Literature After the Revolt Arab Writers 'Should Not Be Invisible Anymore'

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Moroccan-born author and poet Ben Taher Jelloun talks about the Arab Spring and the burgeoning creativity in post-dictatorship countries. He also describes the challenge of writing from the perspective of Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your recently published essay collection deals with the Arab Spring. Are you worried what will happen once the euphoria dies down?

Jelloun: Yes. These countries have been abused and scarred by dictators. Now the pieces have to be picked up slowly. The changes and reforms needed will take a long time, many years. But citizens are impatient. Their impatience is understandable -- they have fought for reform and now they want to see swift changes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a way to settle this sense of urgency?

Jelloun: Many young Tunisians, for example, want to emigrate to Europe because things are not changing fast enough for them. How can you tell young people that the transition needs at least another generation to become properly established? How can you tell them to sit back and wait for the change which they fought and risked their lives for? This is very hard. It is a painstaking process to construct a post-dictatorship system and the question is whether people's impatience can hold out.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What other major challenges do you anticipate?

Jelloun: Until now the individual was not recognized in the region. Tribes or ethnic groups were recognized but not the individual. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi exploited the conflict between ethnic groups and played one tribe off against another. But now Arab revolts have been driven by individuals' urgency for change. The concept of the 'individual' has been born during these revolts. At the same time, tribal structures and ethnic traditions will not simply disappear. Tribal culture will have to enter into a modern framework and that is very complicated but individualism is here to stay.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What needs to change politically?

Jelloun: Changing people's mentalities is a major challenge. These countries need to face up to entrenched corruption. People are used to living with corruption, it is a habit for both the corrupted and those who corrupt others. It is very difficult to change this culture overnight.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How has the revolt reflected in the literary scene?

Jelloun: I think there will be a creative boom. The fact that people are finally free means that we are seeing a surge in creativity of all sorts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the situation for writers during the dictatorships?

Jelloun: There was a lot of state censorship but there was also the powerful force of auto-censorship. Even those who lived in exile were very, very cautious. Exiled writers from Iraq and Syria, for example, could not talk or write freely out of fear for the safety of family members still in their home countries. For instance, Lebanese writers who criticized Syria and its role in Lebanon have received death threats. Samir Kassir, a Lebanese writer who published articles speaking out against the Syrian dictatorship, was assassinated in June 2005. It is widely thought that the Syrians killed him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will there now be a wave of writers in exile returning to their countries?

Jelloun: Yes, that is happening already, for example, in Egypt. This trend is not restricted to intellectuals. We are also seeing a wave of entrepreneurs and high-level businesspeople returning to their native countries because they see new opportunities there. There is reason to be hopeful, but our hopes may be disappointed in the long run.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you think European governments could best support Arab writers?

Jelloun: More support would be a good opportunity for European governments to make amends for the inexcusable things they did during the dictatorships. Arab writers' voices should be heard in Europe. They should be invited to address people and their work should be translated. They should not be invisible anymore. But their assistance should extend beyond the arts. They need to help the countries reconstruct themselves materially and politically too.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mention the 'inexcusable' role of Europe politicians in their relations with the dictatorships. Are you angry about the cozy ties?

Jelloun: No, I'm not astonished by how Europe behaved. Hasn't it always been like that in Europe? Haven't Europe's economic and material and energy interests always been put before their principles?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You addressed hundreds of teenagers during the Berlin Literature Festival. What was your main message to young people?

Jelloun: To read! Reading is under threat by young people's attachment to computers. Those machines are everywhere, but reading is essential. It can help them understand other cultures. Reading can open their eyes. There is still too much confusion between Islam and terrorism. Young people shouldn't mix this up. They should learn that Islam is a monotheistic religion like Christianity and Judaism -- and, like Christianity and Judaism, it has fanatics, but that doesn't mean the fanatic element is at the core of the religion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you like the media catchphrase 'Arab Spring?'

Jelloun: I like the term Arab Spring as it is the first time in years that the international media is reporting something positive about the Arab world. On the other hand, the word 'revolution' is being misused by the media. It is an Arabic revolt, not a revolution. Revolutions have to be prepared. They are carried out by a movement, a party and an ideology, it's about constructing something new in the medium or long-term. A revolt is a spontaneous expression of anger. Tunisia, for instance, has long had a vibrant civil society. That helped the revolt, but what really effected change, in Tunisia and elsewhere, was the population's spontaneous expression of anger.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book Arab Spring, you write from Moammar Gadhafi's  perspective. Was this hard?

Jelloun: Quite the contrary, I like to climb into people's heads, even if dictators give me a headache. I like the process and you discover extraordinary things. It is like being an actor, you try and get inside the person, see how they tick. You can play at being someone else. Others who have read these essays have said they recognize the portrayal. I couldn't do the same about Angela Merkel as she seems to be an ordinary woman doing usual things. I am interested in writing from the point of view of people who are far from the norm, people who do extravagant things. Angela Merkel doesn't apply to that criteria.

Interview conducted by Jess Smee
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