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Listening To The Voices Of The 'Unfinished' Arab Spring

Saturday, January 4, 2014

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The Arab Spring was a seismic event in the Arab world and beyond. But after the initial democratic shockwaves, how much has changed? A new collection of essays, Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices From Tunis to Damascus, looks back on the revolution and ahead at the ongoing struggle. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks with editor Matthew Cassel and contributor Yasmine El Rashidi.



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon. The Arab Spring was a worldwide event in that it captured the imagination of the entire world. Everywhere people heard about it, read about it, and certainly watched it. The growing demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo and other Arab countries - Tunisia, Libya among others - and we have watched the aftermath of those uprisings as well.

Now, we can read intimate and personal accounts of what those early days were like. We have a collection of essays called, "Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus." Matthew Cassel is one of the editors of this collection and Yasmine el Rashidi is a journalist from Cairo who contributed an essay. They join us, Matthew from San Francisco, Yasmine from Cairo.

Welcome to both of you.



WERTHEIMER: Matthew Cassel, you're co-editor of this collection, Layla Al-Zubaidi, and half of the contributors are women. That obviously was a decision that you made. Why did you do that?

CASSEL: Well, it was a decision that we wanted to have kind of equal representation of men and women in this book, but I wouldn't say it was, you know, we had to struggle or search hard to find women contributors. The fact is, there are many women in journalism, in literature, on the ground in the Arab world. Unfortunately, however, we don't really get their voices, especially in the United States. But there are a lot of women who are involved and who are writing that we should be hearing from and we wanted to give them voice in this book.

WERTHEIMER: Yasmine el Rashidi is one of those women. You talk in your essay about the very oppressive mood in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. You talk about how the cities were somehow turning gray and falling into ruin. This is all in the run-up of years to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. I wonder if you could read from your own essay.

RASHIDI: Sure. (Reading) Despair so deeply ingested in the psyche of Egyptians had turned over the years into an apathy palpable even in the city's air. In many ways this was a population in earth, sinking deeper and deeper, and I found myself floating, listlessly, restlessly, aimlessly, burdened by my own self as well as the story of the city. It is, a friend had said once of Cairo, like when a person decides to die.

WERTHEIMER: So in the midst of all that despair, the uprising began.

RASHIDI: In the summer before the uprising, you felt the growing tension in the air. There was sort of a confluence of factors from the economy to a crackdown on the opposition that came together and you could feel the mood in the city really shift, and that listlessness and that apathy, that began to shift into something that felt a little bit more aggressive. And you could sort of feel that something was beginning to turn.

WERTHEIMER: You describe people around you being shot and beaten, awful things happening. But you clearly feel that these were some of the best weeks of your entire life.

RASHIDI: It was absolutely exhilarating in spite of all the violence that we witnessed and were subjected to. And everyone I know, something happened to them, whether it was taking a rubber bullet or being beaten or something happened. I think for me, for my friends, it was the first time we really felt a sense of possibility and felt empowered and felt a hope that I've never felt in my life before. And I don't know if I will feel in the same way again. Now we're perhaps living in the shadow of something, and living in the shadow of these really intense feelings that we hope to recapture, and I would hope to recapture, but I don't know if we ever really will.

WERTHEIMER: Egypt appears to have taken a turn lately. The military government is aggressively pursuing the Muslim Brotherhood, but also going after secular activists. Do you think that what happened was in the end worth it?

RASHIDI: I think it was absolutely worth it and I feel something fundamental has changed in Egyptian people. You see every day on the streets people are speaking up, people are demanding their rights, they're voicing their concerns and you feel that they will no longer let governments get away with things. And I think that barrier of fear has been broken and I don't think we can turn back now.

WERTHEIMER: As the two of you look at the region, the whole region, what do you think about the future? What do you think about the sort of unfinished revolution aspect of all of these events? Do you feel that all of this is headed somewhere? Has it headed to a better place? Or has it bogged down?

CASSEL: As for where things are headed next, if you look at Syria today, it's hard to really think back and say, well, were these uprisings worth it, especially when, you know, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions are made refugees. It's a difficult question because for people they had, in many of these countries, they had no other option.

If you wanted to challenge the political system, you couldn't, and unfortunately it came to this dramatic events where people took to the streets and they demanded the downfall of their regimes. And I think for people in Western countries, particularly in the United States, it's important to understand what's going on in these countries and what's going to happen next. This is really for the people on the ground to decide and determine where their countries head to next.

RASHIDI: For me it's hard 'cause in Egypt things have taken a difficult turn, a turn back to the repressive regime that we grew up under. So I have really mixed feelings. On the one hand I feel this sense of hope and possibility and empowerment that we have all experienced I think is critical. On the other hand, I'm kind of morally conflicted about the various turns events have taken.

I want to have hope that in a distant future things will be very different.

WERTHEIMER: Yasmine el Rashidi's essay in this collection is called, "Cairo: A City in Waiting." Matthew Cassel is one of the editors of the collection, which is called, "Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution." Thank you both very much.

CASSEL: Thank you.

RASHIDI: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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