Produced by the Poetry Foundation to accompany the June issue of Poetry magazine, which was entirely devoted to the two-line Afghani poems known as landays. Seamus Murphy‘s film includes lots of stunning shots, and displays familiarity with the filmpoem genre in its imaginative conjunctions of text and image. Murphy has been taking still photographs in Afghanistan since 1994, and some of them accompany his fellow journalist Eliza Griswold‘s essay on, and compilation of, landays for the magazine. One thing the film contributes to the issue is the sound of the Pashto originals, which aren’t otherwise included in the online feature.
A story from PBS NewsHour provides additional background about the project:
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.
1. June 16, 2009: “Defenseless People”
2. June 19: “Where is This Place”
3. June 20: “Listen Closely”
4. June 21: “Let Us Not Forget”
Even the poster of these four anonymous compositions puts “poem” in quotation marks, and indeed the subtitled translations exemplify many of the faults of quickly written, emotionally laden political poetry. But these are nonetheless extremely effective videos, of which the foregrounded words form only a part. The true poem here is Allah-o akbar, and the videos — pitch-black except for occasional flashes of light — create a quintessentially Islamic atmosphere of religious aniconism verging into political iconoclasm.
The title of this post is the preferred title of Chas Danner, the Brooklyn-based freelance writer who got them translated into English, added subtitles, and posted the results to YouTube. “Where is This Place” made the front page of the Huffington Post back on June 20th and was widely forwarded as a result, making it one of the most-watched video poems on the web.
Speaking of HuffPo, journalist Shirin Sadeghi posted a great essay there on Monday that should help put these videos in cultural context, Voices of Protest: The Iranian Word.
They are a nation with a keen sense of their rights, and an audacity to speak up for themselves, whether it’s in the streets, on the page or on the web.
They are also a nation that has never had a truly representative government and thus has adapted its discourse to the guile and euphemism which are required to express thoughts — political in nature — which could otherwise tempt misfortune.
Double entendres, metaphors and symbolism are a part of the gift of “gap” (the Persian word for “gab”) so it is no wonder that literature holds such an eminent position in Iranian culture.
For centuries, poetry in particular has been the ultimate form of expression for Iranians: Iranian poetry is a manual for life and thought, a centuries-old avenue for political dissent.
“In its essence, literature is not tied to politics. If literature has any duty, it is a commitment to language and the creation of beauty,” says Esmail Kho’i, Iran’s pre-eminent poet philosopher, “however in certain circumstances, writers and poets become forced to give rise to politics. The reality is that they do not seek politics, it is politics which obliges them.”
The article includes an excerpt from a poem called “The Rooftoppers,” by Iranian-American poet Mahnaz Badihian:
Our home is possessed
At night we turn to our rooftop
From rooftop to rooftop we protest
Asking ferociously: where is the compassionate God
Our voice echoes with the wind, blow dear courageous wind
Our voice grows taller than poplar trees, so together we stand
Up there, our naked souls together invent bravery, in the moonlight
From rooftop to rooftop we go, till the gaze of morning glories calls us
Up there, again we ask ourselves: who measured God on the rooftops
But we know up there the hands of fear are bigger than the eyes of truth
According to Sadeghi, the aniconic tradition lends an additional, potent weapon to the poet’s arsenal:
When all else fails, even silence is a defiant statement in Iranian literature. “The power of silence and the intentional refusal to take pen to paper can be a political act,” Kho’i says.
The article’s conclusion is worth reading in full.
Anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem
Film by Stuart Lee (including the reading and translation)
The anachronistic contrast between modern ruins and Anglo Saxon language and costume is extremely effective here. Kudos to Mr. Lee, and I hope more Anglo-Saxon poetry videos are in the offing.
Excerpt of a film by Barry Dornfeld and Maggie Holtzberg-Call