Poetry is politics

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Amira Howeidi - Ahram Weekly May 2005


Arabic is Arabic, a girl is a girl and the land is, well, the land: Tamim Al-Barghouti tells Amira Howeidy about the poetics of Arab identity

He's back.

It was on a particularly cold winter evening that he returned to what is probably Cairo's most popular cultural centre, Al-Sawi's Wheel. For those who knew of him -- and they're not few -- it was a surprise to see promotion posters featuring a black-and-white photo of a half-smiling Tamim Al-Barghouti on the Zamalek billboards, alongside announcements of a poetry reading, ' Alluli betheb Masr (They asked me do you love Egypt?), to take place on 10 February.

The last time his name was seen in the news -- March 2003 -- it was in connection with being arrested and deported to Amman for participating in the anti-war protests on the eve of the US/ UK-led war on Iraq. A week later, Al-Barghouti wrote a poem in colloquial Egyptian Arabic with the intriguing title ' Alluli betheb Masr, which circulated rapidly and widely on the Internet before appearing in Akhbar Al-Adab, Cairo's best known literary journal.

The poem was in a sense typical. Then 26 years old, a PhD candidate, Al-Barghouti, the son of Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour and Palestinian poet Mourid Al-Barghouti, expresses his complex emotions about Egypt, his birthplace and the country where he grew up, often separated from his father (Mourid Al- Barghouti was deported the year his only son was born, and for 15 years, this small family could only meet on holidays), and out of which he was suddenly and unjustly evicted. Images of fear, love, passion and nostalgia alternate with bitter sarcasm and angry political critique.

To many the poem marked the beginning of a shift in Egypt's political climate: it reflected much of what Al-Barghouti calls "the collective consciousness" of a new and unusually politically engaged generation. Ironically, on his deportation, the poem sealed his claim to fame.

The streets were conspicuously empty due to the weather as the main hall of the Wheel filled with intellectuals, artists, students and journalists representing every possible age group. When the hall was half full Al-Barghouti went on stage: his voice is deep, sonorous, clear. Applause as the impact of his last words lingered: "Love is simple, but Egypt is a complex of many things. It is pretty, bitter, chirpy and depressing. I can sum up the sun and say 'candle', I cannot sum up Egypt and call it my love. People of Egypt, hear me out: they asked me do you love Egypt. I said I didn't know. Go ask Egypt, for she has the answers." As Al-Barghouti told me later, however, translating the poem into English tends to strip it of meaning. A poem in Arabic, his "most efficient" way of expressing himself, is a complete entity in and of itself. Ask him what a poem means and he will respond simply, "What I wanted it to mean, I've already said in it. I'm unable to say it differently."

After They asked me do you love Egypt (Dar El-Sorouk, 2005), Al-Barghouti presented something of a classical Arabic masterpiece entitled Kuffu Lisan Al-marathi (Silence the Tongue of Requiems), a lengthy epic-like diwan on Iraq comprising, according to Al-Barghouti, a variety of stylistic forms: song, narrative, prose and a range of traditional metres including the Husainaya Buka'eyat and even takhmees.

(The former, "the Husayni lamentations", are combinations of song and narrative depicting Imam Husain's exit from Mecca and entry into Kerbala, where he was killed. Based on traditional classical Arabic poems, they incorporate Iraqi dialect and are read routinely on the feast of Ashoura, often punctuated by collective weeping. The latter, "fiving", is a 10th- and 11th-century poetic technique almost wholly absent from modern poetry, in which "an old poem in its entirety is incorporated into a newer poem, so that every line in the older poem becomes part of a corresponding line in the new poem").

The result is a unique book -- unlike anything Al-Barghouti has written, probably unlike anything that has ever been written in Arabic -- a fusion of techniques he found necessary on feeling "that everything was threatened", as he explained to me in his parents' house, off Hoda Sharawi Street, where he still lives.

Fascination with his father's poetry formed only part of the drive to study "the language of heroes", as the seven-year-old Tamim attempted to write his first poem. Of the next 20 years' yield of poetry -- and Al- Barghouti is remarkably prolific -- the Egypt and Iraq diwans seem to stand out. Since his first and second collections of poems -- Mijana, written in Palestinian colloquial and published in 1999 in Ramallah and El-Manzar (The Scene), in Egyptian colloquial, published by Dar El-Sherouk in 2000, Al-Barghouti has established himself as a master of Arabic language and history -- an achievement unmatched in his generation of literati.

The poet, who at the age of 28 also teaches political science the American University in Cairo, strives to counter the collective Arab depression, according to which "nothing matters" -- a mood that robs people of confidence and concern. (In this sense, indeed, he is a breath of fresh air to many Arab nationalists and others concerned about the gradual extinction of political as much as poetic identity.)

The depression, he says, "has reached language -- we think our language and moral codes are not good enough, men think girls are not pretty enough, girls think men are not men enough." He pauses, laughing. Silence the Tongues of Requiems, which has yet to be published in its entirety -- only parts of the poem were published in Akhbar Al-Adab -- is but a shout to counter this depression.

When he wrote They asked me do you love Egypt, he explains, the poet was "in a state of terror, anger and sadness -- all at the same time". All through his life he had taken his life in Egypt "for granted". It was "my country and I'm staying here. It is the safe place. Part of what I feel towards Palestine is identical to the way I feel about Egypt -- this very romantic sentiment. But Palestine was always far, I never seen it before 1998. Palestine is the home I struggle to have, but Egypt was the home I did have. So when I was deported, I felt my relationship with Egypt was jeopardized, threatened. My presence was threatened. It was no longer the safe place, no longer a home I had.

"And I tried to capture an image of that, like taking a photo of someone you love before parting. I was taking a photo of Egypt before leaving, not knowing whether or not I would ever return. My father couldn't return for 17 years." A replay of that nightmare haunted him as he wrote, which also tells the love story of his West Bank-born father and Cairo-born mother. The more popular part of the poem was written during his first week "in exile". He continued writing, he says, until the length had almost tripled, and only stopped on 9 April 2003, the day of the fall of Baghdad.

"When Baghdad fell, I suddenly shed the fear deportation had instilled in me. I felt it wasn't so much my relationship with Egypt as everything, even God, that was under threat. It is the greatest Arab calamity in the last 1,000 years of Arab history, more terrible that losing Palestine in 1948 and 1967, more terrible than and every single Arab defeat since the first fall of Baghdad under the Moguls and the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. It was as if every conscious Arab lost an arm, an eye, a leg or a head on the same day."

But why silence the requiems? "For [it] is a luxury," argues the first line of the diwan, "to stand and weep for those who fell." Weeping, in other words, is not enough: "You'll have to run and find a way to resist those who are killing your people in the camp, something that doesn't give you the luxury of feeling devastated. You have to be strong." The poem started with Al-Barghouti watching TV as "they" entered Al-Ferdaus Square in Baghdad. It took him a year to complete its 40 pages.

"If I attempted, in They asked me do you Love Egypt, to capture a photo," he said firmly, " Silence the Tongues of Requiems was taking a photo of Arab existence as a whole, a whole culture. I wanted a snapshot of that to put in my pocket before someone came and snatched it away, placing it in a safe box at the White House.

"We don't have that luxury because we do have something worth fighting for. The Arabic language is beautiful, girls are pretty, men are men -- and the land is the land. And, yes, a million shoes are stepping on us but the feeling that we deserve this is completely useless. Despite all our failures, we don't deserve it."



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