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Poetry as a Weapon for Peace and Freedom in the Middle East

Posted on Mon, Jul 18 2011 1:28 am by Wendy Brown-Báez

June Jordan, born in Harlem in 1936, poet, activist, and teacher, was a prolific, passionate, and influential voice for liberation. She said that poetry “produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.” 

Recently I was astonished by this e-mail from a friend and woman poet: “I had sent a distressed female friend in Afghanistan one of the early poems of William Butler Yeats, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Even when I was young, that poem gave me solace. I was quite shocked when the poem was cut from her e-mail and sent back to me with the message: “Unfit material for military personnel.” . . . My friend was dying of curiosity to know what had been censored, and, she, too, was amazed. I decided that the poem was perhaps cut—though I don't know for certain—because it speaks of peace, or makes one long for peace.”

Such is the power of poetry.

In the West, we may be familiar with contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye or Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Classical spiritual Sufi poets such as Rumi or Hafiz have been brought to our attention by Minnesota poet laureate Robert Bly. And many of us adored Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran during the ’60s. Some of us may have studied with Deema Shehabi, a Kuwaiti-born poet who relocated to the United States in 1988; or read Vénus Khoury-Ghata, published by Graywolf Press, a Lebanese poet who lives in France.

There is a long history of political poetry in the Middle East, going back to pre-Islamic times, when the sa-alik (roughly translated as vagabond) wrote about living outside the tribe. In modern times, poetry has once again become a tool for galvanizing people to political action. Protests in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and Iraq have taken up the daily headlines. The Middle East has suddenly erupted and the region’s political poetry brought to our attention.

“Outside the West, poetry is still very powerful,” Muhsin Jassim al-Musawi, professor of Arabic literature at Columbia University, said when interviewed by Josh Dzieza on his blog Democracy and Class Struggle. “It might not be very conspicuous, but it is there, an undercurrent, and whenever there is a need for it you will be surprised that people have something to say.”*

But poetry has been a dangerous road to travel for poets[pullquote]poetry has been a dangerous road to travel for poets[/pullquote], because poetry is so beloved by the populace and those in power fear the influence it has on people’s hearts and minds. Female Middle Eastern poets especially have paid the price; for example, 84-year-old Iranian poet Simin Behbahani is under house arrest, and 20-year-old Bahraini poet Ayat al-Gormezi was detained after she read a poem at a rally and has been sentenced to a year in prison. I think of Afghani Nadia Anjuman, beaten to death by her husband, according to the BBC and the New York Times, after publishing her first book of poetry. Persian poets have a history of exile. Shahnaz A'lami, one year after the shah’s coup d’état and the overthrow of Mosaddegh’s government in 1953, left Iran and resided in East Germany. Zhaleh Esfahani left Iran in 1947 and after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 lived in London until her death in 2007. Zhila Mosa'ed and Mina Assadi live in Sweden. Shadab Vajdi and Mimi Khalvati live in London. And Forough Farrokhzad, well beloved and one of the most influential poets of modern Iran, had her poetry banned for more than a decade after the revolution. Her brother, singer, poet, and political activist Fereydoon Farrokhzad, was assassinated at his home in Bonn, Germany.

Poetry’s first obligation is to truth, of course, not to a political platform. But poems linger through the generations because they address not only truth but also yearnings that remain unfulfilled. The lyrical way that they voice the urge for freedom from oppression and the desire for peace makes these poems timeless. Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi’s poems are taught in schools, and a verse from his poem “The Will to Live” (sometimes translated as “The Will of Life”) forms the final lines of Tunisia’s national anthem. It is only natural that his lines have turned into chants of political furor.

The Will to Live

If the people will to live
Providence is destined to favorably respond
And night is destined to fold
And the chains are certain to be broken

And he who has not embraced the love of life
Will evaporate in its atmosphere and disappear.

—Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi

Egypt has its own rich tradition of political poetry. In the late 19th century, poet Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi gave voice to the nationalist movement leading up to the revolution of 1881. After World War I, Bayram al-Tunsi wrote poems in protest of the Great Powers’ failure to grant Egypt independence. When Egyptians took to the streets on January 25, 2011, they sang the poems of a follower of al-Tunsi, Amad Fu’ad Nigm. Like al-Tunsi, Nigm critiqued the state and mocked its leaders, often with poetry set to music by the blind oud player, al-Shaykh Imam.

There is a difference between the chants I am familiar with from my days of protest against the Vietnam War and what is being chanted in the streets of Middle Eastern countries. This is marked by the way Middle Eastern chants are infused with double entendres related to well-known poems or sayings. For example, I learned from Josh Dzieza’s blog that there may be an echo between the chant and an Egyptian colloquial saying, such as in the chant, “Idrad idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (“Hit us, beat us, O Habib, hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!"). This echoes the saying “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (“The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins”).Thus, the chant portrays the government as an abusive spouse as it changes from a simple statement of defiance (“No matter how many times you hit us, we’re not going to leave”) into a taunt (“C’mon, hit us again, it hurts so good”).*

There are more poets than I have room here to comment on, but a quote from Mahmoud Darwish is a counterpoint: “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet.” If Darwish were alive to see what is happening on the streets of many cities throughout the Middle East, how he would be amazed! 

And as a tribute to peace, I conclude with a poem by Simin Behbahani: 

Gracefully She Approached

Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.

“But you are dead, mother”, I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.

I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”

I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of . . .”, when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
in there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.

My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.


You can watch an interview with Simin Behbahani on YouTube. There are also videos of her reciting her poems in Farsi; the rhythm of the language is lovely even if you don’t know what the words mean.


An additional interesting article:

Wendy Brown-Báez is a writer, teacher, performance poet, and installation artist. She has published poetry and prose in numerous literary journals and newspapers and is the author of Ceremonies of the Spirit (Plain View Press) and transparencies of light (Finishing Line Press). Wendy has performed from here to Mexico in bars, cabarets, cafés, galleries, bookstores, and cultural centers. She is the creator of Writing Circles for Healing and received 2008 and 2009 McKnight grants to teach writing workshops for at-risk youth.