Apparently, poetry has been central to the protests against the regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt.
Elliott Colla has analyzed the slogans of the protesters as couplets. For example: “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!)
This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.
Colla does on to explain the performative significance of the poetic slogans.
The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.
In Tunisia, the protesters have been chanting the words of Tunisian poet Abo Al Qassim Al Shabbi. Two of his most famous poems are “To the Tyrants of the World” (Ela Toghat Al Alaam) and “Life’s Will.”
When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.
Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.
This I was told by the secret
Voice of All-Being:
Wind roared in the mountains,
Roared through valleys, under trees:
“My goal, once I have set it,
And put aside all caution,
I must pursue to the end.
Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountain
Lives out his life in potholes.”
Then it was earth I questioned:
“Mother, do you detest mankind?”
And earth responded:
“I bless people with high ambition,
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.
No horizon nurtures a dead bird.
A bee will choose to kiss a living flower.
If my mothering heart
Were not so tender,
The dead would have no hiding place
In those graves yonder.”
(translated by Sargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton)