This summer has brought a torrent of high profile events in the Middle East and North Africa. Just as news of the seemingly unprecedented abdication of former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad to his son Sheikh Tamim rolled in, preparations for the June 30th mass mobilization of peoples, ideas, and arms in Egypt began to take over news streams. Even Gazan Mohammed Assaf’s win on Arab Idol seemed to indicate that a new season in the Middle East was beginning.
Some critics and pundits began labeling these events as direct ramifications of the “Arab Spring.” Maybe they are right, but as I struggled to put my thoughts to paper, I encountered a mental block whenever I tested out one of these seasonal metaphors: “winters of discontent,” “Arab springs,” maybe even a “Turkish summer. ”
Since the spring of 2011, I have been bothered by the “Arab Spring” label. I do not like sweeping generalizations, and I firmly believe events in Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, have separate political nuances and are worthy of individual consideration. And yet, our world feels restless. Something is in the air, and the seasons are changing.
Yes, I have opinions about the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. But, this does not qualify me to hypothesize boundlessly and make predictions about the future of Egypt. I enjoy reading other peoples’ opinions, but I simply do not have the background or the experience to make any judgments. I am not a scholar in theories of revolution, and frankly not many people are. We learn from our experiences, and right now my experiences relate mostly to another kind of spring.
When I returned to Chicago from Morocco in March of 2013, I planted a garden. It is a backyard garden. I tilled the land, ripped out old sod, dug out car parts, and did my best to separate the trash from compostable matter. I have to confess; I dumped buckets of dirt mixed with garbage and rusty hardware in the empty lot next door. I did not think they would ever see the light of day again, but somebody mowed the lawn yesterday and there they were, concrete slabs and red-rusted metal screws poking out of the grass. Simply because I did not want to deal with any more, clearly did not mean they would disappear.
Eventually the Chicago winter subsided, and it was time to plant.
I had never sown my own garden before, and my roommate and I went out in the dead of night to plant. We had heard it was best to plant out of the sun’s glare, and we thought maybe the moonlight would do the seeds some good.
There wasn’t much moonlight. It was dark and we planted uneven rows, mixing parsley with carrots and covering the eggplant with the tomato seeds. After days upon weeks of cautiously watching the garden, I had my doubts if anything would grow at all. But spring eventually brought new flowers, and new weeds too.
Spring is a time of blossoming, and a time of germination. May showers brought June flowers. They were pretty, and I was even able to harvest dill. We had over-planted radishes, though, and I was overwhelmed with dozens of bright pink radish heads poking through the surface.
I love radishes, but I hardly knew what to do with over fifty bright red specimens in just one week . It was a wonderful sudfa– Arabic for a serendipitous surprise. I pickled some, and made radish butter with the others.
Late June came, and I started following the June 30th protests in Egypt. I began writing this piece, writing and weeding in early mornings alternatively. I rushed into things. I wrote analyses about the Egyptian military, and decried the Muslim Brotherhood. But I lacked all the necessary facts, and erased my words – embarrassed and unwilling to share my hasty judgments with the world.
Meanwhile, the carrots had been germinating for weeks, and I was excited to see their tentative tips sprouting. If I couldn’t write, at least I could make some progress in the garden.
I was discouraged, but found myself pulling out my phone to check Twitter while weeding. It was more interesting than pulling out weed after weed, after all. Simultaneously swiping for updates with a naked hand and uprooting weeds with a gloved fist, I started to draw parallels between my Twitter feed and my garden.
Was the Muslim Brotherhood a weed, planted long ago like the clover my neighbor planted in the 1990s, a weed that still comes up and chokes the life out of my basil? At the same time, although clover is a weed, it is also great for tea. That is exactly why my neighbor planted it, and why he secretly added another patch of clover while I was out of town. Perhaps the Brotherhood’s weed-like nature was similarly complex.
The parallels continued… Maybe the Egyptian military was the mint, strong rooted and pervasive? I pulled out bushels of mint, only to find them sprouting up in new corners of the garden. Again, my neighbor planted this years ago, and regularly come by to grab some for his tea.
Everything between my garden and events in Egypt became one long extended metaphor. The summer sun brought new sprouts, but the insects attacked the plants before I could protect them. I had been trying to help the garden along, but in my rush to see results I weeded out quite a few potentially fruitful plants. I mistook beets for carrots, and drowned the seedlings in water.
