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.
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
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.
Al-Shabi’s poems are taught in schools, and a verse from his poem Will to Live forms the final lines of Tunisia’s national anthem, so it makes sense that Tunisians reached for his poetry when they needed something to chant. But Egypt has its own rich tradition of political poetry to draw on. Back in the late 19th century, the neoclassical poet Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi gave voice to the nationalist movement leading up to the revolution of 1881. And after World War I, Bayram al-Tunsi wrote poems in protest of the Great Powers’ failure to grant Egypt independence. He was later banished for insulting the royal family in verse.
When Egyptians took to the streets on January 25, they sang the poems of a follower of al-Tunsi, Amad Fu’ad Nigm. Like al-Tunsi, Nigm used colloquial speech and puns to critique the state and mock its leaders, but unlike al-Tunsi, Nigm often set his to music, with the help of the blind oud player al-Shaykh Imam. Starting in the late ‘60s, when Nigm and Imam weren’t in prison, they performed in students’ apartments and crashed concerts, storming the stage and interrupting the show with their own music. That the protesters would turn to Nigm and Imam’s songs makes sense, says Marilyn Booth, Iraq Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and the host of one of Imam’s shows in 1980 (Nigm was in hiding). “Nigm’s verse carries a vernacular flavor and earthy punch, and he’s good at incorporating political slogans into his work.” Plus, she says, his critiques of the repressive regime remain “depressingly relevant.”
The January 25 protest was organized by a coalition of leftist organizations, activists from Kefaya (Enough!), El Ghad (Tomorrow), and others. “Many of them are lawyers, a lot of them human rights and Internet activists from working class backgrounds,” says Elliot Colla, chair of the Arabic and Islamic Studies department at Georgetown University. They know Nigm like “we know Pete Seeger or Arlo Guthrie, fairly brazen songs about being on the bottom looking up.”
Even when the chants in Egypt aren’t quotations from poems, there’s something distinctly poetic about them. “All the slogans you hear on Al Jazeera are also poetry,” he says. “If you go to a demonstration in the U.S., you’re chanting, ‘One, two, three, four, we’re not going to take this anymore,’ but in Egypt, they’re often rhyming couplets with rhythms from classical Arabic poetry.” Others are plays on traditional sayings, like the chant, “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (“Hit us, beat us, O Habib [as-Adly, the former minister of the interior] hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!”), which Colla points out echoes the saying “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (“The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins”). The echo of the saying in the chant turns the government into an abusive spouse, and turns a chant that if read straight would be a simple statement of defiance (“No matter how many times you hit us, we’re not going to leave”) into a taunt (“C’mon, hit us again, it hurts so good”).
In the early days of the protest, invective chants were popular. Protesters mocked Mubarak’s family, calling his son Gamal a momma’s boy, and compared Mubarak to the laughing cow on the packages of Laughing Cow Cheese or to other oafish and large-nosed animals. “Oh Mubarak, you rhinoceros, leave, leave, you’re annoying,” reads the translation of one rhyming chant.
But as the protests grew in size, songs and rhymed barbs became less common—it’s hard to get thousands of people chanting classical verse or singing together. One chant in particular has become widespread, showing up on signs and graffiti: “The people want the regime to fall.” Though it has a regular meter, this chant is unrhymed and not in colloquial Egyptian—it’s in modern classical Arabic. Colloquial Egyptian is as different from modern classical Arabic as contemporary English is from Shakespearian English, but unlike colloquial Egyptian, modern classical Arabic is understandable to Arabic speakers who hear it on Al Jazeera. “That tells you who they think their audience is,” says Colla. It’s also important to note that the chant doesn’t mention which people want which regime to fall: “A Yemeni could say that, a Jordanian could say that—and I suspect they already are.” It’s a slogan designed to spread.
As archaic as it may seem, poetry still matters: It’s a powerful means of expression, and revolts around the region have picked up lines from their literary traditions to evocatively, efficiently express their grievances and goals. “We shouldn’t be so naive as to neglect the power of poetry,” al-Musawi asserts, “because in the moment of the actual making, you need poetry, when action is taking place it needs to be around a catchphrase—people need it.
Josh Dzieza is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast.