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



Spin Cycle


People seem to be attracted to and often fascinated by anything that goes around in circles. Something starts in one place and ends up in the same place and starts again. Nascar, horse racing, Olympic track events, calendars, yoyos, midway rides, the flashing light on a police car, animal migrations, planets around the sun, roulette wheels, panoramic 360 degree photos, windmills, the revolving light on a lighthouse, Frisbees, helicopter rotors, juggling, crop circles.

The pattern of the circle is one of the oldest known images humans have ever consciously inscribed. All over the world there are petroglyphs with circular patterns that are tens of thousands of years old. Ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge or the medicine wheels of early Aboriginal peoples found across the American plains attest to the enduring significance of the circle as an important symbol deep within the human consciousness.

My own fascination with things going around in circles comes from laundry appliances. Having spend countless afternoons sitting in local Laundromats waiting for clothes to dry its hard not to be drawn into the continuous movement of the machines. Many times they were the only things moving as people sat patiently on the wooden benches reading their newspapers or books or just dozing in the white noise.  It gets kind of hypnotic after a while.

imageOne thing I always noticed was the efficiency of the spin cycle in the washing machines.  The water was drawn out from the cloth fibers through the increasing pull of the centrifugal force of the spinning laundry tub. And the clothes, no matter what their composition were all forced against the sides of the tub until they were flattened and unrecognizable.

Reminds me of certain midway rides that pull you back into your seat. The challenge becomes being able to raise your arms against the forces that bind the body to the machine. Or consider the pilot flying a jet at incredible speed pulling against 3 or 4 gravities in order to operate the plane when it would be so much easier just to sit back in the seat and let the force have it’s way.

We all have conditions in our lives that have forces of their own. We are drawn again and again into repeating that which has become habitual without giving our actions too much consideration. And the faster our lives seem to become the less likely it is that we will reach out for the controls and change course.

imageThere’s also not much cultural support for going against that kind of movement.  Those who opt to move against the mainstream are labeled “out of step”,  “black sheep”, “weird”, “deranged” or worse.

Being an outsider is not a pleasant place to be. It is a lot easier to “go along to get along”. To follow some kind of arbitrary pattern that is more or less similar to what everybody else is doing.

But then again, as with the jet pilot, leaving one’s life up to the whims of gravity and chance may not be terribly rational even if it is the most comfortable at the time.

The Buddha taught about Right Effort for a reason. To escape the wheel of samsara some amount of effort is required.

Don’t let the force be with you, let it be against you.


Musical Accompaniment

Dead or Alive- You Spin me Round

[I love his hair-it looks like mine this morning-aarrrgggghhh!]


“There is no ‘I’ existing as some substantial thing; there is only the ceaseless flow. This is true not only of me, but of all things.” — Kosho Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought”

Listening to so much Bob Marley over the past few days has renewed my interest in the philosophy, faith and beliefs of the Rastafarians.  As someone perpetually interested in what goes on in the world and why, the Rastafari movement was one that I found interesting as soon as I came into contact with it many many years ago. 

The Rastafari movement is not called “Rastafarianism”. The “ism” is somewhat offensive for quite a few reasons, mostly to do with Babylon things.

They especially reject the word “Rastafarianism”, because they see themselves as “having transcended -isms and schisms.” This has created conflict between some Rastas and some members of the academic community studying Rastafari, who insist on calling this faith “Rastafarianism” in spite of the disapproval this generates within the Rastafari movement. Nevertheless, the practice continues among scholars, though there are also instances of the study of Rastafari using its own terms.

from Rastafari movement

There is a well developed religious philosophy and several major sects within Rastafari. For a brief time there was a Black Supremacy aspect to some of the Rastafari philosophy. This tended to coincide with civil rights issues in other places at the time. However after a speech in 1963 by Haile Selassie Emperor of Ethiopia (who is considered to be the second coming of the Christ by the Rastafarians) at the United Nations in which he said:

“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil….

We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”

much of the issue was reoriented away from dominance thinking back to a more egalitarian viewpoint.

I won’t go into all of that but one thing that really strikes me, as a Buddhist, is the concept behind Iyaric or particular vocabulary used in Rastafari.

