Ahdaf Soueif addresses the crowd in Cairo
From Open Letters Monthly:
The January 25th Revolution in Egypt was an extraordinary event: an uprising of millions of people united in their commitment to peaceful protest and their demand for lives of dignity and hope. They claimed, then stood, then won their ground, chanting “silmiyyah, silmiyyah,” we are peaceful, in response to threats, provocation, and eventually violent opposition. Working together, these brave people—young and old, Muslim and Christian, men and women—brought down a dictator and launched a new era of uncertain but exhilarating change. In the process they rediscovered themselves as authors of their own destiny. “We have rejected the passivity our rulers have been imposing on us,” declared novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif, who spent many of those terrifyingly heady days reporting directly from Tahrir Square.
The Mubarak regime had, in Soueif’s words, “maligned and misrepresented the Egyptian people to each other and to the world,” but the revolution changed all that:
They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic—well here we are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty.
As this exultant display of their long-suppressed spirit revitalized Egyptians, it also broke down a wall of misunderstanding that once stood between them and many of those now cheering them on. Their revolution for their rights at home overcame stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims abroad, replacing reductive narratives of extremism, subjection, and submission with new stories of Egypt and its people which may be among the most important legacies of the revolution. What further revolution might we see in international understanding, not to mention foreign policy, if the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are seen as “interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities”.
These optimistic words come from an earlier essay by Soueif, whose voice has, fittingly, been prominent among those telling the revised story of Egypt to English-speaking audiences. Born in Cairo, Soueif was educated—and now lives—in both Egypt and England. Best known before Tahrir for her second novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love (1999), Soueif, who writes in both English and Arabic, is also a frequent contributor to the Guardian, al-Ahram Weekly, the London Review of Books, and many other publications.
A continuing theme across Soueif’s body of work is Western misrepresentation of the Arab and Muslim world. Soueif recalls living in London in the 1980s, when she easily found diverse opinions in the mainstream media about British or European issues but felt herself consistently “out of step” with coverage of the Middle East:
In almost every book, article, film, TV or radio programme that claimed to be about the part of the world that I came from I could never recognise myself or anyone I know. I was constantly coming face to face with distortions of my reality.