A few weeks before the passage of Tunisia’s historic consensus constitution — which was approved last night by an overwhelming 200-12 vote — a number of writers and poets communicated their hopes for the nation in an open letter to the newly appointed prime minister. The online magazine Tunisia Live translated these hopes and added some from “street poet” Majd Mastoura:
Mastoura, who is a founder of a “street poetry” collective that promotes writing in Tunisian dialect, told the magazine that he has few expectations for the new prime minister:
I can’t build high hopes since it is a caretaker government. Previous elected governments were unable to achieve anything. I am not really interested in addressing this government. As a young person I will continue to fight through my art and I encourage artists to do the same. The streets are ours and we will keep reclaiming them.
Indeed, Tunisian artists have insistently claimed and re-claimed space over the past three years, as for instance rapper Alaa Yacoub (Wled 15), who was jailed twice for an anti-police song.
The nation’s new constitution, translated into English and posted on Tunisia Live, guarantees “freedom of opinion, thought, expression, media and publication” and states that writing “shall not be subject to prior censorship.” However, this groundbreaking constitution also does leave room for censorship of work that touches on religion or criticism of the state:
The state is committed to spreading the values of moderation and tolerance, and to protect the sacred and prevent it from being attacked, and is also committed to prohibit charges of apostasy (“takfir”) and incitement to hatred and violence, and to combat them.
Popular rapper-poets Weld 15 and Klay BBJ were both arrested on charges that they had defamed public institutions and incited Tunisians to violence for the song “The Police are Dogs,” in which Weld 15 boasts that he will slaughter a policeman like a sheep. Yet — despite arrests, violence, and uncertainty — the post-2010 poetry scene in Tunisia feels vibrant.
It was a poem by Abou al-Qassem al-Shabi (1909-1934) that became the anthem for the spirit of revolution that sallied forth in December 2010. And many poets, hip hop and otherwise, continued to re-write the world.
Luck, poetry, & love to the Tunisian people.
More about the “street poetry” group on Your Middle East:
Tunisian resistance one verse at a time
And now, the poems:
Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s “If the People Wanted Life One Day,” three translations
Mohamed Sgaier Awlad’s “The Will,” trans. Tristan Cranfield
Amina Said’s “You Who Are No Longer in the World’s Present Tense” and other poems, trans. Marilyn Hacker
Moncef Ouahibi’s “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” trans. Sinan Antoon
Adam Fet’hi “Cavafy’s Whip,” trans. Camilo Gomez-Rivas
Mansour M’henni’s “Disagreement” and “Grain of Beauty,” trans. Keith Bosley
Mohammed Ghozzi’s “A Star,” “Horses,” “I’ll Not Stray,” and “Moby Dick,” trans. Issa J Boullata
Ali Znaidi’s “More More More” and other poems
Amel Moussa’s “Love Me,” trans. Khaled Mattawa, a section of which I’ve clipped from Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature, where there is much more Tunisian verse:
I carry me on my fingertips.
I carry me on the galloping of my vision.
I wrap myself with a swaddling of my skin.
I embrace me, longing for myself.
I bless my flowing, my gushing.
I cradle me in my chest.
I glove these budding hands with poetry.
And from the World Policy Journal, the rapper Ferid El Extranjero:
Liberta! Speak out loud, discuss!
We are living in a strange society.
Where is our justice? We were born free, you won’t
stop us if you arrest us!
The press is the source of freedom,
It’s the light in the darkness,
Democracy is saying the truth.
A paper and pen against the wind,
Everything will be told.
Also, from the archives:
Q & A with Mohamed-Salah Omri: The Links Between Poetry, Politics, and Revolution in Tunisia
In Tunisia: The Health of the Book
Understanding a Revolution through Iconography: Tunisian Political Cartoonist_Z_
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