The poetry of revolution

Tunisia’s uprisings were started neither by political action nor a military coup, but by a regime of banners and chants.

Syria Palestine poet Mazen Maarouf
A Palestinian refugee, Maarouf has been forced into a double exile in Iceland after criticising Syria's government [AJE]

The uprisings in Tunisia were started neither by political action nor a military coup led by officers or opposition parties. Instead, the blade raised against the regime was made of banners and chants.

And none cut more deeply than Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s poem, The Will to Live, which begins: “When the people demand freedom, Destiny must surely respond.”

This verse of poetry, tacked onto the end of the Tunisian national anthem, tightens up the collective Arab memory like a firm muscle. We learned it in school, reciting it for years and analysed it in exams. But with the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, it budded once more within our grief – fresh, as if written only for that historical instant.

Stray Bullet By Mazen Maarouf

“After crossing the living room,
the library,
the long hallway
and the picture that holds us on a trip to the River Alkalb,
then passing the automatic
washing machine,
and my mother, exhausted
despite the automatic washing machine,
it bends its trajectory with the
force of gravity
and finally rests at the back of my head where it kills you.”

But alongside the classics by professional poets was the spontaneous poetry of a people lighting a pathway to hope.

As the policewoman slapped Tarek Mohammad Bouazizi in the face and confiscated his cart of vegetables she said “dégage”, French for “leave”.

When the protesters put “dégage” on their banners they aimed the demand to leave at the immune dictator and his powerful family. By doing this they were working together like the mind of a poet – using a word as a metaphor and changing its meaning to suit their purpose.

“Dégage” started a flood of slogans and chants such as “the people want to bring down the regime” which echoed down the Avenue Habib Bourguiba for weeks – showing how with a few words the previously ‘helpless’ people could damage the bone marrow of the regime.

In Egypt, the computer game statement of failure, ‘Game Over’, was aimed instead at Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and recently Kafrnabl in Syria’s Idlib province has become famous for its sharp, smart and highly critical banners which rival the best poetry: “Down with the regime and the opposition. Down with the Arab and Islamic nation. Down with the Security Council. Down with the world. Down with everything”; or “Only in Syria, the rate of everyday martyrs exceeds the rate of rainfall”; or “We demand an alien invasion to save us”.

We should not be surprised that in these revolutions ordinary Arabs are capable of such poetry.

In schools across the Arab world, poetry precedes other forms of art. Children memorise national and educational verses and odes. The older generation studies the history of poetry and correlates it to historic changes from the pre-Islamic, through the Abbasid and onto the modern era.

From Ahmed  Negm to Hosni Mubarak” 

Mr. President
in your seventy years old and something birthday
may you be good every year
but not us
may you be ruling every year
and we stay ruled
we stay oppressed
stay insulted

The citizen in the Middle East develops a special interpretation of the poem and in particular the poem with rhymes, verses and trochees.

Such poems have a musical influence and the power to agitate emotions. And despite, or maybe because of, the economic obstacles preventing people from buying poetry books, the art form remains vibrant in mainstream culture today.

So the historical memory of the Middle East is full of political poems and the price many of their writers paid for their words.

We remember the photograph of the poet Omar Hamad hanged by the Ottoman authorities in Beirut in 1915, and Fouad Haddad, the Egyptian poet jailed by Gamal Abdel Nasser more than once in the 1950s.

When I demonstrated in Beirut in the 1990s against Israeli escalation towards Lebanon and the Palestinians, we used Ahmed Fouad Negm’s poems to agitate the crowd: “Oh Palestinians” – “my hands are bursting – my hands accompany you – to kill the snake – to end Hulagu law.”

Negm was arrested by many Egyptian regimes  – mainly over the political poems that stuck so effectively in the minds of successive generations that during the Egyptian revolution they first gave the demonstrators their voice.

Mohammad al-Maghout, the biggest agitator of the modern poetry scene in Syria, was prosecuted and imprisoned in the 1950s, before later fleeing to Beirut. As if anticipating the contemporary banners of Kafrnabl he wrote: “We lack nothing, but dignity.”

About the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Syrian poet Hassan al-Khayyer wrote: “What shall I say/ saying the truth is followed by whip flogs and a dark wet jail.” He was subsequently arrested and never seen again. Some prisoners say they witnessed his tongue being cut out before his execution, but he has remained “disappeared”.

The situation of the poet has evolved today. These poets wrote their poems as individuals, criticising regimes outside of any political movement or mass uprising. Eliminating regimes was almost unthinkable then, and they probably hoped only to change a few social laws.

However, the mission of the poet today, in the midst of mass uprisings and revolution, is different. It is more precise, direct and fateful. The poets must articulate their words clearly and sharply to agitate people while knowing it can be deadly. The agents of the regime may prosecute the poet at any moment, which means that the written poem might be a final word. The poet cannot deny it later.

Mohammad Kheir, the Egyptian poet, was on his way to Tahrir Square when he was arrested. The young Bahraini poet Ayat Kormuzi, who criticises King Hamad Khalifah in a long poem that starts “We don’t want to live in a castle, we don’t aspire to the presidency/ we kill humiliation and assassinate misery” was also jailed.

Although I am a Palestinian, raised in Lebanon, I write this from Reykjavik, Iceland, as my words have forced me into a double exile.

I prefer to keep poetry and political events separate, instead of constructing an image of everyday life into which the political forces itself, however minimally.

Like others in the Al Jazeera series, Poets of Protest, by writing through symbols we are at once reacting to the political events and poetry of the street and contributing to it.

Lebanese revolutionary fighter-turned poet Yehia Jaber is in a constant dialogue with the line separating madness and wisdom, his poetic sarcasm inflicting the violence he sees around him on his subjects, including his beloved, his mother, and even himself.

The Iraq in Manal al-Sheikh’s poems is mired in tragedy; a mysterious, unstable land where sadness and death are discovered daily. But she does not write poetry with tears and instead dries her tears with poetry, leaving her direct condemnation of the everyday killing and corruption to her tweets on Twitter and Facebook.

Here she is like Yehia Jaber and Hala Mohammad, the Syrian poet whose Syria is a country saved by the subtle resistance of everyday life, by the sunrise, the colours, the silence in the cafes and the vendor chants. She is whispering to us about Syria, about the hidden beauty in a country that no regime can possess.

Today even the most subtle poem in the Middle East has the power to incite, stimulate, excite, move, charge and nourish. Poetry is not a product of the bureau or the room, it is no more an ode recited between the walls of a classroom. It is now cultivated on the street, in the square and the alleys, in meeting rooms both real and on-line. The protestors are now the new paper for the poet, the medium of the poem. In the street nobody is silent, nobody is whispering the poem, they chant it defiantly.

For the Syrian poet Ibrahim al-Kashoush, known as the Bulbul of Hamah, his poem that begins “Freedom is at the door/ Bashar leave” proved not only fateful, but fatal. His body was found in the Assi River, tortured with his throat removed.

But even the death of a poet cannot silence his throat, as his words jump from mouth to mouth, floating on the breath of the protestors. It slips from the hands of the regime men; how can they stop a poem?

 Artscape – Poets of Protest airs each week at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430