Giving new life to ancient art form
Palestinian poet gets rock star treatment
The Associated Press, Published: September 25, 2007
RAMALLAH, West Bank: The overflow crowd in the biggest Palestinian music hall jumped to its feet, cheering and whistling as the curly haired star took to the stage.
Hardly your typical vibe at a poetry reading.
Tamim al-Barghouti is getting rock star treatment on a current tour. The 30-year-old Palestinian-Egyptian is bedazzling audiences with texts written in classical Arabic, but packed with modern-day politics. His appeal is part charisma, part hopeful message and part proof of the survival of an old Arab art form.
"The amount of love that they have bestowed on me is something that so far I don't know how to deal with," he said in an interview before a recent performance. "I hope I live up to their expectations."
Al-Barghouti performed in the West Bank just days after creating a buzz when he competed with nearly 5,000 others from across the Arab world for the title "Prince of Poets," a contest on a United Arab Emirates TV station along the lines of "American Idol."
The contestants wrote and read original poetry, at times improvising — akin to rapping in Shakespearean English — and showing off their ability to pick up where another finished.
With his contest performance, al-Barghouti briefly succeeded in uniting Hamas and Fatah, the warring Palestinian factions. The Fatah-affiliated Palestine TV and Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV both aired clips from his reading and urged Palestinians to vote for him in text messages.
Culture critics said the contest was a sign that poetry still enjoys popular appeal in the Arab world, despite the domination of TV and pop music. Poetry is also a tool of political expression in countries where dissent is not easily tolerated.
"The show reinvigorated this sacred, awesome form of art, which was trampled on by modernity, translations and the critics, who called it reactionary," said Mutawakel Taha, a Palestinian writer and head of the Writers' Union in the West Bank.
Although he came in fifth, al-Barghouti has become a cultural icon for Palestinians, perhaps because his work so eloquently expresses their concerns in both classical Arabic, now rarely spoken, and in local dialect.
He is harshly critical of Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories, but also tries to instill hope for a better future. His most popular poem, "In Jerusalem," is a diary of a day spent in the city, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as a capital.
Jerusalem is increasingly off limits for many Palestinians because of Israeli travel restrictions, a point illustrated by al-Barghouti's own difficulties. He said he toured Jerusalem twice on Israel-issued entry permits, but he was turned down when he asked to visit a third time.
In his poem, al-Barghouti draws images from the city's history, juxtaposing it to the current Israeli control of the city. He ends on what for his audience is a joyful note: "But I only see in Jerusalem you (the Arab)."
He won a standing ovation of several minutes when he performed "In Jerusalem" during his recent two-hour show at Ramallah's Culture Palace.
Al-Barghouti also toured other major West Bank cities, such as Nablus and Jericho, drawing large crowds. Nearly 2,000 people came to hear him in Nablus.
Al-Barghouti, who holds a doctorate in political science from Boston University and worked for the U.N. in Sudan, grew up in Cairo. His Egyptian mother has written fiction based on the Arab history in Andalusia in southern Spain, and his Palestinian father is a journalist and poet.
Al-Barghouti was deported from Egypt in 2003 after participating in anti-Iraq war protests. However, he returned, and said he is now based in Cairo. He has a fellowship at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study.
His work also includes political essays about nation building, the U.S. war on terrorism, and Arab history. After years of reading poetry to a limited audience, he now reaches a mass audience, thanks to TV.
Taha said al-Barghouti played an exceptional role in lifting the spirit of his people. "The poet for the Arabs is the guardian of dreams," Taha said.
Reema Saba, who was watching al-Barghouti's performance on a large screen outside the Culture Palace for lack of space inside, said she enjoyed his stabs at Arab leaders, whom he described as despotic and often clueless.
"It is in the heart of each and every one of us, and you want someone to sort of say it out loud and express it really in a wild manner," she said.
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