Guest Post — Finding the people behind a revolution: Johnny West’s Karama!
Guest post by Max Denton
It’s now been a year since the old orders of the Arab world began to crumble under the weight of popular protest. It was the first time in my lifetime that I’d witnessed, albeit from afar, the strength of raw people power to affect large-scale change.
This, plus the ability to watch it unfold in real-time online (often from the protestors themselves), gave me a sense of closeness to the struggle. Of course, this is entirely unjustified—as a white, middle-class and privileged Australian, the closest I’ve ever come to government oppression was my last brush with Telstra customer service.
The truth is, through headlines and tweets, it’s far too easy to feel like you completely understand enormous and complex events. Seeking to rectify this, I picked up a bunch of newly released books on the Arab Spring. One captivated me more than the others: Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring, a travel book by former Reuters Cairo correspondent Johnny West.
This book was released straight to paperback without much fanfare, but it stood out to me because of what it is not: another dry historical analysis, academic essay or reductive political wash.
West shirked away from the traditional role of the war correspondent. Instead he hovered in cafes, teahouses and the street, and talked with the people he encountered—disaffected youth, earnest and idealistic revolutionaries, those who fear the revolution and those who do not. Part travel diary and part political writings, West travelled in the wake of the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia, through Egypt and then to still-raging war in Libya.
If the book has a central theme or thesis it’s the vital role that Karama played in the push for revolution. Karama is an Arabic word that, whilst not exactly translatable, signifies dignity or honour. Of the young people citing Karama as their motivation for revolt, West writes:
They didn’t mean some baroque or epic code of ethics. They meant not being slapped about by some idiot policeman just because he felt like it. Not being denied even an interview for the job because you didn’t have family connections. Not being lied to, smugly and repeatedly, by leaders who had ended up believing their own cheap propaganda. Not being told, in a thousand little ways, to accept mediocrity and falsehood and poverty and a perpetual state of helpless emergency.
West sets out to intricately understand this motivation, and travels first to the point where the revolution began: the Tunisian town of Sidi Bou Zid. There, a young fruit vendor named Muhammad Bouazizi, after having his livelihood destroyed by arbitrary police violence, set himself alight. That night, at a protest over his death, his cousin uploaded a video of the protest that was rebroadcast on Al Jazeera. Huge protests erupted in the town and swiftly consumed the whole country, leading to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia just 28 days later. But the video going viral was no fluke:
The video was the first stage of a concerted campaign he and a close group of comrades conducted over the next ten days, uploading more videos, calling anyone they could find in the Arab satellite networks and across the international media. It was also simply the latest in a number of previous campaigns they had run since at least 2008, from this small town, trying to mobilise protest and opposition through spreading word of injustices across the Internet.
The Western media largely didn’t see the Arab Spring coming, and often the upheaval was told as a story of leaderless spontaneity. But what this book repeatedly reveals is a revolution that was painstakingly engineered and fought for, often by media-savvy and engaged youth.
West also addresses some of the key debates the Arab Spring prompted in the Western media—like the possibility of resurgent Islamism. On this, he argues that while groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will inevitably have some political power, the question is in some ways no longer relevant, because to the youth of the region:
Democracy and an open public life were no longer ideological debating points but inalienable givens, unconsciously assumed as part of one’s identity and rights. The idea that these values represented some kind of contradiction to the Islamic faith would leave anyone under forty bemused, whether it came from patronising Western Orientalists or their fundy neighbour living down the road.
He also dwells throughout on the much hyped topic of whether the Arab Spring was a ‘Facebook Revolution’. In my mind, you cannot separate the struggle from its organisation online—the original Tahrir Square protests, for example, were organised by the tens of thousands who joined the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page set up by Google employee Wael Ghonim to commemorate a young man’s tragic death at the hands of state police. But West suggests that its most powerful role lay before the demonstrations began, in nurturing and sharing common dissatisfaction:
Once you have the internet, it’s like a big Psst in your ear. However serious the oppression and your very real fear of the regime, you can never actually believe them again, and you know it’s the same for nearly everyone else. Gradually, it becomes hard even to pretend to believe them.
Ultimately, this book succeeds because West does something different—he chooses to concentrate on those who aren’t usually heard. The result is a fantastic, if at times meandering (he spends an entire chapter meticulously detailing a single street), collection of encounters and conversations that are at times confronting and revealing. From this emerges a subtle yet passionate portrait of a fast-changing region. For anyone who wants just a glimpse into what the revolution means to the people who actually live it, this is a good place to start.
– Johnny West’s Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring is available now from Heron Books.