This study explores Habermas’s work in terms of the relevance of his theory of the public sphere to the politics and poetics of the Arab oral tradition and its pedagogical practices. In what ways and forms does Arab heritage inform a public sphere of resistance or dissent? How does Habermas’s notion of the public space help or hinder a better understanding of the Arab oral tradition within the sociopolitical and educational landscape of the Arabic-speaking world? This study also explores the pedagogical implications of teaching Arab orality within the context of the public sphere as a contested site that informs a mode of resistance against social inequality and sociopolitical exclusions.
Among the inevitable outcomes of colonial intervention is the destabilization of the public memory of colonized nations. This erosion of memory can be resisted by reinvigorating oral history through such means as folklore, untold stories, interviews, war narratives, and oral history-based film documentaries. These acts of enunciating oral history as hypothetical proprietors of Habermas’s “public sphere” help to decolonize what Said (1991) calls Western “modes of persistence” (466) that legitimize knowledge through different hegemonic forms. One such strategy is to strengthen the integration of oral history into school curricula, which could offer a fresh perspective that challenges traditional textual resources.
Oral history does not necessarily begin with recorded chronicles, nor with speeches recorded by historians such as Herodotus, who chose to recount “events removed in time and place from him” (Kwa 1998, 19). According to studies of Western traditions, oral history began with chroniclers such as Thucydides, who “chose to write about an event he witnessed and participated in—the Peloponnesian War” (Kwa 1998, 19). However, if oral history is more about witnessing contemporary public events than about recording the past, then we may assume that it started long before the times of the Greeks, with the storyteller of Gilgamesh, who pleads to the readers to let him speak of Gilgamesh, whose story takes precedence only because he “saw everything” (qtd. in West 1997, 404). The Babylonian reciter urges his audience to let him “teach his whole story” (West 1997, 404), which may be one of the first known connections between oral history and pedagogy. This strong bond between orality and pedagogy continued to flourish in Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas of Arabia both in pre-Islamic times and after the emergence and spread of Islam. As Mourad (2006) points out, “orality was practiced in early Muslim learning circles,” so that sama (listening) was equally as important as imla (dictation) and “orality continued to have its own tradition” (4). Arab oral historians over the centuries have responded to colonial desires and resisted authoritative narratives that have attempted to contrive politicized histories of the nation. The erosion of public memory resulting from authoritative narratives can be remedied by reinvigorating oral history via such methods as folklore, untold stories, interviews, war narratives, documentaries, and even hip-hop music.
Drawing on Jurgen Habermas’s conceptualization of the “public sphere” as a sociopolitical structure that transforms oppressed societies and provides a site from which to voice opposition, this study explores points of convergence between oral history, colonial/postcolonial studies, and education. The study covers three areas: the historical dimension of Arab orality as the public sphere of national consciousness, a theoretical conceptualization of Arab orality as a vehicle of resistance, and the pedagogical implications of teaching Arab orality. Arab oral history has always invoked a return to a national consciousness that transcends the imperial presence—be it British in Baghdad and Cairo, Italian in Tripoli, French in Rabat and Beirut, or, as of late, Israeli in Palestine and American in Baghdad—that imposes itself through European languages. Arab oral history has continuously responded to these colonial constructs using both the vernacular and fusha (formal language). The ways in which Arab oral heritage resists both colonial desires and authoritative regimes through its persistence in reclaiming the public sphere can be pedagogically used either to dismantle Western stereotypical representations or to initiate an intimate study of the history of a nation.
HABERMAS’S TRANSFORMATIVE PUBLIC SPHERE
Jurgen Habermas chronicled “the rise and fall of the bourgeois or liberal public sphere, which sprang into being as a result of the rapid expansion of commercial and literary activity in eighteenth-century Europe” (Walhout 2000, 2). He “described the public sphere as that place between the governmental realm and the private realm where people can hammer out the issues of the day through rational discourse” (Navasky 1996). Habermas attributed the emergence of the public sphere to “the rise of commerce, to the salons, coffeehouses and so-called table societies of the seventeenth century. These were places for court gossip and political discourse. In other words, they were institutions that contributed to the sort of culture without which democracy suffocates” (Navasky 1996). The public sphere is hypothetically a space in which one may protest social inequality and sociopolitical marginalization. Habermas (1989) points out that private spaces generated “the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations” (27) between state and masses. It has become a “medium of . . . political confrontation” (Habermas 1989, 27). The public sphere in this sense is a site of conflict negating the state’s political agendas, and endorsing the masses with agency.
