As I write this, for perhaps the fifth time this morning, the novelist, essayist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri has updated his Facebook status with the same line of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy”; that is how he types the words, without capitals, incessantly repeating them in obsessive typographic experimentation.
It is but one – somewhat unsettling – example of the kind of intellectual engagement afforded by the most popular of all web sites. A kind made possible only by the Arabs’ most recently adopted literary genre: never mind the fact that Zikri happens to quote an English-language source on this occasion; over the last two years or so, the status update has arguably become the best read form of Arabic literature. Far more so than the tweet, which tends to rely on external links and operates in a far less interactive space, the Arabic Facebook status update – together with the “comments” and “likes” it readily engenders – is increasingly the source, the reference and departure point, for all kinds of cultural debate. It can of course be about anything, and in miniature form it reproduces and replaces every kind of writing: the poem, the short story, the review, the opinion piece, even the interview – not to mention the quote and the song lyric. There are those who specialise in the status update, too: whether writers-journalists or not, they tend to affirm and/or parody those discourses whose original place is the café, the podium or the (cultural) pages of newspapers.
Where more space is needed for literary texts or items of journalism often previously published elsewhere, the mechanism of the “note” provides it; you seldom have to depart from the mother of all “social-networking” fora to read and respond to even those things published in print. And you can respond instantly: a white rectangle where you need only click for the cursor to start blinking positively invites you to do so. There are absolutely no limits on what you can say.
Provided you have the right friends, indeed, a quick run-through of your news feed – which comes with all such responses attached – should yield a more or less accurate picture of the culture scene in its totality. It is not so much objectionable as sacry that so much of what is talked about proves contentious. Besides quotes from the lyrics, Fairuz’s new album solicited discussions of whether or not the last surviving diva of Arab singing has retained her appeal, and to what extent the jazz-influenced music by her son, Ziyad Rahbani, has serviced weakening vocal abilities. It is fascinating to see how the vast majority of people will use Facebook not so much to communicate their views as to say what they feel they should say, even though they are under no compunction to say anything in particular: with very few exceptions, Fairuz’s phenomenal status was simply affirmed, again and again, without much argument as to why it should be.
Likewise any number of cultural topics: the evaluation by several fellow writers of a well-known humorist like Bilal Fadl, for example, or – most recently – whether or not prose poets should accept the offer of publication in a supplement of the state-supported magazine Ibdaa, which is edited by the most notorious of their detractors, the establishment figure Ahmad Abdelmotie Hegazi: scuffles over such issues of general and not so general interest abound; and where things get out of hand on the “wall”, people take it outside through the private messaging or chat facility, insulting each other to their heart’s content.
I am hard pressed to understand the implications of this trend, not only for individuals who express their shifting alliances by removing each other from friend lists or – occasionally – by luridly expressing their feelings on each other’s walls and then removing each other from friend lists, but equally for the functioning of culture itself. What is it that changes when the cultural operators, the figures and the stars, cease to see and be seen, turning into lines of text that twinkle, surrounded by no end of pictures and names, against a white background?
I think one thing that happens is that they become images of themselves; they become marketing devices in an ongoing, endless (self) advertisement; in strange and variously subtle ways they become their own brands. And they stand not for what they stand for but for how, through the medium of the status update, they choose to confirm and reconfirm it: the translator and novelist Nael El-Toukhy is the eternal cynic; the journalist and essayist Sayed Mahmoud is the go-to man for what is going on…
That said, it is the content of the culture scene reflected by Facebook that stimulates and disturbs. Last night the young writer Hilal Chouman summed it up beautifullyvin response to my own update asking why it must all remain so deadeningly dull: “The homeland God morality the Woman the past of the Left the present of the Left the future of the Left breaking taboos the young novel the poetic novel epics the novel of generations the relationship with place occupation normalization with Israel dialogue in standard Arabic dialogue in colloquial Arabic the correct idiom he fornicated he took pleasure she has too apples and the box of his penis the secrets of poetry and that which is not poetry poetry poetry modern poetry the static and the dynamic is the city dead a plastic city brutal capitalism the humanization of the murderer those around him weren’t bad but he wasn’t bad the invaders invasion from within etc etc etc…”