On September 17, acclaimed Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury spoke at the American University in Cairo as part of a series of lectures on “Aesthetics and Politics: Counter-Narratives, New Publics, and the Role of Dissent in the Arab World,” which took place at AUC from Sep. 16-27. Elias Khour gave his talk in Arabic under the title “Towards an Intellectual-Ethical Code in the Time of the Arab Revolutions.” At the time Al Ahram provided a summary of the talk, and Mohga Hassib wrote about the talk on ArabLit, the focus on childhood and seeing the world with new eyes, the importance of defamiliarization for revolution, seemed to me an intriguing take on art and the Arab revolutions. So, finally, the talk has been uploaded on youtube and those of us who could not be there can hear it.
Khoury focused on films, beginning with Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami’s film Where Is my Friend’s Home? (1987) which tells a seemingly simple story featuring a schoolboy’s quest to return a friend’s notebook, but for Khoury represents the juxtaposition of childhood as seeing the world anew and political resistance. The return to childhood is a way to look to the future, Khoury noted, a way to unshackle art. Khoury continued with Mohammad Malas‘ film Ahlam Al Madina (Dreams of the City, 1983) where the child Diab shows us his Damascus on the eve of the unity of Syria and Egypt, as well as Malas’ film Al-Lail (The Night, 1992), set in the years between 1936 and the Arab–Israeli War of 1948.
Khoury goes on to mention the importance of the childhood perspective of Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah‘s first film, Sariqat Sayfiyya (Summer Thefts) (1985) where the transformations in Egypt are seen through the eyes of a child awakening to an understanding of life, a perspective which works as an attempt to discover the world without masks.
But the focus on childhood for Khoury is not just about an artistic choice of perspective, its also about representing a political and social reality which was under great and increasing pressure and which would explode in the Arab revolutions. Khoury notes that children moved to the center, in Arab consciousness and conscience, during the first Palestinian intifada, which was known as the intifada of the “Children of the Stones” and came four years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which redrew the Nakba on Sabra and Shatila. This was a time which encapsulated the loneliess that Mahmoud Dawish related in his poem, I am Yusuf, oh my father, which parallels the Palestinian experience with the rejection of Joseph by his brothers, finding the story an apt allegory for the Palestinian plight:
“Oh my father, I am Yusuf / Oh father, my brothers neither love me nor want me in their midst.”
“Children of Stone” was no symbolic name for the intifada, it was a name which reflected the reality of children with slingshots against Israeli occupation, findind a new language with their actions. Yet there was a failure in translating this movement to real change. Khoury sees the first intifada as a parallel to the uprising in the Arab world, which is still caught up in a search for a language but which shows that the marginalized can rise up and surprise regimes and authorities, erupting out of the margins onto the stage. He speaks about a new awakening of social consciousness, from Madrid to Occupy Wall Street, summed up in Steven Hessel’s Time for Outrage! showing that the new science of revolution seeks new methods of resistance in an age of globalization and neo-liberalism which have erased all morals.
The struggle has not ended, Khoury argues, the exposure of social diseases left behind by the toppling of regimes require time and work to be dealt with in countries like Libya and Egypt, and in countries like Bahrain and Syira the struggle continues. In a poignant reflection, he points out the small city of Deraa, the first to rise up in Syria, did not rebel against the regime, she rebelled for her children who rebelled against the regime, who wrote on the walls of their city the phrase shouted by the Tunisians and derived from Abu Qasim al Shabbi‘s poem, “the people demand the fall of the regime.” There is a connection, Khoury says, between the children of the stones in Palestine and the children who wrote in the wall in Deraa, a connection which brings together the themes of childhood, hope for the future and the necessity of revolution.