Egyptian Protest Poetry Idol


14 Monday 14th February 2011

In Abu Dhabi, the Pop/American Idol of the Arab world is in its final stages, but instead of singing and dancing, the competitors write and recite poems, all competing to be, ‘The Prince of Poets’.

The format of the show is exactly the same as ours, with three judges critiquing the performance as well as the structure of the poem itself, in the end letting a public vote decide on the winner of each round. The benefit of this structure became apparent in recent weeks, as in spite of judges’ disapproval, Egyptian poet, Hesham Al-Gakh, has moved through the rounds with a willingness to tackle political subjects, speaking in the ‘tough dialect’ of Sohag, in Upper Egypt. Al-Gakh used to be a university administrator, but now makes his living as a poet, and won the Egyptian Writers' Union prize for Best Colloquial Poet in 2008.

His poem, Juha, ‘An Elegy for Egypt’ became famous when he read it on television last July and gathered steam again when protests broke out in Egypt. Though the entire poem hasn’t been translated yet (if you're up to it, find the poem here), Daily News Egypt gave this partial translation:

'It's a horrible feeling to realize that your country is weak, your voice is weak, your opinion is weak, to realize that if you sell your soul, your body, your pen and your name, you still wouldn't be able to afford a loaf of bread. … What does it mean when you are the gift of the Nile and yet there are water cuts everyday? What does it mean when I complain about the [electric] bill, and they tell me complain all you want but you still have to pay?’

And I used to save the songs and poems in my heart and soul
‘Arab countries are my home, and all Arabs are my brothers’
And when I grew up, I didn’t get a visa to sail
I didn’t sail
And the passport with no stamp from that window stopped me
I didn’t pass
When I grew up, I didn’t sail, and I didn’t pass.

He missed one episode to join protests in Egypt, but returned last week and responded to calls on online forums and message boards to directly address the conflict in Cairo, reading ‘An Honest view of Liberation Square’. Before he begins, al-Gakh asks for a minute of silence to commemorate those who died in the protests. There are already two English translations of this poem available, which you can either read or see as subtitles.

Increasingly over the last decade, the dominant Western imagination has seen Arab culture as too strangled by extremist, violent religious ideology to offer its people room to embrace the creativity and freedom we characterize as our own. Yet here a Western cultural export is appropriated and improved, to offer viewers participation in creative political dialogue, instead of escape from it. 


You can follow the Prince of Poets competition on, if you’re keen to try interpreting the cryptic google translation (‘each participant in the latest episodes of the second phase to mantle his own hair, then your love pompous meanings'?) Alternatively, you can check out some of the blogs and English websites online documenting the contest.

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  • Guest: astannard84
    Tue 15 - Feb - 2011, 12:41