I&I (or I and I or InI)

From Rasta-ites Question and Answer

I&I signifies I&I unity with JAH the Most High. As in I and I God, it is also used to signify I&I Rastafari bredren and sistren, also signifying I&I unity with the Most I. So it can mean I or we or even you, although now more I’s would say “the I” for you.

The dictionary definition below is from the Rasta Patois Dictionary

“I and I, I&I:
I, me, you and me, we (1)Rastafari speech eliminates you, me we, they, etc., as divisive and replaces same with communal I and I.  I and I embraces the congregation in unity with the  Most I (high) in an endless circle of inity (unity).”

From Rastafarian vocabulary

I replaces “me”, which is much more commonly used in Jamaican English than in the more conventional forms. Me is felt to turn the person into an object whereas I emphasises the subjectivity of an individual.

I and I is a complex term, referring to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. Rastafari scholar E. E. Cashmore: “I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness, the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people in fact. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man. But man itself needs a head and the head of man is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I (always pronounced as the letter ‘I,’ never as the number one or ‘the first’) of Ethiopia.” The term is often used in place of “you and I” or “we” among Rastafari, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah.

The recognition of the oneness and unity of people, people with their god concept and people as equal expressions of a god or as maintaining a “sameness within difference” has appeared in many religions. Hinduism is the example that first comes to mind.

Within monotheistic traditions one might mark the differences between the god concept as either “transcendent” or “immanent”. Transcendent gods are differentiated from people and unreachable. Immanent gods dwell within or can be reached by human beings. Sufism, gnostic traditions within Christianity and Judaism all have the element of the immanent which sets them apart from the mainstream which views a god as something “other” or “out there” somewhere.

With traditions that don’t maintain such god concepts there is still this sense of unity. Buddhism exhibits that.

The I&I expression strikes me as quite similar to a lot of Buddhist concepts.

Interdependence (another I word) in the English language doesn’t go far enough to really capture how we are all in this together.

Intermersion if there is such a word might be more apt.

There is no end of one I and beginning of another.

I and I.


A little history and background of the Rastafari movement

Musical Interlude-Niyabinghi chants

Reggae music is not the only music associated with the Rastas. Burra style drumming, which influenced Hip-Hop appears. Of more central importance in the expression of the Rasta beliefs are Niyabinghi chants. Niyabinghi is also the name of one of the major “houses” or “mansions” (groups) of Rastafari.

Niyabinghi chants

are played at worship ceremonies called grounations,[14] that include drumming, chanting and dancing, along with prayer and ritual smoking of cannabis. The name Nyabinghi comes from an East African movement from the 1850s to the 1950s that was led by people who militarily opposed European imperialism.

Here is a grounation in South Africa which includes Niyabinghi chants, preaching, worshipful dancing and group walking chants in circumambulation.

And here is a much larger grounation with onlookers in Jamaica.


Someone in YouTube comments has written down some of the words for this latter video.

Them gi wi basket fi go carry water. Them gi wi basket fi go carry water. Ohhhh Jah Rastafari rule this land. Ethiopia land, Waa go home a Ethiopia land . Waa go home a Ethipian lan land oooh. Jah Rastafari rule the land. Repartriate, Go get a dread mek wi repartriate whaooo, Jah Rastafari rule the land…..

Rumi’s Fields of Dreams, Wisdom and Ecstasy

Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the most well know Persian Sufi mystical poets. He is also one I like a lot. He packs a lot of wisdom into few words.

Have had an interest in many kinds of mystical poetry for years and got a lot of information/education about Rumi’s poetry when I was in Turkey about 15 years ago. Met quite a number of Sufi folks there and spent more than a few afternoons over spiced tea and hookah (with flavored tobacco not other stuff) discussing poetry, politics,  God and a whole lot of other things. And I am fortunate here in India, where I live there are a lot of Kashmiri and Sufi Muslim folks who also like the poetry and music as well although I don’t have as much time as I’d like to discuss these things.

So just to pick out a few quotes of Rumi’s that seem to accord well with some Buddhist thought I’ll just amble through this post with a little comparative religion so to speak.

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Note here Rumi is talking of ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing not rightdoing and wrongdoing themselves. This kind of second hand mental action, reaction and cogitation that takes over and separates us from the activity of reality. Here are some words by Sosan Zenji (Seng-Tsan) – the 3rd Zen Patriarch on Faith Mind. Here is another source for the quotes.

