Reviews — From the November 2013 issue

Winds of Revolt

The poetry of Middle Eastern uprising

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Discussed in this essay:

The Rule of Barbarism, by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely. Archipelago Books. 146 pages. $12 (paper).

The Bottom of the Jar, by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely. Archipelago Books. 232 pages. $17 (paper).

Toward the end of The Bottom of the Jar, a memoir of growing up in the city of Fez, the poet Abdellatif Laâbi recalls the moment of his political awakening. It is 1955 and the Moroccan independence movement has caught fire, spreading across the country and hastening the end of the French protectorate established in 1912. The official press blames the disturbances on outsiders and terrorists, but no one is fooled. Piecing together news reports with what they see and hear in the streets, Laâbi’s family find they are living through one of history’s turning points:

We discovered a country, with cities and diverse populations, a north and a south, an east and a west, and that the whole of it was bent back like a bow, overcome by the same worries, knocking on the same door, hoping for salvation, bleeding for the same cause, committed to making the same sacrifices. One magic word summed up all the expectations and the refusal to wait any longer for their realization: istiqlal! The walls of our Medina were festooned with slogans scrawled with charcoal, where the word “independence” was prominently featured . . . Demonstrations took place every day and were quickly repressed by the security apparatus. The police stations in Nejjarine and Boujeloud were filled to capacity.

The slogans have changed, but the drama is familiar: a popular uprising, a cycle of protests and repression, jails filled to capacity. The current season of revolt in the Middle East, now almost three years old, has many precursors. The modern history of the region can be told as a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions, first against the colonial regimes, then against their successors. Each of these revolts has found poets to celebrate and memorialize it. When young Moroccans took to the streets on February 20, 2011 — nine days after Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency of Egypt and about a month after the Tunisian military deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — Laâbi, writing from Paris, called it “the hour of truth.” He dismissed the idea of a “Moroccan exception” — the thesis, especially popular with the Moroccan elite, that the country stands apart from regional trends — and warned the government that the “shock wave radiating out from Tunis will spare no Arab regime.”

Unlike their American peers, Arab poets are public intellectuals. At moments of crisis, readers expect them to take sides. In Memory for Forgetfulness, his recollection of the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish complained that such expectations were unrealistic:

In response to cultural residues within us that link the war cry to stirring verse — survivals that assume the poet’s role is that of a commentator on events, an inciter to jihad, or a war correspondent — the Arabic literary milieu has become used to posing the question of poetry in the middle of raging war. In every battle they raise the question, “Where’s the poem?”

Yet Darwish wrote many poems, including some of his best, in the middle of wars, revolts, intifadas. The same is true of Laâbi, one of Darwish’s most able translators. His finest poems are virtuosic performances, turning political crises into poetic occasions and combining a flair for self-dramatization with stunning verbal inventiveness.

The recent series of uprisings has not lacked for poetry. The region’s most widespread slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime,” is borrowed from a line by the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi. Egyptian poets often held the stage in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with the demonstrators sometimes incorporating their verses into chants. And rappers have given the so-called Arab Spring its sound track. “Rais Lebled” (“President of the Country”), a song by the rapper El Général, is frequently called the anthem of the Tunisian revolution.

Look at the policeman with his stick,
Tak-a-tak, what does he care?
There’s no one to tell him to stop,
Even the constitution is written in water.

In Morocco, the rapper El Haqed has become a hero for the protest movement. His song “Kilaab Addawla” (“Dogs of the State”) was released on YouTube with a video showing a policeman whose head had been digitally replaced by a donkey’s. Both El Haqed and El Général were jailed for their work. Their experiences remind us of those of Laâbi and many other Arab poets, for whom outspokenness and imprisonment have often gone hand in hand.

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is poetry editor of The Paris Review and teaches comparative literature at Brown University. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Undelivered,” appeared in the February 2011 issue.

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