I have to admit I am becoming obsessed with the revolution. A couple of days ago I saw an ant staggering under the weight of a breadcrumb double its size and I thought, ‘It is this kind of perseverance that allowed us to oust the dictator.’ And I kept watching for a while to make sure it will reach home safe and with the bounty intact. I see one of those ragged street kids smiling and I say, ‘He knows that in the new Egypt his suffering will soon be over.’ I read some political poem written 50 years ago about some thing or another that happened at the time and I am like ‘See? Everybody who had the least amount of commonsense could predict that this revolution was going to happen sooner or later.’ I know very well that the ant is just being itself and that it was probably too hungry when I saw it and that the kid might have just heard a joke and was probably not aware how the revolution concerns him and the 1960s poet might have assumed the then-president of the country was some god who is susceptible neither to death nor to deposal. I am just in the mood for seeing everything in that light and no matter how unrealistic—sometimes even cheesy—this gets, I am enjoying it and I do realize it’s absurd so I guess this does not make it a disorder… yet!
This obsession almost bordered an incurable syndrome a couple of days ago when I watched ‘The Adjustment Bureau,’ a 2011 film based on a short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick and starring Matt Damon, one of my favorite actors and maybe that was a factor. New York Congressman David Norris is being chased, rather harassed, by a group of men who call themselves ‘The Adjustment Bureau.’ The first time they abduct him, members of the Bureau explain to Norris that their mission is to ensure everything human beings do goes according to some ‘plan,’ illustrated in a peculiar book with maze-like figures that they attribute to the head of the Bureau, who they call the ‘Chairman.’ Because he is a unique politician with a promising future ahead of him and a potential presidential candidate, the Bureau is particularly interested in Norris and sets out to watch him and make sure he does not deviate from the path charted for him.
There is a problem, though. Norris is in love with a woman from outside the ‘plan,’ one they think will be detrimental to his political career not because she will intentionally ruin him, but rather because their relationship will provide him with the fulfillment he usually gets from his work so his ambition will become less ferocious and the country will sustain a crippling loss.
One more problem. Despite a series of threats to both Norris and his lover and even though actual harm starts befalling both of them, he is not willing to give her up and neither is she. After a series of failed attempts, Bureau members realize they are dealing with an unbreakable bond that defies all predetermined plans and insists on formulating its own fate. At the face of such invincible power, the Chairman of the Bureau succumbs and instead of forcing the lovers to act in accordance with his plan, this very same plane is redesigned to accommodate their unyielding desire to stay together.
Let not the happily-ever-after kind of ending deceive you for this is not a movie about star-crossed lovers and the perils they go through to save their love. This is a story of power relations and the different definitions of ‘fate.’ The Adjustment Bureau can be any authority—typically in a dictatorship I would say—that spares no effort to brainwash its subjects into believing that whatever situation they are in is part of a fate they cannot tamper with and that any attempt at changing the way things are going is equivalent to challenging the hegemony of God.
This strategy does not only consolidate the power of this authority and expand the scope of its tyranny, but also gradually undermines any belief on the subjects’ part that changing the status quo is by any means possible. The second part does indeed play a much bigger role since the more you make people believe they have no free will, the more you guarantee that they will not rebel. Subjugation, in this case, is not the result of fear but rather becomes the natural evolution of a growing sense of helplessness in the face of any force that is perceived as unchangeable. When the question of why Egyptians do not rebel was brought up, the expected answer would be that they are afraid of the reaction of the repressive regime, while the official response was a bit different: ‘The Egyptian people are just not ready for democracy,’ you would hear top statesmen say. While this started as the government’s discourse, it gradually become the people’s too, for Egyptians themselves started believing they are actually not ready for anything other than being told what to do since they are too incompetent to determine what they want to do with their lives.
Like the members of the Adjustment Bureau, whose identity is a peculiar mixture of the human and the divine, you start confusing figures of authority with untouchable beings and standing against them becomes equivalent to challenging God. In case of the Egyptian regime and the bureau, the idea of fate is constantly manipulated in order to instill in the people that fear of the consequences that would render them eternally paralyzed in the face of this power that no matter what they do will never be conquered. Knowing that any attempt at rebellion will not only be futile but might also incur a great deal of damage, they end up with an overwhelming despondency that is constantly justified as an acceptance of God’s will and a rejection of any semblance of ingratitude towards it. This becomes clear in the way Islamist fundamentalists used to talk simple-minded people into believing that rebelling against the ruler is against Islam since it constitutes an objection to some divine plan whose features might not be clear now but which will eventually turn out to be beneficial for them even if not in this life.
It is only when the two lovers decide their relationship is worth the risk that they are able to change the course of that plan imposed on them from ‘up above’ that they were able to take control of their lives. This fate, Egyptians also realized, was not ordained by anyone other than those powers that everything in the capacity to subjugate those they perceived as too weak to move a thumb or even think of doing so.
When in one of the several arguments he has with Bureau members Norris insists that he has the right to make his own choices, one of the top adjusters asks him to consider the destruction human beings had brought upon themselves and the entire planet when they were given free will and cited the Dark Ages, the two world wars, and the Cuban missile crisis. This is the twisted logic you use when you want to deprive people of a right that you know very well will empower them. It’s like not allowing your kids to eat on their own because you know how much mess this newly-acquired independence will entail but since this is not the argument that works with them, you tell them they will wet their bed at night if they do so. Yet stopping the kid from growing up into an independent human being who is capable of dealing with the mess he or she creates is a disruption of the natural order and at a certain stage wetting the bed becomes no longer a threat.
‘Fight for your fate’ is the tagline of ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ and should be the slogan of any uprising that decides to do away with the idea of changing fate as some kind of blasphemy. Conformity is the enemy of any revolution and it is only when you longer let yourself be adjusted that you shift from the passive to the active voice and that your fingers start becoming trained to moving the same strings used for decades to control every movement you make.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)