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To the Children of the Stones

2011 February 9
by rahul

Yesterday, I watched the video of Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive held incommunicado for 12 days by Egyptian security forces, on Dream TV. Everyone should watch it, and everyone in Egypt already has. Ghonim came almost straight from captivity to the TV studio, and the interview reflects the tremendous stress he had been under–kept blindfolded the entire time, with his family and friends completely ignorant of his status, presumably wondering about his fate. The interview is rambling and repetitive, but incredibly moving (for those of you us who can’t follow rapid-fire Egyptian Arabic, there is a subtitled version). At the end, when the host starts showing pictures of young men martyred in the protests, Ghonim breaks down and, sobbing violently, apologizes to the parents of the martyrs, but says it wasn’t the protesters’ fault but rather the fault of certain people in charge who don’t want to leave–then, unable to bear it any longer, he walks off the set. The interview is already being credited with bringing out many people who had not protested earlier to the massive protest in Tahrir Square yesterday.

In the interview, Ghonim hits on a series of politically powerful points: the protesters are not traitors and not in it for themselves, just people who love their country; the protesters didn’t want to destroy anything, let alone harm anybody; the state of emergency (30 years old) must be lifted and the rule of law restored; there are many good people in the government, but the government treats the people of Egypt like children and lies to them, and it must stop; that there are many good people in Mubarak’s NDP, but the NDP is hopelessly corrupt and must go.

For some reason, I hadn’t thought about it before, but it occurred to me while watching the interview that this is really the revolution of the “shabab,” the youth. Khalid Said, a young man killed by the police. Wael Ghonim, a young man who started a Facebook page devoted to Said’s memory, that became a key organizing center. Countless other young people, who have been coordinating electronic communication and arranging the low-tech logistics of the occupation of Tahrir Square. Countless others, who have been trying to protect the protesters from first the police and then the undercover police. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation started the springtime of the Arab nations. More than a dozen other young men who electrocuted themselves or set themselves on fire.

This is an Internet revolution at least as much because the core of it is a generation shaped and formed by the Internet as because of the use of the Internet for communication and coordination. Yes, there are old men and old women, middle-aged women in headscarves, and small children in the square, but at the core are the young men and women born to usher in a new age. They are teaching older people about horizontal structures and “rhizomatic” networks and self-organizing, ideas that don’t occur naturally to the old of any culture, let alone those of the authoritarian Middle East (they are also discovering right now the limitations of those ideas).

All of this puts me in mind of the only parallel in Arab history to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts–the first Palestinian intifada. Spearheaded (seemingly) by young boys throwing stones at tanks, it hit an Arab world disillusioned and embittered by defeat, repression, and accommodation like a thunderbolt.

The great Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote a poem about it, “The Trilogy of the Children of the Stones” (Qabbani was a romantic poet, known by the epithet “Sha’ir al Hubb”–“Poet of Love”–but in places where the people are oppressed, all poets of love are poets of politics and vice versa):

The children of the stones
have scattered our papers
spilled ink on our clothes
mocked the banality of old texts…
What matters about
the children of the stones
Is that they have brought us rain after centuries of thirst
Brought us the sun after centuries of darkness,
Brought us hope after centuries of defeat…
The most important
thing about them is that they have rebelled
against the authority of their fathers,
That they have fled the House of Obedience…
O Children of Gaza
Don’t mind our broadcasts
Don’t listen to us
We are the people of cold calculations
Of addition, of subtraction
Wage your wars and leave us alone

We are dead and tombless
Orphans with no eyes
Children of Gaza
Don’t refer to our writings
Don’t read us
We are your parents
Don’t be like us.
O mad people of Gaza,
A thousand greetings to the mad
The age of political reason
Has long departed
So teach us madness.

(This translation is found in Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms)

Here, Qabbani is neither saying that the activists of the intifada are mad nor is he exalting madness. He is saying rather that in a world where the “rational” thing to do is to accept and even collaborate with oppression and not to resist, it is better to be mad.

Qabbani’s phrase “the children of the stones” (atfal al-hijara) to me has a double meaning. The first is, obviously, “the children throwing stones at Israeli tanks.” I think, however, that he also means that this is a generation born of stones, of the deaf and dumb and impassive. I imagine whenever a revolutionary generation arises, it seems that it has been born of stones, or, perhaps, that it has not been born of its parents but is a mysterious new species.

When Ghonim tells the people in charge that they must not act like they are the fathers and the people of Egypt are the children, that the protesters are adults and have the right to know what is going on and to make their own decisions, he is asserting the voice of his generation, just as radical activists did in the West in 1968.

Revolutionary generations can turn bad or fail of their promise, but their passing always leaves an indelible mark. After the first intifada, Palestinians could never be the same again. The revolutions of 1848 were distinguished by the rapidity of their success but even more so by the rapidity of their failure and the completeness of the reactionary backlash they engendered. And yet afterward the traditional authority of monarchs was a dead letter, and universal manhood suffrage and civil rights were permanently enshrined in the expectations of the peoples involved.

The Egyptian struggle is at an impasse now, with an inflexible military hypocritically and corruptly backed by the United States pitted against a brave and resolute people, of whom at least 302 have already been murdered by the Egyptian state. It will be very difficult for the protesters to hold out, unless the U.S. government can be pressured to change its position. Anything may happen (and if Mubarak falls, the rest of the ossifying autocrats of the Arab world had better watch out). But whatever the denouement of this struggle, these young people have already achieved something that will not be stamped out.

3 Responses
  1. Joe Deane permalink
    February 16, 2011

    Beautiful piece. Very moving. Thanks

  2. April 17, 2011

    Welcome back Rahul. Your voice was missed.

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