Forget Twitter and Facebook, literature provides the revolutionary spark

The works of a great writer precipitated the astonishing events in Egypt in February. EPA/Misam Saleh

We are living in extraordinary times. People are using social media to campaign for freedom from their governments, but their ideas are built on a much more powerful medium: literature.

Protests have swept across the southern Mediterranean rim, but how did so many people, in so many lands, finally decide to rise and depose their geriatric tyrants, at frequent risk of their own lives? Where did the idea come from that held so many people in ecstatic, fearless union?

Credit has tended to go to the new social media, to sites and applications like Twitter and Facebook, which coordinated mass events with unprecedented speed while the established powers were caught napping in old media environments.

Virtually every liberal media pundit tried to convert the revolution into another episode in the conquest of the world by digital technology.

In one of the less convincing chapters on the Egyptian revolution, a “hero” was proposed in the form of Wael Ghonim, the “charismatic cyberactivist and Google executive whose Facebook site helped kick-start the protests on January 25,” as AFP put it.

Ghonim himself seemed to know better: “I like to call it the Facebook Revolution, but after seeing the people right now, I would say this is the Egyptian people’s revolution. It’s amazing.” What’s amazing is his amazement.

How did a mass collective uprising get mistaken for the virtual whirl of a social network site? More generally, what roles do different media play in the generation and propagation of ideas?

I put it to you that 140 characters, or a status update, are simply not enough to fill a human being with such conviction that it is prepared to risk its own life.

Tweets and funwall posts are excellent means for coordinating actions and reporting events to a global audience, but they are ephemeral Johnny-Come-Latelies as far as the deeper ideological saturation of the body politic is concerned.

No action is imaginable without the preparation already undertaken by the writers of literature.

To grasp what I mean, perhaps we can imagine the different media, with their different speeds and applications … pictured as a plant.

The social network sites mark the abrupt blossoming of a perceived political opportunity. They are feverishly attuned to the possibility of fertilization, waving in the breeze of the moment.

But none of this is possible without the ongoing nutrients from the root system of experience, nor without the chlorophyll of imaginative language.

Literature is the photosynthesis of the media ecology.

It takes time to write literature, and it takes time to read it. But without that social and individual investment in literary work, no collective has any chance of discovering its own most powerful resources.

When Muntazer Al-Zaidi, the famed “Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad” was asked why he threw his missile at George W. Bush, he responded “what compelled me to act is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.” And this is perfectly true.

But it vastly underestimates, and obscures, the thick weave of ideology behind the act. What appears simple and “in the moment” — the inexplicable imperative to act — has in fact been elaborately prepared for by generations of writers.

For instance, the great Palestinian poet, Mahmood Darwish, wrote these lines twenty years before that famous shoe was thrown:

“O those who pass between fleeting words From you the sword—from us the blood From you steel and fire—from us our flesh From you yet another tank—from us stones, From you tear gas—from us rain Above us, as above you, are sky and air So take your share of our blood—and be gone Go to a dancing party—and be gone As for us, we have to water the martyr’s flowers As for us, we have to live as we see fit. … And we have what you lack A bleeding homeland of a bleeding people A homeland fit for oblivion or memory.”

The spontaneous hurling of footwear, and the polished cadences of Darwish’s sombre yet defiant elegy, are two aspects, two velocities, two moments, of the same fundamental movement.

What takes place in an instant of outrage and disgust assumes symbolism and heroism because of its literary basis.

Darwish himself had drawn on the rich seams of modern Arabic verse, Sufi mysticism, and the acerbic political poetry of Westerners such as Shelley, Blake and Brecht.

Literature abhors a vacuum, and invents its own traditions; it cannot resist spinning webs of affiliation, in order to produce out of the “empty nothing” of mere words the radiant shape of an idea.

This is a labour of infinite patience, often life-long obscurity, of thankless and punishing self-scrutiny and criticism. What it produces is so fragile as to be, for most of the busy world, effectively non-existent.

But it waits its time. And when that time comes, suddenly those shadowy, indefensible, whispering words are shouted in the streets to topple tyrants and install the basic conditions of human decency.

If you want to understand the astonishing events in Egypt of February 2011, there is one sure source: the collected works—novels, stories, treatises and provocations—of Nawal el-Saadawi (dissident, feminist, physician, writer).

Her works stand as a contemporary manifestation of Seshat’s inscriptions on the sacred ished-tree of Heliopolis: an umbrella of sustaining wisdom and truth for the revolution.

Without such scribes, and such trees, “tweets” would have no branches to perch on, no structure or home to turn to for ideological support.

Literature allows a thousand flowers to bloom, and a million feet to march.