By Karar Ahmed
Artwork by Patshuro
Translated by N.H.
This article is part of the “Marriage and Weddings” issue
Weddings are social rituals that seem essential to modern history, uniting parties in celebration and joy. Imagine the impact of weddings that have taken place during revolutions. It demonstrates the possibility of achieving change through joy, by harnessing it as a means of attraction and expression of protest. Weddings, carnivals, and celebrations, become integral to revolutions themselves, since revolutions, too, are greatly awaited events. These celebrations can even tip the scales in favor of the revolutionary cause.
Shifting Symbolism in Weddings of Revolution
According to Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnival is the victory of the public arena over the religious and authoritarian establishment. The triumph of joy and dance and the upheaval of strict standards and authoritarian values. The carnival is an achievement par excellence of the people against existing values, customs, and traditions. Popular celebrations seek to defy tradition and norms and use art and dance to eliminate hierarchy in favor of the body and satire.
Weddings that take place during revolutions, which diverge greatly from traditions of “normal weddings”, are clear examples of Bakhtin’s carnival. In Iraq, in Liberation Square, many non-traditional weddings were held. One wedding ceremony took place in front of all the protesters, and afterwards they were transported in “tuk-tuks”, which are vehicles that abound in densely-populated areas, as a symbol of the simplicity of the wedding and appreciation for the courage of the drivers of these vehicles and their role in facing government oppression.
Some grooms wore masks as another symbol of protest. This is another form of symbolism born from the weddings of the revolution: the abolition of class and prevailing customs. People circulated videos throughout the duration of the revolution of women proposing to a tuk-tuk driver as a result of his courage in facing state repression and because of the help he lent to protestors, regardless of class. The protest space is open for everyone, and people of different classes and leanings meet there: Al-Karkh and Al-Rusafa1, people from the countryside and the city, Muslims and non-Muslims.
The wedding ceremony of Maryam and Ahmed took place on the 30th of January at Liberation Square. Maryam is not religious and Ahmed is Muslim, and the two coexist with their religious differences. In their marriage, the couple conveyed a clear message to strict Iraqi society: they sealed their love with marriage, despite all the pressures they faced, in the midst of a place that sought to bring about change and from which the first signs of hope emerged. This was a major turning point for a society that still refuses to marry a Sunni to a Shiite and vice versa.
“The marriage ceremony was a special challenge and a message: ‘Iraqi youth will not give in, and we are able to create joy, despite the sadness that has prevailed over everyone because of the clashes between demonstrators and security forces.’ They were able to turn the tables and spread joy and determination by announcing a wedding ceremony between two protestors,” says Maytham, one of the protestors from Baghdad who held his wedding at Liberation Square.
The protesters believe that they must insist on their right to joy, while the authority insists on force-feeding them tragedies and sorrows. Authorities want the Iraqi revolution to be a massacre without glories, joy, resistance art, and ahazeej2 in front of live bullets. But protestors want the regime to know this: that they will not lie under the ashes of death, and that their cause will not be limited to tragedy and bereavement.
Art, Feeling, and Social Change
Revolutions have become a place where youth advocate for liberation from tradition and social change in addition to political change, putting feeling and the affective into action. Joey MacDonald, one of the most famous activists of the hippie movement3, a counterculture movement that opposed mainstream culture in the United States, considers the Arab Spring revolutions and the Occupy Wallstreet movement to be similar to the Summer of Love.4 He believes that the Summer of Love is the “new status quo,” which opened the door to changed attitudes around sex, pleasure and hope. It changed everything. He warned younger generations to not forget the source of all this, this transformation that struck the United States of America and the world. Marriage was a part of this: many hippie couples announced their engagement during that summer of love, and some women gave birth during that same year in order to commemorate the summer of 1967.
Another characteristic of recent revolutions is the centrality of art; people use art as the primary method of expressing their thoughts, aspirations, and pain, and as a tool for communal representation. Why, then, is dancing and singing in the squares criticized? These modes of expression attract people to the sight of protest without detracting from the reason behind the gathering. In fact, the energy, chants, and artistic production are essential to both conveying and knowing the aims of any movement or revolution. This includes the current revolution and the revolutions of the “Arab Spring”, which amplified voices of the people who were oppressed by authoritarian regimes for years.
In her autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Agnès Varda articulated how art and revolution come together in producing energy and connection. In reminiscing about her trip to Havana four years following the Cuban Revolution, she said, “I found the Cubans extraordinary; their socialism is amazing and joyful. When I am in Moscow, I feel that the Soviets and I belong to two different worlds! In Cuba things were easy, I felt touched by the Cubans, then understood, then laughed a lot. The folklore of their revolution, the rhythm of life, the warmth, the mix of ethnicities, the arts and the origins of music.” Art, here, is both inspirational and conveys the spirit of the revolution.
Reflecting on his own experience in the Iraqi revolution, Ali Ahmed said that “People in our conservative societies are accustomed to building authoritarian walls around us to dominate us, and restrict our freedom of expression. We speak using the speech of the public. Spontaneity is erased, and we parrot the types of phrases that are socially acceptable. This is how we hide our feelings and are able to deftly pretend and act in front of a conservative society. We do not threaten the public’s sense of morality, and we are not affected by people’s judgement of our vulgar language. But when it comes to the revolution, things are different. The vital space in which we reveal to ourselves our past and future, with our simplicity and our same spontaneity, shackled as they are by norms and traditions, link us together. We interpret it differently, just as we do with intimacy!” Ali is a protestor determined to marry in the midst of the revolution, and the reason behind his decision is due to what he has dubbed the “intimacy” among the crowd of protesters; this feeling that binds simple and tired common people together, who are united in their grief and demands.
Marrying amidst strangers and revealing personal feelings and thoughts in public space promotes a transformation of unfamiliar individuals to a social collective, freeing the individual from the social institutions that often constrain them in everyday life.
Indian philosopher, Osho, explained that intimacy is “the transformation of the other from a strange description to a human being, and it means to reveal yourself in front of strangers.”5 Perhaps it is the transformative potential of intimacy that causes authorities to target and repress it in revolutions and popular movements. One way to dissolve solidarity and exploit religious, class, and social divisions is by attaching moral connotations to the revolutionaries that are independent of the movement itself, portraying protestors as sexually agitated or teenagers as addicted to partying and dancing. Through this, police find a different angle to oppress individuals through a different angle and prevent the liberatory potential of intimacy.
In his famous text, 1984, English novelist George Orwell articulated the transformative power of sexuality, joy and pleasure, writing: “it was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that the sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship.” He further showed that the pleasure and joy that come from sex have revolutionary value itself, writing: “When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and The Three Years Plans and the Two Minute Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?”
By understanding weddings of the revolution as events that promote intimacy between strangers and exercise the transformative potential of sexuality and pleasure, we can also see why they are such a threat to authorities and the institutions that work to maintain “order”. They are liberatory and joyful, demonstrating a powerful alternative to that which they are protesting.
A dictator knows that people who are willing to put restrictions on their body and actions will also allow the state, by way of religious and military authorities, to colonize their minds. The revolution signals disobedience toward the ruler and this colonization. It signals the insistence of freedom of the body, which can then ripple through society. Weddings of the revolution do just this: they evoke joy and ecstasy, evoke intimacy between strangers, and are themselves artistic performances. They show love and sexuality as both part of the revolution and revolutionary in themselves, as a coup against customs and norms that limit the body and society, and the desires that cannot be concealed.