Review: ‘Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age’

Tarek El-Ariss’s latest book, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals, recently appeared on one of Jadaliyya’s “Essential Readings” lists, curated by Hatim El-Hibri, Rayya El Zein, and Marwan Kraidy. What is it, essentially, about?

By Tugrul Mende

Tarek El-Ariss, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age 
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018

Tarek El-Ariss’s new book — Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals — is one of a number of new works that take an interest in how digital narratives impact Arab culture. There’s also, notably, Teresa Pepe’s Blogging from Egypt, Digital Literature, 2005 – 2016 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019) and Marwan Kraidy’s earlier work The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016). Since its publication late last year, El-Ariss has given a number of lectures centered around the research he did for this book. It’s sparked a good deal of interest in the scholarly community, and quick, early reviews appeared in Arabic. By moving between major classical works such as the Thousand and One Nights, tweets, and recent novels, El-Ariss paints a picture of how technological developments have influenced Arab culture, and, in a narrower sense, Arabic literature and is creating a new reading practice. The cover of the book shows a picture from an airport scanner. 

In his new study, which he has worked on since the late 1990s, El-Ariss engages in a new reading of literary and non-literary texts in a digital landscape while describing the tactics of different forms as they reveal secrets, scandals, and truths. The study asserts that it’s “moving beyond the ‘codes’ of modern Arabic literature, culture, and politics, it theorizes a new intertwining of aesthetics and politics by exploring affective forms of protest, incivility (qillat adab or “lack of adab”), digital consciousness, hacking and cyber-raiding, and knowledge and fiction as leaks and scandals” (p.7). El-Ariss explores the meaning of leaks and scandals with the focus on Arab-majority countries, specifically Egypt and the Gulf, through “a framework to reflect theoretically on new definitions of literature and culture, on their relation to the political, and the digital, and on their genres and critiques.” (p.8)

In the beginning 

El-Ariss writes that he started research on this book when social-media platforms were in their infancy. He examines developments in the political and literary fields through the prism of abuses, lies, and scandals. He reads twitter accounts and blogs with different tools and examines them by applying the notion of the classical genre of akhbar (news, anecdotes, lore) to the practices of tweeting, and thus “examines the intersections between the digital and the subversive in the Arab tradition.” (p.7) His knowledge of the nahda, and Arab tradition as a whole, makes it possible for him to connect different interesting dots in order to characterize the notion of tweeting in the Arab world. Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals consists of five chapters that encompass a variety of literary archives, from Twitter accounts to blogs to novels.

For the author, the practices he mentions are central to the discussions in these chapters. They put these texts in a new light, not only from a technological point of view, but also fitting them into a theoretical framework, which central theme is the leaking subject. The leaking subject is an idea that El-Ariss further elaborates on in the upcoming pages. “The event of leaking reveals a scene, a drama and a web of interconnections that tie in fiction and affect, bodies and texts, and aesthetics and politics.“ (p.34) Furthermore he writes, “The leaking subject who exposes a fictional model that is unable to hold in its excesses and violations is at work in online leaking as well” (p.44) and “leaking is a process tied to the body, which becomes a site and sight from which the fiction of the leak flows, exposing the fiction of power as vindictive, fantasmatic, monstrous.“ (p.56)

The focus on the internet activists in chapters 2 and 3 is central to the book. “The leaking subject is produced affectively through bodily inscriptions and modes of compulsion, to click, share, post, and circulate that cross and expose the porousness of national boundaries and disciplinary models. It is in reading leaking as breaches in the subject and in adab as a collection of narratives and organizing fictions of the self and of the state that we can begin to understand Arab culture in the digital age in ways that tie in the local and the global, revealing models of intertextuality, transnational critiques of power, and the affective production of publics.” In discussing these Twitter accounts, the author reveals how scandals and atrocities are exposed by dismantling the closed wall of secrets that surrounds them. Setting these practices alongside the nahda, the early twentieth century cultural revival on which El-Ariss worked in his previous books, opens up a new way of rethinking the role of authors, readers, activists, intellectuals, and consumers in this digital age.

Scandal redux

Chapter 4, titled “Fiction of Scandal Redux,” examines digital practices in novels. El-Ariss opens with an account of how Salman Rushdie opened a Twitter account back in 2011 while also noticing that there was already a Twitter account that was using his name. Thus: “Going online makes authors vulnerable and subject to identity theft but also to a more sinister act of doubling and infiltration, namely hacking.” (p.127). El-Ariss paints the changing literary landscape since the early 2000s as a boom: “the Arab world has been witnessing a literary boom that has made being an author cool again.” (p.129).

