Narrating the ‘Arab Spring’: Who Owns the Story?

By Assmaa Naguib 

“Asmaa Mahfouz will never ever ever ever ever be a representative of the revolution.”

This passionate statement was made by an audience member at a panel of the “Narrating the Arab Spring” conference that took place over three days in the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. It was made in response to an anecdote that related to a widely circulated YouTube video in which Mahfouz challenged men to join the protests and marches early on in the revolution by shaming them into protecting the female protesters. The presenter – truth be told – neither embraced nor faulted Mahfouz’s stance. The paper presented was not remotely about the role Mahfouz played in the Egyptian revolution, either. What struck me was the passion with which the participant took issue with Mahfouz being one of the faces, the voices, or the representatives of the revolution of which we were all a part.

“Mahfouz will never ever ever ever ever be a representative of the revolution,” she said in the crowded hall, making her point clear by voice, words and intonation.

A similar scene took place at the end of the day after the screening of Karim El Hakim’s film “½ Revolution.” The film that was shot between January 25th and February 4th and shed light on the experience of a group of friends, all with Arab roots, all speaking English even if all weren’t native English speakers, who shared an apartment overlooking Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution. Although many comments applauded the film and its maker, many
questions and comments from the audience seemed to reflect the need to contest El Hakim’s right to narrate.

Taking issue with the fact that this was the only film about the Egyptian revolution to be presented in the Sundance Film Festival, one participant made clear her opinion that the film does not deliver an adequate or authentic representation of the revolution. From my perspective, her statement was not only aggressive but also accusatory.

Was it even El Hakim’s duty to deliver a detailed, so called ‘authentic’ representation of the revolution? Was El Hakim accused of giving a narrative of his very own experience?! Regardless of my own thoughts about El Hakim’s film — and they are many — I was extremely unsettled by the self-righteous contestation of his right to narrate his own personal experience from his own point view.

Over the three days of the conference, I became aware of the amount of narratives that we — those of us who lived through the revolution — have been individually and collectively generating and I came to realise that all of us were susceptible in varying degrees to developing a sense of ownership over the narrative of the revolution. The conference highlighted the consequences of taking these narratives too far, and the dangers of stressing one narrative or excluding another.

For me, Jean Said Makdissi’s speech on the morning of the last day of the conference was the most powerful. Makdissi, who introduced herself as a half Cairene and an old time lover of the city of Cairo, asked for the permission to address us the audience, and the people who are living through the various Arab revolutions in the different Arab countries. She narrated several historical anecdotes that reminded us that the story of the Arab revolutions, like many other struggles across history, are universal stories. These are stories in which every revolutionary, regardless of place, is allowed to take part.

She also pointed out the dangers of self narration making sure to remind us that proximity does not guarantee vision and that emotional involvement never insured clarity of mind.

Both vision and clarity are naturally lacking in many of us who still struggle to understand a revolution that continues to unfold, and many of us are indeed unaware of the degree to which we lack them because of the very extent of our own involvement. The conference both exposed this troubling claim of authority over narrative while also giving space to various conflicting narratives, forcing many of us to balance our own thoughts and judgments by pausing and listening to voices other than our own.

It is fitting here to conclude with the words Rabab El-Mahdi used to respond to a question about the reason the protesters never elected a revolutionary council since the beginning of the revolution. El-Mahdi fervently argued that the existence of such a council would have allowed for the hijacking of many of the diverse revolutionary voices coming out of Tahrir square after January 25. If these diverse voices took part in the revolution, wouldn’t it only be fair that their narratives are heard, acknowledged, and represented?

Assmaa Naguib is a PhD student at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.