In Between Facts and Norms (1996), Habermas defined the public sphere as “a network for communicating information and points of view” that “coalesce into topically specified public opinions” (360). M. D. Walhout has argued that in contemporary societies, “this network—thanks to the development of the mass media—extends far beyond the face-to-face communication that characterises private life” (Walhout, 2000, 3). It provides a public venue for individuals to converse about citizenship, services, and societal issues linked to the people in power or directly to the government; it is defined by its flexibility and is usually guarded against the machinations of the state: “The public’s understanding of the public use of reason was guided specifically by such private experiences as grew out of the audience-oriented subjectivity of the conjugal family’s intimate domain. Historically, the latter was the source of privateness in the modern sense of a saturated and free interiority” (Habermas 1989, 28). Though the general population may keep to itself in any given situation, it neither completely stops participating in a public sphere nor becomes plainly united as a coterie when it becomes inundated with a more comprehensive domain of individual audience members, observers, and thinkers who understand that the public and private domains are equally interchangeable and equally subject to change.
The notion of the public sphere raises the question of absolute sovereignty in opposition to a society that seeks inner voices of dissent. Reclaiming the public sphere is a strategy by which society can manifest its values and cultural orientation. In this context, “the modern public sphere . . . belongs to what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld’—the world of everyday life in which cultural values, social solidarity and personal identity are formed” (Walhout 2000, 3–4). In effect, Habermas speaks of a shift in public sphere domination from a state-controlled realm to an inclusive horizon of performances. When personal issues become common concerns, the public itself changes its noncommittal stance against state-controlled domains.
Habermas speaks of a public sphere that is not only engendered by the masses but, more importantly, recovered from the clutches of the state. In a highly monitoring state in which “political and artistic matters [fall] through a government crack” (Gallagher 2000, 174), the public sphere becomes a contested area that continues to “exercise strategies of resistance—through underground publications; allegorical, symbolic or coded writing; and overseas publications of manuscripts smuggled out of the country” (Gallagher 2000, 175). It is often useful for the expression of the discontents and concerns of marginalized social groups. In effect, I argue here that a society in which orality finds different venues of articulation is capable of sustaining what Habermas (1987) calls “autonomous public spheres” (364). The intimacy of the oral tradition, often due to its use of the vernacular, promises liberation from institutionalized language because the oral tradition is a realm of interiority that ordains its own laws and escapes any external constraints. What is of interest here is how the political and pedagogical significance of the public sphere, as the lifeworld of resistance, accentuates itself through oral tradition. The aim of this paper is to recognize an emerging public sphere in the form of the utterances, performances, and folkloric activities created to sustain this lifeworld, and to find in orality an annex of political debate and expression, which in turn inform that tenacious consciousness to contribute to public opinion.
THE HEGEMONIC REALITY: THE EMPIRE, AUTHORITATIVE GOVERNMENTS, AND DOGMATIC GROUPS
Very few studies have explored Habermas’s work and “its relevance to Third World politics” (Kapoor 2008, 98). This study examines, in part, the bearings of Habermas’s theory of the public sphere to the politics and poetics of the Arab world. In what expressive forms does the Arab oral heritage generate a public sphere of resistance or of dissent? How does Habermas’s notion of the public space help or hinder a better understanding of the Arab oral tradition at work within the sociopolitical history of some Arab countries? In what ways does this oral tradition, as a mode of resistance, inform the curriculum and expand its pedagogical practices beyond the walls of the classroom?
