The dawn of autumn had just broken ground in Sydney when, early on a rainy night in Newtown, I climbed a narrow stairway into the unknown. I had been looking forward all day to this moment. Days ago, I saw the poster with the captivating words, ‘Witness to Revolution’, on campus. What particularly caught my eye was that there were speakers from countries who had undergone revolutions, eyewitnesses to metamorphoses that have impacted their respective countries. What made people power revolutions such overpowering phenomena? Who were the random faces in the crowd that fought hard in realising their democratic dreams? These were some of the questions flashing through my head as I ascended the stairwell, bereft of any expectations and prior knowledge of the sponsoring organisation. This made me think of how this apparent alien setting would provide some rightful answers to the aforementioned queries clouding my mind. The irony of the situation never failed to reveal itself upon my curious mind: finding responses in this unlikely place full of mysteries to me.
An unmarked door to the right of the upstairs landing opened before chaos. The air was replete with the sound of vibrant chatter; this was mob rule, the multitude, or whatever else you prefer to call it. Here was the Sydney branch of an intriguing and highly visible organisation, so it wasn’t surprising that their affiliates pretty much comprised the turnout. I was impressed by said associates’ commitment upon learning that almost all of their forty-odd members were in attendance. I had no inkling on the event’s duration prior to turning up, although three hours would be a good estimate after I had sat through it. Introductions were made, people from my university materialised and I was suddenly conversing with a Serbian guy who showered me with a litany of queries. It seemed like it was his quest to uncover my opinion on every political issue that came to his mind.
Nearing mid-evening, my mind was all fuzzy by the time I finally sat down to hear what I came for in the first place. The lights went out, the noise evaporated and forty sets of eyes crammed into one bland room were mesmerised by a video monitor. Speaking with occasional humour was an Egyptian reporter who had leftist propensities like everyone else on hand. Noticing him communicating with an American accent in a relaxed manner, he remarked that ‘…it has been a long, long time’ in the making. He added that ‘Tunisia as the fire-starter must not be forgotten’. The act that started it all – the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia – was played afterwards together with other compelling images of revolution, Middle Eastern style. While a solemn hush befell the audience with these moving pictures, his wit drew wild approval from the knowledge-thirsty audience.
The reporter went further than merely focalising the revolt in his country’s perspective, rather integrating it with the bigger picture of the Middle East and beyond. He emphasised otherwise by announcing thus: ‘the revolt which has stolen the Arab world is a revolutionary process’. His observations went on: it is something that goes beyond the secluded Saharan terrain, something that will reverberate to the core of the Arab fight. We’re talking of Palestine, he emphasised, how this will ‘shape the Palestinian problem’ and in essence have a ‘rippling effect’ felt throughout the Middle East. As I sat digesting these rather sumptuous servings of information, I was stirred by the looming concept of a shrinking, interconnected world.
The next eyewitness was an Australian named Tom, who was in Portugal during the 1974-75 uprising. Being there in person to talk about his participation had a lot of upside to it. Some of the lights were turned back on as he elaborated; the banal space around me suddenly came into focus. There was a shelf titled ‘AUSTRALIAN RADICAL HISTORY’ and posters everywhere. Being dog tired from the travel and a long day, I managed to grasp only bits and pieces from Tom’s long-playing tale. In fact, the Portuguese story was far eclipsed by the yawning emanating from my very uncooperative mouth. Of course, I managed to gather stray crumbs here and there. For instance, I learned that he finds the socialist revolution ‘profoundly disappointing’. Like the Egyptian guy before him, he sketched a partisan view of the struggle. This is never more apparent when he declared that ‘Portugal will be much better if socialists took power in 1975’. In the end though despite mighty efforts on my part to find his account interesting, I found it ironic that I could not keep up with him notwithstanding his presence while moments earlier I was mesmerised to the projector.
The final presenter was an Iranian lady with a thick accent, which made comprehension and interest even harder. Well, she certainly didn’t shy away from talking. There were lots of memories to share, from atypical renderings of going underground to the depiction of a ‘very repressed culture’. The uncomfortable chair beginning to get to me, what only struck a chord within me was her mention of a disjointed working class as main reason for the 1979 revolution’s failure. If torture – the ‘nature of the Islamic regime’, as she called it – couldn’t move them, then change is indeed very hard without standing up for one’s stance. She wrapped up her address with a pretty telling pronouncement: ‘the 21st century is a socialist century. There is only barbarism or socialism….’ Thunderous applause ensued and the roars of ‘aye, aye’ could have kicked open the poor door with all its passion.