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Amardeep Singh: Poetry in the Protests: Egypt and Tunisia

February 1, 2011

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By Amardeep Singh

From Amardeep Singh’s blog.

Protest poetry and music sometimes rises to the surface during popular uprisings, crystallizing popular sentiments—one thinks of Victor Jara in Chile, Nazim Hikmet in Turkey, Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Pakistan, or Woody Guthrie in the United States. At times like these, the right poetry and song doesn’t merely describe how people are feeling; it can actually act as an intensifier that guides a protest movement, helping it spread and solidify. (Needless to say, such poetry does not need to be written by professional poets. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream…” was an act of poetry as much as anything else.)

Along those lines, it might be worth considering the role played by Arabic poetry in the recent uprising in Tunisia, as well as the ongoing protests in Egypt. One particular poet, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi (whose name can also be rendered in English as Aboul-Qasem Echebbi), was widely cited on the streets and even in the Tunisian news-media during the uprising against Ben Ali, and is now being cited by protestors on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

The key poem is “To the Tyrants of the World,” but unfortunately I cannot find a great English translation of it online anywhere. The best version is at a blog called Arabic Literature in English.

You, the unfair tyrants…

You the lovers of the darkness…

You the enemies of life…

You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds; and your palm covered with their blood

You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of

sadness in their land

Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool

you…

Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward

you from the horizon

Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash

Who grows thorns will reap wounds

You’ve taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope; and watered the cure of the

sand with blood and tears until it was drunk

The blood’s river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

(Go here for the original Arabic. The blogger has requested a better translation; I would second that call.)

As I mentioned, “To the Tyrants of the World” was recited on the streets during the protests in Tunisia, and it is now being recited in Cairo and Alexandria by the millions who have taken to the streets to demand democratic reforms and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. One line whose meaning comes across with unmistakable force in even this rather basic translation comes near the end: “Who grows thorns will reap wounds.” [Would it be even stronger as “He who grows thorns will reap wounds”?]

Another poem by al-Shabi is a short verse that is actually part of the Tunisian national anthem, “If the people one day aspire to life” (also referred to variously as “The Will to Life” or “The Will to Live”). Here the Arabic Literature blog does have three very good translations available on their site. My favorite, at least in terms of the quality of the English, is by a commenter at another site, called YankeeJohn:

Should the people one day truly aspire to life

then fate must needs respond

the night must needs shine forth

and the shackles must needs break

Those who are not embraced by life’s yearning

shall evaporate in her air and vanish.  (Source)

Again, for the original Arabic, I would suggest taking a look at the bottom of the posthere. You can also see Al-Shabi’s poetry being recited in Arabic in a video at the website of UT-Austin.

Another powerful political Arab is Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, an Iraqi who spent much of his adult life in exile. One of his famous poems, “The Dragon,” is available in translation here. Below are the opening lines of the poem (it’s worth reading in full):

A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist’s mask,

has killed and killed and killed,

pillaged and wasted,

but is afraid, he claims,

to kill a sparrow.

His smiling picture is everywhere:

in the coffeehouse, in the brothel,

in the nightclub, and the marketplace.

Satan used to be an original,

now he is just the dictator’s shadow.

The dictator has banned the solar calendar,

abolished Neruda, Marquez, and Amado,

abolished the Constitution;

he’s given his name to all the squares, the open spaces,

the rivers,

and all the jails in his blighted homeland.

This is usually interpreted as the poet’s commentary on Saddam Hussein, but at various points in the poem al-Bayyati also refers to the dictator-dragons who are being “cloned” around the world.

There are of course many other contemporary poets from Egypt and Tunisia, and I will be looking them up in the days and weeks ahead to see if I can find more writing like al-Shabi’s—writing that seems to crystallize what is going on, even if it might have been written at a different time or in a different context. One place to look might be the collection, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond [co-edited by Guernica poet Tina Chang]. Egyptian poets included in the volume include Andree Chedid (writing in French), Amal Dunqul, Ahmad Abd al-Mu’ti Hijazi, Fatma Kandil, Abd el-Monem Ramadan, Salah ’abd al-Sabur, and Himy Salem. Some Tunisian poets whose Muhammad al-Ghuzzi, Amina Said (writing in French), and al-Munsif al-Wayhabi.

[UPDATE: Read this incredibly informative essay by Elliott Cola on the role of poetry in the Arab protest movements.]

Copyright 2011 Amardeep Singh

________________________________________________________________________

This post originally appeared at Amardeep Singh’s blog.

Amardeep Singh teaches postcolonial literature at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

To read blog entries from Amardeep Singh and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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