Thursday, April 19, 2012

Marwan Bishara's The Invisible Arab.

There is a stunning passage in Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab that sings like a canary:

As for the internal, it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with the change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of society. There must be something to have this balance. This is the most important headline…internally, there must be a different kind of changes: political, economic, and administrative. These are the changes that we need. But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds. Actually, societies during the last three decades, especially since the eighties have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism. This current will lead to repercussions of less creativity, less development, and less openness. You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind. So the core issue is how to open the mind, the whole society, and this means everybody in society including everyone. I am not talking about the state or average or common people.  I am talking about everybody; because when you close your mind as an official you cannot upgrade and vice versa.

This is the remarkable Bashar Assad distilling for us the essence of the past 50 years of Arab politics: an oafish, strangely featherbrained kind of despotism that reduced the very serious business of leadership to utter nonsense--a thing as devastating as the whip it came with.

Not that we Arabs were not in on the cruel joke from the outset. It’s not by coincidence that Syria’s most famous fictional character is the prankster Ghawwar al-Tosheh, whose singular mark was in acting out the gibberish that Arab life had become under systems hell bent on turning the day into a conundrum.

Reading Bashar above is reminiscent of listening to Ghawwar’s sidekick, Husni Barzan, in the 1971 smash hit series Sah al Nawm (Good Morning!) penning his never finished article thus: if you want to know what is in Italy, you have to know what is in Brazil.”

As Bishara would have it, this is the overarching narrative of the Arab revolts: marauding dictatorships “whose practice is antithetical to any sense of human progress…”  Over decades, a sneaking suspicion about “Arab exceptionalism”—that somehow we were impervious to history’s forward march—grew into conventional wisdom, and not only among observers looking on with bemusement, but also by many an Arab looking out in lament. Arab authoritarianism, it was thought, had built up a sturdy house with no exits because Arabs had it in them to succumb, surrendering body and soul, mind and voice.

Those who have consistently rejected the very idea of this exceptionalism are now basking in the sun. And The Invisible Arab’s contention that the source of the region’s quandaries is “political par excellence” draws breath from these rejectionists’ counter argument. The past 50 years were not foreordained, Bishara is saying, but the handiwork of post-colonial viscerally illiberal regimes whose lethal ambition has been to bend state and society to personal whim and wont. That foreign patrons found much to capitalize on and benefit from such regimes made the Arabs’ predicament all the more difficult to overcome. On its face, the point may seem unoriginal, and yet the extent to which Arab exceptionalism still underpins expert opinion on the area justifies the importance Bishara attributes to it. 

In fact, The Invisible Arab is at its most resonant when reconstructing the building blocs of Arab misery that pinned down much of the 20th century: colonialism’s noxious legacy that found continuity in post-colonial Western interests and policies; “taryeef al sulta” (the pastoralization of authority) as rural, army men overturned a feeble old order and countryside rode roughshod over metropolis; the relentless assault on the embryonic civil state, on citizenship itself; the gross mismanagement of economies that left entire new generations searching helplessly for an education that made sense and a job that allowed for a decent living; the rise of Islamism in landscapes cleansed of all other trends…

These are all elements of a history over which even warring ideologies would nod more or less in consent. Bishara thus describes more than he dissects, and he does that rather well. Equally, that rulers had grown “impatient, insolent and exhausted,” and that the people had simply had enough of humiliation and crumbs, Bishara compellingly echoes in the book, wrapping up with the prelude to revolt.

But, ultimately, Bishara’s pen aims for the sum-up more than the lingering analysis, and hence travels only the surface of a very rich and varied terrain. Nuance is inevitably lost along the way, acutely felt in the Jordanian case, where, ironically, an intra-elite squabble gets the better of a monarchy spared the more dangerous street-level action of the Arab uprisings. More significantly, Bishara’s take on his “miracle generation,” the Arab youth who managed to break the cycle of defeat and resignation, would have benefited from deeper probing. Spotlighting the social media’s impact on them, he states, more than speculates, that ”the Arab youth increasingly comprised a modern, transitional tribe that bypassed borders, religion, and social strata…. [they] transcended traditional hierarchy in favor of open and pluralistic characteristics.” There is little doubt that the youth have been critical drivers of the revolts, indeed somersaulting over the many barriers that walled in their parents, which is precisely why unshackling them from the stuff that inundates identity and thought, not to mention life, cries out for more than the sweeping assertion.


It’s not surprising that the Bishara’s of this world—seasoned commentators and pundits—should want to weigh in on the surprise of the century, although the sheer velocity of developments and unpredictability of the moment argue for patience and—frankly—studied silence. But this is the age of rapid response: never let a thought, however tiny, go by unmentioned, God forbid. In times of confusion in the midst of tumult, why not a perspective to drill rays of light in the unbearable fog?

The temptation is clear and understandable, but the fear that is no less obvious is that soon enough too much will have been said and too little of it will have survived the turn of events.

