Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times": Charles Dickens and the Arab Uprisings

 Today is the bicentenary of the birth of the famous 19th century English novelist, social critic, and social activist Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870). It may be difficult from today's perspective to remember how much Dickens challenged Victorian society, and particularly its treatment of the poor, the working class, the indebted, and the orphaned. Motivated by his own experience at the age of 10--of being sent from school as child labour in a factory to earn money while the rest of his family was in debtors' prison--many of Dickens' most famous novels as well as his journalist work are a direct condemnation of these practices.

Dickens preferred to publish his novels as monthly serialized episodes in newspapers, writing them as he went along (rather than serializing a finished work). This allowed him to respond to current events and issues within the framework of an engaging story, often about the life of an unfortunate boy, and to reach a mass audience, thereby shifting public opinion. Dickens also acted through philanthropy and public readings of his works to shift the circumstances of the less fortunate in his society.

There are many celebrations of Dickens' work, and his bicentenary, ongoing and planned. Some focus around a particular work, chosen in light of the organizers' perspectives on the relevence of Dickens today, or his literary contribution. Some which I have heard referenced specifically are A Christmas Carol (over this past Christmas season), David Copperfield (his most autobiographical work), Great Expectations, and The Pickwick Papers--the latter two as somewhat of a compendium of Dickensian themes and characters.

Following recent events in the MENA these past few days (and longer), made me think immediately of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Set during the French Revolution, the novel describes the impact of that transformative period, with a particular focus on London and Paris. The novel famously begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...".

One may paraphrase and say that the Arab Uprisings throughout MENA have been the best of times, and the worst of times--energized times of standing up for long overdue rights and societal changes, violent times of physical and psychological repression; euphoric times of triumph over a dictator; dysphoric times of retaking physical or social ground, and of mourning the imprisoned, tortured, injured, and killed.

This past weekend the two main cities of this ongoing tale have been Homs and Cairo. In both there was cruel, unbridled repression of demonstrators resulting in more injured, more dead, and more disappeared. The resilience of the protesters is as admirable as the obstinancy of the governments in place in Syria and Egypt is reprehensible. I use the phrase "ongoing tale" not to disparage or minimize, but rather to remind that history occurs over time, is told and retold, and that like the French Revolution, the Arab Revolution(s) will take longer than a day, a week, a month, a season.

Protests near Egypt's Interior Ministry continued on February 3, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt with at least four people killed amid anger over the deaths of 74 football fans that were killed in clashes between rival fans in Port Said, Egypt. Three-days of mourning were announced and marches were scheduled to protest at the lack of protection provided by police who were at the stadium when the violence occurred. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

A woman embraces a child with a painted face during a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in London. The protest followed an overnight demonstration outside the embassy, amid reports from activists that Syrian forces had killed more than 200 people in an assault on the city of Homs, the bloodiest since the uprising began. FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS

There is much more that I would like to say about these events, and those ongoing in other MENA countries, but for now I will only say that I hope that reform will come as swiftly as possible, with the least damage possible, and that those guilty of crimes against their own people will be held accountable one way or another, even if they have to move perpetually through Dante's 2nd to 9th circles of Hell-- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery. The 1st circle, Limbo, is too good for them.

Related Posts:
A Bastille Day Reminder: A Revolution Isn't Built In a Day--or a Spring
The Inevitability of a Victory for the Arab Spring--The Doha Debates Chez Chiara
Literature and Culture: 10 Literary Great Reads--Part I (# 1-5)
See also the Categories in the side bar: ArabiaHistory, GCC, Levant, MENA, NorthAfrica;
or search specific topics in the blog search function, also in the side bar.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

A protester suffering the effects of tear gas inhalation is treated in a triage unit February 2, 2012 in Cairo. (Ed Giles/Getty Images) More, and more graphic pictures can be seen at Egypt: protests over Port Said soccer deaths;

See source for full legend; See also interactive map of events of Syrian uprising since March 2011


Stan Szczesny said...

Great connection between Dickens's timeless representation of revolutions and the Arab Spring. Thank you for writing this.

Majed said...

Thank you Chiara very good read,though not necessarily in total concordance with my idea and perspective of the (Arab Spring)season.

I remember once saying I feel pround of this (unrest) in the arab world but its happening in certain and carfully selected places while other certain parts kept out of the tumoil with a surgical incission precision, raised a lot dust and dropped a heavy curtain of mist around the whole thing, that,one can hardly tell who is who and what is false and what is true,and before uttering any other word about it I will wait untill the dust settles and the mist is dispelled,right now it just seems to me like Damscus Vs Alkoofah and all others are just fanning the embers.

Charles Dickens I have read his Oliver Twist and Great expecations and it was the love at the first glance, may his soul rest peace.

Susanne said...

Good to see you back. I've missed you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

Chiara said...

Stan--Thank you for your comment, and kind words. Given your interests, and blog, I hope you found the post on great literary reads interesting. Part II is coming... :D Thanks again for your comment!

Majed--Thank you for commenting and sharing your experience of reading Dickens, as well as your views of the Arab Spring. Indeed, it has given rise to confusing events and renditions of events, but that is part of the process of transformation. Enduring transformations are usually slow and messy. Thanks again for your comment!

Susanne--thanks for your comment, and kind words. I am always happy to see them!


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