Book Review - Writing Revolution

For many, the Arab Spring is not yet over. Some believe that the wave of protests that toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen heralded a false dawn and they continue to agitate for change. This fascinating anthology of essays is authored by those who experienced, first hand, the recent revolutions or are still waiting for real democracy. The contributors have all played a part in documenting and witnessing injustice in their countries.

The eight writers illustrate the diversity of the issues behind the protests that include autocratic rule, human rights violations, political corruption, and extreme poverty. For Mohamed Mesrati, revolution in Libya seemed impossible because "we were a generation born from our fathers' defeats, a generation that first opened its eyes on a society that spoke in the language of oppression, where fear was an unalterable and undeniable destiny". His family fled to the UK in 2005 and Mesrati lived the revolution through the eyes of his childhood friends.

Fear is the predominant emotion described by the essayists. Gaddafi's authoritarian regime is compared to George Orwell's 1984. But for lawyer Khawla Dunia the Syrian Republic is more terrifying than Orwell's republic of fear: "Each morning we bid our loved ones goodbye as though it were the final farewell, and greet them again each evening as though they have returned from foreign lands."

Jamal Jubran, from Yemen eloquently describes the power of language, how words became his weapons and how writing stopped him "drowning in the fear that follows me every second of every day".

Malek Sghiri is a blogger, political activist and leader of the General Union of Tunisian Students. After participating in the protests, he was arrested on 11 January 2011 and detained for a week at the Ministry of Interior, where he was tortured. Sghiri offers an astute analysis of the uprising. He recognises that what should have taken 20 years to achieve happened in just a few days and that for this "process of becoming" to succeed it needs to be "protected at all times and its consciousness firmly implanted in the population". Sghiri underlines that the protests arose out of the student movement and sadly reflects that its leaders are not now part of the new order, "when they should be the strongest political force in the land".

Half of the contributors are women and one realises that they have the most to gain but also risk the greatest loss. The Saudi writer Safa Al-Ahmad displays immense courage in travelling to various hotspots in the region in order to cover the unrest. She illustrates the extent of what women are up against in Saudi Arabia when she describes being chased by a member of the religious police who demanded she close her abaya (cloak): "Saudi Arabia forces you to see yourself based on your gender …. And if you are female – your appearance alone is enough to get you in trouble."

Yasmine El Rashidi noticed a sense of dignity being restored among her neighbours but her account, written in May 2011, ends on a note of uncertainty that proved sadly prescient. In Egypt, the fight for women's rights continues.

Writing on Algeria, Ghania Mouffok observes: "We are not swallows. We're not just making spring but also winter, autumn and summer too, because we've been around for a long time." She takes her nine-year-old son along with her to watch the protests to show him that "being a citizen in Algeria can be joyous, chaotic and rebellious".

The technological advances of recent years have played their part in the uprisings with protesters able to send pictures and real-time accounts out to the wider world. Ali Aldairy describes how being able to use Twitter encouraged him to go to the protests and "follow events with my own eyes, to record them and transmit them myself". Tragically, Bahrain's demonstrations have been largely ignored by the outside world and woefully under-reported by the western media.

Inevitably, the final saddest and unfinished chapter is on Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has proved to be as brutal as his father in the suppression of dissent. Every day there is more bloodshed and new horrors are witnessed; Dunia calls it the revolution of the mobile phone versus the bullet.

Writing Revolution provides a terrifying insight into the world of authoritarian regimes where freedom and democracy are alien concepts. Each of the eight accounts in this impressive anthology is accessible and illuminating. The final outcome of the protests affects us all. Profound, progressive change won't happen overnight but by engaging with the Arab uprisings, understanding why they occurred and the protesters' hopes for the future, we take a stand against tyranny. It is equally important not to forget the aspirations of those who remain in the wings, still dreaming of, and desiring, change.

Writing Revolution - The Voices from Tunis to Damascus, Ed. Layla Al-Zubaidi and others. Trs. by Robin Moger & Georgina Collins. Publ by IB Tauris.

Review originally published in the Independent on Sunday