The speed with which news from Tunisia is emerging has produced a number of pieces that simultaneously try to keep up with rapid events unfolding and try to fix events into a debunked Arab master narrative. These narratives dwell on a “myth”, a stereotype, or a preconception about the Arab world and proceed to demonstrate how Tunisia’s uprising undermines it. From pointing to a crack in the Arab “malaise” (Whitaker), to actually listing those essentialist myths one at a time (Saunders), to holding an entire conference on such a myth (sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), journalists have fallen back on the orientalist conception of the Arab world as immutable, fixed, eternal. The affirmation of myth by way of debunking it is accomplished by suggesting, on one hand, that Tunisia is a synecdoche of the Arab world and what its future holds, and, on the other hand, that Tunisia is a fresh intervention, a rupture, an ideal new deviation from stagnating Arab world politics. The effect is to paint both—whether Tunisia now apart from the Arab world or Tunisia as part of the Arab world—as suffering or having suffered from an inherent, essential Arab political malaise. The narrative plot is supposed to be ruptured but in a way it is re-asserted by pointing at how the Arab world lags behind in its malaise and by pointing at Tunisia as that which has been mired but perhaps finally arisen from that morass. It is to say as if all other developments can be attributed to this ahistorical lull and stagnation of the Arab landscape, that whatever has happened could finally be dulled down to that essential Arab malaise. It is to say, but this new development, Tunisia, unlike the ones that have preceded it, is historical, filled with political actors, and influential enough to stir the rest of the politically “recalcitrant” Arab world. The articles erase the North African history of the political actors involved in Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia’s political and economic struggles. The writer on Arabist.net sums them up quite accurately: “They took place in Tunisia before, such as the 2008 Gafsa mining protests, in Morocco at Sidi Ifni in the same year, in various bread, gas and other protests in Egypt over the last four years, in Algeria as recently as a few days ago (and for several years near Algiers as well as Oran) and elsewhere. These protests seem economic but, in my view, are really political: they are not strictly about the lack of jobs, poor economies, etc. as much as the uneven and unfair distribution of economic opportunity. And what re-arranges economic opportunity? Politics.” (1/2/2011) Curiously, how would these properly be classified as “Arab malaise”?
Besides committing the Arab world to an apolitical, ahistorical trajectory, which regardless of some of its developments, reverts to the same autocratic rule, the rhetoric of Tunisia in/apart from the Arab world erases the national specificity of its uprising, as much as summing up the politics of the Arab world is homogenizing. In the beginning, the commentary on the Tunisian uprising was nationally specific to its political and economic system. It pointed to the discrepancy between the international image of Tunisia and its internal reality with great detail and nuance: explanations of regional economic disparities between the interior and the coastal areas, breakdowns of Ben Ali’s economic pledges, the number of college graduates in light of the percentage of unemployment. Since then the commentary has shifted from Tunisia to the greater “Arab World”. With this shift, the details, nuances, and specificities of Tunisia, its uprising strategies, the distinctiveness of its unemployment rate, its censorship and torture human-rights record have been obliviated into a master narrative about the Arab World. The master narrative of the Arab World is generated via the myths of malaise ironically resuscitated to be discredited, affirmed to be debunked. To say that such a myth exists is one thing, but to affirm the myth without acknowledging its rhetorical effect is another. For example, with “In Tunisia, A Sudden Tear in the Fabric of the Arab World”, Doug Saunders’ sums up the myths that essentialize the Arab world, deplete it of history, its political actors, and relinquish it to an eternal, calcified “imaginative geography” in which “they” have their ways and “we” have ours. But he emphatically acknowledges them as problematic Western “myths” and analyses its rhetorical effect:
In the past, we’ve said one of two things: First, that this form of leadership is part of Arabic culture and tradition and is, therefore, broadly accepted by Arabs in ways it wouldn’t be by anyone else. Second, that the democratic option would inevitably lead to rule by radical Islamists, and that the besuited fellows whose pictures adorn the wall of every room are the alternative. These two myths—neither of which holds up to close examination—have led the West to provide backing, legitimacy and investment to Arab dictators for decades, and to avoid supporting democratic opposition groups the way it did in places such as Eastern Europe. (1/15/2011)
