The graffiti walls are seen by some as the last standing evidence of the revolution. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters

Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters

By Hisham Matar
The New Yorker, 12 September 2011

There is an hour in the Arab Mediterranean when the sun, as if in a state of indecision, hovers a palm’s length above the horizon. What a few hours earlier was a blinding star is now weak enough to look at directly. Its sideways light holds everything in a soft orange glow: the color of reticence and doubt, the color of my generation of Libyans and the historical moment we inherited. But it also signals hope, the possibility of a different future, where we might one day live free from totalitarian rule, and independent of the intrusive foreign powers that colluded with our dictators. For our entire lives we have been held between these two forces, and this late-afternoon light, different from anywhere else in the world, seemed suggestive both of our entrapment and of our yearning.

We lived out our lives in a theatre of the macabre and the absurd. We would listen to endless speeches, and we would clap. We endured the disappearances, the assassinations, and never managed to completely ignore the sweet-colored posters of our grinning leaders. On the outside, the countries we admired, Europe and America, paid us the insult of befriending our dictators and, when it came to our suffering, looking the other way. It did not escape us that these external powers exercised a new form of political control over our affairs. We called it “remote-control colonialism.” I still remember a speech by the late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. I was a boy, and we were by the sea. Someone was grilling fish—I remember the smell of fish. Of the speech itself, all that remains in my head is one line, spoken by Sadat in the tone of an irritated adult: “99.9 per cent of the playing cards are with America.” I remembered the shared silence among the people sitting around me, and what it meant—the realization that America’s blessing was needed for all Egypt’s dealings with the world. Even I understood the metaphor: the “playing cards” were not only our present but also our future—in short, our fate.

Save for a few extraordinary exceptions—Palestine, for example—my generation was born well after foreign occupiers had left our lands. Yet the independence we inherited was elusive, as elusive as our late afternoons. The older and bloodier our dictators became, the more grandiose was their language. To maintain their legitimacy, they liked to recall darker times, when the “boot of the European pressed on our necks.” The words they chose, their posturing, smothered us. Our leaders were not only violent; they also corrupted our imagination. Dictatorship is the triumph of kitsch, as Ryszard Kapuscinski noted, and my generation has been aggressively and comprehensively exposed to the conning powers of this sort of bloodstained kitsch. Our lives have been lived within its logic. It decided what we read, watched, and heard. It influenced even the words we chose to express love, or how we felt about the moon and the sunset. It intervened whenever we veered off the path. It spoke in one note, monotonous and intolerant. When we hesitated, it did not explain; it simply repeated its orders, with greater ferocity. Worst of all, we slowly learned to obey.

Even when I was a young boy playing in the garden of our house in Tripoli in the late afternoon, while my family and the whole world, it seemed, napped, I found that afternoon light both mesmeric and unsettling. It was only during this hour that the audacious yet cynical political language of our leaders fell silent. It was the hour most appropriate for contemplating the conundrum we were in; for realizing that the dictator had perfected his art and that, paradoxically, now that we were “independent,” foreign intrusion in our politics and our economics was even more sinister, because it seemed impossible to resist. These circumstances inspired self-loathing in us, a sort of Beckettian pessimism: We can’t be tools, we are tools, we will be tools.

One of the more perverse symptoms of this despair was extremism: inarticulate, devastating, and violent. It expressed, in the most grotesque way, our hopelessness as well as the bleak landscape of our political imagination. It disturbed us and silenced us, making us even more reticent in the modern world. In hindsight, shame was not an inappropriate response.

Like picadors taunting a wounded bull, we watched as all the Western silliness that we were already used to grew more heightened. We saw Western commentators become hysterical whenever the subject of Islam came up. Reductive interpreters of Arab life and history, people such as Bernard Lewis, were suddenly in vogue again. But, at last, when our isolation and our despondency became utterly desperate, we rose.

The Arab Spring is a powerful and compelling response not only to an age of tyranny but also to the remnant chains of imperial influence. The final outcome—if there ever is such a thing as a final outcome in history—of our revolutions remains unclear. We might not succeed in building a better future. But no one can question the authenticity of our desire, or how much we are prepared to sacrifice for the opportunity to gain self-determination, dignity, and justice. Although the light persists, it is no longer melancholy. It suddenly seems an ally, its weak warmth on the skin comforting. When the sun sets now, our nights are calm. And we pray; farewell to the abyss.