Not only is the Arab struggle against both colonial and authoritative governments intended to reclaim the public sphere as the locus of literary and intellectual independence, it also contributes to Habermas’s notion by envisioning the public sphere as a postcolonial site of resistance. Moreover, a discussion of the postcolonial condition of a nation through its own indigenous tradition negates the ironic situation peculiar to postcolonial studies, especially when it “profess[es] to make the balance of global power relations central to its inquiry, yet seems to inscribe neocolonial hegemony by privileging the languages (and consequently the canons) of the major colonial powers, Britain and France” (Hassan 2002, 46). This study of Arab orality, therefore, contributes to that body of postcolonial narratives that are not born out of empire itself: “Independence, however, has been followed by the march of neo-colonialism in the guise of modernization and development through globalization and transnationalism. This reinvention of imperialism implies that schools and school curriculum cannot separate themselves from the task of neo-colonialism” (Kanu 2009, 16). Arab orality serves not only to destabilize the imperial presence, but also to decolonize the public space and liberate history from the clutches of governmental oppression.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, oral tradition as a site and a means of resistance has dominated the public space and acquired a self-proclaimed status as the new language of democracy, emerging out of social protest against authoritarian regimes. The Arab Spring social protests are “a game-like activity that has broadened the struggles of and for democracy and, all the more, reshaped the ways of participation and representation, thereby offering citizenship new trajectories in the post-protest era” (Levy 2014, 24). In effect, the Arab Spring was not a sudden occurrence within Arab nations such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen in 2011, but rather a conscious response to authoritarianism that took various forms, all of which have contributed to a transnational Arab solidarity. It was the result of many years’ worth of repression by authorities that have been relentless in their indifference and brutality against their own citizens, materializing in a public domain marked by long autumns and winters of oral discontent.
To a certain extent, the Arab Spring has succeeded in stimulating activities and interest in using public spaces. In Syria, for instance, “local citizen councils have emerged mostly in liberated parts of the country where they act as administrative bodies” (Jamshidi 2014, 51). During the eighteen-day uprising in Egypt in 2011, public committees were established to provide services and security: “Committees were everywhere in villages and cities. They became the heartbeat of Egyptian society—locally rooted and flexibly organized, informal and voluntary” (El-Meehy 2012). Other civic services geared towards public cognizance included sexual harassment awareness campaigns, such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, also known as OpAntiSH, which was formed in November 2012 in Egypt (Jamshidi 2014, 67). OpAntiSH works closely with Tahrir Bodyguard, which was established during the same period (2012), “to promote a culture that rejects sexual violence of all kinds, including sexual assault” (Jamshidi 2014, 68). Similarly, the Libyan organization Volunteer Libya, founded mostly by Libyans in diaspora shortly after the beginning of the protests, works to promote public service and plans “to embed public service in Libyan culture and . . . has drafted a proposal to incorporate public service into the country’s educational system through government scholarships” (Jamshidi 2014, 72). This renewed spirit of citizenship has enriched community performance and attempted to transcend differences among minority groups, petty politics, and religious dogmatic rhetoric in order to encourage a sense of a viable public cohesion that has not been orchestrated by authorities or stage-managed by religious demagogues.
For instance, Nasr Abu Zayd has argued that modern Islamic education has been hijacked by Arab rulers and dogmatic religious groups. This battle for legitimacy has smothered dialogue and public spaces that facilitate discussion and accommodate difference: “Religion has been used, politicized, not only by groups but also the official institutions in every Arab country. . . . Nearly everything is theologized . . . every issue society faces has to be solved by asking if Islam allows it. There is no distinction between the domain of religion and secular space” (Lyon 2008). Similarly, Asad (2003) has pointed out that many intellectuals would allow “deprivatized religion entry into the public sphere . . . but on [the] condition that it leave its coercive powers outside the door and rely on its powers of persuasion” (186). According to Habermas, such sociopolitical concerns become “voiced in the public sphere when they are mirrored in personal life experiences. To the extent that these experiences find their concise expression in the languages of religion, art, and literature, the ‘literary’ public sphere in the broader sense, which is specialized for the articulation of values and world disclosure, is intertwined with the political public sphere” (Habermas 1996, 365). In effect, Arab oral tradition has striven to accentuate both the anticolonial and the postcolonial narratives that are articulated in defiance of or in opposition to hegemonic forces.
ARAB ORALITY AND NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS
In the pre-Islamic era, poetry was an important means of expressing sentiments, celebrating events, and transmitting oral history. According to Sallam al-Jumahi, an Arab scholar who died in 845: “In the Days of Ignorance, verse was to the Arabs the register of all they knew, and the utmost compass of their wisdom; with it they began their affairs, and with it they ended them” (qtd. in Jones 2011, 3). The relevance of oral history to the tradition of Arab oral poetry has been tersely accentuated by a Jordanian Bedouin who affirmed, “The story that doesn’t have a poem is a lie” (Shryock 1997, 258). Arab oral heritage is mostly a combination of personal and tribal history transmitted through oral poetry. That sense of continuity is preserved in folkloric and historical accounts that narrate public occasions and personal experiences; however, the emergence of Islam has been equally important to the development and endurance of the Arab oral tradition.
