From the Arab Spring comes a cultural awakening
It wasn't sticks and stones that scared them. It wasn't even bullets. It was words: the books, poems and songs of a generation. Words were what put the fear of God into oppressive regimes and those who carried out their dirty work.
There may be no more despised word in the Arabic language than "mukhabarat", or secret police. The mere mention of this shadowy force sends shivers down the spine. Across the Middle East, in the days before the Arab Spring, the sword was significantly mightier than the pen. Censorship ensured that the Middle East was, in effect, an intellectual and cultural wasteland.
But now, the shackles are off. A new era of hope has been ushered in across the region, one that could inspire an intellectual and cultural renaissance to match the political and social awakening.
Internet penetration in the Arab world - a measure of a region's curiosity - is already on the rise. In March, souq.com, the largest e-commerce marketplace in the Arab world, revealed that its books and culture section had recorded a stunning 300 per cent growth in sales, with thousands demanding new, used and previously banned books online. Voices that were suppressed for years will now finally be heard.
There were of course, many exceptions - men and women whose work somehow found a way out. The brilliant Palestinian artist Naji Al Ali consistently produced cartoons worth thousands of words, although his scathing portrayal of Middle East politics would not in the end save him from an assassin's bullet.
Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's body of work has been translated into countless languages and in 1988 he was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Meanwhile, very few voices satirised the political and social landscape in the Arab world the way novelist Abdul Rahman Munif and documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay could. There were countless other who fought the good fight.
But for every one of those mavericks, thousands of artists and ordinary citizens were denied the right of simply expressing their views, creatively or otherwise.
It was not just contemporary writers who faced literary persecution. Some of Arabic literature's most enduring and loved works were also targeted. Last year, there was an attempt in Egypt to ban Arabian Nights, also known as The 1,001 Nights, for carrying "obscene" content. After all, what could be more dangerous to children's innocent ears than sordid tales like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves? That this call came from a group of Islamist Egyptian lawyers highlights the threats that creative freedoms face from extremists to which governments in the region continue to pander.
Mahmoud Kaabour, the Abu Dhabi-based director of the award-winning documentary Teta, Alf Marra, (Grandma, A Thousand Times), predicts that the Arab Spring will herald a summer of hard-hitting, realist drama. "There has been an evident symbolism in Egyptian and Tunisian cinema which has been a tool to bypass censorship, and if that is no longer the case, Arab cinema is going to enter a new school altogether," said the Lebanese director.
In some cases, life has mimicked art. Cairo Exit by film-maker Hesham Issawi, banned for telling the story of a Muslim man and a Coptic woman during Hosni Mubarak's regime, is now set for release.
With change sweeping the region and Osama bin Laden's death signalling a rejection of extremism, there is an opportunity for the region to regain its cultural relevance.
"The Arab world also won the Nobel with me," Naguib Mahfouz once said. "I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition."
With harsh reality replacing the early euphoria of the Arab Spring, how long this cultural renaissance will be allowed to spread is debatable, but the feeling in the region now is that there is no going back. The genie, finally, is out of the bottle.
Updated: May 18, 2011 04:00 AM