Youth of the Gulf, Youth of Palestine

by Ted Swedenburg | published May 31, 2014 - 11:19am

I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.

One of the many conceits about the Arab uprisings of late 2010 and 2011 is that their chief engine was revolutionary youth. It is this insight (and hope) that seems to guide Diwan's report. Those familiar with our publications will not be surprised to read about the centrality of youth activism in Bahrain, where the underground February 14 Youth Coalition played a leading role in the 2011 uprising. In the fall of 2013, the coalition was the target of stepped-up repression, as the regime associated the organization with terrorism and put 50 of its members on trial. But decentralized youth networks persist in organizing resistance and nightly confrontations with the security forces.

Readers might be more surprised about the extent of youth activism in Kuwait, not usually thought of as a hotbed of resistance. In Kuwait, a youth-led movement organized marches, sit-ins and, eventually, an invasion of Parliament in November 2011. These actions were ultimately successful in forcing the emir to sack long-time Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad Al Sabah in the wake of a corruption scandal. In 2012 Kuwait witnessed the founding of the first independent youth political society in the Gulf, the Civil Democratic Movement. Though small, the Movement has worked diligently with other youth organizations to push opposition members of Parliament to agitate for an elected government. The emir responded by dissolving Parliament in October 2012 and changing the election law so as to make coalition building more difficult. His move was met by the largest demonstration in the country’s history, as tens of thousands mobilized to demand that he rescind the new election law.

Saudi Arabia, unlike Bahrain or Kuwait, has no parliament and a modest history of civil society activism. Diwan argues that, in the face of these severe constraints, Saudi Arabian youth have taken to social media, where they have articulated new forms of political expression. In July 2013, for instance, they launched unexampled criticism of the kingdom’s spending ways, as the hashtag “the wage doesn’t meet the need” hit a million tweets a day. YouTube clips produced by youth comment satirically on social and political issues, demonstrating by their popularity that young Saudi Arabians urgently desire frank commentary. Youth are also using social media to forge virtual connections across class, sectarian and regional divisions, and reformers are active on Twitter and in e-zines.

In all these cases, whether in response to the robust youth activism in Bahrain or the milder and mostly virtual activity in Saudi Arabia, Gulf regimes have cracked down hard. Bahrain’s repression has been the most brutal, with the importation of Saudi troops and the imposition of ever more stringent limits on freedom of expression. Kuwait has put dozens on trial for involvement in street protests or offending the emir. In December 2013 Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a sweeping new anti-terrorism law that criminalized almost any imaginable form of political dissent. In Saudi Arabia, moreover, divisions between Shi‘i and Sunni activists have worsened, in large part due to differences over the Syrian conflict, while in Bahrain at present the Shi‘i activists seem to have little hope of winning over Sunni allies.

Given that there is little youth mobilization in either Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, and that activism in Oman is on par with Saudi Arabia’s, given the crackdowns and given the significant Shi‘i-Sunni splits in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, at the end we seem left only with a potential for youth to emerge as leading actors for social change. But perhaps, Diwan hopes, youth will soon be on the move again to protest cuts in government subsidies.

But given this ultimately pessimistic overview, does it really make sense to continue to look to socially networked youth as the hope for change in the Gulf? The fact that Shi‘i and Sunni youth are divided, as in Saudi Arabia, and openly antagonistic, as in Bahrain, would suggest that the category of youth as a unified social actor has severe limits. Moreover, it is doubtful that the Arab uprisings were exclusively youth rebellions in any case. Jessica Winegar, for instance, argues that older generations played an essential role in the Egyptian uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak. The labor struggles in the decade that preceded the revolt of 2011 were also an essential precedent and precipitant of Egypt’s revolt.

If Diwan’s report demonstrates that significant numbers of “responsible” and civic-minded youth in the Arab Gulf states seek political change, Manna’s film Blessed, Blessed Oblivion treats a segment of the youth of Palestine that is usually avoided by scholarship or politically engaged journalism. Pundits might call these young people “delinquent,” or more charitably, depoliticized.

It is not quite accurate to call Manna’s film a documentary in the conventional sense, as it is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s groundbreaking experimental 1963 short Scorpio Rising. Like Anger, Manna focuses on a kind of “underground” all-male social milieu, but in East Jerusalem. Her offering is beautifully and artfully filmed. There are scenes of cars in the shop being lovingly tuned up, washed and polished. Men’s faces are shaved and their hair carefully cut and styled in the barbershop, beneath a portrait of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and with Egyptian comic ‘Adil Imam on the TV screen. Weightlifters sculpt their torsos. Hashish is consumed. A group of young men gathers outside in the dark, dancing the dabka, lit by car headlamps. A nationalist folkloric male dabka troupe, their necks wrapped in kaffiyas, performs as well, although these young men seem to be from the same milieu as the hash smokers and auto aficionados.

The very smart soundtrack is a mix of folkloric Palestinian (“Ya Zarif al-Tul”), Eurodance (Culture Beat’s 1993 hit “Mr. Vain”), Egyptian sha‘bi (Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim) and contemporary Arab pop from Sama and Udhayna al-‘Ali. It, too, is typical in its heterogeneous mix of global, regional and local trends.

While the scenes are all homosocial, Manna’s film never quite achieves the visual subversiveness of Anger’s film, with its leather-clad bikers, flashes of nudity, homoeroticism, and juxtaposition of Christian and Nazi imagery. Yet, on the other hand, the vulgar and at times downright dirty talk in Manna’s film is quite transgressive. The film features a young man pretending to be a mom, telling her son to go out and get his father some Viagra, because she is horny and if her husband doesn’t satisfy her, she’ll shame herself by going after her male neighbors. “I swear my vagina has grown teeth,” she says. “It has started biting, my son.” Curses and crude language are used throughout, sometimes in popular verse. At one point there is a dramatic shift, as a long-haired young man recites lines from “The Martyr” (1936), by the famous nationalist poet ‘Abd al-Rahim Mahmoud, who fought in the 1936-1939 revolt and died in battle in the 1948 war. Among the lofty lines that the young man recites, in classical Arabic: “And I will protect my blood with the edge of my sword.” But immediately after he has finished, he adds, in colloquial Arabic, “Us Bedouins, we love to fuck.”

Although Manna’s film has artistic and experimental aspirations, it is at the same time very ethnographic, but without analysis or narration. It simply presents a very real segment of Palestinian youth that is typically overlooked due to the seeming imperative to focus only on Palestinians who “resist.” The young men’s obsessions, moods and desires are depicted without judgment. Their raunchy repartée, intense interest in cars and careful attention to how they look are never criticized for failing to confront the occupation. Their behaviors are not blamed on the Israelis or on US cultural imperialism. Nor is it suggested that these young men need to be rescued or that they require, as I wrote in Middle East Report 247, “the tutelage of state institutions, experts and the nationalist intelligentsia,” who would encourage them to abandon their heedless pursuits and set nobler goals.

The political context is not entirely absent here, but it is background, and the focus is on lived lives, which are not to be explained by or considered reducible to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.

And perhaps Manna’s is the more useful position: to start from where youth are, from their aspirations and daily practices, rather than to expect that they will be the avant-garde of social change, because they tweet and blog and go on Facebook. Maybe analysis of Arab youth should start with learning who they are, rather than only respecting them when they conform to our preconceived ideas of what constitutes civic engagement.

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