Thought-provoking and hopeful, a London cultural festival attempts to fashion a coherent story from the disparate revolutionary currents that have recently pulsed across Europe, the Middle East and the United States, writes Dave Stelfox.
Unrest from Middle East to Wisconsin discussed in London
Earlier this month, the veteran British broadcaster and civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe addressed a small crowd in London's Southbank Centre. He gave a rambling yet passionate monologue linking a host of revolutionary currents from Tottenham to Tahrir Square, then leant into his microphone and cautioned the audience to remember that, really, "we know nothing about the Arab world". Deliberately polemical and factually inaccurate it may have been, but somehow this simple statement still managed to ring at least partly true.
Coming at the end of a day-long series of discussions ambitiously titled The Arab Revolutions: What You Need to Know, the panel in question aimed to tease out and examine the connections between the Middle East uprisings and recent unrest in the United States and Europe. Alongside Howe sat Salma Said, the Egyptian activist and co-curator of the day's programme, the American journalist Brandon Jourdan (via video link from New York) and Omar Robert Hamilton, the British-Egyptian filmmaker. In just over an hour, the speakers covered topics from the Syrian conflict to the Occupy movement, the Spanish miners' strike and the violence that rocked cities across the United Kingdom in August 2011.
Overall, they made an admirable job of tying so many disparate strands into a coherent narrative of popular protest and global solidarity. Then again, the event was billed as "Ordering Pizza for Wisconsin from Tahrir" - a reference to a widely reported moment last year when Egyptian sympathisers called a restaurant in the midwest-American city and ordered food to be delivered to public union employees demonstrating against a new law that severely curtailed their collective bargaining power.
However, while the common causes and effects of these separate struggles - both those in the Middle East and those farther afield - are easy to recognise, look a little deeper and their differences gradually become equally striking. Nothing illustrated this more than the morning's opening discussion. Including speakers from Tunisia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen, and hosted by the Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, much of the talk was inevitably of how similar the participants' experiences had been over the past year. Although all had witnessed world-changing events, each had vastly divergent stories to tell.
Soueif spoke optimistically about Egypt's new-found potential while acknowledging the problems inherent in the nation's existing political structure. Osama Muttawa, the Libyan journalist and former revolutionary coordinator, detailed his experiences during the battle for Misurata, and his sadness and confusion over the recent embassy attacks in Benghazi. The writer Jamal Mahjoub described the knock-on effects of the division of Sudan, the country in which he was raised, and the protests that may yet change its future once again.
One binding factor in the conversation was the use of the name "Arab Spring" - at least until Maryam Al Khawaja, the Bahraini human rights campaigner, explained that she didn't like it at all: "Firstly it ignores all the non-Arabs in the region who have been involved and affected; secondly the use of the word 'spring' beautifies the process and we shouldn't do that."
Were anyone foolish enough to harbour romantic notions about the realities of conflict, a later screening of the Yemeni-Scottish director Sara Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls will have been more than enough to dispel them. Assembled from footage shot by Ishaq and two young filmmakers from Sanaa, this documentary chronicles the events of Juma'at El-Karama, or the Friday of Dignity. On March 18, 2011, snipers loyal to the then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh opened fire on a group of unarmed protesters in the capital, killing 53 and injuring a thousand more. Filmed amid barrages of gunfire and in hospital wards piled with bodies, it sentimentalised nothing and deftly captured the bloody and brutal acts that eventually brought an end to Saleh's 33-year rule.
Outside, in the foyer, attendees were greeted by a large screen onto which images of revolutionary graffiti from Cairo were projected throughout the day. In more peaceful times the Middle East has witnessed a flowering of intricate and colourfully calligraphic street art, but the vast majority of this work reflected the circumstances of its creation - both in form and content. Cycling between rough-hewn stencil pieces of tow trucks dragging away tanks, revolutionary heroes and villains, and hastily thrown up political slogans in English and Arabic script, it was an ideal backdrop for a conversation about other ways of transmitting messages.
From the Iranian election protests of 2009 to the present day, the western press has made much of the role played by social media in Middle Eastern activism. As even the most level-headed of these reports still appear to betray a slight sense of surprise that such technology exists in the Arabic-speaking world, it was refreshing to hear the subject discussed in a balanced and straightforward manner. Smartphones, blogs, Facebook and Twitter have given everyone with access to them the ability to report from anywhere, and whether the motivations for doing so are the downsizing of traditional print models in Europe and the US or the possibility of free expression where it has not previously existed, the message was that citizen journalism is a vital force that is here to stay.
While organisations such as the Mosireen collective of filmmakers eagerly embrace these 21st-century methods of communication, the Egyptian group Eskenderella draws upon a much longer established oral and musical tradition. Thanks to being one of the first bands to play in Tahrir Square during the initial 18-day sit-in and subsequently undertaking a tour of public gatherings around the country, their recordings rapidly became the soundtrack of the revolution. It's easy to see why. Combining oud, darbuka, electric guitar and grand piano, the 12-strong outfit delivered a set filled with material by masters of Arabic song including Sayed Darwish, Imam Muhammad Eissa and Fouad Haddad. Rousing yet thought-provoking and above all, full of hope, it was hard to imagine a better closing statement.
Stepping out into the night air after the better part of 10 hours' worth of discourse and documentary footage, I couldn't help but consider Howe's words again. In one sense he was correct. The past 18 months represent a crucial and hitherto unprecedented point in the history of the Middle East - one whose outcome is as yet impossible to predict. However, if this day was meant to teach anyone anything at all, surely it should have been that the Arab world is not a single, monolithic presence that one either knows or doesn't know. It is, instead, a vast and richly detailed mosaic of nations, cultures, experiences and interests. All of which must be listened to and learnt from.
Dave Stelfox is a writer and photographer based in London.