With the rise of Islam, oral tradition won an easy ascendancy because “writers, poets, and people who could recite the Qur’an in particular, were often seen as guardians of the Arabic language; oral recitations of poetry or the Qur’an were a normal part of any Arab social gathering (Layton 2010, 49). Moreover, the sayings of the Prophet had been “transmitted orally for almost three hundred years before they were written down . . . . [and] biographers of the Prophet also based their works upon oral accounts” (McBride and McKiddy 1989, 4). In fact, oral tradition has become an intrinsic part of the scholarship of Islam and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). There has always been “a scrupulous concern to preserve the conventions of oral recitation [in order] to show how an understanding of its oral nature helps to grasp the specific contribution of ḥadith to various practical concerns of the Muslims” (Speight 1989, 27). Additionally, Nuseibeh (1956) explains that folkloric narratives and history, “expressed in spoken literature and transmitted by oral tradition, greatly influenced the development of an Arab national consciousness” (13). That sense of national consciousness has continued to find expression in Arab orality, maintaining its presence in the public sphere.
Today, oral performers speaking to common audiences about everyday issues choose to do so in colloquial Arabic. It must be maintained here that “fusha—what has come to be known as Modern Standard Arabic—differs markedly in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary . . . from the regional oral versions practiced by different Arab speakers in . . . everyday interactions (ammiya)” (Vinson 2008, 84). This aspect of language “is difficult for non-Arabic speakers to appreciate, since the difference between oral and written Arabic is . . . more like the difference between, say, the English used in Shakespeare’s London and modern American idiom.” In effect, to compose folkloric pieces about everyday life and the conditions of the ordinary person on the street “in formal Arabic can often feel jarring and artificial even to native speakers” (Vinson 2008, 84). This marked difference between ammiya and fusha carries political and social as well as linguistic implications.
Kilpatrick (1992) argues that the Arabic language “has developed new registers” and “possibilities for enrichment” because of “the breaking down of barriers between colloquial and fusha” (269). According to Booth (1992), the orality of the vernacular “bears positive ideological overtones, for one virtue of a colloquial poetic idiom is its potential audience, extending beyond the educated” (463). In effect, because the vernacular can be used to express “ideological overtones,” Arab public speakers and poets developed a sociopolitical consciousness of the rhetoric of orality. Suleiman (2006) explains that the vernacular succeeded in infiltrating “publicly sanctioned cultural expression” by reaching out to the masses who might otherwise be apathetic towards elitist literature (34). What the people crave are “spontaneously improvised verses [that] are used in daily life for everything from criticizing government policies to cracking jokes among friends” (Reynolds 2007, 29). Orality, therefore, with its unequivocal cultural and popular appeal and its easily structured and memorized accounts, serves as a vehicle to raise national awareness. It is because of its accessibility, appeal to the masses, notoriety for disrupting the fusha language adopted by the state, and unintelligibility to foreigners/colonizers that marginalized groups have appropriated oral tradition in order to subvert authority and reclaim the public sphere.
ARAB ORALITY AND DECOLONIZING THE PUBLIC SPACE
Childs and Williams (1997) point out that “new lines of resistance” have emerged and that “it is only relatively recently that attention has been paid to the mundane, non-heroic forms of resistance, as opposed to the more visible or glorious rebellions” (27). Similarly, as Moore (2008) argues, “‘new’ modes of speaking, looking and being . . . performance, parody, translation, and strategic visibility/invisibility, third-eye tactics” can transform our understanding of self-representation “and reconfigure the field of apprehension itself ” (16). In this context, Arab orality, when conceptualized as a self-representing agent that seeks to access the public sphere and win strategic visibility, can be viewed as one of the “new lines of resistance” to which Childs and Williams refer. One particular line of resistance (muqawamah) can be found in hip-hop music. According to Desai (2015), youth in the Arab world in general, and young Arab rappers in particular, “engage in resistance through hip hop (rap music) and provide counter-narratives and critiques of their government’s policies and practices in the wake of the production of death and destruction” (91).
