A few days ago, a client at the nonprofit where I work heard that I was from the Middle East.
The conversation went as it usually does, beginning with some surprise, followed by a few questions like “why on earth were over there?” and “How did you learn to speak English?”
You get used to questions like that.
Then came the inevitable comments on the ongoing violence in my adopted homeland of Syria. Those comments are always pretty vague- existing as a result of having to say something so as to not appear ignorant while being ambiguous enough to avoid proving that you are ignorant. In this case it was a theatrical, sad shake of the head, followed by the statement “Well that’s a shame. But y’know? There always has been fighting over there and there probably will be to the end of time.”
I’ve always hated that statement.
First and foremost, it’s a complete lie: “There’s always been war in the Middle East?”
No, there hasn’t. For centuries, the Arab world was the shinning pinnacle of human civilization. Even in its decline, the Middle East was still a relatively peaceful place- especially when compared with the rest of the world. Look at European History in the 19th and 20th centuries and compare its body count with that of the Middle East in the same time period.
Secondly, there’s a deeply racist implication in the statement that “there will always be war in the Middle East.”
Because of the way the borders are drawn? Because there’s oil in certain parts of the desert?
Or is it because the Arabs are simply and inherently angry, violent people?
That statement is on par with saying “Africa will always be poor.” Why?
Because, you know… Africans?
This is some ol’ bull. “Africans are capable of nothing but starving, as they always have done and always will do, and Arabs are capable of nothing but fighting- always have and always will”?
Nevertheless, that was the line (and often still is) that was fed to the public over the past couple decades. Recently however, the events of The Arab Spring have completely and utterly turned that picture on its head.
Starting with the self-immolation of 26-year-old street vendor in Tunisia, ripples of protest spread out across the Arab world, building in power and momentum until they evolved into revolutions against some of the most brutal and dictators and entrenched bureaucracies in modern history. Egypt, in particular, stands out as a shining example, with thousands of young, unarmed Egyptians doing in 18 days what the US and all her allies couldn’t do for Iraq in nearly 10 years.
And no, in case you’re wondering, that had nothing to do with either Facebook or Twitter. I recall during the weeks following the victory of the Egyptian revolutionaries, pundits in the West were desperately fishing for some way to co-opt the accomplishments of the young Arabs and paint them as somehow being ultimately rooted in the bounty and decency of America. Facebook and Twitter were cited as essential tools, without which there would surely be no free Egypt. Again, any sane person is going to call bull on this. Twitter never set itself on fire. Facebook didn’t dodge gas canisters or face-off with riot police and tanks. Again, as a result of the American media’s desire to scare you without actually showing you any blood or gore, grasping the full scope of what many of these young protesters were up against is difficult, if not impossible.
You’ve got to see the casualties of battle to really and truly understand the courage and sacrifice of those going into the maw. Perhaps its for that reason that westerners often look to social media to take a slice of a glory (though my bet is still on jealousy).
And what’s even more impressive isn’t simply that the Arab people have faced off with their governments in the past, it’s that they’re still doing it.
You might think “Hey- we came, we saw, we conquered. Insert-dictator-here is dead and/or gone, let’s all go home and take a much deserved and well earned break.”
That’d certainly be a temptation for me.
But instead of resting on their laurels, the Arab people (again, the Egyptians serving as a prime example) continue to stand on the front line and demand nothing short of total freedom and complete justice. Yesterday, another young Tunisian vendor set himself ablaze in protest. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians continue to hold hunger strikes. In spite of recently reaching over one million refugees, the rebels in Syria continue fight on against the Assad regime.
Across the Arab world, in the face of vicious repression, the Arab people are fighting on. Through their perseverance and valor, this generation of Arabs is changing the image of the Middle East from a place that “always has been violent and always will be” to something soon to be synonymous with democratic revolution, collaboration, and freedom. There’s certainly still a long way to go, but time and time again the young Arabs have proven that they’re on the right path and they’re not taking one step backwards.
What did you do today?