Poetry and the Arab Spring

Rachael Allen

11 February 2011, Tahrir Square courtesy of Jonathan Rashad

Over the last few weeks, the vast center of London City Hall has housed events organised by
Poet in the City
, focusing on the presence of poetry during the Arab Spring as part of the
festival. The
Daily Beast
, the
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all reported on the presence of poetry in the Egyptian revolution; how lines from an early 20th century Tunisian poem by Abul-Qasim al Shabi were chanted, how recitals broke out nightly and how poetry was a catalyst for staying power. One of Al-Jazeera’s correspondents told how protestors chanted through the evening, ‘There’ve been poetry readings. It seems as if they’re saying “it’s early in the morning but we’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere”.’

It is hard to hear the words ‘protest poetry’ without drawing up stereotypes – the fruitier speeches from Speakers Corner; bland, half-hearted spoken word; dusty, html-challenged, politically motivated poetry forums from 2004, all empty lyrics provoking none of the change attempted. Yet from the outside – from the Poet in the City events and the optimistic reporting – it seemed as though poetry was doing something to abate a combined restlessness; poetry was finally reflecting a universal consciousness. poetry was finally reflecting a universal consciousness. However, this idea is not agreed upon by all. Nasser Farghaly, a filmmaker, poet and writer who read for an event on poetry’s presence during the revolution in Tahrir Square, spoke of a broad dialectic of the use of poems as a tool for political movement in modern Arabic poetry. He told me about the poets who refused to engage with poetry as a platform for political change, seeing it as either propaganda, moral dogmatism or just plain useless.

‘The dialectic that has characterised the Arabic contemporary poetry scene for the last fifty years was very evident in the revolution; this is the dialectic of revolution in poetry, or revolution by poetry. Should a poet employ poetry to serve a political purpose? Or should the poet revolutionise his own poem, regardless of the subject that it deals with?’

Nasser outlined a spectrum for me: at one end are colloquial lyrics that are made for protest, and on the other, a more academic, often classical-Arabic poetry that aims to create a revolution within the borders of the poem. The latter believe that their authority extends to the outer reaches of the poem only, thus this is the only thing they can attempt to revolutionise.

‘Some people think this is the way to do it, they say this is revolution in poetry, this is the extent of the poet’s authority over things.’ Nasser explains. ‘He has authority over his own poem, so his own poem should be a resemblance of the new concept, in poetic terms. ‘He has authority over his own poem, so his own poem should be a resemblance of the new concept, in poetic terms.’ The modern and post-modern poets, writing and trying to be analytical, criticising the direct use of poetry in the revolution; they don’t want to employ their poems to serve any purpose other than the poetic values itself.’

Without aligning himself to either camp, Nasser tells me that he is for the ‘existence of different ideologies, different trends of thought. My point of view is that all forms should exist and every form of them has its own aesthetic values to give to people. We can still enjoy all forms of Arabic poetry.’

And for the majority of citizens on Tahrir Square, Nasser explains, it wasn’t neccessarily the creation of protest poetry that was most prominent. It was from chanting the unifying lyricism of poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Amal Donkol – embedded in politics and dedicated to reflecting a social situation and freedom of speech– from which the protestors took strength.

Ahmad Yamani, an Egyptian poet who joined Farghaly in reading poems on the evening, saw what happened on Tahrir Square as an aligning of the different types of poetry highlighted by Nasser. Speaking particularly of Abul-Qasim al Shabi, the poet whose famous lines had been chanted during the protest, he saw a shrinking of this dialectic and a use for poetry as a tool for movement.

‘The main role of poetry was played by poems already written from pre-revolution years, not especially written for this particular uprising. The slogan which all the Arab uprisings that we are witnessing now used – all of them – is derived from a poem by a late Tunisian poet. Arabic people are shouting everywhere, “the people want the collapse of the regime,” and al Shabi wrote, “If people want life, destiny will have to obey.” In Arabic, the wording of both is very similar. Even the main slogan of the revolution is linked to early 20th century poetry.’‘Even the main slogan of the revolution is linked to early 20th century poetry.’

The readings presented a healthy breadth of poets working in Arabic today, writing at different points of the poetic spectrum outlined by Nasser, or completely ignoring it. Yet the resounding message surely came from the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who gave an introduction to his reading, reminding us of those who wait for revolution, and the solace they take – or perhaps loathe – in the use, or uselessness, of poetry. Following a translation of his poem read in English, Najwan banished any sense of poetic infighting with the clear message that, for some, there was still a way to go before revolution. ‘I dedicate my reading to Sheikh Raed Salah who is an important person to me, and who was arrested close to the opening of Shabbak festival. And by the way, the poem she was reading was about a Palestinian colonial British prison built in the 60s. It seems that history has endless prisons.’

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