In ‘Assad’s Syria’, as the slogans at the borders and in the streets called it, schools taught by rote and intimidation. The universities were ideologically policed. Trade unions were controlled by the state and the Ba‘ath Party (these two inextricably intertwined).

‘They have no religion’. This is the most common accusation labelled against the Alawis of Syria. Scorned by sectarian Sunnis and sometimes by orthodox Shi’a, the Alawis are seen as heretics.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken.

Every Muslim has heard of al-Andalus, where Europe meets Africa, where the Mediterranean almost closes its lips. It’s a land of sonority and luminosity, a storied land, an imagined land.

Failed states, Pakistan-specialist Anatol Lieven declared afterwards, don’t hold literature festivals. Perhaps Lieven assumed too much: there are festivals in Iraq and Palestine. And novelist Mohammad Hanif provided a grimmer perspective during his very well-attended and gently provocative session when he said ‘even places that don’t have running water want to have a literature festival now.’

Robin Yassin-Kassab recounts his journey to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet writers who’ve lived through the worst of the country’s recent past.

Cairo felt different. Tahrir Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings.