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Following the Flock | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A scene from the television series ‘al-Andaleeb’ (the Nightingale), based on the life of the late Abdel-Halim Hafez, arrested my attention for a long time. In it, the singer stands in front of a large audience in Alexandria at the beginning of his career, and when he starts to sing, the audience begins to throw tomatoes and rotten eggs on him. They ask him to sing songs by Abdulaziz Mahmoud and other famous singers of the time, but Abdel-Halim refuses to give in to their wishes after having impatiently waited for this opportunity. A relatively short time elapses and Abdel-Halim returns to the same stage, in the same place to sing the same song – only this time, he is welcomed by a thunderous burst of applause and cheers. What had changed since then? Could people’s tastes have changed in such a short span of time? I don’t think so. Changes like these take a long time to take place. In this case, it may be regarded in terms of the psychology of the audience and the singer’s stance. The behavior of the masses is governed by motives, desires and a variety of instigators that are neither rational nor objective. Habits, traditions, passion, intolerance, fear of the unknown, and excessive zeal, are all part of the set of motives behind this behavior – they are also factors that some have exploited to quickly gain leadership and mobilize the masses in the direction of their choice. And yet, here’s this singer who refused to heed the masses and so they threw him with eggs and tomatoes; only to return and applaud him, singing the songs they once revolted against. Had he listened to them in the first place, he would certainly have gained rapid popularity, but he would have misled himself and would never have been able to achieve such an elevated status. But that’s the very thing Abdel-Halim Hafez chose not to do, having no interest in instant popularity – and he won in the end.

In reality, my objective does not revolve around the series inasmuch as using this incident to highlight several ideas that come to mind regarding the relationship between the leader and the masses, and the relationship between the intellectual and the audience, which in turn poses fundamental questions – especially in relation to the state of the contemporary Arab world. Who follows and who leads? Who influences whom? Who should be a follower and who should be followed? All these questions and others of a similar nature may appear to be purely theoretical, bearing no relation to actual action; whereas they are issues that affect the core of our political and social reality. When an entire country is destroyed, some displaced and others killed, everything that has been built over the years is demolished overnight; and yet some leaders still claim victory and stir up the masses with religious and patriotic slogans. Then the society’s intellectuals step in to view the situation, justifying anything and everything, sometimes in the name of resistance, or in defense of the nation’s honor, and at other times, in the name of preserving dignity. But something is wrong here – if indeed it weren’t a fatal mistake. Is it considered honorable or dignified for Lebanon to get ravaged as a result of a gamble, I won’t call it a miscalculated adventure, just when the country had begun to ask for aid only to return to its former state of wreckage before this mass destruction? Can it be deemed resistance when thousands are displaced and killed for the sake of achieving instant popularity, or for fulfilling the tasks of others away from their lands? Or was it simply a miscalculated adventure? I’m for resistance, but resistance comes in different forms – and so does the enemy. Misleading illusions are an enemy, as are misleading statements and the whimsical toying with people’s destinies. Resistance, like jihad, does not have a universal or unique form; it starts with oneself and does not end with clashes.

In the end, the problem is not really about the event, which by then is over and done with, the real problem lies in dealing this event and with the discourse through which it is being perceived. This could be applied to the events that recently took place in Lebanon or what happened before that, or what will still happen – if the ancient discourse, which is the prevalent one, of empty slogans of honor, dignity and resistance prevails despite all the setbacks and calamities that befall the country. Japan suffered a profound defeat. American military bases were forced upon Koreans. Germany was coerced into signing treaties that left it in utter humiliation. India suffered the indignity of colonial oppression for a long time, and China was on the verge of becoming a society of opium addicts. And yet none of them surrendered or gave up, they resisted and struggled without resorting to violence or ‘uncalculated adventures’. Resisting in a civil manner, the result was a renaissance in Japan and Germany, China and South Korea rose up the ranks of competition, while North Korea had depleted its resources to acquire illusory power and sovereignty with the aim of ultimately oppressing people. All of these countries changed their outlook and their methods to resolve things when they realized that their ancient discourse had led them to destruction. They were able to preserve their dignity, honor and achieve true resistance. As for the Arab world, the dominant discourse is one of revolt. What have we gained from this except anguish and ruin? And who is to blame for all this?

Who is responsible for all these tragedies and detrimental delusions? The masses do not lead but are led, but this does not seem to be the case in the Arab world. In other parts of the world people learn from their experiences, setbacks and disasters once their leaders and intellectuals regain their awareness. In the Arab world, everyone (except those who God has mercy on) follows the masses, stirring up their passions and trailing behind them – all at the expense of the masses themselves. The masses need someone to lead not follow them, to enlighten them instead of leading them astray. But the leaders and decision-makers among us, I do not mean to generalize here, only want to sing Abdulaziz Mahmoud’s songs. They don’t want to listen to Abdel-Halim Hafez even though they know he has a beautiful voice. It is a fear of the masses, or the attempt to manipulate them for one’s own ends or goals that are unrelated to the truth or public interest. In the end, truth will force itself on us, but only when it is too late, when all is lost and we can only say, “We have missed the opportunity”.