Tunisia: The Poetry of Revolution

Source: Al Jazeera

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

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.”

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