Susan Abulhawa: The dream at the revolutions' core

It’s not surprising that most Americans don’t understand what’s happening across the Middle East.

The West often views the region through the eyes of the dictator who signs oil contracts, but turns a blind eye as Gaza is starved, as Palestine is wiped off the map, or as Lebanon is decimated. Many instances should have spurred a deeper look: the surprise election of Hamas or the folly of believing that Iraqis would greet us with open arms. Simple human empathy would have shown that people will not vote for corrupt incumbents and that no one welcomes the invading tanks of a foreign power.

But now there are images of Arabs that the West is not used to: Tunisians, then Egyptians, pouring into their streets by the millions, without arms, praying while police shot them with water cannons or worse. There are Muslims and Christians, women and men, rich and poor, united in a peaceful struggle for freedom.

Reporters struggling to find stereotypes instead found high school students who could speak about politics with more sophistication than most American college graduates. They found efficient systems of sustenance erected for protesters in a matter of days, including food areas, pharmacies, and even a kindergarten. They found small children on their parents’ shoulders leading chants of freedom for thousands of adults; Christian Copts protecting Muslim countrymen while they prayed; conservative Muslim men with long beards talking about a secular and inclusive democracy.

Then came Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Libya. Brutal Arab dictators cracked down, and still, the people respond with chants that amount to “Liberty or death.”

But why so many nations, in such rapid succession?

The answer can fill volumes, but at the core of these revolutions is a visceral pan-Arab thread that binds the region.

Every Arab alive today has grown up listening to songs, poems, and anthems about this moment in history. It’s been called the Great Arab Awakening or simply the title of a famous song written for Palestine and sung by artists from all over the Arab world: El Hilm el Araby — “The Arab Dream.”

That song and others like it are now being played over and over in millions of Arab homes, provoking tears and prayers and hardening resolve. The words lament what has become of ancient and once-splendid Arab societies. With poetry, they frame the dream of generations for human worth and unity. They utter the romantic longing for liberty of more than 360 million human beings who have lived under the tyranny of colonialism followed by the tyranny of client regimes, military occupation, or madmen.

It doesn’t matter that Egypt is different from Tunisia or Yemen or Bahrain. Arabs are not only united by language and culture, but also by causes, like opposing dictatorships or, the most enduring, Palestine. It is not surprising that one of the repeated slogans in Egypt was an Arabic rhyming chant, “To Jerusalem we’re going, martyrs in the millions.” My friends who participated in the revolution told me that the demonstrators were telling each other, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

These are expressions of solidarity with an Arab society that’s being ethnically cleansed, whose homes, heritage, and history are slowly being stolen or erased. And it is not even the driving force, but certainly a common one.

These slogans reflect what has stirred in Arab hearts for generations, which can be found in the songs that made us all weep with longing at some point in our lives:

This is our dream, for all of our days
The darkness of night might separate us
But the rays of light can reach the farthest skies. …
Justice, love, and goodness
This is our timeless message
Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are not enemies
The truth of one song might pass after being uttered
But maybe after years, the world will change because of it.

Arabs seek the simple dignity of holding the reins of their own destiny. Until last month, that possibility had been only a romantic longing. Suddenly, dignity and justice are in sight. It takes simple human empathy to know there will be no turning back from so great a prize.

Susan Abulhawa is the author of the novel Mornings in Jenin. E-mail her at