The literary output connected with this resistance has, since the mid-twentieth century, been known as adab al-muqawamah (the literature of resistance). In an essay presented to a conference on contemporary Arabic literature held in Rome in October 1961, the Jordanian critic Isa al-Na’uri defined Arabic literature of the post-1948 era as “a literature of struggle, or a resistance literature (adab muqawamah), or a literature of liberation” (qtd. in Kadhim, 2004, viii). Arab culture has now been inundated by this new dynamic of resistance, which has enhanced the tradition of Arab dialectics and the rhetoric of dissent.
One of the most popular correlations between resistance and orality in Arab oral tradition is the figure of Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights), who is often presented as a “prototype of a dissident, female speaking agent [who] counters authoritarian rule” (Moore 2008, 15). Darraj (2004) argues that Scheherazade, the heroine of Arabian Nights, has historically been misrepresented by translators: “Revered in the East as a heroine for distracting the sultan Shahrayar from his murderous rampage with intriguing stories . . . Scheherazade became nothing more than a harem sex kitten . . . . An intelligent woman, schooled in literature, philosophy, and history, reduced to an erotic, shallow, sex-crazed body behind a veil” (1–2). The literary figure of Scheherazade “is evoked as a liberating literary agency to free women from patriarchal hegemony . . . . [or] as a modern Arab feminist subverting the oriental representations of Arab women as either erotic or subjugated” (Abdul 2014, 257). Scheherazade becomes the paragon of orality-in-resistance and resistance-in-orality, inadvertently mobilized by other Arab writers and narrators to emblematize the ways in which a personal, linguistic, and visual performance can engender the empowering domain that Habermas calls the public sphere.
Oral literature is fairly popular in the Arab world, in part because it offers a convergence of prevalence with individual experience as well as between biography and history. Oral poets “are paid handsomely at weddings, festivals, and similar public occasions to entertain spectators with their verbal jousts [and] [e]ncouraged by eager audiences and by an accompanying chorus that repeats their improvised verses” (Sowayan 1989, 151). Acceptance by the general public legitimizes and endorses the poets’ concerns and political views.
Y’aqub (2006) examines the enactment of resistance in Palestinian oral poetry duels in the Galilee region of northern Israel, in which resistance becomes a subtle public performance: “The context for this poetry . . . is the wedding eve party, the sahrah, in which Palestinians from different localities in Israel meet and interact in mock verbal duels that, on the surface, seem to be tied to the exigencies of the ‘here’ and ‘now’” (Suleiman 2006, 7). The performance, however, takes a further political turn when it invokes “the events, characters and place names of a heroic past[;] the oral poetry duel contrasts this past with the un-heroic present of the Palestinians in Israel” (Suleiman 2006, 7). This oral performance becomes an exercise in national consciousness, as the wedding becomes saturated with a nationalistic energy in which the personal is never truly separated from the political, which invites the audience into “a zone of signification in which ‘military imagery and epithets . . . run through the evening entertainment’” (Yaqub 2006, 23). This “zone of signification” resonates with what Habermas (1996) refers to as “specialized systems of action and knowledge that are differentiated within the lifeworld,” such as “religion, education, and the family [which are] associated with the general reproductive functions of the lifeworld (that is, with cultural reproduction, social integration, or socialization)” (360). However, I argue here that although for Habermas, “the private sphere of the lifeworld is characterized by intimacy and thus by protection from publicity” whereas “the public sphere strives to defend its publicity” (Ahn 2009, 112), in this particular case, the private and public actually converge. The oral performance, which is born out of the Habermasian lifeform as a ceremonial and cultural reproduction of social integration, succeeds, by virtue of its subtle voice of dissent, in channeling its flow towards the public sphere. The lifeworld event produces a “zone of signification” that enters powerfully into the public sphere, as the wedding also becomes a celebration of the continuity of Palestinian existence and proliferation despite the colonial presence.
