egypt: poetry in revolution

In following various tweets and retweets on twitter, I stumbled across this post (below), which I wish I had found when I put up my post yesterday about the girl who led chants in Cairo several days ago.

I know enough to know that things like this: “What does Mubarak want anyway? All Egyptians to kiss his feet? No, Mubarak, we will not! Tomorrow we’ll trample you with our shoes!” are very insulting — shoes are used to express a high level of insult in arabic cultures. (Remember when Bush had a shoe thrown at him in Baghdad?) That’s pretty basic.

But this article gives me so much more with which to contemplate the videos that have come out of Egypt the last week. I recommend you go read this — I know I very much enjoy this kind of cultural background to what I see: Poetry as an Instrument of Revolution

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.

She references and quotes from The Poetry of Revolt which is also well worth reading. A little bit of background:

Since the 1970s, it has been Ahmed Fouad Negm who has played the leading role as lyricist of militant opposition to the regimes of Egypt. For forty years, Negm’s colloquial poems—many set to music by Sheikh Imam—have electrified student, labor and dissident movements from the Egyptian underclass. Negm’s poetry ranges from praise (madh) for the courage of ordinary Egyptians, to invective (hija’) for Egypt’s overlords—and it is no accident that you could hear his songs being sung by the leftist activists who spearheaded the first day of revolt on January 25.

He goes on to note something that I think explains how the protesters lost their fear (which is easily sensed — regardless of which language you do or do not speak — from watching numerous video clips):

Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.

The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.

Go read these posts.

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