The area from Carthage to Cairo has commanded the world's attention. Since the Arab Spring last year, it has been filled with protesters, journalists, rebels, and change. It would be hard to put together a reading list for this area without thinking of politics, but writing from the region often surprises us — it suggests the variety and vitality of social life. Here are three books that show why this long-time locale of dictators has suddenly become one of hope.
Tunisian Jewish thinker Albert Memmi's long essay is not only what he calls a "human balance sheet of colonization," but perhaps the most influential book ever written by a Tunisian. Memmi's pointed descriptions reveal the internal effects on the individual of living under colonial rule. We see not only the psychological cost of having too much power, but also the scars that mark those citizens who are systematically taught to think of themselves as inferior. For globally-connected Americans today, Memmi's pithy insights remind us of the impossibility of retreating to what we like to think of as our personal lives.
Memmi tells us that "it is common knowledge that the ideology of a governing class is adopted in large measure by the governed classes." In North Africa, this means that the unchallenged authority of the colonial elite before independence was replaced by that of the dictator and his circle of grizzly yes-men. Hisham Matar's novel begins in Libya in the late 1970s when a young boy accidentally sees his father walking out of the office of a political resistance group in Tripoli. The father is supposed to be away on business. His absence — and the omnipresence of that other authority figure, called among other names "the colonel," "the guide," and "the leader" — fill the boy's home and reshape his relationship with his mother. Few novels depict so artfully the bad choices facing conscientious citizens in a police state, or the struggle required merely to maintain tenderness between child and parent under such conditions.
It's Cairo in the 1990s. The theme is again authoritarianism, but this time the emphasis is on the chaos at the outskirts and under the surface of the ruler's control. Clips from contemporary newspapers are included in a way that makes reporting seem fanciful, and fiction seem true. If Buster Keaton had been a modest middle class Arab woman living in a wobbly dictatorship, he would be the title character of this novel. Zaat is a plain woman, but her plainness is the perfect device for uncovering this city filled with exposed live wires, contaminated consumer products, corrupt Saudi businessmen, opportunistic religiosity, wonky American experts, resourceful house cleaners, and ever larger and more dominating television sets. In a novel filled with irony, the biggest irony of all is that everything is possible in Mubarak's Egypt except political activism.
So the surprises keep coming. Authoritarianism through all its stages never crushed the vibrant societies below the North African surface. Indeed, the diversity and insight in the region's writing only foretells how ready its citizens have been all along to be done with rule by a few.
Hosam Aboul-Ela is an associate professor of English and an adjunct professor of modern and Classical languages at the University of Houston.
Three Books...is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.