Egypt’s Revolutionary Poetry

Protesters throughout the Middle East are using famous classical poetry as subversive chants against the government. Josh Dzieza on countries where verse still has power—and the Pete Seeger of Egypt.

Article - Dzieza Egypt Poetry

Matt Rourke / AP Photo While protesters in Tunisia chanted these words, written by the poet Abul Qasim al-Shabi, two weeks ago, Iraqi poets staged a reading in solidarity. In Egypt, where al-Shabi’s verses had become a rallying cry, Al Jazeera reported poetry readings in the middle of the protests at Tahrir Square.

Imperious despot, insolent in strife,
Lover of ruin, enemy of life!

You mock the anguish of an impotent land
Whose people’s blood has stained your tyrant hand,
And desecrate the magic of this earth,
sowing your thorns, to bring despair to birth

Abul Qasim al-Shabi

The readings and poetic chants in Tunisia and Egypt are only the latest instance in a long history of political poetry in the Middle East, going back all the way to pre-Islamic times, when the sa-alik (roughly translated as “vagabond”) wrote about living outside the tribal system. In modern times, poetry has been a tool for creating a sense of political unity, giving voice to political aspirations, and excoriating governments and leaders. Maybe most surprising to an American used to poetry’s increasing confinement to college campuses, poetry is a tool for galvanizing people to political action.

“Outside the West poetry is still very powerful,” says Muhsin Jassim al-Musawi, professor of Arabic literature at Columbia University. “It might not be very conspicuous, but it is there, an undercurrent, and whenever there is a need for it you will be surprised that people have something to say.” Postcolonial literary criticism has neglected the political power of poetry, says Musawi, focusing instead on the way narrative defines cultural and national identities. But when those identities are first being formed, he says, when people are taking to the streets in protest or trying to establish a new government, it’s poetry people turn to. It’s easier to rally around a verse than a novel. Continue reading