Postcard from Jeddah

Postcard from Jeddah
Watching the recent Arab League summit, which saw the region's authoritarian leaders welcome back Syria's Assad with open arms, Farah Abdessamad reflects on the legacy of revolution and the road ahead.
5 min read
24 May, 2023
Leaders of Arab countries attend the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on May 19, 2023. [Getty]

Conceived as a crowning of intense Saudi diplomatic efforts, this Arab League’s “summit of all summits” gathered the great dysfunctional Arab family in Jeddah last weekend, re-integrating Bashar al-Assad within its ranks.

The Syrian civil war, which has killed an average of 83 Syrians, including 18 children, daily, is over we are told, so shall we move on. Let’s invite Volodymyr Zelenskyy and reaffirm rhetorical support to the Palestinian cause to dilute the renewed shock and awe of the League’s latest failure, another demonstration, if it were needed, of the organisation’s unparalleled irrelevance since 1945.

A specific moment captured my attention during the expected circus. As Heads of State readied themselves for the official group photograph, a camera zooms on the formerly-isolated-now-buoyant Syrian president, chitchatting with dictator pals Kais Saied and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

"These are the memories [of revolution] that flashed before me when I came across the photo that represents so eloquently the betrayal and vestiges of those days"

A press agency photographer inadvertently immortalises a comical scene in this tragic scenography: Assad and Sisi engaging in a brief tête-à-tête while Saied looks at them obliquely, real-life mimicking the famous internet meme of the jealous girlfriend.

A threesome dancing on the ashes of our crushed hopes, it seemed. My immediate reaction to this image was to succumb to a cynical laughter of dread, pain, and loss. It’s a familiar coping mechanism I’ve honed for several decades.

Growing up in France, former president Sarkozy told us – me and people of colour more broadly – that Africans had not entered History. Most days, my Arab culture had to be erased to fit in. Tunisia was the godforsaken, distant land of my father, the place he left, a home where we had to whisper whenever we talked about politics, living in the constant state of fear and paranoia that defined Ben Ali’s regime.

When I began to travel on my own as a young adult and met new people, they all had stories and questions about France. Beautiful, romantic Paris, all that. But when I mentioned Tunisia, I only encountered a series of blank stares. “Indonesia?”

This all changed in 2010. From Beirut, where I lived and worked at the time, I followed the first protests breaking out in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere in the country. My body fused with my TV, my cherished companion and window to events I never thought I would ever experience during my lifetime.

We were History, dear Sarkozy. Every hour was a new dawn and I cursed the Beirut power cuts that suspended my throbbing heartbeat from the lifeline of the screens. In a matter of weeks, protests and uprisings flared up in neighbouring Syria, in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and more. My most intimate intentions blended with this transnational crowd.

I hesitated a long while to leave everything behind in Beirut and physically join the revolution in Tunis. I couldn’t and it’s something I regret to this day. Yet even from afar, and as a member of the diaspora, I was Mona in Cairo, Hatem in Tunis, Mohamed in Dara’a, Intisar in Sana’a. “I” became a stubborn, and life-binding “we”.

Amidst the unbearable repression, we were breathing, somehow still alive. There was no question of returning to our long coma. These are the memories that flashed before me when I came across the photo that represents so eloquently the betrayal and vestiges of those days.

When Karl Marx analysed the French coup d’état of 1851 in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), he examined its resonance with another coup, led by Napoleon Bonaparte who “ended” the French Revolution, to understand the historical and social forces at play.

This is when he wrote that “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce.” And indeed, what a fancy vaudeville in Jeddah. The uncanniness of Saied cosplaying Ben Ali, Sisi masquerading Mubarak, Assad simulating sacrificial nationalist hero—the three stooges of them intending on warning us, in these operatic artifices, that the tides have turned and that we’d better submit to their will once and for all.

They claim to have restored order, to fulfil their mission to “save” the Republic at whatever cost. Their advocates exhaust the same old “me-or-chaos” argument, forgetting that oscillating between the menaces of the plague and the threat of cholera is no way to live.

And we deserve it, to live that is, free from the parasitic grip of autocrats and violent extremists, each using the other for their own tactical, macabre gains while we’re squeezed in the middle.

Marx had seen in the advent of “Napoleon the Little” (as Victor Hugo nicknamed Bonaparte’s nephew) a repressive tendency, a reactionary movement that drew its force from conservative elements in society. A counter-revolution in other words.

For us, as with then, the bumpy journey continues, terrifying as it is right now, with its regular arbitrary harassment and arrests of journalists, political opposition, and human rights defenders as well as growing hate speech.

This image from Jeddah – a postcard from hell – has confirmed two things for me. Firstly, not to argue with trolls online who minimise mass murder or invoke what-about-the-West as their sole case, and, secondly, that those who still believe in a fearless future in the region have not yet been defeated. The Little ones are just the afterglow of what we’ve already dismissed.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.