Books To Teach You More About The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s.

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The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in response to corruption and economic stagnation. From Tunisia, the protests then spread to five other countries: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Either corrupt rulers were deposed, or major uprisings and social violence occurred including riots, civil wars, or insurgencies. Sustained street demonstrations took place in Morocco, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Sudan.

Minor protests took place in Djibouti, Mauritania, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. The initial wave of revolutions and protests faded by mid-2012, as many Arab Spring demonstrations were met with violent responses from authorities, as well as from pro-government militias, counter-demonstrators, and militaries. In the last decade, tens of thousands of books have been produced about these interlinked protest movements, often called the “Arab Spring.” Thousands of authors have attempted to explain, attack, justify, depict, and decry the movements and predict the future.

In this list, we take a brief look at literary works from different countries with a unique approach to depicting the 2011-12 uprisings and what came after.

The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai

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L’Amas Ardent, translated for Manai by Lara Vergnaurd, is a stirring allegory filled with a mixture of humor and drama to reveal what happens in a country shaken by revolutionary change after the world stops watching.

Sidi lives a hermetic life as a bee whisperer, secluded on the outskirts of the desolate North African village of Nawa. One morning he wakes to find that something has attacked one of his beehives, brutally killing every inhabitant. Heartbroken, he learns that a mysterious swarm of vicious hornets committed the mass murder—but where did they come from, and how can he stop them? If he is going to unravel this mystery and save his bees from annihilation, Sidi must venture out into the village and then brave the big city and beyond in search of answers.

Along the way, he discovers a country and a people turned upside down by their new post–Arab Spring reality as Islamic fundamentalists seek to influence votes any way they can on the eve of the country’s first democratic elections. In his search for a solution, he must also navigate the political events reshaping the country.

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton.

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This astonishing debut novel transports the reader to Cairo for the powerful rollercoaster of events that took place between 2011 and 2013, evoking the extremes of joy, dread, and despair that characterized those years.

Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground; their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, and the world watching and listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel cuts to the psychological heart of one of the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution but about a global generation that tried to change the world.

The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar

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Matar presents us with a heartfelt memoir of his journey home to his native Libya in search of answers to his father’s disappearance. In 2012, after the overthrow of Qaddafi, the novelist journeys to his native Libya after an absence of thirty years.     

When he was twelve, Matar and his family went into political exile. Eight years later Matar’s father, a former diplomat and military man turned brave political dissident, was kidnapped from the streets of Cairo by the Libyan government and is believed to have been held in the regime’s most notorious prison. Now, the prisons are empty, and little hope remains that Jaballa Matar will be found alive. Yet, as the author writes, hope is “persistent and cunning.”    

The book contains worlds within worlds, opening doors to Libyan history, relationships between fathers and sons, art, prison narratives, and more. It is a brilliant and affecting portrait of a country and a people on the cusp of immense change. The Return is a disturbing and timeless depiction of the monstrous nature of absolute power.

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek

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Well-known novelist and journalist from the coastal city of Jableh, Samar Yazbek, witnessed the beginning four months of the uprising first-hand. She actively participated in a variety of public actions and budding social movements. Throughout this period she kept a diary of personal reflections and observations of this historic time. Because of her outspoken views, Yazbek quickly attracted the attention and fury of the regime, who spread vicious rumors about her disloyalty to the homeland and the Alawite community to which she belongs.

The lyrical narrative describes her struggle to protect herself and her young daughter, even as her activism propels her into a horrifying labyrinth of insecurity after she is forced into living on the run and detained multiple times, excluded from the Alawite community and renounced by her family, her hometown and even her childhood friends. With rare empathy and journalistic prowess, Samar Yazbek compiled oral testimonies from ordinary Syrians across the country.

Filled with snapshots of exhilarating hope and horrifying atrocities, she offers us a wholly unique perspective on the Syrian uprising. Hers is a modest yet powerful testament to the strength and commitment of countless unnamed Syrians who have united to fight for their freedom. These diaries will inspire all those who read them and challenge the world to look anew at the trials and tribulations of the Syrian uprising.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

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Set in an unnamed Arab city, over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room.

One night Rasa’s grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution.

Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World edited by Zahra Hankir

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In this groundbreaking collection, 19 women journalists provide searingly personal essays on their experiences reporting on the revolutions. From Iraq to Libya, Syria to Yemen, and Egypt to Sudan, these Arab women shatter stereotypes and risk their lives in order to access stories and perspectives overlooked by the Western media as well as their male colleagues.

From sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo to the difficulty of traveling without a male relative in Yemen, their challenges are unique—as are their advantages, such as being able to speak candidly with other women at a Syrian medical clinic or with men on Whatsapp who will go on to become ISIS fighters, rebels, or pro-regime soldiers. 

Their daring stories highlight the dual front that women in the region routinely battle: a desire to engage politically against oppressive regimes and a struggle against local patriarchies that seek to silence and suppress women’s voices. The collection is indispensable for anyone looking to understand the uprisings (and everything that followed) from a female perspective.

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Some have referred to the succeeding and still ongoing conflicts as the Arab Winter. Although the long-term effects of the Arab Spring have yet to be shown, its short-term consequences varied greatly across the Middle East and North Africa.

As of May 2018, only the uprising in Tunisia has resulted in a transition to constitutional democratic governance. Recent uprisings in Sudan and Algeria show that the conditions that started the Arab Spring have not faded and political movements against authoritarianism and exploitation are still occurring. In 2019, multiple uprisings and protest movements in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt have been seen as a continuation of the Arab Spring. For more books that touch on the Arab Spring, click here.

For books on Arab Folklore that inspired some of the world’s fairytales, click here!

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