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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Middle-Eastern Poets Give Voice To Revolution

Michael Juliani |
September 18, 2012 | 8:26 a.m. PDT

Executive Producer

(Dawn Megli / Neon Tommy)
(Dawn Megli / Neon Tommy)

During recent violent uprisings in Middle-Eastern countries, poetry has become the pulse of revolution and beauty behind all the violence. 

Al Jazeera ran a series called "Poets of Protest," which profiled poets from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and the Sahara Desert.

While American poetry has minor presence in the mouths of visible figures, Middle-Eastern poets serve as cornerstones of strength for change in countries where writers are controlled (and punished) by governments. 

For example, Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm is 83 years old and has spent 18 of those in prison for his poetry.

A salty, irreverent man with a love for women, cigarettes, and sarcasm (see: "I still write like I'm 25, eat like I'm 25, and please a woman like I'm 25"), Negm cannot be compared to any western hero that people who only read the news have ever known.

He has managed to create a very personal artistic vision that has become the centerpiece of his country's desire.

There is nothing politically correct about him; even when he's smoking a cigarette in his home, he's making jokes about his niece's divorce.

Negm wakes up in the morning first by daydreaming about having two women in bed with him, then says hello to life, hello to his dead parents, hello to God and hello again to life.

Now, while Egyptians with hopes for a more progressive future buck the power of a newly instated government that is trying to pair social standards with Islamic conservatism, Negm's poems are chanted in the streets.

"The brave men are brave / The cowards are cowardly / Come with the brave / Together to the Square," says one of his most well-known poems, "The brave men are brave."

Poetry, it seems, has become (or perhaps has always been) the way revolutionaries in the Middle East find a way to achieve what American poet Ezra Pound described as beating out your exile

For outspoken Syrian artists, literal exile has been necessary for survival during the last two years of violence in their country.

Poet Hala Mohammad has relocated to Paris because her poetry spoke out against Syrian president Bashar Assad's regime.  

Al Jazeera writes that "even with her faith in politics exhausted, Hala retains her belief in the power of poetry to inspire change."

With the recent Middle-Eastern outcry against an anti-Islam film made in California, the divide between the west and the Middle East could not be more pronounced.

But the subtler differences between United States culture and Middle-Eastern culture lie in what their people rely on for growth.

In America, exile is a matter of mindset, where people abandon their willingness to express originality of the spirit in favor of reliance on bigger powers to maintain the stasis.

Currently, American political campaigns are geared towards promising protection against foreign threats to the established American freedom.  

Since Sept. 11, 2001, an especially apocryphal and powerful fear of the Middle East has been spun in the tradition of American xenophobia dating back to the roots of the American Revolution, when American freedom had to be earned through an overthrow of foreign power.  

In Egypt and Syria, freedom fighters are turning to their cultural traditions of beauty in poetry to rid themselves of the psychological aspects of the oppressive rule that is distorting long-lived religious values into tyranny. 

As famed American outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson quoted at the beginning of his book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72: "Between the Idea and the Reality…Falls the Shadow" --T.S. Eliot.

These Middle-Eastern poets understand that we may only get to grasp inside the shadow, especially when there is no guarantee freedom will ever be achieved.

In other words, there's no simple way to find answers without first exploring the nature of the questions.

Poetry does this inherently. 


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of international news and issues at our blog Diplomatic Immunity.

Reach Executive Producer Michael Juliani here.  Follow him on Twitter here.



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