What Makes a Revolution? On the Irregularities of Desert Arabs



In this text, Ahmad Makia radically decenters the history of the Arab Revolution from the fertile Levant, Egypt, and Iraq to the deserts of the Arab Peninsula. At the core of this alternative history is the Dhofar Revolution against the Omani Sultanate and its Western allies, as immortalized by filmmaker Heiny Srour.

Srour Funambulist 4
Still from Heiny Srour’s film The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974) about the Dhofar Revolution.

In the contemporary West Asian cultural landscape, there persists a fixation on Arab unity and solidarity. Invoked as a ghost, a missed opportunity, or an unrealized society which needs to be resurrected, the romanticism of Arab solidarity in cultural practices today lingers as an affective myth and as warped insomnia. Auto-theorizing it as “Umm Kulthum Doesn’t Sleep,” or in its less poetic dimension as the “Pan-Arab Hangover,” is a body of work that aims to dislodge modern pan-Arab identity as a locus for solidarity and decolonial practice today. From exploring Arab nationalism’s parent ideology of German romanticism to how it creates non-Arab minority identities, (Kurdish, Amazigh…), the Pan-Arab Hangover provides critical transgressions and new complexities from inherited political histories. 

As an example, some of today’s reflections and inspirations on the histories of revolutionary movements in the region gravitate to Palestine, or mid-century Cairo and Algiers, or Bourghibia’s Tunisia, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Nimeiri’s Sudan. Yet, political movements of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly that of Yemen and Oman, are rarely featured as examples of collective Arab revolutionary history. The same persists in today’s revolutionary movements, where Cairo’s Tahrir Square is celebrated in West Asia; yet Yemeni Houthis are perceived to be in a state of war rather than a revolution. The reason isn’t social or political. Arguably, it is environmental. “Arabia” proper, or the Arabian Peninsula, is best known as a desert in the broader West Asian imaginary, and thereby conceived of as a space of negation, loss, and dissociation, as if a “cultural desert” or a vacuum.