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A political opera for the MENA region
I recently read that a German-born composer, Detlev Glanert, will premiere Caligula at the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, later this month.

23 May   |   2012   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Caligula, for the uninitiated, is an opera inspired by Albert Camus' play that explores the border between normality and madness - or more pointedly over how power can lead to madness. It also deals with a cruel and deranged emperor who was assassinated in AD 41.

Caligula is also the genre of opera that is becoming increasingly more popular these days as it focuses less on super-philosophical explorations or self-indulgent musical mathematics - such as with Mozart's The Magic Flute for instance - and highlights instead our own contemporary societies with their lofty hopes as much as dystopian realities or ugly challenges. Indeed, when Camus wrote his play in 1938, it was an exploration of dictatorship as personified during the time by Hitler and Stalin. However, those two erstwhile tyrants have been superseded over the past few decades by many others the likes of Pinochet in Chile, Pol Pot in Cambodia or Idi Amin in Uganda.

Let me concede ab initio the stark albeit regrettable premise that the political systems in many parts of the MENA region have in the past also fed, sustained and protected similar dictators or tyrants. Let me remind readers too that the peoples in many of those countries have been struggling over the past 18 months for the emancipation of their basic freedoms. So I would like to explore briefly today the reality, manifestation and direction of those uprisings.

The MENA region is gripped by uncertainty, fear, confusion, contradiction, bitterness, violence and bloodletting within many of its largely Arab societies. But in the midst of those negative and polarising feelings of despair are also signs of hope, compassion and an untapped energy to better oneself and supplant old dictates with more inclusive values. After all, the whole wave of protests - from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere - was initially meant to get rid of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes snuffing out peoples' aspirations for citizenship, dignity, freedom, human rights and socio-economic justice. The Arab Spring, as it was dubbed at the start, was both a season and an aspiration. The season has changed, but not the aspiration.

Nonetheless, those uprisings have also stumbled and mutated in many countries. They have assumed different shapes that were not the original intent of those impulses. Tunisia and Egypt for instance are striving to embrace democracy, but there is admittedly as much confusion as there are high hopes that things are surely albeit slowly improving with parliamentary and presidential elections as well as with various ongoing discourses between the so-called 'religious' and 'secular' components of society (or otherwise put, between 'leftists', 'liberals' and 'Islamists'). In Libya and Yemen, though, it is a see-sawing state of flux where the compass of positive change often abruptly spins out of control in negative directions. In Syria, the situation remains critical as the regime continues its unrelenting attacks on its citizens, whereas the opposition is lamentably incapable of getting their act together - with the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordinating Committees contesting each other's legitimacy, and some third parties - call them terrorists, zealots or vested interests - are also unavoidably beginning to import their sinister ideologies and mayhem into the country. Moreover, Lebanon is becoming infected by such violence in Syria that is being exported toward its neighbour. Bahrain, on the other hand, is a mirror image of Syria in one sense and tensions are seething very close to the surface. Of course, I need not mention Iraq with all its post-occupation feuds, Iran with its ambiguous nuclear ambitions, or the Gulf countries that are paradoxically caught up between the revolutions they support and the counter-revolutions they finance too. Finally, I cannot ignore the Palestinians as they try to heal their suppurating wounds and manage their institutional weaknesses and political desuetude within an ever-darkening horizon that includes 75% of a population living under the poverty line.

But is this not also the real nature of revolutions and popular uprisings? It requires time for radical changes to take root: after all, we have learnt this from the templates of the French or American revolutions. And today, with the tugs-of-war being played out between Islamist or Islamic movements on the one hand and militarist states on the other, many MENA citizens are being ostracised, disempowered or else made to pay a steep price. They include women who played key roles at the start of most uprisings, as did the youth, and yet both are being deliberately marginalised within the institutions of the state or on the streets by misogynist or ageist power-wielders. Nor do I need not overlook the different minority communities who often feel caught between an anvil and a hammer in terms of their present realities and future choices. Yet, to paraphrase the late theologian Paul Corbon (referred to recently by Dr Tarek Mitri in L'Orient Le Jour), the narcissism present within some of those confessional communities often leads them to spend more time worrying about their disappearance than about fighting for their existence. But sadly enough, MENA tyrants have in the past exercised their unfettered power, corrupt practices and systems of patronage as if they are their private boudoirs. In the process, they have conditioned some of their subjects to believe that the privileges of the rulers are God-given, religiously-inspired, hereditary or even normal.

