The Arab World and Poetry: A Sophisticated Partnership

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“If your existence feels like resistance, then your joy is revolutionary”–Keke Salem

The portrayal of the Arab world in Western media often entails depictions of widespread chaos, a general propensity for barbarism, and a widespread lack of civility and class. Poetry lends itself a useful rebuttal to this claim. Poets like Mohammad Darwish, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi, and Tamim Al-Barghouthi cemented themselves in history as some of the most significant poets of this era. Nothing demonstrates this fact as much as the large-scale circulation of their poetry in the 2010-11 Arab Spring, which rallied the masses to push for democratic reform.

Poetry spread like wildfire during the Arab Spring because of changes in the poets’ writing methodology. Specifically, the use of Fus-ha (standardized Arabic) rather than a dialect, and significant structural changes to the nature of how poetry was written made it more accessible for all Arab speaking audiences. Furthermore, the use of Fus-ha instilled in the Arab people the sense of love and dedication to one’s land and freedom that is vital in revolutionary times.

By writing in Fus-ha, poets were able to deconstruct the language barrier that existed and cause the widespread unification of the ideologies in the different Arab States. The Arab people were pushing for similar reform, chanting the same exact words, and aiming for the same changes– peace and democracy in the Arab World. In many ways, Arab poetry, by its own elegance, swayed the minds of many Arabs and fastened their commitment to fighting for democracy.

The second notable difference was the change in structure–specifically the abandonment of past structural models that poets followed and the emergence of the free verse. In the past, poetic structure was important. Your poetry could touch on any topic so long as it fit into the mainstream poetic structure. However, when free verse emerged and began to take over in Southwest Asia, the common people were taken aback. Very similar to the freeing of oneself from the old and oppressive political regimes, people were freeing their poetry from the former structures in place that bound it.

The poetry was new and refreshing, a much-needed sign of encouragement with regard to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Shayma Hassouna, a professor of Arabic Literature at UC Davis commented that “much like how people were pushing for their liberation, poetry at the same time was being liberated.” Hassouna discussed how the new poetry emerging from the common people in Egypt was a sign of the shifting of power from the government to the people. “Those who could present their views in the most sophisticated and elegant manner could win the hearts and minds of the people,” Hassouna said. During the Arab Spring, it was the people, not the government, that had the poets on their side.

A verse from The Will to Live, a poem written by Aboul-Qaccem Echebbi, became the most commonly heard chant of the Arab Spring demonstrations: “If, one day, a people desired to live, then fate will answer their call.” The people resonated strongly with these words. The people of the Arab States were at first disjointed, unaware of the change that needed to come and ignorant of their capacity to use their means to achieve their goals. However, poems like these bridged the gap between people in different states , allowing them to redefine their goals and forge unity. The only commonality between them was the poetry by which they were influenced. In this sense, poetry was very much a unifying voice in the Arab World.

Mahmoud Darwish, with his poem Identity Card, vividly pieced together the Palestinian identity in his eyes. In the 1960s, he was arrested after the poem gained notoriety and became a widely used poem in protests. Following his death in 2008, this poem and many others were at the forefront of the Arab minds engaged in the revolution. This poem helped many Arabs shape and find their identity when all else was in question. 

Mahmoud Al-Barghouthi, the last of these poets but certainly not the least, had a strong influence on the revolutionary spirit of the people. He was banished from Egypt for the influence of his poetry. He argued that any human can write poetry. He is famously known for saying, “Some people write poetry with their feet,” which he said in reference to a Palestinian child who threw rocks at a tank. The act was so courageous and symbolic that Barghouthi said he could “read the poetry off of the boy’s feet,” meaning that he saw the act as poetic. Barghouthi played a large part in encouraging action to be taken during the Arab Revolt.

Leen, a Bay Area organizer, recalled similar memories when describing the poetry that informed her work. She spoke at length about the nuances of Arab poetry and how it eclipsed its Western counterpart in elegance and meaning. “Arab poetry can capture emotions, paint pictures, and it provokes deep thought on different subjects. It’s something that can be passed on from generation to generation without loss of significance,” Leen said.

Arab poetry, in all its elegance and grace, stands to challenge statements like, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live-in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock.” Ben Shapiro tweeted this in 2010, and, to the surprise of many, it is not the only statement of its kind. “Islam is a religion in crisis around the world”–a statement addressed to France and the rest of the world by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. These statements and those who stated them are not condemned and disavowed as xenophobic in nature. In fact, they are often supported and validated by those who share similar views. The Western world believes the societies of South-West Asian, North African and South Asian (SWANSA) communities to be archaic and barbaric, lacking the sophistication of the rest of the world. Poetry, art, music, and many other forms of expression exist in the SWANASA region, and, in their existence, they challenge these claims, ultimately nullifying them.