Egypt’s poetry of revolt

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I’ve long avoided demonstrations here in the U.S., even ones I strongly support, due to my aversion to stupid, boring, time-worn slogans. So I was really excited to read that

The slogans the [Egyptain] 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.

That’s Elliott Colla in an essay titled “The Poetry of Revolt” in Jadaliyya. Following a concise history of Egyptian revolutions and uprisings, he lists some of the most famous literary poets of revolt since the 1880s, and describes the extent to which their poems have been used to inspire demonstrators and galvanize action.

But beyond these recognized names are thousands of other poets—activists all—who would never dare to protest publicly without an arsenal of clever couplet-slogans. The end result is a unique literary tradition whose power is now on full display across Egypt. Chroniclers of the current Egyptian revolt, like As’ad AbuKhalil, have already compiled lists of these couplets—and hundreds more are sure to come. For the most part, these poems are composed in a colloquial, not classical, register and they are extremely catchy and easy to sing. The genre also has real potential for humor and play—and remind us of the fact that revolution is also a time for celebration and laughter.

Colla goes on to speculate that this communal experience of poetry is key both to building crowd solidarity and helping them overcome their fear of the regime through laughter. Read the full essay. There’s also another YouTube video of protestors at Tahrir Square which includes a translation of sorts in the description.

I am indebted to a Facebook friend (who is @kitabet on Twitter, but otherwise currently blogless) for links to both the essay and the video, and I gather from the notes at YouTube that we owe the translation to Facebook, as well—not surprising given the site’s role in the uprising.

Video previously posted on Facebook, “Bravest Girl in Egypt”, translated into English. You can now read and understand the slogans of the demonstrators. Translated by Iyad El-Baghdadi, subbed by Ammara Alavi. A shout out to Dana Kagis from Vancouver who asked for a translation.

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