As discussed above, Arab oral poetry is an important instrument in building national identity, and the popularity of oral performances helps to boost nationalistic awareness. In Sudan, for instance, at the beginning of the twentieth century, oral poetry formed the locus of national identity, partly “owing to the low level of literacy in the country. The oral nature of this poetry meant that both men and women were able to contribute to it and that the promulgation of this poetry in public performance” helped citizens to “imagine Sudan in its colonial borders as a free and independent nation,” becoming a tool “for spreading anti-colonial feeling and, finally, for getting around the censorship imposed by the colonial authority” (Suleiman 2006, 11). Furthermore, in post-Saddam Iraq, as the American-British colonial enterprise gave rise to corrupt politicians who sought only illegitimate private gain, a large number of oral poets won public approval for exposing those politicians to ridicule. One popular oral performer, Ihab Al-Maliki, laments current events in Iraq by focusing on the abuse of power by Iraqi officeholders:
I imagined the country when you are gone
When the last thief is caught in a ditch
Your successor may wholeheartedly think
Oil is still available, unawares that
The party is over and the revelers are gone
Oil shall be seeping, but it should be first shaken
We know your tricks now
Alas! people can no longer be fooled
Politics was understood by us
And so was the game of fate
A thief usually steals, then he flees the country
We wish him a safe journey!
Notably, a distinctive public sphere is created within the time and space of the performance itself, which becomes a collective experience with the equally vigorous response of the audience.
Much like oral poetry, autobiographies and documentaries also infiltrate the public space and assert their private, individualistic presence. The historical and social aspects of personal accounts define the image of the self and preserve a collective identity. The subject or self in oral history is not primarily individualistic in its outlook, because identity takes clear precedence. The speakers are keenly aware of common traits and shared experiences that inform their subject matter. In Voices of Resistance: Oral Histories of Moroccan Women (1998), Alison Baker interviews Moroccan women who “speak freely about their personal lives—growing up, going to school, their roles as women, wives, mothers” and other lifeworld associations, but keenly enter the public sphere when they discuss “their involvement in the resistance against French colonialism in the 1940s and 1950s” (3). These women tell of “their awakening to consciousness of the struggle against colonialism, the exile of King Mohamed V, entering the ‘family’ of the resistance, and carrying out missions for the resistance that tested their courage and resourcefulness” (6). Resorting to oral narratives, in this context, would enrich any in-class discussion of the role of women in the decolonization of the Arab world. These stories transcend time and personal agony to become larger-than-life narratives.
The Arab contemporary public sphere has been marked by the appearance of Arab rappers whose lyrics call to attention the reality of oppressive, despotic regimes. For example, Desai (2015) refers to the song “Shadows of Darkness,” which focuses on the demands of protesters: “By rapping about the historic and daily situation that Egyptians and others face in the Middle East, these rappers use their lived experiences to create a street curriculum that expresses their daily struggles and their resistance to corruption and oppression” (99). Similarly, in Tunisia, the song “Rais Lebled” “is critical of Ben Ali’s regime,” especially “the way in which the regime and its security forces suspended the law (the constitution) to enact state violence in order to stop people from gathering to demand their basic fundamental rights” (Desai 2015, 100). Because Arab hip-hop music reflects the current political realities of the Arab world, it is a useful educational tool with which to discuss the concerns of the contemporary Arab scene: “Hip-hop and rap is, in its most authentic forms, an unceasing search for the truth and justice that will liberate all peoples from the suffocating silence of oppression, poverty, and racism” (Lynn 2008, 27).
The use of orality as a means of entrance into the public sphere creates pivotal moments for Arab nationalistic history and its dialectics. For example, Faisal Al-Kasim, presenter of al-Jazeerah’s most polemical and widely viewed Arab program, In the Opposite Direction, understands the role of his talk show as generating dialogue and debate in ways that diversify discourse and refigure Arab politics:
Dialogue is something missing among the Arabs. It is missing in schools, as much as it is missing everywhere else in life of the Arabs. . . . Through programmes such as mine, we hope to implement new rules, those that educate the Arab human being to listen, not only to his own opinion, but to that of the other side as well. The debate-based media must enter in force and strongly in the political life of the Arabs, whether the Arab regimes like it or not. (Bahry 2001, 93)
Promoting debate and discussions on live Arab channels can only matter if future generations are taught the importance of speaking out and of strategically accessing public venues. Teaching oral history, in this respect, becomes instrumental.
