“Following the News on Al Jazeera” is a pop-rhetorical poem by Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, an intervention into recent news, translated and introduced here by William Tamplin:
By William Tamplin
Muhammad al-Hajaya has been recognized as representing modern Bedouin poetry. A literate, educated man with a varied career behind him, Hajaya stopped writing love poetry in 1988 and turned to the political. Hajaya wrote at least six poems on the second Iraq war, and his poetry continues to respond to current events: he’s written poems of warning to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, mock-serious love poems to Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice, and an elegy to Mu‘ath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot burned to death by ISIS.
Hajaya is most remarkable for putting his poems into the mouths of political leaders. In his 2004 poem “Oh Condoleezza Rice!” Hajaya wrote as if George W. Bush had been a Bedouin warrior-poet bragging about his conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has since put poems in the mouths of Ariel Sharon, Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama. Also notable about Hajaya’s poetry is his use of animal imagery to portray international leaders. He’s compared Qaddafi to a camel, Bashar al-Assad to a sheep, and Gulf countries’ leaders to stud rams. Indeed, Hajaya criticizes Arab leaders as much as he does the United States and Israel.
Animal imagery plays a part in this poem as well, as the Russian “bear” can devour both of the Americans’ symbols: the elephant and the donkey. Whales are the ultimate symbol of greed and malice, gulping down refugees as they attempt the sea crossing to Europe. In this poem, Hajaya tries to goad Kerry into intervening in Syria by citing the Russians’ encroachment in Latakia, Iran’s hegemonic designs for the region, and the refugees who are suffering for all the politicians’ scheming.
The power of poetry
Hajaya has faith in the power of poetry. In February 2012, Hajaya wrote a poem directly to Bashar al-Assad urging him to stop killing civilians and leave Syria. In the introduction to that poem, he called for a good man to deliver it in hopes that it would reach al-Assad and convince him to leave. In August 2014, Hajaya wrote a poem from Obama to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, urging him to spare Steven Sotloff’s life. Again, Hajaya sincerely believed that his poem could effect political change.
An Anglophone analog to Hajaya’s political poetry is spoken word and hip hop, neither of which are printed in mainstream poetry journals but both of which are heard, felt, and transmitted on the radio, on YouTube, and in lesser-known poetry magazines. Another analog is Calvin Trillin’s “Deadline Poet” column in The Nation.
In this poem, Hajaya pokes fun at Kerry’s equivocations about Syria during his term as Secretary of State. He compares Kerry to the Russians, firm men who don’t prevaricate or desert their allies. Hajaya criticizes Al Jazeera for its incessant claims that the Assad regime is on the verge of collapse, al-Assad for being the Russians’ lackey, and Ayatollah Khomeini for reviving a 1400-year-old blood feud in order to assert its hegemony over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Leaving the politicians behind, Hajaya turns to the refugees, sacrifices to the politicians’ scheming. He ends by asserting that the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War were conspiracies planned by the West and executed by its Arab lackeys. Those lackeys are sitting in their palaces drinking whiskey and beer and following the news on Al Jazeera in the vain hope that the Assad regime is on the verge of collapse.
Like his messages to al-Assad and al-Baghdadi, Hajaya believes that this poem might influence John Kerry. While he and I were translating the poem, he let on that he was being as hard on Kerry as he was in order to goad him into increasing the US’ support for the moderate Syrian opposition. In case he’s right about the extent of his poetry’s influence, I’ve translated it here.
“Following the News on Al Jazeera”
By Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya
Trans. William Tamplin
Kerry’s always declaiming over the news;
He sure has made a lot of public statements.
“Bashar doesn’t have to leave today!”
His word’s no good because no one’s advising him.
Oh Kerry, today the secrets were laid bare:
Your allies can expect nothing but defeat and humiliation.
The Russians are firm men, and they’ve proven their power.
They’re not shaken by all Al Jazeera’s barking.
America’s mascots are the elephant and the jackass,
And bears can devour them both.
Bashar’s just another guard for the Russians’ house
Along with Mu‘allim, his foreign minister.
Old Mr. Khomeini is bent on blood-revenge:
Husayn’s blood spilled at Karbala still has him all worked up.
Our Arabs are caught between merchants, middlemen,
And the malice now controlling the blood-avengers’ conscience.
From the beginning the West has been fabricating rebels
And squadrons, and each one follows its own commander.
Today the refugees are in every country,
Scattered throughout every state and region:
Some of them eaten by whales in the sea’s depths,
Some of them lost, their fates unknown.
Behind all the outrage and harm
Is a man sitting in his palace sipping whiskey and beer.
He’s got slave girls and servants always at the ready
And follows the news on Al Jazeera.
The poet recites:
William Tamplin is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He studies Bedouin poetry, the Andalus, and literary translation. He translated political Bedouin poetry in 2013-14 on a Fulbright to Jordan and has lived, worked and studied in Jerusalem, Amman, and Alexandria, Egypt. He blogs here.