In contrast, Brian Whitaker’s article “Can Tunisian protestors end the ‘Arab malaise’?” does not acknowledge the “Arab malaise” as myth before turning to Tunisia. In fact, he describes the Arab malaise as “the way Arabs have become accustomed to playing the role of victims, their passivity in the face of home-grown tyrants, and so on.” He adds that it is significant “for Arabs to stop being prisoners of their history and start shaping their own destiny. At long last, that is what the people of Tunisia are trying to do.” (12/30/2010) He not only doesn’t acknowledge the malaise as a myth, but he centralizes it as his argument. Both Saunders and Whitaker assert an inherent, essential, cultural problem in the Arab world, but Saunders provides distance from it by assigning it myth status – holding up to inspection the traditional story entrenched as a fixed, immutable repertoire to explain changing historical events. Much deserved credit goes to Whitaker for following and writing about the Tunisian demonstrations long before Western journalist began paying attention. But, by subscribing to the eternal, stagnant, unchanged Arab World, Whitaker affirms the myth without ever acknowledging its rhetorical effect: that the Arab World, known for the continuity of its politics, defined through an essential malaise due to a characteristic of Arab self-victimization, is where however much changes, much remains, at the core, the same. By pointing at how the Arab world lags behind in its malaise and by pointing at Tunisia as that which has been mired but perhaps finally arisen from that morass returns this type of rhetoric back to its first rhetorical home: an eternal, unchanging malaise typical of the Arab world. Implicit then according to the essentializing rhetoric of malaise at the core, the only hope for this fresh, new, dynamic intervention provided by Tunisians is that it doesn’t yield to a regression to its characteristic “traditional” Arab “malaise”.
Tunisia has long been held hostage by a variety of myths. For one, it has long been stagnating and repressed in its own state-controlled myth that feeds off a larger cultural, older, deep-seated myth of a Mediterranean paradise, a monolithic myth that has territorialized some of its North African neighbors. It has been contained by the distinct parameters of a Maghreb-Mediterranean tourism utopia: the Muslim and Jewish quarters of Jerba island demonstrating Mediterranean diversity and hospitality; Carthage’s ruins testifying to its prominence in the sphere of ancient civilizations; its affordable resorts and sunny beaches drawing European tourists, developers, and seasonal workers into its central tourism industry. The beauty of the Maghreb Mediterranean, typified by traditional souks, well-preserved ruins, golden beaches, is actually the containment of its politics and the mobility of its image: despite the attention shed on its human-rights abuses, Tunisia’s government has kept its public relations machine running smoothly for decades and the parameters of this contained utopia maintained—right up until the protest suicide of one of its citizens.
On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after police in southern Sidi Bouzid confiscated his unlicensed produce stand. Various mentions of his college degree have served to highlight the economic disenfranchisement most Tunisians face, which, compounded by police brutality, intense repression, and the regime’s corruption, compelled his desperate act to set off a wave of protests in economically marginalized Sidi Bouzid. Since then protests have radiated out to the rest of the country. Bouazizi died on January 3. But the major result of his final act was slowing down the progress of Tunisia’s PR machine—the outrage of the demonstrators revealed that the narrative of a stable and prosperous North African nation was coming to a halt. Soon after, the 23-year reign of Tunisian President Ben Ali ended when he fled the country. And, soon after other men attempted suicides by lighting themselves on fire in Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Egypt, and out of North Africa to Saudi Arabia. Considered a horrific act by many, it might perhaps not seem as horrific as what the men perceived the future held—more of the same. More surveillance and the fear for one’s self and family that comes with it, more economic disenfranchisement and the fear of garnering a hope for further, exponential disenfranchisement, more censure and the fear of frustration’s consequences. The saying “When you have nothing left to burn you set yourself on fire” that I have associated with the self-immolation protests in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and China, resonates: What do you do when your internal resources have been trapped, when the political and economic act of providing for your family is thwarted at various turns, when you have nothing left to burn?
The uprising has rushed forward quite quickly, outpacing not only its state-controlled myth but the larger regional myth of Mediterranean beauty eternally unchanged and preserved, inexplicably transcendent of the daily drudge of the political and the harsh realities of the material. But it has also outpaced and transgressed the boundaries of the newer narratives that try to fix it into a stagnant eternal Arab world order. Narratives framed by the myth of a doggedly unchanging Arab world are also hopefully going to be outpaced by discourse that moves apace the countries, communities, and people that comprise a diverse, changed and changing Arab world, rather than capturing them in the circulation of eternal Arab Myths—regardless of how fast the people rush forward for change—as did the Tunisians to uncover the utopian myth that has ensconced their country, without succumbing to others.