Paper Revolutions
Elisabetta Bartuli 30 August 2011

While it is true that, like all revolutions, the 2011 Arab revolutions appeared very suddenly, it is also true that they did not come from nowhere. They had certainly not been expected by those who, for over a decade, simply observed the entire region from the perspective of radical Islam and consequently had extrapolated from this the only possible vision, that of a stagnating inward looking world, historically if not genetically allergic to modernity and democracy. There were, however, certainly scholars of other disciplines who over the same decade proposed a totally different scenario. Demographers [1] in primis and, obviously, also those observing movement and changes in cultural circles [2], saw the Arab world as frustratingly effervescent and naturally inclined towards universality, painfully in line with modern times and the rights and duties that should follow.

Scholars of literature in particular have had their expectations confirmed by recent events, both because the fiction they concentrate on is not exposed to the ungenerous spotlights of rapidly developing news, or, far more probably, precisely due to the subject’s marginalization. The fact remains that even a quantitative analysis of recent Arab literary production clearly indicates that reality had surpassed the most current stereotypes. So as to prove that political dissidence was widespread, it was sufficient, for example, to analyse the now “canonical” large genre known as “prison literature” that addresses the detention of many Arab intellectuals, be they Muslim, Christian or secular with no distinction, who have spent months and at times years within the four walls of cell, due to their explicit opposition to the policies of ruling governments or even simply because they belonged to opposition parties. So as to understand to what extent the statement that Arab women had no voice is obsolete, it would have been sufficient to observe how in just a few years (1995-2000) fiction written by women rose from a tiny 10-15% of all books published to a dignified 50%. Furthermore, in the course of the years, literature also undermined the very roots of yet another certainty, the one that portrayed Arab society as irremediably divided between a wealthy and westernized elite and an uneducated and traditionalist populace. Biographies of recent generations of writers instead describe a significant part of the population as consisting of well-educated and proletarian young people who cannot be classified as lower bourgeoisie, but are ready to play a fundamental role.

As the most populous country in the area [3] and traditionally the driving force for the Arab cultural sector, Egypt is an excellent example of the stages of constant but perhaps not showy progress. Egyptian publishing data for the last fifty years indicates clearly that, although fiction has enjoyed excellent heath, going from 100-150 books per year in the Sixties and Seventies to between 500 and 600 books a year in the Nineties, 75% of all novels continued to be published by state publishers or by the authors themselves, while most of the remaining 25% were published by important semi-state owned publishing houses. This means that government control never stopped dictating its terms, which over time became increasingly opaque, bureaucratically monstrous and infused with political patronage. It was above all eminently censorious, especially after 1977, when the Institute for Preventive Censorship on publications was abolished [see Elisa Pierandrei’s interview with Dar al-Shorouk], and replaced by the hisba, the freedom to report any publication considered damaging to religion or to public or private morality, an operation that has proved to be lucrative for many mainly Islamic lawyers.

Change came in the nineties and the most tangible change in direction came thanks to Hosni Soliman, the owner of the Dar al-Sharqiyat, founded in 1991 and still operational. In addition to relying on more professional and detailed graphics, Sharqiyat created for itself a niche in the market by presenting the publishing house as being specialised in the work of emerging authors. It was with Soliman that, at times participating in printing expenses, the authors who were at the time in their thirties and known as the “Nineties generation”, published their work. And it was here, at the Bab al-Luq apartment house in which the company had its offices (midway between Tahrir Square and Ta‘lat Harb Square), that writers found a place where they could meet as a sort of community alternative to state cultural power. Sharqiyat was to set the example and in 1998 another publishing house was set up with the same characteristics  and even greater political commitment, the Dar al-Merit, directed by Mohammed Hashem [see Elisa Pierandrei’s article], followed a few years later by others, including the Dar al-Malamih owned by Mohammed Sharkawy, devoted to publishing politically very active and creatively eclectic authors who were just over twenty, (it was here that the first Egyptian graphic novels were published). The success of these publishing houses went side by side with the spreading of what would soon become the second pillar of change, the opening of private bookshops that independently organized book presentations and meetings with authors, becoming in turn meeting places that created communities and allowed authors to meet readers without bowing to the government dictates controlling the literary scene. The first to appear on the market, which at the time seemed like science fiction, was the Diwan, in central Cairo’s residential Zamelek district. Over a few years many more opened, among them the Kutub Khan and the Alef, each with an increasing number of branches.

In January this year in Tahrir Square, there were obviously not only the aforementioned publishers, authors and bookshop owners, just a few hundred people in a city with almost twenty million inhabitants. In Tahrir Square, however, there were hundreds of thousands of people and, over the years,  publishers, authors and bookshops had perceived and passed on their hidden thoughts, secret aspirations, concealed worries and their pressing demands. Thousands of people, who now, as individuals or as a community, are taking charge of their present to create a shared future, even within the government’s great cultural institutions.


[1] See for example Philippe Fargues, Generations Arabes, Fayyard 2000; Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, Le rendez-vous des civilisations, Seuil 2007 (Italian translation, L’incontro delle civiltà, Marco Tropea 2009) and Emmanuel Todd, Allah n’y est pour rien!, 2011.

[2] On Egypt see for example, Samia Mahrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars, Routledge 2008; Richard Jacquemond, Entre scribes et écrivains, Actes Sud 2003 ; and on other Arab world realities see Nicolas Puig and Franck Mermier, Itinéraires esthétiques et scènes culturelles au proche-orient, Ifpo 2007, Miriam Cook, Dissident Syria, Duke University Press 2007; The Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, Cultural Practices of Arab Youth, Bahithat Volume XIV 2009-2010.

[3] 76,853,000 inhabitants in 2007.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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