Alexa Firat and R. Shareah Taleghani (eds.), Generations of Dissent: Intellectuals, Cultural Production, and the State in the Middle East and North Africa (Syracuse University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Alexa Firat and Shareah Taleghani (AF & ST): Our book developed out of an American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) seminar panel we organized in 2015. The seminar gathered scholars working on numerous forms and histories of dissent from around the world—from Brazil to North Korea. We saw clearly that it was an area of interest for many and were inspired by the broad-ranging, engaged discussions in which we participated. For this book, however, we decided to focus on MENA because this is the area of our research.

Both of our research interests have been, for the most part, situated in modern Syrian cultural productions, mainly literary. The entrenchment of the Assad regime since 1970 and the development of its policies and the effects of such policies on culture have always informed our work, without necessarily being the main parameter for structuring research questions.

With the onset of uprisings in 2010-11, we witnessed how mainstream media narratives of revolution were being framed as something entirely new or disconnected from earlier opposition movements, whereas we (and obviously oppositional activists and other scholars) were aware of and had studied articulations and acts of dissent throughout the twentieth century, but in particular in a post-colonial, or post-WWII construct of the region.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AF & ST: The book collectively addresses the ways in which artists (broadly speaking) purvey dissent in their work in complex, sometimes ambiguous ways, i.e., how they respond to, work against, and/or navigate state hegemony through creative expression. The essays point to a very basic conceptualization of dissent as a discursive process that expresses a difference of opinion or point of view. The creative forms of dissidence discussed in the volume demonstrate the productive and disruptive significance of individual or localized acts in creating an alternative space, counter-narrative, and/or counter-public to those constructed and enforced by the state.

The ten chapters are divided into three broad categories: the dismantling and negotiation of state discourses; exile and dissidence; and subversive aesthetics. The authors analyze these issues through a number of media: cinema (both feature and documentary), literature, journalism, and intellectual discourse.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AF & ST: Thematically the collection connects to our individual work.

AF: I have written previously about literary systems and fields in Syria, from the inception of the Syrian Writers’ Collective in 1951 to the one emerging out of that stratified structure in 2012, challenging and countering the assertions of the former in a battle for symbolic power. I have also looked at how the symbolic power invested in the struggle to narrate the Syrian Revolution has led to innovations in the field on a number of levels.

For my essay in this collection, I read the exploration of identity in two Jordanian novels as subversive acts that unsettle national narratives of belonging. What drew me to read and investigate these two novels together—apart from their authors’ national identity—was that, despite differing perspectives and reasons for exile, the identity of both main characters fragment, causing crises and revelations that assert a sense of belonging that is both personal and historical. It seemed to me that both reject identity/ies imposed from above—political, social, ethnic—while also acknowledging their essence.

ST: My main research project has been centered on the literary writings of Syrian detainees and the genre that has been debatably defined as “prison literature” (adab al-sujun). While such works can be read as reflecting resistance to state repression, I have focused on how these texts intersect with Arabic literary experimentalism and both echo and challenge human rights discourse. Though this body of writing is generally produced by those who have engaged in a direct political struggle against the state, with some paying the highest possible price, I also became interested in understanding how particular cultural producers construct an aesthetics of dissent in their works through less direct forms of opposition and also how those in creative or artistic fields negotiate censorship and the state’s attempts to co-opt their work. In the process of researching Syrian prison writings over many years, I also learned more about the works of Syrian filmmakers such as Mohamed Malas, Hala Abdullah, and the late Omar Amiralay, and I became interested in writing about visual culture. My essay in the collection is about the role of visual and verbal irony in Amiralay’s films.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AF & ST: We hope it will be read by scholars and students of modern and contemporary Middle East cultural production as well as general audience readers interested in learning more about dissent and cultural forms in the Middle East. Generally speaking, it is a multi-disciplinary collection that would suit both undergraduate and graduate courses. The collection introduces artists and cultural producers whose work has not been studied very much, especially in English, and/or from a perspective of dissent. We hope that the book will contribute to and intervene in scholarly analyses of the intersection of political opposition and cultural production in the region, provide a richer and greater breadth of knowledge of forms of dissidence in the region, and encourage further study of the works of cultural producers from around the MENA.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AF: These days I am looking at the intersection of aesthetics, experimentation, and the infusion of history into literary narratives. At this stage I am focused on Syrian authors, mainly fiction, but I am open to all literary genres. There is so much attention on the regime and politics when talking about Syrian cultural production, we often lose touch with thinking about the craft of writing: what are the tools, materials, sources, and philosophies of art that authors rely on to craft their work? I also want to ask questions about how these connections to the past not only tell us something about the present, as often discussed with historical fiction, but what they show us about our readings of the past and the archives they are culled from. I am also working on the translation of Mamduh Azzam’s novel Castle of Rain.

