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In Cairo, poetic justice

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Esther Cepeda
February 13, 2011
— If you’re anything like me, you’re scared of any poetry more complex than “Roses are red, violets are blue” because you never “got” the particular literary style. We might also share an interest in the revolution going on in Egypt, where protesters are demanding a democracy we simultaneously hold dear and take for granted.

Or maybe you’re my opposite and poetry lives in your veins but you’re one of the 52 percent of Americans who have heard little or nothing about the Egyptian upheaval, according to a Pew Center poll. It found that most people don’t understand what’s going on there and don’t know whether the demonstrations will have any effect on the United States or not.


Perhaps this sliver of confrontational passion will reach out to you: “Hit us, beat us, O Habib (the former minister of the interior, Habib al-Adly), hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!”


Elliot Colla translated this verse in his essay “The Poetry of Revolt,” originally posted on Jadaliyya, an online magazine associated with Georgetown University’s Arab Studies Journal. In it he explains the recent history of the Egyptian resistance-poetry phenomenon that’s bloomed since the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak began Jan. 25.


As anyone who has been following these events from the comfort of their Twitter stream can attest, poetry—coupled with the power of social media networks for sharing them—has emerged as a heavy-duty tool in communicating the frustrations and aspirations of the Egyptian people. As Colla put it, “This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.”


Unless you’re like me and not particularly tuned into poetry, it won’t come as any surprise that poets and their words are fueling a movement in the very cradle of civilization. Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, an Iranian-American arts and culture writer, noted in a recent essay on the Care2 News Network: “Performance and poetry are really not all that out of the ordinary for the Middle East. Poetry was an Arab tradition long before Islam, and in modern times, it’s been a common tool for creating political unity and calling people to political action.”


Samiezade’-Yazd shared scenes she gleaned from the Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum’s coverage of poets commanding crowds’ attention with haunting verses such as “If I die, mother, don’t cry. I’ll have died so that my country can live.”


I contacted Luis Alberto Urrea, an award-winning poet and novelist, to help me make sense of the connection between poetry and upheaval, a topic he’s intimately familiar with.


“Poetry acknowledges that aside from outward struggles, we’re people first,” he said.


Urrea noted that disfranchised minorities—such as racially profiled Latinos, illegal immigrant workers, and gay, lesbian and transgendered people—are increasingly using poetry in their activism to great effect.


“(It’s) important to remind ourselves the poets lead revolutions,” he recently told his online followers.


“Poetry transcends everything. I always feel that the thing that flows through the world—grace, God, energy, whatever you want to call it, is a literary energy,” Urrea said. “Every single faith has songs, poems, prayers, and texts that work in metaphors, symbols, and images. And that is beyond politics, religion, terrorism, violence and beyond borders.”


The historic nature of the opposition movement in Egypt has touched poets around the world, I’m sure. But even for fans of the genre, the rawness of the ardent thoughts of the people struggling in the streets of Cairo might be too abstract to identify with.


So here are the last few lines from a poem called “This Revolution Is Being Televised,” just written by Los Angeles-based poet George Pappas. It captures the spirit of what’s happening in Egypt in a way that even I can take to heart.


“A dream of freedom is like a fever.


“Once you catch it, you burn inside every part of your heart and soul with an ache that consumes, melting away fear.


“At last, they have tasted freedom’s kiss in streets of Egypt.


“Intoxicated with the sweetest of notions.


“Dictator’s thugs can no longer hold back a destiny too long denied.


“It’s a sight to behold on your TV screen nightly.


“As awe-inspiring as the Sphinx & the Pyramids.


“It’s the human spirit rising up against adversity and violence to forge a new beginning in an ancient land.”


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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