Charting the course

This text is the epilogue of a collection of articles published with Sarah Birke & Alex Simon.

FIVE YEARS HAVE COME AND GONE, wrecking hopes and spreading sorrow. In the giant maelstrom in which the Arab world is foundering, all seem to be clutching at the flotsam: some cling to hatreds that are consuming them, while others grasp at the receding horizon of salvation through migration. Those who can afford to philosophize ramble on about the same ideas, circling round and round: the end of Sykes-Picot; an obsession with the Islamic State; the lesser evil of reactionary regimes; or a brave new world shaped by middle-powers like Russia, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The contrast couldn’t be greater between the rigidity of these narratives and the extreme fluidity of the region to which they pertain. In an ocean of confusion, it appears that we can either sink to our doom or whirl on the surface of things.

These essays are part of a broader effort to chart this tragic journey, to navigate the storm of events and emotions. The voyage, of course, will continue; this epilogue is but an entry in the logbook, and we can only assume that the next five years will be as dense, intense and disorientating as the last. The greatest intellectual challenge posed by the transformations at work in the Arab world has been to understand them in their historic context. Societies move slowly, in pointed contrast to the hurried pace of individual lives; media coverage and political statements are more frenzied still, shaping in turn the cadence of pundits and many academic commentators. This book is an attempt to slow down the arms of the clock, posit a long view and take stock.

The ambition here is to explore the potential for iterative, accumulative, dynamic thinking that resists the temptation to always move on, while also fighting the lure of repeating the same soothing mantra. There should be no finding vindication in these traumatic transformations, that seem to endlessly negate our assumptions and invalidate their own outcomes. But the other pitfall has been to always project into the future as if it held the key to unlocking the present: for more than five long years of waiting for Godot, something was always going to happen that would change the course of events for the better—and save us from our failure to imagine ways of effectively doing so. Tomorrow will remain obscure to us, but there is no limit to how much light the past may shine on today. That is not because “history repeats itself”, but because it is a process, a continuum, an itinerary that has its logic and milestones, however convoluted the trajectory may be. It is also a way of remembering that even decades-old regimes are transient against the timescale of their societies.

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Illustration credit: roller coaster by Pixabay/ licensed by CC.