Something different today. A guest column by a friend, Yahia Lababidi, an Egyptian writer living in the U.S. who is a Pushcart-nominated poet, with writing translated into Arabic, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish and Italian. Of course he has been enthralled by the recent political developments in the Middle East, especially in his home country.
He recently contributed a blog post to the Tikkun Daily, in which he noted the population’s release of decades-long urges for freedom, along with a tremendous outpouring of creativity, literary and otherwise. It seems the two often go hand in hand.
I was touched by the sentiments expressed in his blog, and asked his permission to reprint a portion. The full post can be read here.
Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution
by Yahia Lababidi
Overheard in Tahrir Square — Muslim brotherhood man to secular woman: There was a curtain between us that made us fear each other and misunderstand each other. After spending these days here, fighting together, eating together, and bearing the cold, I can see that we are not different and that we may have different ideas, but we can easily communicate and respect each other.
I know I’m not alone when I say my heart has been, and remains, full-to-bursting with the remarkable series of events taking place back Home. The mark, and success, of a true revolution is not merely overthrowing an old regime, but ushering in new ways of thinking and Being. Which is why it’s so uplifting for me to see so many of the false barriers being toppled: say, between men and women, whom we saw out at the protests, chanting for equality, in unison, and even praying side by side in the streets; or Muslims and Christians, who came together as Egyptians, in respect, and protected one another. As Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief says: “They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic – well here we are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty.”
Unleashing a Pent-Up Creativity
With the promise of Freedom in the air, we witnessed a renewed vitality in the streets of Egypt and a sort of cultural revolution, or the unleashing of previously pent-up creativity. From the start, Egyptians’ playful spirit and irrepressible wit were on full display during the January 25th People’s Uprising. “Please leave, my hand is hurting me,” read one banner; “you must leave because I need to cut my hair,” read another. Mubarak’s paltry concessions were answered with pithy ridicule: a banner depicting a computer and the message “cannot install freedom, please remove Mubarak and try again.” Our fabled love of language was a mainstay, before and after things got ugly – courtesy of the regime’s rent-a-mob. Al Jazeera reported poetry readings at Tahrir Square. Egyptians heartily sang the punchy poems of Fu’ad Nigm, who in his verse uses puns and colloquial speech to critique the state and mock its corrupt leaders. As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive – singing, dancing and staging improv theater -showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even. Demonstrators not only camped out in the square, dubbed Liberation City, they set up open-air clinics, barber shops, hosted a wedding, shared food, jokes, news, and frisked one another for concealed weapons. To the naysayers, who insisted that the uneducated masses were not ready for democracy, the Egyptian uprising, which has been referred to as a Dignity Revolution, paradoxically demonstrated that civilized behavior was not the monopoly of the educated. On the contrary, our illiterate were educators in courtesy, and a kind of natural sophistication. Speaking of the awe-inspiring scenes in Tahrir Square, another acclaimed Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, summed it up thus: “Revolution makes everyone more beautiful, it’s like love.” Clever, and often bitingly witty, the street verse that proliferated was spontaneous and does not really survive translation. But, to anyone listening, it was obvious that these were a people for whom poetry matters, and, considering the immense personal risk involved in protesting, that words were also actions. To offer just a flavor of this ephemera, here are a couple examples: “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs.” Or the more blunt “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa’ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”)