Good Questions: Was There Writing on the Wall during the Arab Spring?

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Image from “Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt,” by Swedish photographer Mia Gröndahl (AUC Press, 2013). Gröndahl visited Duke and discussed her work last fall.

The questions we get in Perkins Research Services range from the fatuous to the far-fetched to the fascinating. This is one of a series on our most interesting research questions, and how we go about answering them. (Some details have been changed to protect our users’ privacy.)

We have heard a lot about the use of social media to coordinate the Arab Spring protests. Taking the grassroots question back to earth, a student recently wondered what role graffiti might have played. Perhaps she was inspired by a speaker here at Duke last fall, Mia Grondahl. “Adira” approached the Perkins Research Desk one evening this spring when Stephanie, our late-night librarian, was there.

Stephanie used the library catalog to identify a book on the topic and sent Adira to get it. Adira returned very excited that she also had found some similar books by browsing nearby. That might have been the end of the interaction, but Stephanie kept working on the question after Adira left, determined to find some good journal articles as well to email to her.

What she found was fascinating. It seems that graffiti did not incite protests, but flowered immediately after the Arab Spring, once people felt more empowered and free. As eL Seed, an artist who calls his work “caligraffiti” says in an interview from PRI’s The World, “I hear a lot that artists create revolution, but I believe in Tunisia is the contrary, revolution has created artists.”

The barricades put up in the wake of the uprisings were converted from their original obstructive purpose and became canvasses for uniting people with their spontaneous messages. In addition, they served as memorial spaces dedicated to those killed during the confrontations, as discussed in an article from Theory Culture & Society. In another article, Stephanie found the claim that the graffiti reflected further unification of the people, with Muslim and Christian symbols side by side. Meanwhile in Cairo the government gave up whitewashing the pervasive graffiti because it reappeared almost immediately, according to Al-Arab.

Research librarians learn something new every day thanks to questions like this. Doesn’t it inspire you to find out how graffiti’s role has evolved in the four years since the Arab Spring? Or at least to go out and express yourself, as the students in POLISCI 222 did this spring?

Arab Spring graffiti inspired by issues in the Middle East, underneath the Campus Drive bridge at Duke (photo by Edward Chen).

Post by Catherine Shreve, Librarian for Public Policy & Political Science

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