The Poetry of Egyptian Protest and the UAE’s ‘Prince of Poets’

There hasn’t yet been a January 25-inspired poem to hit the “Prince of Poets” TV show (granted, it’s only 6 a.m. on Jan. 26), nor anything as thoroughly enjoyable as the Jan. 25 protest chants: يا مبارك, يا مبارك. السعوديّة بإتنظارك.

But—among poems that criticize FIFA and urge respect for your grandparents—Egyptian colloquial poet Hisham al-Gakh’s latest work, titled التأشيرة or “The Visa,” has caused a minor stir.

A translation from Abu Dhabi-based paper The National:

And I used to save the songs and poems in my heart and soul
“Arab countries are my home, and all Arabs are my brothers”
And when I grew up, I didn’t get a visa to sail
I didn’t sail
And the passport with no stamp from that window stopped me
I didn’t pass
When I grew up I didn’t sail and I didn’t pass.

The National‘s Samar al-Huneidi adds:

He recites his poem as if addressing it to all Arab rulers; fearlessly expressing his feelings and anger about the [visa] problem.

Al-Gakh, who won the “Best Colloquial Poet prize” in 2008 from the Egyptian Writers’ Union, has earlier spoken more critically about the Egyptian regime, as in “Guha,” partially translated by Daily News Egypt:

It’s a horrible feeling to realize that your country is weak, your voice is weak, your opinion is weak, to realize that if you sell your soul, your body, your pen and your name, you still wouldn’t be able to afford a loaf of bread.

What does it mean when I’m walking minding my own business, and the police take me in on suspicion? What does it mean when I get arrested four years as a pre-trial detention, an arbitrary detention is more like it.

However, al-Gakh also noted to the paper that he’d never taken part in a protest, and believed that the police generally only got involved when protesters were unruly.

From earlier years, non-Arab readers will probably best remember the “Prince of Poets” appearance of Hissa Hilal, the “Saudi housewife” (read: female poet and editor who happens to have children) whose poetry challenged the proliferation of fatwas. However, the show’s most celebrated poet has certainly been Palestinian-Egyptian Tamim al-Barghouti, son of Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour and Palestinian poet/memoirist Mourid Barghouti. The popular and accomplished al-Barghouti—currently a professor at Georgetown University in the U.S.—came in fifth the year he competed, to suppositions that the prize had been rigged. That year, first place went to apolitical UAE poet Abdulkareem Maatouk.

You can read work by the younger al-Barghouti on Al Ahram, Poetry International Web, and “Islamic Poetry“; however, none of it is very satisfying in translation.  “The Gift,” I suppose, works best.

As Amira Howeidy wrote in Al Ahram:

Al-Barghouti told me later, however, translating the poem into English tends to strip it of meaning.

So, while many critics insist that the Arabic novel has taken the place formerly held by Arabic poetry, the poetic form retains much of its cultural heft and power. And, for goodness sakes, you can’t chant a novel.

More poetry for the streets:

From now-deceased Sargon Boulus, via Sinan Antoon:” أيها الجلاد/عد إلى قريتك الصغيرة/لقد طردناك اليوم وألغينا هذه الوظيفة”

This must be Antoon’s translation: “Executioner!/Go back to your little village/We kicked you out today/and eliminated this position”