The digital and literary productions that have arisen throughout this period “refigures notions of canon, authorship, and the literary in a rapidly changing technological and political environment.” (p.129). The notion of a new canon, or a canon that is established through the practices of reading digitally and in a more progressive way, changed the literary environment of the region. Youssef Rakha, author of Paolo and The Sultan’s Seal, is widely cited in this context, as El-Ariss refers to how these new bloggers-turned-authors, such as Ahmed Naji, are compared to the likes of Naguib Mahfouz. “He presents the historical and technological context of new authors – playful ‘agents of subversion’ in their own right. He identifies their position vis-à-vis world literature, new media, and political participation. (…) this characterization relegates new writing to a series of events, accidents, and scandals that shape and produce it in the digital age.” (p.132-133).

El-Ariss also analyzes the digital practice and notions in the novels Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea and Taxi by Khaled Alkhamissi. In Alsanea’s case, he mentions not only the digital practice of “leaking secrets through e-mails,” but also describes the problematic notion of the “translation scandal” and the “author’s own hacking of the process of translating her work into English” (p.136). With this case, El-Ariss layers the digital notion of hacking and leaking with the literary sphere, while also revealing scandals and truths about the production of the English translation.

In Alkhamissi’s Taxi, the notion of leaking reappears by exposing failed practices of the government through conversations that occurred in a taxi. It “is a compilation of akhbar that slap and knock out the author and draw him into his own text. (…) it is a crucible for the accumulation and proliferation of stories, mediated by the narrator’s questions about the economy, the government, and daily life.” (p.138-139). El-Ariss uses this novel in order to describe the notion of leaking in the literary environment of Alkhamissi. He describes the taxi as an inbox and outbox where messages are coming and going. Furthermore, the novel reveals the “weakness and vulnerability of the government” (p.142) and thus is somewhat like twitter accounts that reveal those weaknesses and vulnerabilites.

Literary conquest

The framework of Chapter 5 uses cases that apply terms such as ghazu/ghazwa (conquest, raiding) to digital and literary practices. Central to this chapter is on how the terms ghazu/ghazwa reflect the reading of literary texts in the digital space and how these readings affect the author. El-Ariss describes a case in which this term was used as a hashtag against a Saudi author, Badriah Albeshr, with her novel Hend and the Soldierswhich was published in 2010. “This hashtag ghazwa directed against Elbeshr establishes the meaning of the text, conditions its circulation and reading practice, and designates the action to be taken against its author all at the same time. This meaning-making hashtag ghazwaleads us to reconsider the meaning of literature emerging from acts of hacking and attacks that mediate and shape political activism, knowledge production, writing practices, and literary reception in the Digital age (…) It’s also about Jahiliyya as a literary and a political fantasy of revenge and lawless excess, erupting through a portal on Twitter, Twitter, reactivated and fictionalized as concept and practice of hyperreality (p.148).“

Novels are often quoted out of context, essentially demonized without giving the true meaning of the texts, used by religious authorities to attack authors without claiming the literary reality in which they are living in. Here he narrates cases such as Ahmed Naji, who was imprisoned because of an excerpt of his novel Using Life published in the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab. Now, Naji, after spending more than a year in prison, is living in the U.S., not sure if he will ever return to Egypt. In the fifth chapter, El-Ariss explains how social media and other digital platforms are used to link those old norms to new ones.

In short

Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age is a book that addresses many aspects of the relationship between digital and literary culture. El-Ariss engages in contemporary Arabic writings both offline and online and applies his frame of the leaking subject onto the texts used in his study. Essentially, for him, “Literature as such is leaking in the digital age, requiring an investigation that takes into account new technologies but also classical genres and texts that blur the strict temporal and epistemological boundaries within which critics have operated. A new generation of authors comes across as hackers, infiltrating and altering systems of security and writing, thereby requiring new comparative approaches that engage multiple levels of transformation.”

With this book, El-Ariss opens up a new perspective of reading texts in a digital age. Sources from Snowden to Wael Abbas to Ahmed Naji to blogs such as ArabLit are represented. His literary framework is broad and doesn’t use one single theory but many in order to make his study work. Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals is a vast archive of practices and cases that give an idea of how to read the literary field digitally, and it helps to understand the current landscape of the region by showing well-known cases in a new light.

The most important aspect of the book is El-Ariss’s notion of “the leaking subject” and how it applies to the cases mentioned above. This book is a rare example of how to connect both literary and digital practices. There is a reason this book is on Jadaliyya’s “Essential Reading” list; it helps to engage a way of thinking about aesthetics and practices in the region’s digital landscape. It could help understand the changing media landscape from the vantage of many different fields, and its strongest asset is that it delves into many streams of thought, creating an important read for scholars from various disciplines.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher.