In the beginning, there was fire, and it came in the shape of a young man writhing and wriggling on the steps of a municipal office. His name was Mohammad Bouaziz. He was 26 years old. He was a street vendor. He lived in the white and blue town of Sidi Bouzid in Central Tunisia. With his cart of fruit and vegetables, he provided for his mother and six siblings.
Humiliation drove him to the flames on that crisp sunny morning. A beating by the police, the confiscation of his cart. He walked up those steps hoping to get his cart back, to speak to someone, to ask for help. No one would listen to him.
Mohammad Bouaziz set himself alight outside the municipal office right where the palm trees grew. As the blaze swallowed up his body, he was unaware that this act of rage and desperation would soon set in motion the largest wildfire of revolts the Arab world had seen in decades. It was December 17th, 2010.
Rage turned into hope, and hope stole into the ancient lands like a morning mist. It did not stop until it had spread throughout palm trees and pyramids, tourist beaches and moonlit deserts, bazars and hookah bars, lines of soldiers and street vendors, teachers and barbers, doctors and lawyers, workers and farmers. Demonstrations followed, courage was rekindled, city squares taken, shots heard, chants of “Get out!” erupted on every street corner, tyrants were on the run: the Arab Spring was born.
We come from a history of suffering, the protesters exclaimed as they held hands and sang songs and kept to the streets. From centuries of exploitation, of degradation. It is up to us to end it differently. The country’s future, they said, depends on us.
It is not easy to fight where your adversary is armed to the teeth, and all you have is the street stretching back behind you.
In the year that followed, these revolts sent a shock wave into the hearts of authoritarian regimes throughout the SWANA region. From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and Syria, people rose demanding justice, freedom, equality and democracy, and they refused to leave until the dictatorial regimes, which had ruled their countries for decades unchallenged, had been dismantled.
And yet, as it always seems to be the case in the tragic history of our lands, the demands of the people went systematically unheard, their rage discredited, their grief vilified, their hopes unacknowledged, and their courage was answered with nothing but bullets and batons. Soon that was not enough. Soon tanks rolled in where just a few months ago people were reciting poetry, and villages were shelled where people had refused to give up rebellion, and mass graves were dug where students had once staged sit-ins.
The smell of burnt flesh.
It is not easy to fight where your adversary is armed to the teeth, and all you have is the street stretching back behind you. It is not easy to fight where your adversary has the power of reincarnation, and all you have is one life, which has never been easy. It is not easy to fight where your adversary thinks the world belongs to it, and all you have is the unrelenting belief that it doesn’t, because you’re there and as long as you’re there, the fight is not over.
The Arab Spring was born out of a people’s audacious vision for a just and democratic future. It did not know borders, nationalities, nor religion. The slogan “Get out!” which later traveled throughout the world roared the rejection of dictatorships, oppression, corruption and violence. It was a courageous demonstration to the world that contrary to popular belief, the people of our region are not mere victims bereft of agency and aspiration. We are not all battered souls and broken wings. We are not all fragmented aftereffects of yet another mayhem rocking our lives.
Tyranny is inherently immune to crisis of conscience. Its only way of survival is through violence and repression.
The Arab Spring was significant, not only because it ousted two ferocious dictators, but because it bespoke our resilience, our capacity, that we know we deserve better, that we yearn for a world where we can all live with dignity and safety, that we know freedom is weaved in with equality and prosperity, that we are not resigned to our destiny and have the audacity to dream of a better future.
And yet, none of this was truly the beginning. Not the flames, not the revolts, not the spring. To understand the story better, we have to go back even further, before the revolts, before the dictators.
In the beginning, there was the earth, and it came in the form of lands trodden under the boots of colonizers, protectors and foreign-backed rulers. The boots spoke English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. Sometimes the boots were multilingual. Sometimes they promised roads. Sometimes oil refineries. Sometimes they built schools to teach us how to better hate ourselves. Always, they refused to leave.
They bombed if necessary. They threw bodies into the river if necessary. They raped and pillaged. Sometimes, they dreamt that these lands were truly their God-given right and woke up believing in their dreams. The dreams made it easier to spill blood. They dug in their heels, closed their eyes, and let the terror take over.
The indelible inheritance of trauma.
The open wounds.
It is impossible to tell the story of our region without going back in time. It is impossible to talk about the misery, the relentless violence, the rise of extremism, authoritarianism, poverty, persecution, the continuous stifling of progressive movements without going back to the moment where lands were taken then returned emptied of their pride and future.
History was never meant to be about the past. It is not about forgiveness, oblivion, nor peace. History is about why we are the way we are today, why we live the way we live and die the way we die.
