The Politics of Art: Writing the Arab Spring

By Niamh Cullen

Ever since I read the excellent Pereira Maintains in January, I’ve been meaning to write about it properly, but never quite got around to it. A novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi set in 1930s Lisbon, it is told from the point of view of a middle-aged literary newspaper editor who becomes a reluctant witness to the violence and repression of Salazar’s brand of fascism and dictatorship. The story is sparse and simply told; stripped down to basics so much it reads almost like a fable, which Tabucchi uses to pose some powerful questions. What is the point of the printed word in a dictatorship, when newspapers aren’t allowed to inform people as to what is going on? And what is the role of literature, of art in a society such as this? When I went to the Artists in the World panel discussion as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the stark narrative of Pereira Maintains.

Artists in the World featured four distinct voices – Libyan writer Hisham Matar, senator and director of the Abbey Theatre Fiach Mac Conghail, Belfast artist Rita Duffy and Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir – bringing different perspectives to bear to the debate about artists and politics. What is the role of the artist and writer – should they become involved in politics and if so, what does it mean to take on a political role? While all panellists agreed on the responsibility of the artist, and indeed the necessity, to respond and address the wider world in their work, there was no coherent idea of exactly what form this might take. The idea of ‘engagement’ – now indelibly linked with the name of Sarte and a certain brand of post-war French intellectual, sitting in a cafe with a black coffee, a packet of Gauloises and reading Marx – seems old-fashioned in the twenty-first century. ‘Engagement’, associated as it is with the ideological extremes of the twentieth century, seems outdated in a Europe where the inviting certainty and – at the same time – disillusioning dogmatism of communism has given way to a cultural climate with no overarching ideologies, characterised instead by fragmentation, a plurality of viewpoints and perhaps a greater openness to different ideas and perspectives. The panellists of Artists in the World all agreed – in contrast to Sartre and his idea of firm ‘commitment’ to a party or ideology – that it was the duty of the writer not to become an advocate of a particular party or cause, but to remain intellectually open. The artist had to retain the capacity to empathise with the enemy or Other; to imagine themselves into different experiences and different points of view.

This was something that all of them strived for in their work, recognising the unique potential of the artist to narrate, describe and explore in new ways; casting the jaded and familiar or the fraught and contested in fresh light. Involved in a project to commemorate the building of the Titanic, Belfast based artist Rita Duffy managed to persuade her fellow artists that instead of revisiting well known vistas and ideas of the magnificent ship, it would be much more interesting to explore things from the point of view of the iceberg. The theme of the iceberg is now one which pervades Rita Duffy’s recent work, both in a real and metaphorical sense.

Hisham Matar’s first novel, In the Country of Men, set in 1970s Libya during the early years of Gadaffi’s violent regime, explores the lives of political dissidents from the point of view of Sulaiman, a nine year old boy and the son of businessman and dissident Faraj. Sulaiman first realises that all is not quite right in his world when he spots his father hurrying across a crowded market square in their home city of Tripoli when he is meant to be away on a business trip. From then on the boy gradually becomes more and more aware of the strange and brutal society he is living in, and of the fact that his father is somehow involved and in danger. By narrating the events from Sulaiman’s perspective, we see the regime’s actions – and Libyan society – refracted in his eyes; events loom large and are distorted, yet somehow more real at the same time. Describing the events from the adults’ point of view would have resulted in a very different book. Instead of being a straight story of political struggle in 1970s Libya, Matar’s book is a much more thought provoking exploration of the themes of memory, exile and responsibility.

Another issue that emerged from the panel session was the issue of how and when to begin making sense of events through art. As well as the remoteness of the child’s point of view, Matar’s In the Country of Men was set almost forty years in the past, benefitting from the distance of time. Is a certain space between the events and the writer’s response necessary for the creating of good, through provoking art? Fabia Faqir – Jordanian British author of My Name is Salma – argued that a writer needed time to make sense of things; an immediate response couldn’t be an artistic one. An artist’s need was not the only one to be taken into consideration, however. Fiach Mac Conghail of the Abbey Theatre contended that a tension existed between the writer and artist’s need for time and the responsibility he felt as theatre director to engage with the public, provoke deeper questions and help a society make collective sense of catastrophe or uncertainty, through art. How should these different needs be balanced? And of course does this direct sense of ‘commitment’ or civic duty necessarily make good art?

It does seem that some kind of distance – whether in terms of time, space or simply a different perspective – does contribute to making great art and doing justice to the complexity of every situation. Tabucchi chose to set his novel in Portugal, where he now lives, rather in contemporary or even 1930s fascist Italy. Both contemporary and fascist Italy would seem like appropriate settings for a parable about the power of the media in a repressive society or at least one without a robust democratic tradition. In fascist Italy just as in 1930s Portugal, newspapers were heavily censored; certain topics were out of bounds while others could only be written about in specific ways and the threat of arrest was always there in the background for those who strayed from the rules. In twenty-first century Italy, it is well known how billionaire businessman turned Prime Minister Berlusconi controls the television networks as well as owning leading publishing houses, newspapers and magazines. Berlusconi’s Italy is not a dictatorship though; there are plenty of newspapers, magazines and even television programmes that heavily criticise the government; most people simply choose not to read them. In a society saturated with contradictory and confusing media commentary – and the every present, shadowy threat of conspiracy, many Italians choose to believe Berlusconi when he dismisses dissenting voices as ‘communists’ and ignore the many compelling voices that point to the real political situation. Tabucchi has said that he decided to move away from his native country and settle in Lisbon out of distaste for Berlusconi’s Italy.

Pereira Maintains is a tale of sharp moral clarity when set against the Italy of Tabucchi’s day. It is easier to oppose a government, it seems, when you know you are being lied to and where the repression and injustice are blatant and sharp. But the distance in time and space from his own experience seems to give him the room to create a novel which is at once a compelling story of life under dictatorship – and in the brilliantly evoked setting of Lisbon between the wars – and an examination of the much bigger questions of freedom and responsibility in the media.

Making sense of politics in art and literature is not a simple or straightforward task. It is no longer a question of harnessing oneself to a particular ideology and making everything fit that world view; political engagement through art seems today to be both more liberating and more complex. And despite the perceived need of the public, responding to politics or conflict immediately through art or confronting it head on, can be dangerous – potentially distorting both politics and art. Both Hisham Matar and Fadia Faqir write about countries that are deeply involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ and are wary of responding too soon to such momentous events in their fiction. Since both of them live abroad in the US and Britain, they have a certain distance from events, but are also unsure about speaking on behalf of those ‘on the ground’, since they themselves aren’t there. However perhaps the demand for an immediate engagement with this massive wave of protest and repression is missing the point; art doesn’t need to respond directly to what is going on around is to speak to our own circumstances. Both Pereira Maintains and In the Country of Men manage to be about both Portugal and Libya and equally, the questions of how to respond to political repression, how to be a witness to terrible events and to the more slippery themes of exile, memory and responsibility. Clearly the role of art in making sense of the world in turbulent and uncertain times is as important as ever. Debate and disagreement about the exact nature of the artist’s role, and how they should engage with the world, is yet another indication of just how valuable and necessary their work is.

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1 Response to The Politics of Art: Writing the Arab Spring

  1. Julie says:

    Hi there, I thought your post on the politics of art was very interesting and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Hisham Matar a question about ‘In the Country of Men’? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book. We can either arrange for you to talk to Hisham Matar himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club

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