I’ve had trouble lately responding to questions about the revolutions taking place across the Middle East and North Africa—questions like “How does it make you feel?” or “Talal, were you in Tahrir Square?” Up to now, my response has been vague, short, and somewhat embarrassing “I actually don’t know. I wasn’t really personally affected. I wasn’t part of the change.”
Don’t get me wrong—I am ecstatic at the prospect of novel opportunities being created and the new sense of responsibility citizens in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen have won for themselves. However, despite being an Arab citizen, I can’t quite pinpoint how I made any sort of difference in the birth of this new generation.
My frustration extends further to my native country, Saudi Arabia, where the recent law granting suffrage and the right to participate in legal counsel to women has put into even starker relief the lack of rights in the Kingdom. As one of the few students from the Arab region on campus, I constantly find myself in discussions about the progress and future of my own country. Yet, I often do so strolling through Harvard Square where a malfunctioning BlackBerry trumps most people’s list of concerns. I feel deeply connected to the changes in my part of the world but troublingly insulated from them.
As some of my peers took their fates into their own hands and autocratic regimes collapsed I was live streaming Al-Jazeera in my literature lecture on Arabic fiction, trying desperately to keep up with the events as they unfolded at a remarkable rate. They were marching in the streets while I was sitting in class thousands of miles away. Did I fit into this equation at all? I trust that I am not the only Arab in the Western world with this feeling of disconnect. Yet, it is this confusing lack of geographic proximity with an absence of agency that has prevented our communities from reaching our social, political, and economic potential, leaving us ineffectual and helpless supporters of our allies abroad.
Despite being thousands of miles away, Arab citizens abroad should not use our distance as an excuse to hold us back from action. Our international education has provided us with a platform to debate and think without restrictions, and to freely explore our potential to succeed. We have the liberty to dream up ideas, theories, and plans that can motivate and inspire us to create a change in our communities.
Still, it is rare that we, the Arab youth living abroad, are given a forum to do so —a forum that stimulates our ambition and our creativity in pursuit of tangible results. It is for that reason, and more, that the upcoming Harvard Arab Weekend is so exciting! Being a four day-long conference, the Harvard Arab weekend brings together hundreds of participants from across the US to discuss and learn. Under the theme of ‘The Arab (R)evolution: What’s Next’, the conference incorporates panels and keynote speeches, discussions and debates that aim to deconstruct the changes happening in the Arab world, as a key step to move forward. The conference events will bring experts, scholars, policy-makers, revolutionists and youth from across the Arab region—ones who have taken part and others who are determined to take part in the Arab Spring. This conference will cover a wide spectrum of fields and interests—one that reflects the diverse representation from the different Harvard schools, graduate and undergraduate.
The Harvard Arab Weekend 2011 is indeed an opportunity to overcome distance, and the sense of longing and excitement that it has created, to catalyze efforts focused on building a stronger, and a more productive and socially aware Middle East and North Africa. I may not have marched in Egypt or protested in Syria, but my voice and the voices of my peers are still important. Simply through dialogue in Cambridge, we can take part in the global debate started by the Arab revolutions; one to which we have important sentiments to contribute.
Talal M. Alhammad 11 is a Harvard Arab Weekend Co-Chair. For more information on the events, see www.harvardarabweekend.org.