An observant colleague mentioned to me the other day that al-Jazeera, the widely popular Arab news service, was using the expression “Arab Awakening” instead of “Arab Spring.” He wondered if there might be some significance to the difference. It is not easy finding out what the Arabic expression was that al-Jazeera is using and if it represents a conscious change. It does seem, however, that there is an increasing preference for “Arab Awakening” in the media of the Middle East. There are several reasons for this.
“Arab Spring” is an expression that was coined in the West and echoes movements like the “Prague Spring” (1968). For one thing, I am not sure spring holds the same connotation in Arabic as it does in European languages, especially those with traditions of Romantic poetry. In addition, the upheavals in Arab countries havecarried on for a year now and there was even some talk of an “Arab Winter.”
If the word that is being used in the Arabic media for “awakening,” is nahḍa, however, it is extremely interesting. By using the word nahḍa, several things would be accomplished. First, it would represent an attempt by the Arabic-speaking world to give its own name to the phenomenon. Second, and much more importantly, it would represent an attempt to link the events of the past year with an early modernist movement in the Middle East.
The nahḍa, or Awakening, was a political, cultural, linguistic and literary movement that began in Egypt at the end of the 19th century and spread to most of the Arabic-speaking world. Arab intellectuals — Muslim and Christian — began to look at their own societies. By studying — and criticizing — contemporary European achievements, Arabs were able to adapt them to a new situation. The 19th century was a time of change in the Arab world. The Ottoman Empire that had dominated the Arabic-speaking world for centuries was beginning to show serious signs of decay. After World War I, colonialism would also begin to lose its grip on the region. The nahḍa recovered the Arab past and attempted to bring it into the present. New literary forms were developed. The first novel in modern Arabic was published in Syria in 1865. Writers and poets known in the West such as Khalil Gibran and the Nobel Laureate Taha Hussein were products of the Awakening. Politically, the nahḍa engendered a great interest in constitutionalism, democracy, human rights, etc. among intellectuals.
There were several forces that brought the nahḍa to an end. With typical Arabic love for word play, some Arabs see the nakba, or “the Disaster,” which refers specifically to the founding of the State of Israel, as the end of the nahḍa. The reality is probably much more complex. Certainly, the rise of authoritarian governments and dictators in the Arab world with their censorship, secret police and attacks on freedom did equally as much to bring the nahḍa to a close. If the use of the expression “Arab Awakening” is an attempt to see contemporary events in the Middle East as a continuation or revival of the nahḍa — which is still is not clear to me — it would not only be very significant, it would be something that should be welcomed.