If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion…

The Way is perfect like vast space…

Rumi had some sense of humor as well. In describing some seekers of truth he wrote:

He is like a man using a candle to look for the sun

This is reminiscent of the Zen story

It is too clear and so it is hard to see. A dunce once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, He could have cooked his rice much sooner. –  Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 176 Translated by Paul Reps

And another

Open Your Own Treasure House
Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.
“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own tresure house and use those treasures.”

Rumi also wrote:

When you come looking for sugar,
your bag will be examined
to see how much it can hold;
it will be filled accordingly.

Doesn’t this remind you of the words:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Some Ecstasy

Here’s a little Sufi and other music that may well send you into some sort of ecstasy.

Famous Qawwali (Sufi devotional music) singer Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan performing Allah Hu one of the most well known Sufi songs. It is so joyful I almost cry every time I hear it. Nusrat died in 1997.

The full song is over 20 minutes. Here’s the first half of the live album version again by Nusrat. Some interesting pictures of Mecca and related places as well as images of related verses from the Quran accompany the song. There are also images of Sufi relics and the crypts of Sufi saints which receive a reverence not unlike Catholic relics and the like in popular culture. In India even Hindus are known to go to the resting places of Sufi saints to pray. I’ve been to some of the Chishti resting places inside the Jama Masjid (biggest mosque in India) in Delhi and Ajmer (Rajasthan) and left offerings for the Chishti saints.

And here is a more contemporary version done by Harshdeep Kaur done with Punjabi style music and melody on a television show. Her voice is incredibly powerful. The word ishq means love in a passionate and devoted and all encompassing sense.  It is often heard in the phrase ishq samandar which means ocean of love-that’s also the name of a well known Hindi song. She sings some of the lyrics in English as well.

Signal to Noise. Here is Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan with Peter Gabriel from a performance on VH-1.

Face of Love. Nusrat from the soundtrack of the Movie “Dead man walking”. Performed with Eddie Vedder. Lyrics include English so you can get the drift of what Qawwali music is about.

Here are photos of the tomb of a local pir (Sufi holy person)  right outside of Mussoorie where I live. On certain occasions in the Muslim calendar people bring offerings including the green coverings to leave at the grave.



How to do meditation and why?

Since I was talking about meditation in my last post I will expand on that in a practical way. Meditation has many forms and is practiced by people of all faiths, not only Buddhists. So I’ve tried to include more than Buddhist types here.

It is best to learn from a teacher who can correct your posture and so forth but many people don’t have access to teachers or don’t know enough about meditation to be able to choose a teacher. And some people of other faiths may not want to receive instruction from Buddhists. There is secular meditation as well.

One can be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu (though Hindus are well aware of this through the development of yoga in India) or any other faith or “no faith stated” and still get the benefits, now scientifically shown, of meditation. Psychology Today magazine has some information on this. And this yoga site has a further list of health benefits of meditation.


Here are a couple of links with instructions for doing Soto Zen Buddhist meditation.

  • First is a video by Gudo Nishijima Roshi of Japan He has several other videos explaining the meaning of zazen and dropping body and mind on this page.
  • Here is a series of photographs showing the method. There is advice given about the practice in a zendo (formal meditation setting with a group) also. This is from Soto Zen Net

The Soto Zen method involves nothing but sitting which is simple enough. There are numerous forms of Buddhist meditation.

Other Directions

There are many sects and lines of philosophy in Hinduism so to begin to suggest any few types of meditation at the expense of others would be difficult. Therefore I am just going to give a general article about meditation that include links to Hindu topics.

  • Meditation This article talks about forms of meditation as well as meditation in a variety of traditions and faiths.
  • Secular meditation, something like a Western style yoga class which generally has little in the way of religious content, can be found. Talk to the instructor and ask if there is a meditation portion to their class.

So meditate for religious purposes, in hot pursuit of satori, to reach a state of serenity with God, to improve your health or for any other reason.

The impetus for meditation is intention. Ask yourself “Why am I considering doing meditation?” a couple of times. If the answers satisfy you they also give you a direction for the type of meditation you can look for. And the reason to make the effort of a consistent meditation practice. For the results only come from consistency.