As Dunaway (1996) points out, “oral history in the classroom bridges the gap between curriculum and community” (11). He further says of the link between oral history and education: “Oral history has served both as a means to preserve the contemporary history of education as a discipline and as a teaching strategy in social studies” (11), which suggests that it “works as a gateway to the rich cultural resources outside classrooms and textbooks” (11). Accordingly, oral history can enrich “the world of textbook and classroom with the face-to-face world of the student’s home community” (Sitton and Mehaffy 1983, 12). Since some students may mistakenly believe that history exists only in textbooks, oral history presents “some corrective addendum to the big picture history of the textbooks” suggesting that “history is something all around them and from which they personally derive” (12). It therefore serves to wrest history from the clutches of history books, and redefine it as the record of lived experience, which can enrich and inform “the curriculum-as-lived” that is “a plan more or less lived out” (Aoki 1993, 257).
Oral forms have consistently served political and educational purposes, promoting morally edifying issues and consolidating nationalistic spirit: “This remained equally true in societies that had low rates of literacy (for example, the Arabic- or Bengali-speaking world), as in communities that had lacked writing systems entirely (for example, parts of pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa)” (Sharkey 2006, 162). In the first half of the twentieth century, for instance, Satia al-Husri (1880–1968), an Arab educationalist and thinker, sought to publicly address “audiences of mixed professional backgrounds and educational achievements at different kinds of fora in the Arabic-speaking countries, including cultural clubs, schools, teacher-training colleges, universities, institutes of advanced higher education, and radio audiences” (Suleiman 2003, 126). With al-Husri, “the reader enters into an oral-like communion . . . wherein this thinker performs the role of the educator and teacher . . . [who] often relates [to] the content of the verbal and non-verbal interactions he had with real or imagined interlocutors in face-to-face communication . . . to address both the mind and the heart of his audiences” (127). Studying the oral history associated with al-Husri and similar cultural figures of resistance will help students become acquainted with the popular, down-to-earth history of the time.
Another oral narrative of pedagogical and historical significance is that of Bassam Shaka’a, the last elected mayor of Nablus, who said that during the Palestinian Intifada, “students have not been educated. We have spent about four years without education” (qtd. in Lynd et al. 1994, 259). In response to that crisis, Shaka’a notes that education became a form of underground resistance, as “our people opened our houses for the students, and there were volunteers to teach the students” (259), but the “Israelis arrested teachers . . . [and] students” and “closed associations which started alternative education” (259). He then discusses the hegemonic control to which colonizers often resort, distorting pedagogical apparatus in order to subjugate the population by providing them with inadequate education:
The Israelis . . . let our students cheat, without control. This year we tried to deal with the cheating. We willingly opened the schools for the students to get their education, freely. . . . We planned a public meeting with the parents, with the students, to educate them about the cheating. . . . The Israelis stopped the meeting. That morning they forbade anybody to enter the hall. . . . When the examination happened, the cheating went on. (259)
Discussing the significance of orality for the growth of identity among younger generations of Palestinians, Hammer (2005) argues that orality and oral history play “a crucial role in educating them, inside as well as outside Palestine. For young Palestinians in Palestine, they provide the missing pieces in the picture depicted by schools and curricula under Israeli occupation and for the longest time presenting a history bereft of Palestinian elements” (43). These narrated memories, stories, and songs are the ties that bind those youngsters to their national, nonelitist history.
Reading only elitist history may further undermine the contributions of marginalized people in general, and the role of women in the Arab world in particular. Sharkey (2006) points out that oral history can dismantle the exclusionary nature of education in certain parts of the Arab world, such as in Sudan: “Since only men had access to advanced literacy-based educations throughout the colonial period, only men could participate in print culture and the budding nationalist movement it stimulated. By contrast, in rural areas where oral traditions prevailed and where literacy was irrelevant to performance, women had often emerged as formidable poets and social critics” (167). Only after the 1940s did “advances in girls’ education” and “wider female participation in print culture” take place in postcolonial Sudan, “so that at independence in 1956, an estimated 4 percent of the Sudanese female population could read and write to some degree” (Sanderson 1968, 120–21). The point being made here is that, whereas traditional history may tend to be patriarchal and elitist, oral history embraces the less fortunate and undervalued voices.
