Trust that no other than France 24 — the French state-owned international news network that, a la BBC, broadcasts in several languages, including Arabic — to identify the spontaneous protests that erupted in Iraq last week as a cri de coeur, a French phrasal idiom that refers to an impassioned outcry by victimised individuals verbalising their pent-up suffering.
The wave of unrest in Iraq is an expression by young Iraqis of their discontent at the many social ills afflicting their country. These include high unemployment, poor public services, dire living conditions and rampant corruption; a ruling elite that protesters blame for squandering the nation’s oil wealth, an elite whose members openly clash among themselves over political spoils, putting their own tribal, sectarian, ethnic and even personal interests over the common good; and, not in the least peripherally, nepotism and patronage, both of which have dumbed down society.
The protests have turned deadly. As I write this on Monday, the death toll passed the 100 mark, with thousands injured. “This must stop”, declared Jeanine Hennis-Plaschard, the top UN official in Baghdad. It didn’t. Young Iraqis continued to vent their rage — and their soldiers to gun them down.
Iraq, sadly, is at war with itself. But, equally sadly, it is not just Iraq that appears to be at war with itself. With the exception of the prosperous Gulf states, countries in the Arab world, all the way from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Straits of Mandeb, and from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea — countries inhabited by a frustrated citizenry unable to balance the accounts between what they owe their governments and what their governments owe them in return — are, to one degree or another, also at war with themselves.
These countries’ native sons, enervated by a life of destitution and intimidated by repressive authority, are intermittently driven to acts of civil disobedience, a blind need to lunge out and make room for their choked psyche — even at the cost of ruin to their lives.
So indulge this columnist as he gets personal.
It pains me — and pains me not just at a detached cerebral nerve-end in my intellect, but at the core of my private consciousness — to watch all this going on in our part of the world. You see, I acquired my original leap to a maturing paradigm in the 1950s as part of a generation that was imbued with moral optimism about its future. As young political activists who espoused anti-colonial nationalism as an ideology — we didn’t feel the need to go window-shopping for another — we passionately believed in what we thought was the inevitable emergence of one united ‘Arab nation’ for one people, inhabiting one territorial homeland, speaking one national language. The vision, to us, was a source of strength and identity, one that left no question unanswered, no answer in doubt.
I find myself, from time to time, recalling that mythical Arab nation of my youth, and with every remembrance comes the realisation that today the very geography of our soul has become irreparably skewered.
That Arab nation was to be a polity suffused with the shaping forces of spirit from our history, defined by cosmopolitan flair and, above all, by what Ibn Khaldoun called ‘assabiya’, or socio-political élan. In the Eden of this putative Arab nation, all men and women would be created equal. All given a chance at pursuing happiness. All governed by a social contract between ruler and ruled. All enjoying their inherent right to question authority, to speak freely, to be part of an adversarial current that explored the fragile plurality of human nature and conduct. All fearing no retribution as they went about their business.
Broken in body and spirit
Today, well over half a century after the fact, Arab societies, with few exceptions, are broken in body and spirit. They have failed the challenges of modernity. Failed their people. Failed the accusing ideal of their civilisational past. In short, they are at war with themselves. Yes, I find myself, from time to time, recalling that mythical Arab nation of my youth, and with every remembrance comes the realisation that today the very geography of our soul has become irreparably skewered. And I feel pity for myself and the place I came from.
No one knows when, let alone why, a poison began to be secreted into the blood of our body politic, but the poison did so, and we see it today as young Arab men and women, with ample reservoirs of turbulent energy, take to the streets, their restless consciousness — or cri de coeur, if you wish — at odds with an overpowering objective reality.
Finally, I look today at the Arab world of today — its itch for chaos, its corrosive ennui, its unrealised aspirations, its unspeakable suffering — and wonder whether it was our convoluted dream in the 1950s that had underwritten the region’s present nightmare.
Arabs, we need to talk. You know what happens to those who don’t learn from their history.
— Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.