Commentary  They know their words; do we know ours?

My lesson from the Arab Spring

The situation in the Middle East is likely not news for many of us these days: it feels like we wake up, drink our morning coffee, and, after seeing the familiar daily death toll online, continue to go about our day. While the inert political discourse continues, it is becoming a struggle to maintain perspective on the dire humanitarian crisis in Syria and the political upheaval elsewhere in the region. As with most jarringly important global issues, the sense of overwhelming helplessness is beginning to rear its familiar head in the international community, and we can all feel it. Accordingly, I originally drafted this piece as a call to refocus our attention on the events continuing in the Arab world.

While writing in a cafe near campus, I witnessed the first student protest I had seen since I returned for the school year. Again, the protesters were chanting  to remind us all that the struggle continues for accessible education in Quebec. As someone who was fairly involved in the fight against the dramatic tuition increases, my instinct was to close my laptop and make my way into the march. And then it hit me, my first dose of cognitive dissonance of the school year: was I about to postpone advising others to refocus their attention to the Arab world? Well, of course, because it’s ridiculous to put off action today in the hope of action tomorrow! Paralyzed, it occurred to me that in that moment, I had become the inert student in a cafe criticizing the inertia of other students in cafes. I stood immobile as the march made its way past, neither taking to the streets nor writing, and eventually made my way home.

Later that day I came across an opinion piece in Al-Jazeera by Palestinian poet Mazen Marouf that seemed to be written directly for me, and my existential difficulties. Marouf, quite refreshingly, cites the catalyst of the sweeping political uprisings in Tunisia and the rest of the Middle East as neither political action nor opposition militant coups. Rather, Marouf writes that the historic action taken against the regime was carried by the sheer power and impermeability of the poetic metaphor. Marouf begins by referring to a scene in Tunisia between the now-iconic street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi and a French policewoman. Upon hearing Bouazizi’s protest against the confiscation of his unregistered grocery cart, the policewoman slapped him in the face, spat at his feet, and said “degage!” (French for “leave.”) Bouazizi, insulted and belittled, promptly went to the provincial headquarters to complain to local municipal officers, who refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m., less than an hour after the confrontation with the policewoman, Bouazizi incinerated his own body, and Tunisians flooded their streets calling for the departure of their once-seemingly impermeable autocratic government. Marouf notes that the word itself, “degage,” not Bouazizi’s attempted suicide, was the real spark that inspired the chants and slogans that toppled the autocratic regime ten days after Bouazizi died.

Strikingly, the unified consciousness of Tunisians and other citizens who partook in the Arab Spring appears to be tied together in the ability to take an element of culture,  in this case, a single word, and change its meaning, its musicality, and make it poetic. By putting “degage” on their banners, the Tunisian people were working together as a collective poetic mind, showing how one word has the potential to unify and free a people. The tumultuous political history of the Middle East has shown the power of the political poem and the steep price their writers often pay for their work, and their reward: today, the words of the poets past have served to give the first demonstrators in Egypt, Lybia, and Syria their voices. Lately in the Middle East, even the most elusive poem can incite, move, and liberate the thoughts and feelings of those who feel most oppressed and mute. The power of the word has jumped outside the walls of the classroom and into the streets, come to our morning news, and will soon land in our textbooks. I began to think about and see how easy it is to overlook these words, our words, the threads that graciously unify and breathe life into any struggle, whatever words they may be. Maybe then the solution to my plight is not to criticize or picket, or criticize while I picket; rather it is to do exactly what I did: think about what words I stand by, why I stand by them, and say them.

Arazu Riahi is a Joint Honours Middle East Studies and Philosophy student. She can be reached at

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