“If you do not confront the truth, you cannot be a good writer. And the truth is not simply facts: truth is what lies behind the facts. Hold up a mirror to your society and yourself... Every fresh Bin Laden tape is headline news, but the voices of the young essay writers must also be heard. The pursuit of happiness is not a right only for people in the West. People in the Muslim world need to reclaim their rights, and young Americans need to stand in solidarity with this civil rights struggle.” (p. 100, Azar Nasfi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran)Don’t let the name fool you- the essays in Arab Spring Dreams were written before the Arab Spring began. However, the young writers of these essays are the immediate precursors of the Arab Spring Revolutionaries, and by the end of the book you’re going to ask yourself not how the uprisings began in the first place but why they didn’t begin much sooner- and in more places.
All of the essays were written by people in the Middle East and North Africa under the age of 30 and were submitted for the “Dream Deferred Essay Contest on Civil Rights in the Middle East”, sponsored by the American Islamic Congress (AIC). The contest is the brainchild of Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, who lamented that young people were given incentives to radicalize for religious extremists, but that young liberals in that region didn’t have the same opportunities to organize. This contest is in part a means to open those avenues.
What unites all of the essays is the recognition of the writers that the world they inhabit is cheating them of something that should be theirs. Some of the essays touch on the larger problems: Female Genital Mutilation, Homophobia and institutionalized Sexism. But the ones that I found particularly touching were about the small, daily grievances. Those of us who can drive may think it’s annoying but quaint that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to- until we are told that this often means that boys of 11 or 12 become chauffeurs for the women in their family. For those of us who aren’t religious, the differences between Sunni and Shia observance may seem at best academic- until we read how those differences becomes the bases for childhood taunts and adult arrests. And while we may say that the cultural prohibition against marrying before you’ve achieved financial independence has reasonable economic roots, we might rethink that when we hear about a young couple being threatened with an arrest and then blackmailed into a bribe because they were caught cuddling under a tree.
Some of the essays imagine a future in which someone breaks the status quo- whether of a sexual norm or in defiance of the current political regime- and does so openly. The most hopeful essay of the bunch, perhaps, imagines Egypt in 2013, after a revolution has overthrown the oppressive government. This was written before 2011, and while the narrator is grateful for change- particularly the freedoms of the press and the marketplace- he notes the work that continues to need to be done. The hopeful part is that the narrator is willing to do it, however difficult it is.
The essays aren’t clever, and most of them are written simply. It would be impossible to read one and not immediately understand the point the author is trying to make. Any one of them should put to rest the myth that people in this region- or in the Muslim religion- are somehow incapable of appreciating or not ready for liberal democracy. The editors discuss that myth and its origins at length at the end of the book. Anyone who has ever argued that an essential, “authentic”, monolithic Islamic character will doom freedom in the region to failure should be given a copy of this book. They also point out that our own civil rights struggles were met with “outsider” objections that efforts in the Middle East and North Africa are meeting with now. Both complaints are just as hollow.
The book is not bitter, and at the end the reader is offered both practical solutions to help and a chance to dream. Read up on the civil rights movements in the region; enter the American half of the Dream Deferred Essay Contest and follow relevant organizations and individuals on social media. Do you want to do more? Start a blog, as Jane Novak did for Yemen. Initiate a dictatorship study so the world won’t be caught by surprise at the next revolt. Protest at an embassy. Organize a labor rights campaign in the Middle East for migrant workers, a concert in Benghazi for human rights, a book fair in Damascus (when the civil war is over), or an interfaith conference in Mecca. Or whatever else should be done.
It is safe to say that every government in the world- as well as every foreign policy analyst- was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring. Why should one young Tunisian man’s indignation of being slapped by a police officer unleash a storm of protest and topple regimes? Because similar things happen every day to too many people in the region. And the analysts were wrong- people don’t accept that, however long it goes on. All of them are waiting for an opportunity to end it.