Poetry as an Instrument of Revolution

Anyone who is familiar with Sufi poetry also might be aware of the long history of protest poetry written by people of the entire Middle Eastern, North African and Asian areas that border the Arabian sea. I ran across a couple of good articles on this.

As I’ve been monitoring the various news streams over the past week or so, there has been quite a bit of colorful language used in many of the Tweets, blog posts and comments from Egypt and beyond. By colorful language I don’t mean cursing and such, although there is a thread of that too, but rich creative full expressions of people’s thoughts and feelings. Most are in Arabic and I’ve found a few sources of translations for some and often people are spontaneously providing English translations.

I don’t have time to sift through them right now but Elliott Colla the author of one of the articles I mentioned has done just that so I’m going to quote from his article The Poetry of Revolt that appeared on the Jadaliyya website. The author writes:

No less astonishing is the poetry of this moment. I don’t mean “poetry” as a metaphor, but the actual poetry that has played a prominent role in the outset of the events. The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.

The remainder of the article goes into the intertwined histories of both revolution and poetry and is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

These rhyming couplets are what you may be hearing chanted when you listen to Al Jazeera English streaming on the web. (Yeah that’s a plug for them) And here’s a video of a courageous young woman using this poetic technique while leading a protest against the police.

The use of poetry during times of social unrest is not that unusual. Consider the lyrics of some protest songs. Are they not poetry?

The other article I came across by Amardeep Singh: Poetry in the Protests: Egypt and Tunisia makes that very point in the first sentence:

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.

So we are actually on somewhat familiar ground with this topic.

Amardeep quotes some of the longer forms of protest poetry found in the region. Here are the opening lines from the poem The Dragon by Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. The full poem can be found here.

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.

He also discusses some of the background of poetry and provides links for more.

There is a very well known poem that has played a significant role in the current revolutions. “To the Tyrants of the World,” written by the Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi which has became a rallying cry for the people in Tunisia is spoken in an NPR broadcast. It is spoken in Arabic and English.

Here is the English translation from NPR

Oppressive tyrants,
lover of darkness,
enemy of life,
you have ridiculed the size of the weak people.
Your palm is soaked with their blood. 

You deformed the magic of existence
and planted the seeds of sorrow in the fields. 

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 winds. 

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 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.



In case the embedded item doesn’t work here is the link



Protest poetry is not confined to any one culture or location. I’ll leave you with this Diane di Prima poem

Rant, from a Cool Place

by Diane DiPrima

“I see no end of it, but the turning

upside down of the entire world”

——————————— Erasmus

We are in the middle of a bloody, heartrending revolution

Called America, called the Protestant reformation, called Western man,

Called individual consciousness, meaning I need a refrigerator and a car

And milk and meat for the kids so, I can discover that I don’t need a car

Or a refrigerator, or meat, or even milk, just rice and a place with

————-no wind to sleep next to someone

Two someones keeping warm in the winter learning to weave

To pot and to putter, learning to steal honey from bees,

————wearing the bedclothes by day, sleeping under

(or in) them at night; hording bits of glass, colored stones, and

————stringing beads

How long before we come to that blessed definable state

Known as buddhahood, primitive man, people in a landscape

together like trees, the second childhood of man

I don’t know if I will make it somehow nearer by saying all this

out loud, for christs sake, that Stevenson was killed, that Shastri

————was killed

both having dined with Marietta Tree

the wife of a higher-up in the CIA

both out of their own countries mysteriously dead, as how many others

as Marilyn Monroe, wept over in so many tabloids

done in for sleeping with Jack Kennedy – this isn’t a poem – full of

————cold prosaic fact

thirteen done in the Oswald plot: Jack Ruby’s cancer that disappeared

————in autopsy

the last of a long line – and they’re waiting to get Tim Leary

Bob Dylan

Allen Ginsberg

LeRoi Jones – as, who killed Malcolm X? They give themselves away

with TV programs on the Third Reich, and I wonder if I’ll live to sit in

————Peking or Hanoi

see TV programs on LBJ’s Reich: our great SS analysed, our money exposed,

————the plot to keep Africa

genocide in Southeast Asia now in progress Laos Vietnam Thailand Cambodia

————O soft-spoken Sukamo

O great stone Buddhas with sad negroid lips torn down by us by the red

————guard all one force

one leveling mad mechanism, grinding it down to earth and swamp to sea

————to powder

till Mozart is something a few men can whistle

or play on a homemade flute and we bow to each other

telling old tales half remembered gathering shells

learning again “all beings are from the very beginning Buddhas”

or glowing and dying radiation and plague we come to that final great

————love illumination