Jordan, from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, signs of unrest and popular discontent have manifested themselves in one form or another, and the year ahead might bring even more dramatic events in the Arab and extend to the entire Muslim world.

But the transnational uprisings have been peaceful and gentle in Tunisia; violent and vicious in Libya; subdued in Morocco; tyrannous in Bahrain; off-the-radar in Kuwait; and in-your-face in Syria. How can we, those of us who believe in the veracity and tenacity of the thing we call “the Arab Spring”, think and conceive of these events as a unified and cohesive whole? Don’t the snapshots of these uprisings, all in different countries and climes, only come together if we relate them with a beginning, a middle and an expected end – a meaningful narrative?

The mannered mimicry of revolts

There is a scene in the preeminent Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002) in which we see his alter ego ES driving on a highway in Israel/Palestine. We have a medium shot of ES driving while eating an apricot. He takes four bites into the apricot as he chews and watches the road, and ultimately ends up with the pit in his hand. He casts a quick look at the pit, wonders what to do with it, and then throws it out into the highway. It then hits an Israeli army tank parking idly on the shoulder of the highway. Next, a long shot shows the tank exploding into shreds of metals that scatter to the widest reaches of the highway as it bursts into flames. The third shot of the sequence is back inside ES’ car with the same medium shot with which we started as he continues driving, entirely oblivious to the spectacular explosion behind him. In the fourth and final shot of the sequence, we see a close up of the destroyed tank with its metal remains strewn all over the highway while ES’ car continues to drive away in the distance.  

As the lead question for a panel discussion about the Arab Spring organised at Institute of Contemporary Art in London in late September 2011, the convener asked the panellists a simple question: “What just happened, and why?” He meant the Arab Spring, but he could have asked the same question about that scene in Elia Suleiman’s film. What just happened? Where did it come from? What was the logical consequence? If you throw a pit in the middle of a highway and it unintentionally blows up a tank, how can we classify that event? Is it a disconnect – or not?

The mannered mimicry of Elia Suleiman’s cinema in this scene and others defies reason or logic by challenging the original event. Instead, he constructs a moment of rhetorical frivolity that corresponds to his signature sense of humour. In this scene, perhaps the most immediate thought is to assume that ES’ actions are the exemplification of a hidden wish that he lacked the capacity to carry out: He might be imagining the explosion. But why throw the pit? The pit is real – he just ate the apricot – and you can even hear the bang of the pit hitting the tank (the sound design is pitch-perfect). In the scene, there is a reality check and a real gesture, as if he were actually throwing a grenade and not a pit at the tank. We see him eat the apricot and throw out the pit, and somewhere in between, the time in which he throws the pit accidentally – if we can think of it as an accident – and the time in which it hits the tank, something happens as the pit becomes a grenade, the accidental turns into the intentional, and the tank explodes. 

A leap of faith

That transmutation, that something that sets of a chain of events is a leap of faith, a non-violent act of violence, a visual version of what the distinguished contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo calls “Il pensiero debole” (the weak thought), or a reconsideration of the events in question. But that something that happens might not be in ES’ mind; it only exists with certainty to the audience. That is the only thing we can be sure of since we have no way of knowing what goes on inside ES’ mind. He never speaks (and does not have a speech impediment). There are many occasions when he is about to say something – but he never does. 

Neither before nor after the explosion of the Israeli tank does ES show he is affected, surprised or impressed by what just happened. This adds another layer of ambiguity: It suggests that the incident is actually a figment of the audience’s imagination. In that case, ES is innocent and unaware of the illusion. Only we, as the viewers, are awe-stricken; he is not. He is completely nonchalant, indifferent, and perhaps ready to have another apricot for all we know. 

The rhetorical device at the heart of Elia Suleiman’s mimicry is a trace, a reversal of the order in which things happen whereby an original act of violence generates a grammar and logic that then conceals the rhetorical violence, like the original sin of a country that the grammar and logic of the myth of a nation obscures the violence of stealing Palestine and building a “democracy” on it. 

The reversed tracing of Elia Suleiman’s sequences exposes the deferred defiance of Palestinians through an act of mimetic intransigence. This mimicry, which is self-contained, does not move from one shot to another in order to craft a narrative teleology – for it is way beyond Edward Said’s rhetorical demand in “Permission to Narrate”. The cinematic trace is the reversal of the force of history, a visual il pensiero debole that exposes the viral violence at the core of the mimetic crisis that deprives the Palestinian any narrative. Instead of following in Edward Said’s footsteps, Elia Suleiman uses visual vocabulary to build a narrative that leaves Zionism with a code no Mosad agent can crack. It is not an accident that Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009) is the first and the last film that any Palestinian can make about Nakba with such mimetic assuredness. 

Years ago, I wrote: “When Palestine is free, Elia Suleiman is there, waiting for it.” That “then” is now – and that now is called the Arab Spring. 

As with Elia Suleiman’s sublime frivolity with the real, art refuses to follow the mimesis of power – assumed to be reasonable and logical – that has concealed the rhetoric of its original sin, its foundational crime, its primal murder, and the violence written into the DNA of any state, whether a garrison like Israel or a democracy like the US. Elia Suleiman reverses that order by exposing it; he builds a logical progression that does not lead up to the rhetorical conclusion, thereby leaving the rhetorical conclusion to stand alone, unable to explain itself. ES blows things up but he is removed from the events. Instead, the scenes collude purely in the mind of the audience, who are guilty by historic association – just as they are in the primal murder and the armed robbery of Palestine. The proof lies in the delayed defiance of Arabs against tyranny, colonialism, and imperialism, as they reclaim their historical agency.

