A Revolution in Rhetoric: The Word as Dynamo in the Arab World

By Khalil Elayan

In looks a man may be a shade, a specter,
and yet be master of speech so crowned with beauty
that people gaze at him with pleasure. Courteous,
sure of himself, he can command assemblies,
and when he comes to town, the crowds gather.
—from The Odyssey

The words in the above epigraph are spoken by Odysseus to the son of Prince Alkinoos of Skheria Island, a place that knows no war, no blight, no suffering. Odysseus has experienced ten years of war, eight years of abduction by immortals, and the loss of his entire fleet, including all his men. Ironically, he has known only war. All of his tangible honor (time’) is lost; there is nothing to show for his twenty year absence from home. All he has are his words. So, when the prince’s son insults Odysseus because he will not partake in their Olympic games, the weary King of Ithaca references a talent greater than the physical, greater than force. This talent is the ability to use words.

If we examine the contagion of revolutions that have occurred or are currently underway in North Africa and the Middle East, then the western world should be aware that the power of words and their reverberating significance has changed very little since Homer’s time. But what has changed is that the West is no longer the bastion of civilization, no longer the owner of insightful rhetoric, that the owners of constitutions and declarations of justice and independence do not lie within their spectrum of rightful government but rather with Hammurrabi, Muhammed, Shahrazad, Ibn Khaldun and, in more recent times, with poets like Naomi Shihab Nye and Nizar Qabbani. Qabbani’s poem “Sultan” could very easily be the paradigm for any one of these revolutions. Qabbani writes: 

“…O my lord the Sultan!
my cloak has been torn by your ravenous dogs,
your spies are following me all the time.
Their eyes
their noses
their feet are chasing me
like destiny, like fate
They interrogate my wife
and write down all the names of my friends.
O Sultan!
Because I dare to approach your deaf walls,
because I tried to reveal my sadness and
I was beaten with my shoes…”

We have needed ingenious lyrical and poetic personas throughout history to remind us of how powerful words can be. They start, prolong, and end wars. They incite crowds to violence; likewise, they can quell millions. We can see what words can do in the history plays of Shakespeare, especially Richard II and Henry V. We can see how they sway audiences back and forth in Julius Caesar during a rhetorical ping pong match between Marc Antony and Brutus, each of whom speaks separately to Roman citizens. But it is all over when Antony says: “Here was a Caesar. When comes such another?” (III. ii.). The pivotal factor in these words is that Antony implies no one will ever be as great as Caesar. It does not matter now whether Caesar was good or bad, humble or too ambitious, tyrant or democrat; all that matters is that Caesar is dead and that he was great. The crowd accepts this and sides with Antony. He appeals to their sense of awe.

Though the power of words has not changed since Shakespeare’s time, their audience has. We have not given an audience credit enough for surviving, for suffering, for its enslavement to lesser Caesars, nor for its insight to break the shackles that enslave it. When I saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and holding a placard that read: “WE WANT A GOVERNMENT for the people, by the people, and of the people,” Mubarak had no chance of retaining his position or his power. He had already lost, and this was days before he fled. Even CNN had no real idea of what it had accomplished by filming such a scene, namely that America’s Constitution would be mirrored back to its own people by a Muslim ten thousand miles away in the heart of the land of terrorism, where people hate freedom, and could never understand democracy. There is no denying now that the majority of Arabs, Arab speaking people, Iranians, Arab Christians, Muslims, and secular Middle Easterners can not only read, write, and speak but many can do so in English and many actually understand the basic tenets of the United State’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Surprise!

And that is exactly what has happened. The world has been taken by surprise, the entire world except for, of course, the Arab people, a people experienced with discourse and the power of words since the days of Pre-Islamic poetry. Facebook and Twitter are not the reasons for this revolution, merely the tools for those insightful and pragmatic enough to see them as harbingers and carriers of revolt. Like the woman who holds the sign, another woman helped begin the revolution in Egypt with a call for nonviolent protest on Facebook. As Asmaa Mahfouz states in her Facebook call:

“Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, ‘May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.’

“People, have some shame.

“I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. I even wrote my number so maybe people will come down with me. No one came except three guys—three guys and three armored cars of riot police. And tens of hired thugs and officers came to terrorize us. They shoved us roughly away from the people. But as soon as we were alone with them, they started to talk to us. They said, ‘Enough! These guys who burned themselves were psychopaths.’ Of course, on all national media, whoever dies in protest is a psychopath. If they were psychopaths, why did they burn themselves at the parliament building?”

 A week later, hundreds of thousands of people show up. What does she say that is so important? Is it as awe-inspiring as Marc Antony’s speech? It exceeds Antony’s speech in its selflessness, and I am reminded of another Egyptian and another Mahfouz, Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize winning author who, in his novel Arabian Nights and Days (a sequel of sorts to The Thousand and One Nights), finds fault with the citizens of Sultan Shahryar’s kingdom. The people, if they do nothing, if they mimic their leaders’ sins and crimes, are just as guilty and deserve their subjugation. The individual must choose the good action over the evil one; it is an existential imperative. It is our responsibility to overcome those forces that would have us do otherwise.

Whether its through electronic media, over the airways, or by word of mouth, the need to be heard and the desire to act were manifested in the most expedient and successful ways. The revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt are ones of intelligence and I mean that in two ways: first in the acquisition of knowledge and second as in the Arab world’s intelligence was greater than that of the CIA’s and the Mossad’s, or any other Intelligence Agency. Simply, the Arab people, the average civilian, was never given enough credit, nor were they as a whole ever expected to do anything remotely great. The last laugh is on those who perceive history through a solipsistic lens.

Now that these revolutions are taking a more violent turn, as we can see in Libya, the common denominator that we all share, namely to live free from bondage, should have the world’s billions of souls quaking. The Oriental world is tired and hungry but not weak; it is ready not just for change but for an actuality of the democratic ideal; the Occidental world still envisions itself a beacon of civilization, democracy, with a rhetorical patent on the word “freedom.” Asmaa Mahfouz’s words become dynamos, little engines that can change the world, words that manifest simple truths to people who simply want the truth. The word “dynamo” comes from the Greek dynamis meaning power. Odysseus, the most eloquent Greek hero, was well aware of the dynamis inherent in words; his ability to communicate kept him alive and returned him home, where truth and justice prevailed.

– Dr. Khalil Elayan is a Lecturer of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He is a professor of composition, American Literature, World Literature, and Middle Eastern Literature. I wish to submit an article about the current revolutions going on in North Africa and the Middle East. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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