In “The Oral Tradition and Arab Narrative History: An Exercise in Critical Thinking,” McBride and McKiddy (1989) suggest “a way that teachers can use three narrative accounts of one event in Arab history to give students practice in the analysis and evaluation of sources” (3). The event McBride and McKiddy discuss “is based on accounts of the capture of Riyadh by Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in 1902 . . . the seminal event in the modern history of Saudi Arabia [which] is to the Saudis what the battles of Lexington and Concord are to citizens of the United States” (3). From a pedagogical perspective, McBride and McKiddy suggest that with exposure to different oral and narrative accounts of an events, students can, based on their knowledge and relevant information, determine which account seems most reliable.
In 2009, in response to a recent study reporting that the Arab world faces “several forms of illiteracies,” which include “illiteracy of reading and writing” and “illiteracy of culture” (Al Missned 2007), a group of college professors and students in Qatar collaborated on a project “to preserve and re-present traditional Qatari culture by adapting cross-generational oral stories into visual form and publishing them in an anthology” (Ulmer and Paine 2011, 71). The purpose of this project “is to educate readers and students about traditional Qatari culture and lore” (71). Similar practices of the pedagogical use of oral history contribute to what Reisman (2012) describes as “the Reading Like a Historian (RLH) curriculum” (86). Reisman argues in favor of a student-as-historian approach that is comprised of “a radical departure from traditional textbook-driven instruction by using a new activity structure, the ‘Document-Based Lesson,’ in which students used background knowledge to interrogate, and then reconcile, historical accounts from multiple texts” (86). Similarly, when reading about events in Arab history, students can collect and examine oral accounts by contacting people in their community or viewing eyewitness testimonies on YouTube or other online sources. These collected oral accounts can contribute to the “Document-Based Lesson” in order to augment students’ historical thinking and add to the suggested multiple texts that can either complement or challenge traditional textbooks.
Though the Arab Spring has inspired many calls for change, the ethics of dialogue, compromise, and reconciliation have largely remained within the private domains of impoverished and marginalized individuals. The open and liberal use of public spheres has been stifled by authority structures that have failed to set the stage for an appropriate and progressive advancement of citizenship education in which the individual becomes aware of the vital role of the public sphere as a form of literacy. An important prerequisite of regime change is the actualization of critical literacy, which can be advanced through oral literature and public speaking. In the absence of a well-planned educational shift towards oral literacy, the result is a shaky sociopolitical structure that needs time to stabilize.
Oral history serves as a dialogical encounter between an individual and the narrator. It is a stratum that produces a culture of critical commentaries. Recognizing the role of oral tradition as a pivotal move towards reclaiming the public sphere augments what Habermas (1992) calls “a radical-democratic change in the process of legitimation” (444), which can be achieved through “the social-integrative power of solidarity” (444) as accentuated by individualized political utterances that represent the concerns of the masses. Arguably, this collective “communicative force of production” (444) can be considered a means of prevailing over the authoritative gaze that Habermas links to “money and administrative power” (444). In this sense, the public sphere is not only an utterance, a vocal exercise of identity-assertion and political stance, but also a space in which invisible minorities can be heard and seen.
Arab oral narratives tend to be unabashedly political, and derive their impact from the validity and audacity of the causes they espouse. Through narration, poetry, and dialogue, oral discourse counterbalances the intrusion of the state, the media, the Western world, and other hegemonic forms, such as authoritative regimes and dogmatic religious inculcation, that transmit their ideologies into public spaces. As a form of resistance, orality provides pivotal venues in which subalterns are able to express themselves publicly by drawing on personal experiences and politically oriented voices. These conjunctions in Arab orality, as the marginalized seek access to the dominant and domineering public sphere, occur in a colonial/postcolonial setting in which resistance is so often invasive. It seems that the general disposition to equate the muwatin, Arabic for “dweller,” with a “citizen” of an autonomous nation has shifted from its strict regional and nationalistic affiliations into a sphere that is more public, digital, and media-oriented and that contests any sociopolitical construction that produces a fixed and stipulated understanding of muwatin. That said, the dogmatic narrative of citizenry or the individual experience as servile to institutionalized imperialistic norms, such as the westernization of education in the Arab world, and as dominated by the rhetoric of governing elites and religious dogma, can only be dispelled once the oral tradition is integrated into the public sphere, not only as a Habermasian discursive structure of sociopolitical consciousness, but as an underground modality of literacy.