Middle East

“The stories they don’t tell you about the Middle East”: How alternative stories can connect us in a dystopian world

Otros autores: Dr. Samar Samir Mezghanni
mayo 15, 2024   0
Presentation by Samar Samir Mezghanni at CIPI in May, 2024.

When I was 14 years old, the world completely changed.

On the night of the 27th of April 2003, I was spending the evening with my dad, my favorite person in the world. He was showing me his photo albums, when something caught my attention. They were photos of my young dad with many other young people in a stadium. I asked him where the photos were taken, to which he replied: Cuba!

Fascinated! That’s how I was that night. The curious me couldn’t control the traffic of questions rushing in my mind, but I was able to pick my first: What was my dad, a young student from Tunisia with a disability, doing in a stadium in Cuba in the 70s?

Before he could answer, a visitor came to the house. So my dad promised with his reassuring voice: “It’s too late now, go to sleep. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”

I went to bed imagining the fantastic stories he will tell me about this faraway country with the most poetic musical name: Cuba! Twenty one years later, I’m still imagining, for my dad was never able to tell me that story. He had died that night.

That night, I was deprived of a story I’ll never know. Since then, my interest in untold stories became an unsatisfied obsession. It wasn’t only the stories that fate cut short, but those made invisible, untold, erased; erased by greedy politicians, coward historians, biased journalists and even abused mothers. Whether it’s the stories told by our grandmothers, the propaganda spread by politicians, or the narratives perpetuated by the media, they were all hiding untold stories. Unlike the lost Cuban story forever buried with my dad in his grave, I could dig up other ones.

The first hidden story was uncovered soon after his death. I had by that time written dozens of short stories, 8 of my books were published and I had won prestigious literary awards before the age of 13. Yet, for many, the story line that made more sense to them was this: a little girl cannot write. As a kid, I found it amusing that grown ups believe that adults can write stories for children, yet children can’t. It was an untold story that a little Arab girl can write books for children. And that, exactly that, was the story I was determined to tell.

I wasn’t the only one. While running writing and reading workshops, and producing media shows for children to introduce them to books, I found several other children with plenty of hidden stories to tell, children that can write about their lives, their dreams, their visions, their fantasies, their emotions, their anecdotes, and even their frustation with adults. I believed that a child was not only able, like adults, to tell stories to children; a child is more equipped to do so. Now that I’ve grown up and started writing novels for adults, I still believe that story.

Throughout the years that followed, I realized that the stories we have been told are always about incapabilities. Children are unable to write, women are unable to become respected authors, Arabs are unable to be creative, tolerant, smart and hard working academics, inventors, entrepreneurs, sport champions; incapable of being heroes. The heroes in the stories are always super natural, white, super powerful, from a faraway civilized country, because the mainstream stories are, indeed, told by them.

In a world where planet and people are exhausted by the super powers of the super-powerful, humanity needs new stories.

For my research, I chose to study under-represented voices. I looked at media representations of Muslims. And while Muslims have been, in fact, over-represented in western media in the last two decades, their self representation has been systematically overlooked. The superheroes have monopolized the gaze, the analytical tools, and the capacity of examining, studying, criticizing, judging and categorizing subjects of study: terrorists, uncivilized beasts, slaved repressed women, violent ignorant fanatics, Arabs.

That is the repetitive persistent story that emerged from the analysis of western media representations of Arabs over the last decades. These findings have been reiterated over and over again by multiple studies (Halliday, Poole, Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery, to name a few). All of these past studies refer to such depictions in the media of Muslims and Arabs as the “Muslim Penalty”. That is the story told over and over again about what is called the Middle East: “they” vs “us”. “They” are incapable of being “us”. “They” are not “Us”. “They” are the subject of the story, “we” are the capable ones of telling it. This is “our” game, that is “their” penalty. When you lose a game, you lose the narrative.

So what happens when we question the game, when we change the rules, when the subject becomes the new narrator of the story? What happens when stories of children are written by the children themselves? What happens when Muslims produce their own media with their own representations? Do they reproduce these depictions? Do they reject the mainstream narrative or adopt it? Are they, are we, capable of writing a different story?

It turned out, after five years of research, that we do all the above. At times we tell similar stories, in others we reject them with a condemned defensiveness. At worst, we fall into the trap of denying ourselves the right to exist without condemning who they depict us to be. At best, we condemn the depiction itself, trapped in a fatalistic binary reactive role.

But something unexpected revealed itself after tedious analysis of thousands of media articles written by Muslims: when having the space and the tools to learn about ourselves outside of these colonizing reductive definitions, to express ourselves in our diversity and uniqueness, and to create our own stories, we write about our real heroes and champions, our complexities and depth, our success and inspiring achievements, our historic and continuous contribution and added value to humanity. To my surprise, I found out that these alternative stories emerge, in particular, when writing about a domain I was the least interested in: Sport.

I found myself puzzled by stories of confident Muslim women, with elegant scarves or beautiful hair styles, who win sports championships. Other stories were about celebrated hulky Muslim men, who use their scary muscles to collect sports medallions, not decapitated heads. Some stories were about Muslim Nobel prize winners in literature and science, ground breakers of knowledge, and founders of academic fields such as sociology.

In contrast, these stories were generally unpresented in the mainstream discourse, perhaps because the mainstream narrators are too busy ruminating stereotypical stories to listen, or even to consider, the subject of the story as its possible narrator.

In life, in academic pursuit, and in literature, my drive is to look for different stories. Inspired in part by my PhD findings, I chose to return to creative writing, looking to find and to create alternative stories. My recent book, entitled “Dinner for Eight” tries to reconstruct the reality of a world where a limited number of the most super-powerful eat, for dinner, the bounties of planet and the treasured labor of people, only to leave the crumbs for the rest of us. Despite all these differences, injustices and barriers that separate us, I attempt to imagine all of us as one, one fragile failed human being, struggling to get out of the terrible trap we built ourselves with greed and ignorance.

Indeed, in a world where migration, globalization, mixed marriages and connectivity have become the norm, we couldn’t be more connected. Despite all the disparities (economic, social, political) that divide us, we have all been suffering one way or another from the consequences of our destruction of the planet, and our self destruction. Our uncivilised pursuit of progress, our diminishing definition of progress in materialistic terms, our unlimited greed and gluttony have made us all victims to this destructive blind fast obsessive drive. The baring consequences (material, psychological, social, physical) will affect us all, despite the disparities of their impact. Despite all what the mainstream stories tell, in reality, there are no “they” and “us”. We are all tied to a common destiny in spite of our man-made differences. That’s our most untold open story.

Similarly, the story I told you at the beginning didn’t end with my father’s death. I still believe I could possibly find my dad’s Cuban story, even after death interrupted it. In fact, that is why I came to Cuba, to look for other people who attended that 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana in 1978. Perhaps I could meet other narrators of that story who survived death, and amnesia. Perhaps you can help me find them.

In all cases, I’ll keep looking and imagining, because I’m still just like that stubborn Arab little girl, who despite all the frustrating repetitive stories she’s told by adults and fate, she still believes in our capability of writing a different story.

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