There is no way back

“We are doomed because some of us look to Europe while others look to the past.”

Fanon once spoke about how some in the decolonizing world were looking to Europe while others were looking to the past, and that this was the reason why we are doomed. When I heard this quote last week, I had a moment. I realized I was one of those people that looked to the past (and had previously looked to Europe, but no need to focus on that, ahem).

I definitely have the tendency to romanticize the past, often in ways that are in line with my ideological beliefs. I might talk about a pre-capitalist past when some societies didn’t function based on greed and selfishness in order to show that capitalism is not natural, or I might talk about how types of colonialism found before European colonialism were not the same structurally, to show that European colonialism has altered the world in ways other types would probably not have been able to do. But there’s always this voice that asks whether these things happened, or whether they have also been created by people like me who want to believe that a different future is possible because a different past existed.

Romanticizing the past is comforting and is one way to feel better about the world today. In a decolonial context, it is also tied to one’s self-image. We need to talk about what Egyptians were like in the past so we don’t get disheartened by what Egypt is today. We need to be able to show that Arabs have done great things before, just so we know that it is possible. But not only is it impossible to know the past, it is also a way of playing into the discourse of Arab inferiority. By arguing that Arabs did great things in the past, I am still engaging the discourse even though I’m trying to counter it.

The question then is, why can’t we build a future that is not based on a romantic past? Why can’t we critique, deconstruct and then reconstruct what we have today, without referring back to what might have been 1000 years ago? The reality is that we will never actually know what happened, because of all the problems associated with recording and remembering history. I project onto history what I wanted it to have been, and others do the same. There is no objective account, even though some may come close. So what use is it anyway?

But then I begin to think about how it is useful because it functions as a way of imagining alternatives, and I really believe that imagining alternatives is the first step of disobedience and critical thinking. Once we accept that the world doesn’t inevitably have to be like this, we can begin to critique it and change it (as seemingly impossible as that is). So isn’t romanticizing history one way of imagining a different world?

On the one hand, I see the emotional benefits of looking for comfort in a made-up past and for using that to believe that a different future can exist. On the other hand I also see the problems with this. Not only does it erase the suffering of marginalized people in this romantic past, it also limits us to trying to rebuild this imagined past, which is now impossible. It seems like the only way to move forward is to work with what we have today. None of us exist outside of this, and we all reproduce it constantly. The only way, I think, to change anything is to continuously resist and subvert it from within – the only position we can do so from anyway.

This discussion has also reminded me of how often Muslims look to the romanticized Islamic past of the time of the Prophet. Not only does this assume that there were no major problems, it is also futile because there is no going back to that, ever.

I guess that’s the main take-away – there is no going back to that. Our world is what it is today, not what it was or what it could have been. We may hate capitalism, patriarchy, and all these other systems, but this is what we are and this is what defines us.

So the conclusion is I need to listen to Fanon and stop looking to the past (except in rare moments of day dreaming maybe) and instead look at how we can use critiques of what we have today to construct a different way of being. If that’s possible. I’m still not sure about that =)

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Frantz Fanon & Revolution

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was in Cairo, where for some odd reason I can’t access wordpress.com. I’m back in Holland now, and will be updating the blog with everything I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks 😀

Here is a post I wrote a few weeks ago:

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I just read an interesting article about Frantz Fanon’s relevance to today’s revolutions happening across the Middle East and North Africa. Fanon was heavily involved in the Algerian struggle for independence, in which more than 1 million Algerians lost their lives because of the French.

In his epic work “The Wretched of the Earth” Fanon warned of the corruption of regimes that would follow independence in Africa and the Middle East, under the mantles of “nationalism,” “Pan-Africanism” and “Pan-Arabism.” Most examples I can think of in Africa and the ME did fall into this trap – the first leader following independence had tremendous authority, because he was the first independent leader (of course they were never independent, we now know).

Fanon also spoke about the role western powers would play in propping up corrupt regimes and cultivating clientelistic relationships with local proxies. By so doing they would prevent the growth of genuine democracy. As the author of the article notes:

He was right again. It is no coincidence that, with the exception of Gaddafi (who is also the only dictator against whom the west has intervened thus far), the regimes that have been the target of protests in recent months have invariably been close allies of western powers, principally America.

Finally, Fanon wrote about the role the people can play in overcoming their oppression. Rather than seeing people as lacking agency or any power, he wrote that they have the capacity to fight.

The more the people understand, the more vigilant they become, the more they realize in fact that everything depends on them and that their salvation lies in their solidarity.

This was something he saw in Algeria:

The Algerian people, that starved…mass of men and women…have resisted the tanks and the planes, the napalm and the psychological warfare, but above al, the corruption and the brainwashing, the traitors and the ‘national’ armies.