“My generation of Libyans was born into a state of waiting. We spent decades hoping for a miracle. We were surrounded by fairytales, stories about how a knight would come riding over the hill and fix everything. We peddled all sorts of conspiracy theories except the one that silenced us most, the one that said we were helpless. Few of us could remember a time before this waiting. Even fewer could imagine a life beyond it. Therefore, our problem was chiefly one of the imagination. We could not picture how to live in action rather than in hope.
That was the shape of our horizon. And we were almost resigned to it. Even our hopes seemed unconvincing. We indulged in them nonetheless, whenever we felt safe to do so; our living rooms and dining tables witnessed many heated discussions. But the silence of our solitude said it all. It seemed we were caught between quiet defeatism and sentimental expressions of our yearnings. We existed in the theoretical space between the wretched political reality of our days and our implausible aspirations. We waited. Whenever someone asked, as does Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, “What do we do now?” the answer was as prompt and horrific as Estragon’s: “Wait.” “Yes, but while waiting,” Vladimir goes on. “What about hanging ourselves?” Estragon suggests. For us too the choice seemed as stark and darkly comical; for, yes, we knew how to laugh at ourselves – and, contrary to popular myth, that did not make it any better.
But then suddenly and unexpectedly a miracle happened. It was not, thank goodness, heralded by a knight but by mass awakening: a chorus so vivid and colourful and true that it is not inappropriate to liken it to spring. It returned us from self-loathing and despair. The shift in our psychology is fundamental. The place we now find ourselves in is like a state of remembering, as if a fog has lifted and revealed a new but somehow familiar landscape. We are learning to speak in practical terms. We have a new passion for detail. We are hopeful but are no longer living in hope. We are anxious but not afraid. We no longer look over our shoulder. The road ahead needs all of our attention.
We carry with us those who are reluctant, and those who perpetrated unspeakable crimes. We need to find a way to secure justice clean of revenge. We have all seen too much blood. No one can erase the images from our memory. Perhaps that is not a bad thing, for we must remain true to the fallen and their sacrifice. The silence of our solitude now no longer speaks of defeatism; instead, it is filled with the echoes of war. We are yet to count our dead or account for the disappeared. But the best thing about time is its length, as my father used to say. At this fleeting moment of our history at least, time seems to be on our side. And, finally, we are joyful.”
Hisham Matar on the Libyan Uprising for the Guardian’s “Arab Spring, one year on” feature. You can also find more reflections from nine other Arab authors on the revolutions of their respective countries.