Whether the events occur in ES’ mind or in ours, this sequence is a prime example of cinematic rhetoric. It is a visual oratory. In medieval scholasticism, the trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The regiment follows both the grammar and the logic and comes to a crescendo with rhetoric. Elia Suleiman’s sequences stage a visual rhetoric predicated on the grammar and logic pertinent to his cinema. But the scene is also rhetorical because it projects a mimetic trauma that stages a creative crisis predicated on the absolute absurdity of the trauma, like stealing people’s homeland by a supreme act of terrorism and then calling them terrorists. That mimetic crisis (the aesthetic impossibility of representation) is at the heart of Palestinian art and cinema, in particular. That mimetic crisis is now exploded into full bloom of the Arab Spring as people from multiple continents cry out: “People Demand the Dismantling of the Regime”.

It was not just a political predicament that Palestinians faced. It is also an essential crisis, an aesthetic challenge: how is it possible to mimetically exaggerate that which has been factually exaggerated? The scream is so loud inside you that as an artist (or a revolutionary fighter) you can no longer hear it, which explains the affinity between the mimetic crisis in Palestinian cinema and the sacrificial self-staging in revolutionary outbursts.    

Elia Suleiman turns that bitter, painful and impossible scream inside-out and stages it as cinematic sarcasm. Elia Suleiman’s cinema is the visualization of sarcasm that upends the mimetic crisis that Palestinians have turned to in their art. It is visible in Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, Ghassan Kanafani’s fiction, Naji al-Ali’s Hanzala, Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacir’s art installations, Tarek Al Ghoussein’s photography, May Masri’s documentaries and Elia Suleiman’s cinema, among others. 

What we are thereby witnessing in Elia Suleiman’s signature frivolity is a cinematic will to resist power that stems from an enduring mimetic crisis that has defined Palestinian cinema from its very inception. That mimetic crisis is then translated into art; its dreams of an Arab Spring, in Palestinian terms, have now spread all over the Arab world. 

We may now see and visualise the Arab Spring as if we were watching a sequence in Elia Suleiman’s cinema. What we see happening in Divine Intervention is nothing other than cinematic montage playing tricks on our minds. The individual shots are independent, but like Sergei Eisenstein, Elia Suleiman slices them together and leaves the rest to the viewer. ES is entirely innocent; the pit had nothing to do with the explosion. It was just a pit – not a grenade. The explosion shot remains autonomous, and is punctuated by the third shot in which ES drives away, entirely oblivious to what had just happened. And the fourth shot just emphasizes the second, again showing the exploded tank. The four interpolated shots are two “parallel cuts,” two by two, entirely irrelevant to each other on their own. While Suleiman plots them together, we are the ones that edit and interpret them for ourselves.

What we as the audience think happened is the wishful thinking of our own hidden desires, multiplying the two by two and equating it with ES just throwing a grenade at the Isareli tank.  Poor ES – he did no such thing. And the poor Palestinian filmmaker: He cannot even eat an apricot in peace and throw out its pit. You can charge him with littering the highway – but not with throwing a grenade at an Israeli tank and blowing it to smithereens.   

The Arab Spring as visionary montage

I have already suggested that the Arab Spring is the Third Palestinian Intifada writ large. Here I wish to offer that the key sequence in leading Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s cinema as a visual simulacrum is the same as the manner in which we read the Arab Spring: a mode of narrative montage in which we sequence and edit specific historic events in the Arab world and give them a rhetorical consistency that banks on our dreams and thrives on our hopes. That act of creative and critical montage is what makes the Arab Spring both plausible and meaningful. 

Individual uprisings as well as both their immediate and distant results are scattered events with distinct local and national registers. But an emotive seepage creeps from one setting to another that blends the colours, shapes, sounds and politics from place as different as Tunisia to Egypt and Syria. This seepage then casts the shade of one event on that of its neighbour – just like a montage that creates the illusion of motion out of light. 

In this transfusion, we do the montage – creatively, critically and hopefully – with Elia Suleiman and Sergei Eisenstein implanted inside our mind’s eye. What we call the Arab Spring is the mental editing of a succession of shots that demand and exact a reading and a recreation to render things meaningful. The individual shots produce a sequence with significance, and the sequence gives a teleological meaning to otherwise disparate shots. From all the recent and current incidents in the Arab world, distinct occurrences of histories proper to each nation-state have morphed into a regional narrative that we have come to call the Arab Spring.

There is a scene in John G Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984) in which Mr Miagi (Pat Morita) is teaching his young protégé Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) how to prune a bonsai. As soon as he is given the gardening shears, the rash young man starts cutting the delicate branches away. “Stop,” tells him Mr Miagi. “First close your eyes and imagine the bonsai you want to create. Now, open your eyes and start pruning.”

And that is exactly what we need to do with the Arab Spring.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema was published by Verso in 2007. His forthcoming book, The Arab Spring: The End of Post-colonialism is scheduled for publication by Zed in April 2012. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.