As regimes arrest artists, their art explores Arab uprisings
Often the truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. This year's Toronto International Film Festival opens in two days, debuting Inescapable, Ruba Nadda's feature-length thriller about a former Syrian intelligence officer drawn back to Damascus and into the murky world of espionage and political violence after his daughter is kidnapped.
In a sign of life cruelly imitating art, at the end of last week the festival issued a statement about the Syrian filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia, expressing concern that he had disappeared in Damascus and was feared to be in the hands of Syria's intelligence services. Reality had intruded on the reel world.
The reality of the Arab Spring is still being written daily, often in blood, and more often in the dramatically shifting events that accompany any sweeping historical event. With the history still being written, is that a reason why the fiction cannot be?
How far film, or indeed any medium of fiction, can tell the story of the Arab revolutions was something I touched on in this column last week, quoting the Syrian artist Muna Al Akkad, who said: "Generally, revolution is a matter for art."
Soon after, I encountered a contrary view from a French journalist. Revolution, she said, is not a matter for art at all or, rather, it is only a matter for art once the politics of upheaval have passed.
Living through a time of revolution, as many people in the Middle East still are, means living through the daily realities of uncertainty, of great change and of dangerous consequences.
The only way to understand is through non-fiction, my journalist friend said, because the distance that art suggests is deceptive when compared to the reality of events. "It is brutal to think of engaging with a work of art at a time of real conflict." She gave the analogy of a gallery exhibiting war photography in a conflict zone: it would be nonsensical to look at photos while a war raged outside.
This, in a sense, is what the Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif argued in a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which ended last week. How, she asked, can writers remain aloof from the upheaval of the world?
"In Egypt, we novelists all seem to have given up - for the moment - on fiction," she said, suggesting that the middle of a revolution was not the right time. (Indeed, Soueif herself has released a non-fiction book about the early days of Egypt's revolution.)
"Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple, too black and white," she said. "The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form."
Also speaking in Edinburgh was the Turkish author Elif Shafak, who asked: "At times like this, is fiction a luxury? Is poetry still meaningful after so much violence and cruelty?"
Soueif made the point, with some force, that writers cannot stand apart from their subjects. In a place such as Egypt, where there have been so many stories played out on the streets, the real was right there - for fiction to make sense, it needs time and space away from the moving events, a luxury that does not exist in the middle of a revolution.
But the problem is that the politics do not end. A neat division before and after the revolution is rarely clear. Waiting for the end of a conflict - especially in the turbulent Middle East - can be like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, a moment that never arrives.
Writing on the topic, Soueif quoted the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "How can [a writer] achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?"
If art, literature and cinema are to wait for the right time to tackle these questions, they might wait forever. The history of the Arab Spring is not written, but that does not mean fiction cannot yet be. In every country affected, massive changes are continuing, whether politically as in Egypt, or militarily as in Syria. The idea that fiction must wait rests on the idea that there will come a time when the history is complete.
But that time may never arrive. The "great upheaval" that Darwish described was the Israeli occupation, which of course still continues.
Moreover, sometimes the very weight of the subject makes non-fiction - journalism, political commentary, documentaries - seem too superficial. The horror of some events is too much for non-fiction as well; it has to be approached elliptically by fiction. Even people living through events can only know a fraction of the whole, a part of the performance they are in.
It is through fiction that a greater understanding can be reached, precisely because it is distanced. The truth often is much stranger than fiction, but that does not make it any easier to understand.
Soueif's answer to this question was to remove herself from fiction for a short period, and she argued that Darwish's answer was to remove himself geographically from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spending long periods in Jordan.
Yet exactly because, as Soueif says, artists do not stand apart from the world, they don't always get to choose whether to exempt themselves from revolutions or not. Sometimes, as in the fictional story of Adib Abdel Kareem in Inescapable, or the real life story of Orwa Nyrabia, the artist doesn't get to choose - the outside world intervenes.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai