Last month my friend Habib Haddad co-founder of Yamli asked me to write a blog post on his Yalla Start up which I did with a lot of pleasure – I love the work Habib and his friends are doing and I think their way of thinking will impact a lot on Arab new generation of entrepreneurs-. For some reasons, I totally forgot to re-publish the post which I will do right now.
I think what I wrote few months ago is still very much valid, and the more I go in depth in researching issues in the Middle East, the more I find that fostering original creation is the only way for making the Arab world switching to a pro-active culture(s) that speak(s) for itself instead of being spoken by Others.
In the age of digital media, where the actual cost of content production (whether audio, video, texts, etc) has dramatically (and luckily) fallen, we cannot just complain that somebody else is “monopolizing” our image and telling our Story and stories, we have to switch to a proactive attitude.
I believe this is the right time for ideas like “Orientalism” to stop. We control the knowledge tools much better than in the past, so we have to use them in a the proper way. And when I say “we” I mean also the Arab world, and I mean also in a way myself as a part of the Arab world, as somebody living here, speaking the language and sharing the culture(s). Few days ago a friend of mine who wanted to introduce me somebody for my phd research told him on the phone “I want to introduce you a friend of mine, an Orientalist who`s studying Syrian drama”. His expression did struck me, since for me “orientalist” is a negative word, whereas he said that for him “had it not been for the Orientalists, much of our recent Arab history would never have been written“.
This situation can be changed and I strongly believe that digital media is the chance for Arabs to change it.
Few weeks ago, I was running like a crazy from an interview to another in order to finish the first part of my field work for my PHD research about Syrian musalsalat.
An (Arab) friend of mine just looked at me as if I was totally weird and told me: “why are you doing all these crazy efforts?! You read Arabic, just translate those (pointing at few articles and couple of books dealing with drama) into English and khalas, it’s done!”.
While trying to explain him that a PHD research –generally speaking- is something quite serious in terms of getting a critical mass of sources, comparing them, quoting, elaborating, etc I just realised there was an “abyss” between us.
Few days later, I went to interview a smart guy who’s trying to collect different historical sources concerning drama and doing an “encyclopedia” type of project. When asking questions, I saw him being quite reluctant in answering.. he suddenly said: “sorry but you should pay for this”. “Pay?!” . I have to admit it was the first time in more than 10 years of research that I was hearing such an answer. “There is a value in what I do. And, if you are going to take it without giving anything back, at least you should pay”. My efforts in explaining that there is something called “quotation” in academia, something that acknowledges the original creator of a thought, were vain.
He simply concluded that, while the Western world has got “quotation”, the Arab world has only “copy and paste”.
That “abyss” of few days before finally had a name: “copy and paste” culture, thaqafat al nskh wal lsq. It seems that Arabs are so used to copy and paste others’ works that original creation is quickly dying in this part of the world. Creativity just disappears when there is no value attributed to cultural creation, no intention to acknowledge, no wishes to build upon somebody else’s work in order to create your own work.
The copy and paste culture is not a revenge against Western imperialism – the West which exploited and deprived the Arab world -, as somebody is nostalgically putting it.
The copy and paste culture is actually something the Arab world itself is paying a price for, by preventing original Arab thoughts to be exposed and debated, original Arab ideas to be investigated, original Arab research works to be published, etc. Cause if nobody attributes a value to a scientific article, a to a piece of information, to interviews and investigations that go into a PHD thesis, how do we expect to have an original Arab thought to be formed?
We always hear debates about the “XXI century Arab thought” etc, but where does its essence lay if not in original creation? And where this original creation can be expressed and exposed the most, if not on the Internet?
It’s precisely there, with all the digital easy access tools that new technology has provided us with, that a new Arab thought has to displayed, debated, re-elaborated, re-innovated.
When we celebrate the boom of the Internet in the Arab world, the increasing usage of social networks, etc, lots of this stuff is actually still about consumption and not creation.
- We need to write, not only to read.
- We need to film, not only to watch.
- We need to produce, not only to consume.
- We need to innovate, not only to preserve.
But, in order to create, we need to give a value to our creation. Then we need to respect this value. We need to trust. I personally see the challenge of Creative Commons organisation in the Arab world to be in this very challenge of creation, of giving a value, of facilitating trust.
Creative Commons was born in a Western world were copyright protection had become a chain, an obstacle to innovation. In the Arab world, copyright is almost unknown or disrespected, and original creation is disrespected, too, to the extent that it is totally neglected. In this context Creative Commons should be understood as a way of giving value to this neglected creation, of building trust and respect around it.
Would be this possible, the Arab world’s past and its history (like the history of its TV drama, just as an example) will finally have a value for Arabs too … the future won’t be made up of only Westerners investigating and writing this story, while Arabs just reading it.