In Caligula, the emperor's beloved sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship, dies and he realises that the world is somewhat amiss. "But I am God and Caesar", exclaims the emperor, "and have the ultimate power in the world and have the duty to correct this". And such a pathogenic belief in the all-powerful - almost divine-like -authority and even duty to 'control' under the guise of 'helping' people could equally be found in Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Pinochet, Qadhafi or many other diminutive caligulas. The self-justification of such rulers reminds me of those criminal fathers who rape their daughters exercise their fetid abuse over them whilst and callously pretending that they are doing it out of love or even some warped sense of destiny and entitlement.

In this sense, Caligula becomes more than a mere statement. It becomes a metaphor for unbridled power - where such power comes from, how it works and how it must end in self-destruction. But it is also a reminder that it will start all over again - not unlike the finale of the opera when the dying emperor screams "I am still alive"!

A Jordanian colleague recently sent me his feedback on one of my previous articles where I was trying to focus on the half-full political glass. Suggesting that I was being far too optimistic with my analysis, she opined:

It is time to be realistic as Palestinians and admit that the national dreams and nationalistic movements have received the fatal blow and have faded away in favour to radicalised religious movements that are regrouping and will present themselves very strongly in any forthcoming elections. So the MENA region is about to change face and a new reality is about to present itself.

The two-state solution is fading away as the facts on the ground demonstrate. Palestinians and Israelis alike have a serious leadership crisis, with NO visionaries. So we are following those fools who are taking the region to a very dark area. Therefore we have to go out of the myth of the two state solutions and seriously engage in what is next and try to envision other directions.

I am not optimistic, since the MENA region is moving backwards towards Jahilieh dressed up with a western costume called "Democracy" which they know nothing about or being selective in its application. So the Jahlieh rule is coming and we need to see how Israel will cope in a very hostile environment. And at the end of the day Palestinians and the Palestinian dream will be compromised.

I respect her viewpoint as it comes out of the region itself and brings with it an inordinate amount of experience and therefore perspicacity. Besides, I do not think that all those men and women who have risen up in the MENA region need Glanert's opera - or many more articles for that matter - to advise them against dictatorships and tyrannies in those scarred and post-colonial countries. They know the perils just as they recognise the pitfalls too.

Rather more ominously, what truly matters for me today are our reactions to the whole idea of dictatorship - how quickly do we kowtow to dictators or how ready are we to fight them? So the germane question is much more whether the largely Arab masses who poured out in the streets will run out of steam and kowtow to new forms of subjugation or will they continue to challenge the original dictators and their retinues as much as those pretenders lining up to take over - albeit in different formats or with different symbols - despite the hardships and reversals?

Mind you, irrespective of my own doubts, I still like to believe in the long-term success of those uprisings. But the road is long and tortuous, and such success will take time and necessitate painful sacrifices, wrong decisions, unfortunate diversions let alone attempts by local or foreign interests to co-opt or destroy those new beginnings. Again, this is what history teaches us, and this is also what the MENA region is effectively undergoing today.

Why am I being a tad optimistic despite admonitions to the contrary? Well, as Caligula's bloody end demonstrated, human beings are alike - whether they come from Muscat, Montgomery, Lisbon or Harare - in that they all enjoy an indomitable instinct that yearns for freedom. My hope remains undimmed that such instincts cannot be quashed or quelled forever - no matter the tactics or obstacles - and that they will eventually be liberated and so become real.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2012   |   23 May


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