July came and went, and brought all sorts of confusion. I went out of town for Independence Day and returned to a garden covered in orange dust. The orange color covered the tomato plant and crept onto the fruits. Worried, I cut the vines and carried them to the empty lot. I did not want to contaminate my compost with this strange fungus.
As I continued my pruning, I saw a cardboard ring nestled in the midst of the foliage. I got closer and pulled it out. It was the shell of a firework mortar. The orange dust was residue from the explosion. I was hasty in my judgments, and I threw out the first three ripe tomatoes.
I found the beginnings of some parsley and chopped it up for a salad. It didn’t taste very good. I went back out to the garden to check – had I just chopped up a weed that resembled parsley? No. In fact, I had cut the top of a carrot. Again, I had misjudged the plant, and my parsley was in fact a carrot. So I had been right all along about the beets. Root vegetables are tough, and they all look similar from the top down. Of course, had I waited for the plants to fully develop, instead of rushing to harvest and jumping to conclusions, I could have avoided this.
I was discouraged, both in my writing and my gardening, and I was in rehearsals for a new theatre production here in Chicago. So, I took a break from weeding, and let talking heads pontificate on television while other online commentators wrote lengthy opinion pieces. And although I was in no mood to garden, the neighbors were. Despite my misadventures, they seemed inspired by my hapless seeding. They planted pumpkins, watermelons, and their own carrots right next to our garden.
Their patch is well organized and already flourishing. When weeds from my garden creep too close to their plot, they pull them out, and then I hastily finish the job when I return home. They even removed a stem-eating worm from deep inside one of my squash plants – I am hoping for the best once the summer harvest is in full swing.
All of this is to say that it takes time for seeds to germinate.
Spring is a time of planting, not harvest. It is not an easy season. All of the rhetoric about the “Arab Spring” seems ignorant about nature, its course from spring to summer and beyond, and the role people pay in creating and cultivating harvest. Yes, spring will bring all sorts of new plants. The wild mint and clover growing in my garden are a great addition to an afternoon tea, or a fresh summer salad. But without attention, they suffocate the plants I meticulously seeded in early May.
It is clear that this garden needs care. As I was weeding my garden, I found an overgrown tomato plant hiding the Serrano peppers. When I finally pruned the tomato plant, several large spicy peppers awaited me. Spring was a time for sowing new seeds, and watering what already existed. But it is summer now. If I want to harvest the fruit of our labors, I have to weed.
I needed help, though. The plants all seemed to look the same. I asked around, looked up photos of plants on the Internet. In the end, my neighbor, who seemed to be stoking the growth of the mint and clover, was actually a very helpful resource. Asking for guidance can only achieve so much, though. More than anything else, I needed more experience with gardening. And I will only get that by really committing to this garden, sowing and re-sowing, weeding and uprooting. I have made mistakes, and am sure I will make more. Does that mean I shouldn’t garden? Absolutely not! I have already started eating fresh tomatoes every day, and the sunflowers I had forgotten about shot up in what seemed like a single day. They were just waiting for adequate sunlight. I have certainly learned my lesson about planting at midnight, and my next rows will be a little neater, a little more organized. This summer brought a harvest, but nothing too bountiful.
When all this is said and done, I still have no idea what will happen in my garden, let alone Egypt, Syria, or really anywhere else. I do know I feel more comfortable with the idea of the “Arab Spring,” though. Spring is not a time for rapid revolution, but a time for sowing new ideas. They will all run different courses, and summer will continue to bring a confluence of weeds and flowers. But even the weeds are good for something. Tea is an important part of daily life, but it is certainly not a full meal.
Another lesson I learned- planting all the seeds at once may seem like a quick and easy way to get the garden started, but you can’t expect that everything will emerge healthy and ready to eat right away. I am still hopeful about next year though. Carrots, after the first year, are always smaller than normal. The second harvest, however, brings lush greens and carrot crops that burst through the soil. Nature has a way of helping us out when we persist and respond to our stimuli. For now, we will have to wait and see what autumn brings.
I have given up on fully understanding what is going on in Egypt, but I remain a concerned observer of the tragic events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. I dabble in pessimism, but at the end of the day, I might just be an optimist. In the long term, I believe in people and the power of experience.
In the short term, all we can do is prune, weed and harvest a tomato every now and then. We will make mistakes, and at the beginning we will get more wrong than right. But harvest season is approaching and now is the time to get to work.