ST: I have been working on the final edits of my book, Readings in Syrian Prison Literature, which will be coming out in the fall. With a group of colleagues, I am also finalizing a co-edited and co-translated collection of poetry by Faraj Bayrakdar titled Dove in Free Flight, which hopefully will be out in the fall or winter. For my main new research project, I am exploring the interplay of satire, nostalgia, and dissent (not just against the state) in works of modern Middle East cultural production, including literature and film. I am interested in exploring how particular satirical works express a nostalgic as opposed to utopian impulse.

J: Why the title “Generations of Dissent”? What are you trying to suggest with it?

AF & ST: Although the original ACLA seminar was titled “Between Dissidence and Cooption,” we like the way the word generation evokes multiple meanings: generation as an action, to generate, to create, to propel forward; how power generates and interacts with opposition and resistance in complex ways. Although the essays do not focus on cross-generational comparison, we also had in mind the importance of highlighting artistic and creative expressions of opposition to authoritarian regimes by those of earlier generations prior to 2010-2011, including those who have been engaged in a long term, sometimes decades long, confrontation, and critique of such regimes.

Excerpt from the book

From “Ghosting Dissent: Tariq Tequia’s Zanj Revolution

By Suzanne Gauch

Conceived and begun prior to the uprisings of 2011, yet overlapping with them in its filming, Zanj follows on the traces of the generations of dissent near and far that momentarily crystallized in those uprisings. Even the film’s title signals its spectrality, for Zanj Revolution recalls other fictional works, most of all with the individuating definite article. One of these is The Zanj RevolutionDiwan al-Zanj in Arabic, a well-known play on the same topic by Tunisian writer ‘Izz al-Din al-Madani, one of a number of intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s who were captivated by the history of the Zanj and created literary works inspired by it. Yet the imperative of a revolution that would bring about a just world, free of domination and oppression, keeps vanishing, victories elusive and records presumed lost, or rather, illegible. For if the process of creating an archive or historical representation is a matter of codifying events according to prevailing logic and recording conventions, what of that which seeks to break with that logic and those conventions? Always only half-legible, a chronicle of ghosting, or vanishing, distinct from but overlapping at times with the haunting evoked by Marx’s famous formulation, Zanj Revolution demonstrates that not just historical actors and records, but also audiences, are constantly slipping away.

Described by some critics as prescient, Teguia’s film anticipates not so much the uprisings of 2010-11 as the failure to see and hear their messages and motives both abroad and at home, quick as multiple sides were to assimilate the protests to prevailing models and demands before pushing them once again to the wayside. When an antiquarian whom Battuta meets in Beirut tells the Algerian journalist in parting that he has no artifacts that might reveal new, essential information about the Zanj, he adds: “No one has ever stepped into my shop carrying the great book of the Zanj, written by Ali ibn Muhammed. The book was lost or destroyed because it gave voice to the Zanj and not their masters. That book was much more valuable than any relic.” Tempting though it may be to lose ourselves in speculation of what that book might say, Zanj Revolution does not attempt to recreate this imaginary lost text. Rather, it probes the inexorable processes of ghosting that made the loss of that book—and its subsequent iterations—inevitable. Similarly, by collating clichés drawn from dominant cinematic languages and worldviews as much as counterlanguages and images, the film unravels a disjointed half-tale in which the dominant themes (or, better, modes) are an intertwining of half-perceptions, unsettled overdeterminations, and eloquent, apparent emptiness in which flashes of possibility occasionally appear. As Battuta replies to the Beiruti antiquarian’s advice to create his own map if he wants to know where the future is headed: “The map I’m drawing now has no key. It’s open on all sides.”

