Poetry in the Protests -- Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi

[Cross-posted at Guernica

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 seems worthwhile to note the role played by Arabic poetry in the uprisings. 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 according to reports coming in from Aljazeera, is now being cited by protestors on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

The key poem is rendered in English as "To the Tyrants of the World," and unfortunately I cannot find a great translation of it online anywhere. There is one version at a blog called Arabic Literature in English, here. Interestingly, a better translation is actually available via a radio story on NPR.

To the Tyrants of the World
(Translated by Abdul Iskander for NPR)

Oppressive tyrant, lover of darkness, enemy of life
You have ridiculed the size of the weak people
Your palm is soaked with their blood
You have deformed the magic of existence
And planted the seeds of sorrow in the fields

Wait -- don't be fooled by the spring
The clearness of the sky or the light of dawn 
For on the horizon lies the horror of darkness,
Rumble of thunder, and blowing of wind

Beware, for below the ash there is fire
And he who grows thorns reaps wounds
Look there, for I have harvested the heads of mankind
And the flowers of hope 
And I have watered the heart of the earth with blood
I soaked it with tears until it was drunk
The river of blood will sweep you
And the fiery storm will devour you 

Translated by Abdul Iskander (Source. Original Arabic)

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 this translation comes near the end: "He who grows thorns will reap wounds." One does not forget a line like that.

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 here. 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 post here. You can also see Al-Shabi's poetry being recited in Arabic in a video at the website of UT-Austin here.

Another powerful political Arab poet I know of 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. (Source)
This is usually interpreted as the poet's commentary on Saddam Hussein, but at various points in the poem al-Bayyati expands his meaning to refer to the dictator-dragons who are being "cloned" acround 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. 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... Thanks Kitabet.]