This is the Voice of Free Arabs. The voice of all those men and women who have resolved to break the code of silence, expose lies, give a voice to the voiceless, make the screams of the tortured heard, cast off the shackles of submission, denounce acts of cowardice great and small, show up the mechanics of corruption and plunder, unmask material and moral poverty – in short, to rise up against fate and unleash the tide of hope.
We are broadcasting from somewhere. From a place inconceivable to the stunted imagination of tyrants. From that primordial desert where the spirit of rebellion was conceived, where the tree of memory plunged its roots into a land thirsting for justice and spread its leaves to capture the utterances of truth-seekers with lips split by enigmas.
This is the Voice of Free Arabs. Men and women who reject monkey suits, standing to attention, hymns to revenge, the sound of marching feet, the barbed wire of the fatherland, the idiocy of consensus, the plague of pride, the prison of one language only, one religion only, and the crippling folklore of emblems, of headwear, scarves, beards, medallions, rosaries – all the tinkling tinpot regalia that has served from time immemorial to hoodwink innocent peoples. So many shrouds cast over us from the cradle onward that it behooves us to rip up and hurl back into the hideous faces of the Molochs who would like nothing better than to bury us alive.
For alive we are, and our love for life is well-nigh unbearable.
We are the ones who long, who languish; scorched from within, mad for love, we track love by its spoor, its scent, even its sound. We beg at its doorway without losing our dignity. Oh! what a feast we make of the crumbs that it deigns to throw us!
This is the Voice of Free Arabs. Siamese twins, brothers and sisters of all free human beings. And, like them, candidates for uprooting and exile.
First, the inner reality: when you refuse to howl with the pack, to applaud with the mass, to kowtow like a lackey. When identity goes no further than a place of birth, a name, a belief. When difference excludes and stigmatizes. When the farthest margins become the sole livable place and set you on the blind merry-go-round of misfortune.
Next, the externals. What a minefield exile is! And, at the arrival point of an emigration, how the promised land slips immediately away beneath your feet! The split becomes permanent. You can never be truly here, nor ever truly back there. Yet little by little you adapt. A hard relearning process. You dwell in the floating abode of the provisional. Above all you find out that you are not alone. Henceforward you are part of a mutant people, a brotherhood exempted from blood allegiance, contemptuous of frontiers, obsessed by questions, haunted by infinity – not the geographical infinity of horizons, but the infinity of the human, molded from body and mind and discernible only to the inner eye.
This is the Voice of Free Arabs. We are speaking to you from somewhere, and our time is limited. For, let it be said, we belong to a species threatened with extinction. So pervasive is the pollution that the atmosphere around us is ever more tainted, the worst in our view being the pollution of language. How many oil-soaked birds struggle to spread their wings in our throats? How many roses besieged by filth have given up striving to release their perfume? How many fine and truthful words are dragged in the mud, prostituted and commodified on billboards?
We revolt against this programmed aphasia whose purpose, as plain as day, is the softening up of consciousness preparatory to its destruction.
Our message, if we must have one, may be summed up in one word: resistance! For indeed perils are on the increase, even in the “house of the soul.”
We call upon the human in humanity to surge forth. We stand for the retrieval, in the shadowy heart of human identity, of that radiant component that many forerunners have fought so hard to show us, that our most inspired forebears have put to such good use, building rare Andalusias which now, alas, attract only trigger-happy monsters and frantic consumers of the ephemeral and the nugatory.
This is the Voice of Free Arabs. For ethical reasons we broadcast by night rather than by day. We must be true to our pledge to serve as the night-watchmen of the human condition. To that end we have to keep all our senses on high alert, cultivate insomnia, nourish the sacred flame, the green pastures of our dreams, and the gift of the visionary, while ceaselessly honing the weapons of speech so that, when the time comes, they may set waves of inspiration in motion, bang the drum of renewed defiance, and raise hairs on the back of the neck with their violins and flutes as their lutes keep time with the obscure rhythms of cocoons about to burst with the life force.
Every night we will transmit until dawn. By contrast with the amplified thwack of billy-clubs, we interrupt our programs with stretches of silence. The only true words are words impregnated by a consensual silence. The space and time of turning inwards, of self-examination, of doubt, of small insights and great illumination, of the evanescent breath of grace.
So here we are. The hand of dawn will soon erase the inspired engraving-plate of the night. Now is the moment for the descendents of Scheherazade to tiptoe away. And tomorrow we must needs start over. For the sword will once again hang above our heads. For how long?
For ten long years we preached in the wilderness. We knew that our words were inaudible to those who had accused us, judged us, condemned us collectively and exiled us from humanity. But we preached mainly for ourselves, simply to hear the sound of our own voices and satisfy ourselves that we were still living, even if death had become our daily bread.
History had dismissed us and indicated that henceforward it would be made without us. For a long time we stood stupefied before its closed door. And once our spirits had revived and we looked at ourselves we found that all that was left of our faces were hollow eye-sockets. The vipers of doubt had wrapped themselves about our torsos, sunk their fangs into us, and filled our veins with their poison. We were bracing ourselves for atrocious suffering when we realized that the venom had had a quite unexpected effect upon us, namely amnesia. In a way this was a relief. We recognized that the burden of our past had fallen from our shoulders and now lay at our feet. We were quit of that yoke which had served us in the darkest hours as a lifebelt. Gone was the gold of an age when we took ourselves for the center of the world! And thereupon we began to despise ourselves. And to treat as khara, as mierda, as camel shit all those marvels we had been force-fed so that we could spit them out into the faces of hereditary enemies, transient oppressors, or simply anyone imprudent or impudent enough to risk expressing reservations or indulging in criticism.
