Last week we looked back at the role of song in the Freedom Rides fifty years ago. And at this very moment, Egyptian citizens participating in the anti-government uprising are chanting couplets of poetry as they protest in the streets and squares all over the country. As Elliott Colla on Jadaliyya said in his piece “The Poetry of Revolt,”

This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself….The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself. That is, the couplet-slogans being sung and chanted by protesters do more than reiterate complaints and aspirations that have been communicated in other media. This poetry has the power to express messages that could not be articulated in other forms, as well as to sharpen demands with ever keener edges.

Colla also provides some examples of the poetry-chants:

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).

Poetry has long history of being integral to movements for social justice. If you have participated in any sort of rally or protest, you probably have memories of the chants and songs that united the assembled crowd. For me, the chant “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!)” is one that immediately springs to mind. This chant’s origins are in the song by the same name written and recorded in 1973 (composed by Sergio Ortega and words by Quilapayún). These lines and the song’s melody have traveled around the world, and have been translated and altered to suit the needs of the people invoking its words. (Read more here and hear/see examples on YouTube.) What are your memories of poetry in protest? Why is it so crucial?

Please share your thoughts and any relevant links in the comments section.

More to read:

  • I would highly recommend Colla’s blog post for a thorough and enlightening discussion of poetry in the Egyptian uprising as well a historical lens through which to view it.
  • You might also be interested to hear/read this NPR interview with Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif (author of Map of Love) who has been participating in the protests.
  • There’s good stuff here, too—“Poetry as an Instrument of Revolution”—including a video of an Egyptian woman leading chants in the face of armed Egyptian security forces, and some longer activist poems by Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab al Bayati, American poet Diane di Prima, and Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi.
  • emmy

    I’ve been trying to figure out when the slogan “The people united will never be defeated” was first used, which led me to your post. I know we were chanting it at demonstrations prior to 1973. The songwriter has said that he heard the slogan at a rally and it inspired the song. I have seen it attributed to Cesar Chavez, but I think it’s older than that. When I recently heard the distinctive slogan in languages other than English and Spanish I instantly recognized it, regardless of the fact that I don’t understand any Middle Eastern languages. I was not aware of the song, at all, however, so I think the fact that the slogan has spread worldwide over the decades really doesn’t have anything to do with the song.

    • Hollen

      Hi Emmy, please come back when you dig up more information – I would love to learn more about the origins of the chant! Thanks for the added information!

      • agent of history

        I believe it was initially from Chile.

        • Hollen

          Thanks, agent of history! Do you have any other information you can share about its origin?

  • http:/companyfolk.squarespace.com/ Susan Eleuterio

    Thanks for sharing Colla’s blog post and for this thoughtful exploration of poetry and protest. Will print this out for my NWA group at Hall. Rhythm, music and poetry have been a part of many protests I’ve attended over the years, but never thought of the chants as poetry before.

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