For Bishara, al-Jazeera English’s senior political analyst, the urge starts the book itself: “This is an essay about the fall and rise of the Arabs. It is an attempt to understand how their revolutions evolved. What went right, why it is paramount, and how it could still go terribly wrong.” There is no specific ideological prism through which Bishara sets out the plot, just the unmistakably upbeat conviction that the rage we are witness to portends the eclipse of a harrowing era and is proof of the Arabs’ will to take up the fight.

And Bishara has a bone in this fight. His style is close to the heart, oftentimes a mix of romance and oratory. The I is not shy of declaring itself on a page punctuated by authorial predilections and unencumbered by too many footnotes or details of fact. Polls and statistics are thrown in without the usual references, at times giving the text less the feel of an essay than the impromptu remarks of a man in the midst of a heated conversation.

None of this need be a drawback, but Bishara’s is a daunting challenge, when this is 2012, and the so-called revolutions are still nursing in their crib. Which perhaps explains why the book is rather steady on the prologue to those and is uneven on what comes next and how specifically it might express itself. Bishara, alas, is at his most rushed, opting for the checklist approach, when the reader would have liked him to be more deliberate in offering a more measured outlook. And while there is everything admirable in striking a hopeful note in a space too crowded with doomsday scenarios, Bishara’s surefooted optimism often is oddly out of sync with the pitfalls of which he is at least rhetorically mindful. We therefore find him “convinced that the future belongs to the democratic majority of youth and women,” even as he races through the counterrevolutionary forces poised to make it all still “go terribly wrong.” Some of these he gets right, but his treatment of them is casual enough to give his entire take on post-revolution a blithe appearance that renders the book’s foray into the future significantly less artful than its walk through the past.

To the very real threat that reactionary Gulf monarchies pose to “revolution,” Marwan offers this curious warning as if the fight is already won: “If certain Arab monarchies persist in their attempt to resist or sabotage reform and change, the new Arab democracies will need to rally together as a league of Arab democracies.” If Bishara is that certain of victory, it would help if the rest of us were brought up to speed on how these new democracies actually beat the odds.

About Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s intrigues against heaving locales, Bishara is similarly confident because, “these regional powers’ conflicting agendas will prevent them from jointly conspiring against them.” How such colliding interests might cancel out the havoc that each of these powers could still unleash, Bishara leaves unanswered. 

On the would-be Turkish Model, the current darling of every Western policy maker and his mother, Bishara is at once coyly enthusiastic and jarringly cursory. He states that “Turkey has inspired cooperation and coordination while Tehran has orchestrated confrontation and conflict, especially with the West,” a bizarrely naive statement for an analyst who knows that the role these two countries play is largely a function of their place on the geopolitical map, their relationship with the West, especially the United States, and the history that has long defined both. Moreover, since Bishara is clearly aware of the West’s exploits in the Middle East, why does he think cooperation with it a more commendable approach than confrontation? And what kind of cooperation does he have in mind exactly?

And so it goes for a whole range of obstacles and propositions already making life hard for Arab revolutionaries who, of course, do not speak with one voice. It could well be that Bishara, eager to stay in the moment, wanted to just touch on these--for the record, so to speak. All the same, the effect is that of an author who lines up many of the usual suspects but can’t quite decide what to do with them.

However, the most inexplicable omissions in The Invisible Arab are those that could have given it a unique flavor and strength. In the most puzzling pass over of all, Bishara chooses to remain mum about al-Jazeera as one of Qatar’s most celebrated, not to mention increasingly controversial, foreign policy instruments. His delicate position is understandable, and the impact on the book is all the more resounding because of it. Bishara does offer negative (and well deserved) commentary on Saudi Arabia’s reactionary push back against the Arab revolts, which renders his silence on the palpably more audacious role of Qatar, another unabashedly conservative Gulf monarchy, particularly unpersuasive.

Still more, although he devotes some attention—and praise--to the “Jazeera effect,” the station’s unprecedented push in bringing revolution to Arab homes, he does not take the opportunity to address some of the more salient criticisms of its uneven coverage of the uprisings, nor does he probe the coverage as an extension of Qatar’s foreign policy. Libya stands out in this unfolding story. While Bishara shares that “there was disinformation regarding Gaddafi’s early bombing of Tripoli, use of mass rape as a weapon…,” conveniently, he fails to point out that it is al-Jazeera itself that observers hold most culpable in spreading such disinformation. (For more on the coverage, read Hugh Roberts’ “Who Said Gaddafi Had To Go,” London Review of Books, Nov 17, 2011). His very brief acknowledgment that the Qatari station “has seen serious internal disagreement within its editorial leadership and made some poor calls and judgment,” not surprisingly, manages to pique the reader’s curiosity while failing to fig leaf Bishara’s decision to skip the subject.

In the end, however, Bishara did not write The Invisible Arab for those who have already invested serious time and thought on Arab history and politics, but for those who are playing catch up—an unenviable position in these confusing times which Bishara succeeds in making less disorienting.