In order to wreak yet more pain upon ourselves, we took to revisiting highly dramatic episodes in the History from which we had been evicted, episodes in which sinful cities or peoples prey to overweening pride perished ineluctably, stricken from the map by a decree of Nature or of the Gods. From discovering how numerous such instances were we drew a perverse kind of consolation: we felt that we belonged with such extinct, long-gone civilizations, and that perhaps in some far distant future people would be interested in us much as, today, they were fascinated by dinosaurs, or, not so long ago, by the mythical lost continent of Atlantis.
Meanwhile, as the saying goes, the poor got poorer and the rich richer. Our potentates made doubly sure of that. A world on new foundations was hardly on their agenda. So far from making a clean slate of the past they embraced the famous principle according to which “To save the healthy third of the Umma, we must not hesitate to exterminate the other, unhealthy two thirds.” For them we were nothing but herds devoid of soul or brain. Beasts of burden, draft animals, sacrificial lambs, we were obliged to slave away all our lives long, never raising our heads even to swallow our meager rations, until at last we were led away to the slaughterhouse. A reign of terror, assuredly, but worse: a machine for grinding consciousness down to nothing, to strip human beings of their humanity. The writ governing ordinary mortals was to understood, moreover, as the will of Providence. To rebel was to be condemned to the cruelest hell of all – hell on earth
Hell! Unlike all the talented poets who have merely imagined it, we have known it first-hand. We have traveled not nine but dozens of its circles. It was not fire that tortured bodies there and reduced them to ashes, but rather an even more blistering cold, a cold unimaginable in the countries where we now dwell. Five times a day, at the muezzin’s call, the executioners came to apply the ritual punishments. Our hell was vast, so vast that we no longer knew whether somewhere beyond, outside, another world existed.
That outside world existed all the same. It was variously impotent, indifferent, or complicitous – that just depended. But it was oddly ill-informed. And vindictive. At times it assumed that what was happening to us was in the order of things, considering our fatalism, our obscurantism, our atavistic tendencies, or our intolerance – a hideous deformity that for our part we perceived only in others. Our tyrants, meanwhile, were obviously more congenial interlocutors, more deserving, especially when juicy business deals were in the offing, of a red-carpet treatment accompanied by congratulations on their effectiveness in controlling chaos, combating extremism, and using the stick on the herd for its own good and wellbeing.
Out of this sea of repression and mendacity grew hatred. A hatred for ourselves in the first place, bit one so humiliating that in the end it morphed into hatred for the other. Self-mutilation served as a kind of training for the boundless cruelty that had then to be inflicted upon the abject outsiders who had expelled us from History and conspired with the tyrants who had condemned us to hell on earth.
The predictions of the just and noble among us was coming true. The world’s foundations were indeed about to shift! But not in accordance with the beautiful hopes that had been fostered in us. The earth was shaking in response to an uncontrollable onslaught on its most rotten underpinnings, dating back to the time of the primal horde, of rape and plunder, before the coming of talon law. This was a passage through darkness, the crossing of a blood-soaked desert. A declared internecine war whence honor was banished, where human life was worth no more than an onion peeling and where instead of lambs women and children and poets were indiscriminately sacrificed. Where birds were found guilty and executed for singing, roses beheaded for the crime of beauty, and standing stones blown up for the crime of mystery.
An eternity in the darkness.
This is the Voice of Free Arabs.
How have we survived? We know next to nothing about it. Are we the fulfillment of the old prophecy according to which the dead rise from their tombs, from their common graves, or from the depths of the ocean, reassuming human form and presenting themselves on the day of judgment? Are we sleepers in caves dragged from centuries of slumber by an unexpected cessation of the clamor of arms? Or perhaps revenants curious to know whether our demise has affected the course of the world, whether the vineyard of life has been able to flourish without us, whether the planet has not perchance changed from blue to red, or whether the air is still breathable or the sun still makes its appearance every morning?
During our wanderings we had lost the sense of time, of space, of any kind of horizon. We were, in the fine phrase of one of our poets, “neither living nor dead”. We even reached the point of asking ourselves the terrifying question “Is there a life before death?” But we did not know that the power of despair could equal all other resources, all other sources of energy put together. How did we finally become aware of this? In the same way as we discovered that the unexpected had always been our companion, issuing ever more of the signals that, from the depths of our abyss, we found it so hard to receive.
And then one day, not a fine day, or a dull day, one of our young people, not the cleverest nor the finest, set himself on fire. This human torch illuminated our night. The extinct volcano within us sprang into life. Children “asleep” in their mothers’ bellies began to move. Our worn-down faces regained their irregularities, their features. Eyes grew back in their empty sockets, and reopened on the same old poverty and injustice. The memory of the ignominies and glories of an earlier day returned. Self-contempt and self-loathing vanished as if by magic. Our lips, so long sealed by powerlessness and fear, rediscovered the taste of the future. We found ourselves once again before the door of History. A good kick would suffice to open it!
The spring had come.
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith