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New Arab Spring anthology gives ‘raw access to authentic voices’

Iran native and third-year law school student Sohrab Ahmari has co-edited an anthology of essays penned by young Middle Eastern dissidents entitled “Arab Spring Dreams.”

The book, which includes a forward by activist and author Gloria Steinem, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on May 8.

The collection of essays features more than three-dozen stories of life under the region’s oppressive regimes, ranging from tales of premarital sex to the fight for political freedom in countries including Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Algeria.

“This isn’t an academic journal that has an ax to grind,” Ahmari explained. “We’re giving raw access to authentic voices.”

Lech Walesa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the former president of Poland, praised the book, which, he said, “clearly demonstrates that no matter where we live or what religion we follow, certain fundamental values are universal.”

The American Islamic Congress, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building both interfaith and interethnic understanding, sponsored an essay contest in 2005 in which young Middle Eastern dissidents were asked to speak out in support of freedom and justice. The winners were selected to appear in the anthology.

The nonprofit picked the perfect co-editor. Over the last five years, Ahmari has penned columns, feature stories and book reviews for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic, for which he recently critiqued late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s final book, “The Third Reich.”

Protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election prompted Ahmari to publish columns on political turmoil in his home country under his own name. “The brutal crackdown by the Iranian regime made me decide to speak out and write on the record,” he explained. “After that, I started cold pitching editors and magazines.”

Ahmari — who serves as a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a cross-partisan, British-based think tank dedicated to freedom, liberty and constitutional rights — observes Iran from the comfort of the United States. “The Iranian regime is probably aware of me and I would probably be arrested upon leaving the country’s airport,” he said.

Ahmari recently had the opportunity to chat with Steinem at her Manhattan apartment, where she asked him to edit her forward to the anthology. “It was a humbling experience,” Ahmari noted. “I told her that she writes beautifully.”

What does the feminist icon think of “Arab Spring Dreams?” As Ahmari put it, “She said it was an opportunity to hear what’s going on in the Middle East beyond the censored material that Western audiences get from the region.”