Magazine article Artforum International

The Big Comedown: An American Journalist Offers a Firsthand Account of the Arab Spring and Its Dispiriting Aftermath

Magazine article Artforum International

The Big Comedown: An American Journalist Offers a Firsthand Account of the Arab Spring and Its Dispiriting Aftermath

Article excerpt



Late in the autumn of 2014, a prominent Yemeni politician was out taking a walk near his home in the capital city of Sana'a when two men on motorbikes shot him to death. Muhammad Abdelmalik al Mutawakel was a professor of political science who had long been advocating for a strong, democratic state in an otherwise fractious, feudal place. Mutawakel was the leader of a liberal party and an architect of the uprisings that had deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's autocratic former president; he had been negotiating a peace deal behind the scenes among Houthi rebels, the opposition, and the new(ish) regime. The day before he died, he scored a major breakthrough: Rival political factions agreed to form a transitional, technocratic government.

Of all the countries swept up in the early euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring, Yemen was arguably the most baffling to global audiences. Certainly it was poorly understood. News broadcasts of competing demonstrations populated almost exclusively by gat-chewing men in skirts and daggers made it clear that this wasn't the same telegenic expression of hopeful, youthful dissent that viewers saw in Cairo's Tahrir Square or on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. To this day Yemen gets little international news coverage compared to Egypt, Syria, Libya, or Tunisia. Al Jazeera put the word assassination in quotation marks in its initial reporting of Mutawakel's death. He wasn't a household name. The New York Times didn't write about his killing until two months later, when the country was suffering a spasm of violence too sizable for Western media to ignore.

However obscure Mutawakel may be in the annals of Middle East politics, he now belongs to a slightly more familiar list--the long, sad, utterly dispiriting roll call of artists, intellectuals, and other figures who have been killed in the wider Arab world since the end of the colonial era and the mid-twentieth-century rise of the republics, many of which were born of revolutionary promise but quickly turned despotic. The men in this lineage (and they are almost all men, including the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, shot in the face in London; the Algerian novelist Tahar Djaout, gunned down by religious extremists in Algiers; the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, blown up in his car in Beirut; and the left-wing Tunisian lawyer and politician Chokri Belaid, shot, like Mutawakel, outside his home) were targeted for more than just their ideas. They were eliminated out of the fear that they might set real change in motion and reform some of the region's most repressive political systems from within.

American journalist Robert F. Worth is no stranger to this history, nor to the allure of turning to men of ideas for insight in times of great crisis. In the years he was a New York Times correspondent in Baghdad, a bureau chief in Beirut, and then a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, Worth was always an anomaly. He had a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton. He described himself as an Arabist (a "Pseudo-Arabist" on Twitter) at a time when the term was all but extinct, with the old analysts who spoke the language and knew the culture mostly retired, purged, or dead. Worth dutifully covered the daily grind of the Middle East's political intrigues and humanitarian disasters, but he also wrote about the refurbishing of the Islamic wing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, about novelists such as Hisham Matar and Mathias Enard, about the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the popular French author of espionage thrillers Gerard de Villiers. Toward the end of 2011, Worth published an especially prescient essay asking why Arab intellectuals had been so thoroughly sidelined; why no Vaclav Havel had emerged from the revolutions of the Arab Spring. …

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