The images from Japan are distressing – a country that shakes and trembles; relief-altering waves; an earthquake and a tsunami; thousands dead and missing; towns and houses in ruins; the ache of those who are searching for their loved ones; a developed country standing helpless before its reactors; and fear of radiations. It is the greatest catastrophe since WWII. Nature resorted to extreme fury to punish those islands located on the fault line. The precautionary measures were of no use, and the earthquake was unique in every sense of the word: magnitude nine on the Richter scale.
I turn away from the Japanese scenes and get caught in the Arab scenes. The era of reassurance has ended. It was the era of permanency and contentment; the era of complete calm, the joyful official radio, the jubilant official television, and the newspapers with different affiliations but similar headlines originating from censers, the ministry of information, or the intelligence services that are keen on making citizens happy.
The era of reassurance has ended. It was the era of the soft pillow and rosy dreams, with no surprises or participation. It involved times of silk and velvet, queues of flatterer advisors, crowds that were happy with official statements, the five-year plan, and the illiteracy-combating programs. The pillow is covered with myriad interrogations and endless queues of thorns and doubts. It overflows with demands and questions, as well as tensions and worries.
Truth be said, we neither anticipated nor entrenched ourselves. We considered time to be a quagmire closed with the iron of chains, and that what applies today will apply forever. We thought that those who said Yes yesterday will do so tomorrow; that tongues are made for flattery, hands for applause, and pens for signing for pre-prepared attestations. We considered that storms are an ailment that others suffer from; that earthquakes are a curse that visits remote countries; that sons will be as obedient as their fathers; that young children will sleep in their grandparents’ bed. We thought that our land will not dare to perpetrate the same flowers that grew in the gardens of other peoples – peoples that betrayed their lengthy slumber and left it behind in exchange for their future.
We neither anticipated nor entrenched ourselves. We said that we will not need in the worst of cases more than a few oppressions, a bunch of promises, or threats of rebuking and resolve-breaking. We exaggerated in digging into wells that had not seen sunlight for ages. We exaggerated in digging into dictionaries that time had discarded.
We suddenly discovered that we live above a fault line; that the earth trembles beneath our feet; that difficult questions were suddenly asked; and that losing patience exacerbates people’s anger. We were under the illusion that a traditional umbrella is enough and that the issue will not take more than a little drizzle, some light rain, and slight quakes. We forgot that an umbrella protects from rain but not from earthquakes.
The area is trembling. No one is entitled to say they are not concerned by the issue. One cannot resign from earthquakes. Certainly, differences and particularities must be taken into account too, as well as the nature of the regime; the relation of the ruler with the people; the extent of their acknowledgment of his legitimacy and their feeling that he represents them or is concerned about their demands; his respect of their rights and dignity; his ability to address himself to them; and their ability to trust his messages.
It would be no exaggeration to say that we have slipped into the era of earthquakes, albeit with a different magnitude from one location to the other. The attempts of protection from them were multiple, as were the abilities of this or that constituent to adapt and control damages.
We have to admit that the season of Arab earthquakes took us by surprise. It was no secret that there were tensions here and there and that people were not content with this or that ruler. Nonetheless, we did not expect fires to be ignited in several locations, and that earthquakes would be the end of those who believed they would stay and pass on their legacy. It is no simple matter for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to rush to exile to escape what is more sinister; for Hosni Moubarak to be worried of what the public prosecutor will issue; and for protests in Bahrain to open the doors of the ultimate regional test. It is no simple matter for many to remember that the sectarian tension line extends from Baghdad to Kuwait, and includes Beirut; that Jordan and Syria do not lie outside the scope of protests; and that the blood of protesters aggravates the deadlock in San’aa rather than resolve it. This is not to mention the colonel of the Al Fateh Revolution, who insisted on chasing “rats” to the point of summoning the earthquake to his homeland.
We have much more questions than answers. We are at the beginning of a labor that could be long and painful. We are at the beginning of the earthquake, which could sweep away leaders or regimes, destroy the unity of some countries, launch sectarian or regional conflicts, and cause interventions and wars. The era of reassurance has ended. We are henceforth living according to the Richter scale.
*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on March 21, 2011.