How Does an Arab Poet Reconcile Ties to His Regime?

Jadaliyya has posted two new translations: Gaelle Raphael’s translation of Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s “Will to Life” and Stephen Day’s translation of and commentary on Yemeni national poet Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh’s “The Betrayal.”

Day provides context for “The Betrayal,” written by a beloved poet with ties to the Yemeni regime.

In March 2011, Dr. al-Maqaleh wrote a poem about…“Bloody Friday” in Yemen.  This event took place near the entrance of Sanaa University’s new campus….  During the preceding month, this site had been enthusiastically renamed “Change Square” by students inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Al-Maqaleh, who was once president of Sanaa University, was admired by many young people across the nation. Over the course of his career, al-Maqaleh wrote any number of poems celebrating his homeland, such as “Poem 47 of The Book of Sanaa’,” published in The Marlboro Review:

The spirit of this city floats
On the water of years.
Do not wake her
Let her moan while her children drown.
Do not light her pale alleys,
For the streets are still wet
With the sweet blood of martyrs
Who died for their homeland,
And turned the pages of life too soon

Keep reading…

According to the Yemen Observer, the following poem, from Sanaa By All Means, is particularly dear to the poet’s heart:

It’s sleeping, it did not die.
It will emerge from its sleep
(after a year)
I tell you, after twenty years
And it will wash its feet in the blood of kings,
It will dance till morning
And until evening
It will pull out its executioner’s teeth and nails
Without malicious joy, without despair
Sleep will leave it
When its good sons emerge from their sleep.
The apples of every eye
Have your eyes had their fill of fear?
Are you not worry of coffins?
Haven’t the clouds of slumber and the mirrors of
been broken at the borders of nightmares?

But then Bloody Friday happened. Day writes:

One minute there was joy in the hearts of young street protesters.  And in the next minute, many lay in the street dying from horrific wounds.  Others numbering in the hundreds were injured and bleeding profusely.  Friends and strangers raced in panic to rescue the fallen, carrying them to makeshift medical facilities in nearby mosques and other buildings.  Pools of blood formed on the streets and sidewalks, entrances and hallways of buildings, staining people’s hands and feet.

“The Betrayal,” written in the event’s aftermath, takes on a critical and perhaps self-critical tone. Day:

…al-Maqaleh’s sentiments betray his own association with a regime that could hire snipers who carried out the “Bloody Friday” massacre — a massacre committed against a younger generation, a new set of heroic sons, who died with their dreams and ideals.

Poetry in Yemen has long played a role in national politics and culture, and has been a major part of the national dialogue. “The Betrayal” sees al-Maqaleh perhaps rethinking what his role in this dialogue should be.

“The Betrayal” opens:

My faith in poetry is betrayed, as blood,
gushing from the heart of the square,
now masks the face of words

My eyes can no longer
make out the shape of things,
the tone of things

Blood, blood, and more blood

It shrouds my soul, my tongue
it envelopes the horizon
and stains people’s bread,
falling on plates,
coffee cups,
and the eyes of children.

Keep reading.

Bad, But Topical: Osama Bin Laden’s Poetry

This was largely mocked in the West (where poets are something different altogether), but poetry was a key mode of communication and dialogue in the Bin Laden empire as well.

BBC News: Analysing Bin Laden’s jihadi poetry

The Sunday Times: Osama Bin Laden recites poetry

The Sunday Times: Osama bin Laden, bard of jihad

John Lundberg in the HuffPost: Osama Bin Laden: Terrorist and…Wedding Poet?

New UK Publishing House with ‘Mideast Focus’

Arab News reported yesterday that a new London-based publishing house has opened with a “Mideast focus.” The house, Gilgamesh Publishing Ltd., will “shortly be unveiling a forward list of titles ranging from illustrated reference to history, contemporary analysis and travel writing.”

The new publisher’s website says they’re “growing fast” and that they welcome submissions. According to ArabNews, the editorial board is at work assessing books for fall publication.