The poetic tradition is perhaps strongest of all in the Middle East- central to its telling of history, its spirituality, its love songs. Remember that the Bible too is a Middle Eastern document, which explains why (despite the efforts of the translators) around one third of its content was written in poetic form.
We might expect then that the recent troubles within the region might be reflected in poetry- the so called Arab Spring uprisings in Jordan and Egypt, the wars shattering Iraq and the on-going oppression of the Palestinian people.
If so, we hear little of it here in the West. The stories told of the region here are of violence, extremism, and the heroism of our troops.
However, I came across a series of films from AlJazeera called Artscape;Poets of Protest. This how the series describes itself;
Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.
Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.
In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.
Ever since Tunisians chanted Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s If the People Wanted Life One Day poetry has been a key weapon of the Arab Spring, used to taunt regimes’ refusing to see the writing on the wall.
As the revolution spread to Egypt, it turned out that the writing on the wall was also poetry – graffiti by young artists painting the works of poets like al-Shabi or Egypt’s Ahmed Fouad Negm.
Poets of Protest focuses on the writers, their political and artistic struggles, and their work, with beautifully filmed visual interpretations of the poems.
As a matter of interest- this is the poem referred to above that the Tunisians chanted as a protest to their oppressors. Can you imagine a popular movement using poetry in this way in the West?
“The Will of Life” Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s done bySargon Boulat and Christopher MiddletonLife’s WillWhen people chooseTo live by life’s will,Fate can do nothing but give in;The night discards its veil,All shackles are undone.Whoever never feltLife celebrating himMust vanish like the mist;Whoever never feltSweeping through himThe glow of lifeSuccumbs to nothingness.This I was told by the secretVoice of All-Being:Wind roared in the mountains,Roared through valleys, under trees:“My goal, once I have set it,And put aside all caution,I must pursue to the end.Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountainLives out his life in potholes.”Then it was earth I questioned:“Mother, do you detest mankind?”And earth responded:“I bless people with high ambition,Who do not flinch at danger.I curse people out of step with time,People content to live like stone.No horizon nurtures a dead bird.A bee will choose to kiss a living flower.If my mothering heartWere not so tender,The dead would have no hiding placeIn those graves yonder.(Translated by Sargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton)This poem appeared in English translation in Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s anthology “Modern Arabic Poetry” (Columbia University Press)