In the US, our reality shows judge contestants on the skills that we apparently expect our celebrities to have: a rather inhuman body, ruthless guile, some dance moves, and a decent singing voice. When Egypt picks its “Idol,” though, the criterion is poetry.
Elliott Cola—who taught Arabic literature when I was at Brown, and is now at Georgetown—has an excellent essay at Jadaliyya about the role of poetry in the present uprising in Egypt (h/t Genevieve). He writes:
The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “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.
He goes on to chronicle the roles poets have had in past popular movements in Egypt. And, with a close reading of a phrase that’s popular right now, Colla shows just how important having the right verse can be to rallying people around a cause.
Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.
As we’ve often discussed on this site, humor is a powerful tool for unraveling the psychology of oppression:
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.
This is really a must-read essay. When you’re trying to build a new society nonviolently, Colla explains, the right words can make all the difference:
Those who decide to make their own history are, in the end, not only required to write their own script and build their own stage, they are also compelled to then play the new roles with enough force and conviction to make it cohere, even in the face of overwhelming violence.