The legacy of colonization and imperialism in our region is a dizzying myriad of fake borders, heartless nationalism, and religious fanaticism. Those who promised us liberation turned into dictators once in power, and those who promised us a new self out of the ashes of foreign rule, gave us nothing but the words of God to hold on to.
Soon we were out of options. Our liberation was postponed to unknown futures. We were gaslighted into thinking prosperity had already been achieved, and that the security of our newborn nation was more important than our own safety, its stability than our integrity, its welfare than our basic human rights.
What happened next throughout the SWANA region, from Egypt to Libya to Syria to Iraq, and similarly in the non-Arab countries, such as Iran and Afghanistan, was not merely the disheartening linearity of history, but the shocking lack of mystery in the way tyrannies rose and planted their roots in the debris and disgrace left behind by colonizers. The people were once again trapped, taken hostages in their own land by despotism and greed, by false narratives, by fear and made-up enemies kept alive generation after generation as boogeyman against liberation and progress.
And the people of the land endured. At times, they rebelled. At times, they tolerated. At times, they believed in the lies of those in power. At times, they sank deeper into the wreckage generated by these lies. Always, they struggled to survive, to find meaning in the mayhem around them, to build something dignified they could call life.
But it is not easy to build when you’ve never been given a chance to mourn what you have lost. It is not easy to build when there’s never been any reckoning for the destruction left behind, any healing, any proper words for the scale of your loss. And what you have lost was taken away from you so ferociously and carefully that it will take decades if not centuries to get back on your feet. Because this is not like starting from scratch; this is like opening your eyes and rising from the dead.
Tyrannies thrive on death and ruins. They thrive on marginalization, despair and exclusion. Tyranny is inherently immune to crisis of conscience. Its only way of survival is through violence and repression. It is the only way to exist, the only way to keep going, and none of the regimes ruling these lands in the past decades have been an exception to this rule.
From torture rooms in Egypt to mass graves in Iran, from shelling of villages in Syria to floggings and public executions in Afghanistan, from Israeli bombs and atrocities in Gaza to slave markets of refugees in Libya, from Kurdish villages gassed in Iraq to Armenian enclaves besieged in Azerbaijan, from the breaking of civil wars everywhere to refugee children drowning over and over again in European seas, tyranny in our lands is in continuous metamorphosis.
At times, it appears in the shape of a ruthless dictator, at times in the form of extremist groups passing off as liberation movements, and other times in the form of occupiers whose sense of home is so destructive that they don’t hesitate to raze villages to the ground for its sake. Death seems to be everywhere. It seems to be everything. Like it has only been biding its time, ready to strike the land at any moment.
And yet, we are the children of this land.
We are here.
We are alive.
We are the children of its olive groves, its mountains, its seas, its jasmine trees. We are the children of its history. Its revolutions. Its fury and frenzy, its prisons, its terror and loss. We are the children of its dreams. Of the tomorrow it once envisioned. Of the fight that continues to be silenced, buried for posterity.
The revolution in Tunisia was born on the ashes of Mohammad Bouazizi’s body. The revolution in Egypt on the broken face of the 28-year-old Khaleh Said beaten to death by security forces for posting a photo on social media. The revolts in Syria erupted when little boys were arrested and tortured by the police for writing anti-regime graffiti. The revolution in Libya when Fethi Tarbel, a human rights lawyer, was imprisoned. The revolts in Iran when a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, was murdered by Morality Police for wearing her hijab too loosely.
The sparks are endless, and so are the revolts. And nothing in the magnitude of their fury, courage and demands is different from each other except the artificial borders drawn by others to separate and isolate us.
Nothing ever disappears. Neither the loss nor the dream. What we must build is not only what has been destroyed, but the hope that once was, the struggle that still is, and an unfinished revolution that has no alternative but to keep growing, keep moving forward, keep spreading its wings far and wide across this land. Because that is what we are. That is what we have. A single scream. A single dance. A single force against those who kill and think we will let them be. That is what brings us together: our stories, memories, future, the promise of our long undying dreams.
And we must own them, stand up for them, and know that our fight is no different to that of our neighbors and that of their neighbors. That happiness is not a solitary thing, and neither is freedom. That only together we can prevail. It is all we have. Our only alternative.
We must know that there will never be freedom in Iran if millions of Afghan refugees are abandoned without a home. Never freedom in Turkey if Kurds are oppressed and humiliated over and over again. Never freedom in Azerbaijan if Armenians are under siege. Never freedom anywhere if Palestinians bleed to death, their limbs, spirits and homes shattered to pieces.
We must know this, and we must hold on to it, believe in it. And we must always remember where our dreams are, that they’re not an instant failure of God, that they are anchored, and they are anchored to something beautiful.