In its simultaneous emphasis on invisibility and overdetermination, Zanj Revolution is deeply Algerian, even though little of it focuses on, or is set in, that country. Yes, Battuta is instantly identified as Algerian by other characters he meets (the film underscores the particularity of his dialect in playful dialogues with Nahla), reflecting the persistence of Algeria’s revolutionary history and continued political presence in the Arab world understood in its largest sense. Yet it is the film’s reflections of the necessary yet spectral audiences for Battuta’s reporting, coupled with the journalist’s perception of his own and his various subjects’ persistent entanglements in a counter history that crosses centuries and borders, that place Algeria at the center of the film’s consciousness. This other Algeria is a collection of citizens who find themselves alternately ghosted by and ghosting the nation’s postrevolutionary ideals, clashing local histories, global Islam, and the promises of neoliberalism. Battuta’s project, like that of Zanj Revolution itself, is restless and slippery, for, as Teguia remarks in an interview with Barlet, “it’s not easy to film ghosts.”

At the film’s outset, Battuta is in Berriane, in the Mzab region in the Algerian south, covering riots by Arab youth that target the region’s longstanding Mozabite (Berber) population. His first encounter there is with the presumed instigators of the riots, young Arabic-speaking men who set him on the tracks of the Zanj. Darting in and out of doorways and trailing Battuta as he walks through the desert city in one of the film’s initial scenes, these youths keep their faces covered with multicolored scarves and kaffiyeh, some veiled like desert nomads, evoking the Palestinian uprisings as much as revolutionaries everywhere. When the film skips ahead some moments to show them encircling Battuta in an abandoned white-walled room, their rapid-fire conversation is clipped by the film’s stuttering temporality as they demand to know what he is doing in the city. For his part, Battuta replies to their initial query with the single word “press,” presuming that the identity is sufficient to explain his activity, and immediately asks whether any of them have jobs. Suspicious, their apparent leader asks for whom he works and forbids him to take any photos. Until this point, little is striking about their conversation, other than the disorienting handheld camera work, which eschews a shot reverse shot format that would highlight tensions between the journalist and the group to focus instead now on white walls, now on different characters, sometimes after they have spoken. All of this contributes to the sense that the encounter dissolves spatiotemporal logic. Battuta himself appears at pains to hold and direct the focus of this circle of youths who seemingly bear little regard for the promises of documentation and representation that the journalist wields. Despite the banality of the verbal exchange, the youths dismiss the journalist’s authority, their disguised faces less indicative of a fear of reprisal than of a consciousness of their own ghosting, a simultaneous awareness of their predecessors’ and their own ultimate invisibility according to the geopolitics of the state, and certainly in the eyes of global, and even national, media audiences.

There follows a negotiation of the boundaries of Battuta’s work that centers precisely on this question of visibility. Battuta reassures the youths that he doesn’t work for the state, and one of them dismisses the distinction between state and nonstate journalists as irrelevant. The question of jobs returns, and the youths express their dissatisfaction not with the apparent targets of their rioting, the Mozabites for whom the region has long been home, but with the state. They tell Battuta that, while Algeria lives off oil and gas from the region, Northerners (and thus outsiders) receive all the jobs in those industries. Yet when Battuta affirms the need for their voices to be heard, their leader interjects: “Who do they think we are, zanj?” While it is clear that this apparently casual reference sets Battuta on his quest to learn more about the historical Zanj, the target and intent of the remark are more difficult to parse, as is the exchange that follows it. For, before Battuta can respond, his interlocutor adds, “Our ghosts may wake up,” continuing, to the journalist’s puzzlement, “You can take photos, our ghosts are your (plural) ghosts” (Shibahna shibahkum). With this permission that is also a dismissal of Battuta’s ability to shed light on their riots, to really explain them within dominant national discourse, the youth underscores his, his cohort’s, and even their targets’, nonexistence in official formulations of postindependence Algeria. Yet his statement is also a challenge, one that defies Battuta to begin perceiving other Algerias and alternate kinds of maps.