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.)
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.
Wait -- don't be fooled by the spring
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,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.
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,
and all the jails in his blighted homeland. (Source)
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.]