The Roof Is on Fire

I only have a few minutes to share some thoughts on a paper I wrote about a people reeling from contempt, injustice and longing for peace, self-determination, and intellectual emancipation. In the briefest of summaries, my article defies reading the Arab uprisings from a decade ago through an ontology of revolution and resistance that relegates them only to a discourse of success and failure. I could continue describing that argument today…

But I’d like to do something else. In fact, I’d like to hijack this space, this fleeting moment to force us to think about the spirit of the decolonial invitation I write about in my paper. When I wrote these words, I imagined I’d be talking to all my friends and colleagues at this conference. I hope you can indulge me.

So here it goes…

The roof is on fire, but our hoses boast only trickles of water. We didn’t have to wait for the crisis of today, or the crisis of last year, or that of ten years ago to feel the alarm in our veins, to realize we stand at the edge of a cliff, or to grasp the necessity to change course. An overemphasis on the unique inflictions of our moment will not help us. Crises come and never go. They fall out of view or mutate like the virus confronting us now. In the midst of a perpetual cascade of terror, greed, rage, and bodies still needing to matter, have you paused to ask what is the point of our work, the orientation of our words, and the cost of the dissonance between our talk and the extravagance of our location?

Have you thought about why you are here? Do you feel the tension between the urgency of our times and the inaudibility of our thinking? Have you come to terms with what academia has done to us? Has the harshness of this world exhausted you or does it animate you? What injuries does your writing carry? What crises turn up in your work? And what agents of hope do you seek to soften the anxieties of our time?

Instead of presenting as usual, I’m interested in turning this brief moment of presentation into an act of confrontation. That is a presentation that defies the terms of research performance we are hailed into. This is also about injecting an anti-colonial inflection or refusal to the forms of presentation we are accustomed to. This is also fitting for a session entitled: Rethinking Power, Labor and Resistance.

Ultimately, this humble attempt at a confrontation is a reaction to the fact that our styles of presentation have become too habituated, perhaps too predictable. Don Byrd once said that poetry is resistance against the alphabet as a medium that has become too fluent. Our medium of the scholarly presentation has become too fluent and that fluency does not speak to me. Its logic does not rhyme for me. Its discipline suffocates me.

In fact, there is too much discipline in our presentation. My provocation is to become undisciplined. In his essay, Towards the African Revolution, Fanon wrote, “We revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe”. I humbly seek to breathe vitality back into my presentation.

So, I’d like to ask: what would it mean to rethink the purpose of our gathering and the spirit of our fellowship under such momentous circumstances? Who do we speak for? What responsibilities do we have vis-à-vis the topics and issues we raise in our work? The stage we briefly occupy is a precious platform. It can be a closure or an opening.

Why do we write? Who do we write for? And on behalf of whom do we make presentations?

We need conferences that refuse the call to order, meetings that match the chaos of our times.

Mine is not a presentation but a plea, an invocation by a writer who yearns to speak, narrate, and breathe in the tussle of suffering and aliveness.

Theory and writing for some of us are a visceral affair, a haunting of unfinished thoughts, wandering ideas, conceptual challenges, and inhospitable spaces.

What do we want from this conference, from this gathering? The question, the exclamation, the interrobang of One World, One Network is not an intellectual exercise, a theoretical musing, an empirical adventure. If that is all we are here for, then our gathering is a banal meeting.

There are no fierce departures in our encounter. What is the point of gathering thousands of people? What do we want from this conference? What do we want from us?

When I reach into the archives of Morocco, as I did in this article in Praise of Arab Defeat, to retrieve the poetry and writings of another incarcerated thinker, who is not Antonio Gramsci, I revisit the pain of dictatorship, of living in chains, of feeling plagued by the erasures, the excisions, the amputations of living and persisting to live as an Arab.

The people I write about in my work are not research subjects. The subjects are me.

Writing is never a mere conceptual travel in history or an exciting roaming in the folds and leaks of the archives, nor is it a moment of professional distinction and glory.

Words and concepts, as Gloria Anzaldua would say, are a war to me.

I insist on the question what do we want from this conference?

Perhaps a better question is what do you want from us?

I labor to write, to think because I feel like I’m standing on a sword’s edge. I’m on the precipice because the world expects me to perform an identity based on the sound of my name, the geographic location I hail from, and the language I use as a foreign tongue.

Some write and think

Others only write and think back

How much longer should we be consumed by this alienating instinct to reply and return the gaze? How much more shall we remain inhabited by this need to speak in relation to a speech that did not originate with us?

As long as we force the world to speak one language, everybody else will feel like they’re speaking in tongues.

What do some of us want from this conference?

What do you want from me?

I do not write and do scholarship to save anyone, dispel a myth, represent a people, a geographic location, or a province of thought. I write and dig up the archives to save myself from the boxes and the metaphors in which you’ve ensnared me for too long.

I stand before you as a wounded subject of a relentless matrix of coloniality who refuses to be an emblem, a representative of a faith of a vast world of 1.8 billion Muslims, a spokesperson of a culture of 450 million Arabs, or a mere voice from the Global South.

I just want to be a subject…

When I hear One World, One Network, followed by an interrobang, I feel all the pain of those like me and others worse than me reduced to a cute punctuation mark. We are not an interrobang, our long-awaited hope for a One Word, One Network is not a playful linguistic sign. It is an urgent call and a painful reminder, as Anzaldua would say that “yesterday still pinches like an outgrown shoe.”

“I build my language with rocks,” said the Martinican poet Édouard Glissant. I build mine as rocks are thrown at me, and I wonder why some can write unprovoked while others see their writing condemned to a perpetual response, a painful call to perform the pain and assess the damage. I want to reclaim the forbidden tranquility of my writing from the ugliness of the task always awaiting the subaltern writer. I do not wish for my pen to become a sword, for its ink to serve a vulgar aim. My language was not supposed to feel like a hemorrhage destined to be stopped, lest it caused damage too big to repair. My words were not meant to be thrown as darts in a world of instant enmity. I do not shy away from a righteous fight and I believe in the gift of a wild tongue and a mighty pen, but I do not want my writing to always be a clamor, an armor, a lament in the face of distress and injury.

The sound of One World, One Network is a beautiful hum to me, but it’s also a constant murmur of a cruel optimism, and if we are here only to talk it over, then we all came to Paris just to have a good time.

The sound of One World, One Network is a beautiful hum to me, but it’s also a constant murmur of a cruel optimism, and if we are here only to talk it over, then we all came to Paris just to have a good time.

By Nabil Echchaibi

Associate Professor Nabil Echchaibi joined CU Boulder in 2007 and served as founding chair of the Department of Media Studies.