What an Author Looks Like: Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution
Last winter, at a packed open mic in Cambridge, I watched a young girl of Turkish descent stumble on stage. Glancing between the sheets of paper in her shaky hands and the audience, she lost her composure as she recounted a conversation with her father, earlier that day, about her safety as a Muslim. She explained that, yes, she was crying because she no longer felt safe, but mainly it was the pain she registered in her father’s face that made her sad. This was a first in their American life together. When she recovered herself enough to read her poems, I found myself wishing she could be seen and heard on a far bigger stage.
In her well-known TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns that when you tell the same story about a given people or place over and over again, you risk critical misunderstanding. That one story becomes the defining story. By and large, the story we hear in America over and over about Muslims and the religion of Islam is the story of radical Islam. If you search “Islam” on the New York Times website, the top 10 results include three articles on ISIS and the others have headlines ranging from “Sexual Misery and Islam” to “Egypt Sentences Coptic Teenagers to Prison for Insulting Islam.” According to Pew, most Americans claim “they know little to nothing about Islam.” Moreover, Muslims make up less than 1% of this county’s population. In this setting, a single narrative can easily become the only narrative, with the effect of boiling down the lives and stories of 1.6 billion singular people to one suicide bomb. Though her story bears no resemblance to the story of radical Islam, our young poet and her family are tragically touched by the fear and ensuing bigotry it inspires.
“The consequence of the single story,” Adichie says in her TED talk, “is that it robs people of dignity, it makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult, and it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Given how often this single story plays out, none of us are immune from its effects. After seeing this young girl on stage, I decided to incorporate more Muslim authors into my reading list in an effort to read as many distinct stories as possible.
On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, a collection of first person accounts from a mix of journalists and student activists directly involved in the Arab Spring. I was excited to read about the entire region from the first person perspective of individuals on the front lines of each conflict. Though the accounts were written in 2011, they remain tragically relevant today given the ongoing violence and civil unrest across the region. While each essay is as distinct as its narrator, the common thread that ties them together across language and culture is oppression: the Orwellian nature of dictatorship, brutal crackdowns and violence in the name of “security,” silenced populations, and the fleeting and electric joy of solidarity found among strangers in the street who have mustered the courage to protest publically.
The dignity and bravery on display in this collection astounded me. I found myself wondering if I’d be as brave as Malek Sghiri, a student activist in Tunisia who was rounded up, held for over a week and tortured, while the revolution played out in the streets above his small cell. At one point, before a torture session, a guard let him know that he was the same guard who had interrogated (and presumably tortured) Malek’s father years earlier in the very same building. Malek, having not eaten or slept in days, replied: I hope God grants you a long life that you might get to interrogate my son as well. I wondered if I could be as brave as Khawla Dunia, the only woman in a crowd of 30,000 men marching in Douma. She writes, “it was the first time I had heard ‘freedom’ chanted with such vigour and passion on the streets of Syria, without clubs or thugs or bullets.” In other regions of Syria that day, the protesters weren’t so lucky. Many were killed or shoved into trucks, never to be seen again.
Jamal Jubran, a journalist with an Eritrean mother and a Yemeni father risks everything to participate in the revolution, despite having spent his childhood being ostracized for his dark skin and his accent. Like so many writers I know, he feels he survived his childhood because of his gift with language. He writes, “I have words; my gift from the heavens, the lifebelt that will carry me safe to the other shore.” With this gift he documents the revolution. His essay ends with the revolutionaries fighting on for “social justice and equality between all citizens,” while he finds himself unemployed, living with his mother, and full of “a crushing fear of the world and everyone in it, a savage illness that holds me in its jaws and never lets me go.”
Fear is everywhere in these essays and used again and again by the powers that be to keep their subjects in line. Fear of fifth columnists, foreign agents, gangs, and minority sects justify military rule and restrictions on free speech. “Conspiracy…Division…Conspiracy…Division,” Khawla writes of Syria. “The State media continues to strum the same old tune, and there are those that listen.” It’s impossible to read these essays without feeling incredible sadness, given the fact that almost every revolution remains unfinished or has come undone. Passages like this one by Yasmine El Rashidi are almost unbearable when we know that hard-fought freedoms are again under assault in Egypt.
I watched something very slowly, transform. The street-side vendor suddenly had an Egyptian flag, the taxi driver had an opinion; the young man on the street was no longer scared to say that there was something he didn’t like; the tree trunks were painted red, white and black; the youth, once skulking, were now handing out flyers, forming political parties and collectives, chanting, discussing, planning, hoping, for those better lives. … on those same street corners that were once host to dejection, possibility was being born…
Though we are demonstrably as safe as we’ve ever been, fear is everywhere in American politics this election year. I highly recommend reading Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, because the essays are an important and stark reminder of exactly where a rhetoric of fear and division can land us. It not only has the power to make a beautiful young girl feel unsafe in her hometown, but it blinds us to the consequences of relinquishing our civil rights. This book is a reminder that living in American gives us no protection. We are more similar to the essayists in this collection than we are different. With the single story, we not only risk critical misunderstanding of “the other,” but of ourselves.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg