Does Poetry protest in every Tahrir Square?

While Poet in the City is enjoying great success with the Spoken Word All Stars tour, most recently in Nottingham and next in Bradford on 11th Feb, as well as looking forward eagerly to the celebration of Love Poetry on 14th Feb and of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene on 3rd March, recent events in North Africa and the Gulf have kept our recent Faiz Ahmed Faiz event firmly in mind as well. Soonu, one of the organisers of the Faiz event, returns to the blog today with these thoughts:

“How do you write politically committed poetry that is not mere propaganda or excessive moralising?” mused Javed Majeed at Poet in the City’s celebration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s birth centenary. Faiz, he said, “does not simplify political commitment; instead he shows how complex it is. He expresses the difficulties of making such commitment, the range of emotions it involves, and the inner struggles of the individual who is politically committed.”

The beauty and depth of Faiz’s poetry reflects his intense involvement with the historical movements of his time and with the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people, whether in his homeland of Pakistan or in the camps of Palestinian refugees.

In these past two weeks, when millions of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen have risen up against their oppressors, I have wondered what Faiz would have been moved to write. And I can only imagine how this boundless outpouring of people’s hopes and desires is finding expression in the hearts of their poets – what a flowering of poetry there must be in every Tahrir Square!

Political uprisings need poetry. We know that the youth of Egypt, who rushed to their unplanned revolution, cobbled together a clumsy but rhythmic slogan, “ash-sha’ab / yureed / isqaat an-nizam”, or “the people / want / the fall of the regime.” And they also borrowed two beautiful lines of Tunisian poetry, written by Abul-Qasim Al-Shabi in the 1940s’ struggles against colonialism:

When the people decide to live, destiny will obey
Darkness will disappear and chains will be broken.

And the Tunisians returned the compliment by singing the revolutionary songs of the Egyptian popular poet, Ahmad Fouad Negm and the singer/composer, Sheikh Imam.

“When the people decide to live…….” This powerful couplet is now on the lips of countless millions in Arab lands and will no doubt inspire countless millions elsewhere. That it was written 70 years ago should remind us that there is always a long, if hidden, history of people’s resistance to tyranny. It is left to the Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, to put it like this:

Nothing goes off suddenly; even the earthquakes
set in motion from the depth of the earth
to the rooftops of villages.

How about you? Does poetry move in your heart when revolution is in the air? Let us know in comments below this post. And feel free to share snippets of or links to other poems against oppression, including your own. Note: be kind to other readers—no interminable diatribes or everlasting epics, please, and if the poem you link to is not in English, please provide an English translation or summary in your comment.

13 thoughts on “Does Poetry protest in every Tahrir Square?

  1. English people often say they don’t want to “feel lectured at” by art – which of course means they don’t want to be “made” to feel uncomfortable. That discomfort comes from within, a sly mixture of guilt and despair. So it’s wonderful to have my writing (and reading) inspired by other cultures. And next time I go on a march I’ll be putting poetry on my banner – all ideas welcome…

  2. What is it that uniquely fits poetry to pour off the tongues of revolutionaries throughout the ages?

    A case in point is Hungary. Hungary has a nigh-unbroken history of failed uprisings and lost wars. And we always find a poet giving voice to the discontent and injustice and expressing the revolutionary vision.

    One of the most famous Hungarian revolutionary poets was Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). He provided key political and poetic inspiration for the Hungarian uprising in 1848 against the Austrian Empire.

    He both co-authored the expression of the revolutionaries’ political demands, the 12 Points, and composed the revolutionary poem that is still known as the Hungarian National Song and is frequently recited on Hungarian National Day, 15th March. Sad to say, many of the demands made in those 12 Points, such as freedom of the press, responsible government, civil and religious equality, and the freeing of political prisoners, are still being made today in countries around the world.

    For a translation of the poem which tries to convey something of the poem’s immense power of sound and rhythmic intensity see

    For a more literal translation see

    By the way, I am not a Hungarian speaker nor am I expert in Hungarian history. So apologies if any of the above is incorrect, and I’d be interested to know. (I’m just married to an Englishman who is also Hungarian..)

    1. Thanks, Vivienne, for introducing us to the rousing, historic poem of Alexander Petofi, written in 1848. I reproduce here the translation of the first and last verses. They are very powerful and the sentiment can never be dated. I imagine it would go down well in Tahrir Square!

      RISE, Magyar! is the country’s call!
      The time has come, say one and all:
      Shall we be slaves, shall we be free?
      This is the question, now agree!
      For by the Magyar’s God above
      We truly swear,
      We truly swear the tyrant’s yoke
      No more to bear!
      And where our graves in verdure rise,
      Our children’s children to the skies
      Shall speak the grateful joy they feel,
      And bless our names the while they kneel.
      For by the Magyar’s God above
      We truly swear,
      We truly swear the tyrant’s yoke
      No more to bear!
      Alexander Petofi 1848

  3. All form of art works should interact with the society and fight against tyrany and dictatorship. Poetry has a significant role to play in Tahrir Sq.

  4. What a lovely thoughtful piece Soonu.

    I think poetry (the way I use it) is cathartic or self expression when you are frustrated and need a way of positively challenging those kind of emotions, hence why poets will reflect and write about political situations and revolutions.

  5. Soonu’s blog post is nicely written. As a reader of occasional poetry (generally speaking, you can’t rush poetry and I’m so often reading under a time-pressure) I’m always interested to find out about new writers who are placed alongside ones about whom I know something.

    Soonu flatters me when she says ‘we know’ what slogans Egyptian youth have been raising in vocal opposition to years of repression. I know a substantial amount about the character of the protests from their response to government moves and the resistance shown to attacks from the police and thugs. I know somewhat less of the imagery and language protestors have made use of. There have been plenty of ‘on-the-street’ recordings broadcast on our radio stations, but it’s stretching things to suggest those voices are likely to be representative.

    So I’m very pleased to learn about the use of Tunisian anti-colonial poetry in Egypt and of Egyptian poetry and song in Tunisia. Thank you Soonu…!

  6. The central speculation in Soonu’s piece is what kinds and what breadth of poetry must have been fermenting over the weeks of protest in Egypt – since ‘political uprisings need poetry’? But the questions Soonu re-poses from Javed Majeed’s presentation are problematic in this context.

    I’m in favour of propagandist poetry, so any suggestion that it could reasonably be dismissed as ‘mere’ propaganda tends to ruffle my feathers a little. If it works as poetry then it’s not ‘mere’ anything. If it’s poor poetry, it’s also likely to be poor propaganda.

    The issue, I suspect, for some readers is not that it’s taking a line, but that it’s taking a particular line. My preference is for a progressive line. Inevitably other people may have other preferences. Anyone who criticises a revolutionary poem for its politics is outside the natural audience for the text. Let them object!

    You Know, Joe

    You know, Joe, it’s a funny thing Joe!
    You worried most of your life about me,
    Always afraid I’d get a job with you,
    Always scared that I might get served with you
    Always afraid I’d wanna love your sister,
    Or that she might love me.

    Didn’t want me to eat with you,
    Scared I might sit with you
    But with that Atom Bomb, Joe
    Looks like I’m gonna die with you!

    Don’t seem right, does it, Joe?
    Ought to have a separate bomb for the colored!

    Ramon Durem

    Ray Durem was from Seattle, USA but the poem shouldn’t be read as being solely a critique of how easily technical development could outpace social development in the US :
    UK independent nuclear bomb capability – 1952; UK Race Relations Act – 1965 (not extended to housing and employment until 1968)

    Another Ramon Durem poem:
    I know I’m not sufficiently obscure

    1. Liked Ramon Durem No.2 (Liked RD No. 1 too).
      Shades of Bilie Holiday’s Strange Fruit in the final line, which probably everybody everywhere knows…….

      And by association it reminded me of another, very different, poem by one of the ultimate political poets:

      What times are these, in which

      A conversation about trees is almost a crime

      For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

      Bertold Brecht’s famous legacy to those who come after, An die Nachgeborenen.

      I found a German and an English language version at

      I wonder: what kind of legacy do you regard it today?
      Written in times riven by then unimaginable pain and abuse and upheaval, he thougt they would never be outdone, and now they have been surpassed in so many places so many fold….
      Does it still speak?

      1. Hi Vivienne,

        Thanks for introducing me to that Brecht poem. I find the last two stanzas particularly poignant – having seen in South Africa an unrealistic expectation that those who fought the struggle should be satisfied with what they achieved, forgive and get on with it. It’s not so easy:

        And yet we knew:
        Even the hatred of squalor
        Distorts one’s features.
        Even anger against injustice
        Makes the voice grow hoarse. We
        Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness
        Could not ourselves be gentle.

        But you, when at last the time comes
        That man can aid his fellow man,
        Should think upon us
        With leniency.

  7. What would add a nice propagandist edge to a blog like this for me would be some reference to the basis for the discontent – for those who are coming to it as fans or students of poetry first and know less about the social context of the writers Soonu mentions.

    Where 44% of the people live on or below $2 a day in what has been a relatively prosperous country by world standards, a movement like 25 January is surely waiting to happen. Where there has been zero per capita income growth since the mid-1980s, rumblings will inevitably begin and voices will be raised.

    Where a quarter of young men and 60% of young women are unemployed, those voices will include individuals able to express anger with energy and originality – they will give the voiceless a means to be heard. Where food prices have been driven up in leaps over the last decade owing to a halving in value of the currency against the dollar, revolutionary demands are going to find popular expression in song and verse as well as in action.

    The WikiLeaks account of a US diplomatic telegram estimating ‘literally hundreds of torture incidents’ every day in Cairo police stations, could be referenced as the social backdrop to the immense courage demonstrated by even small acts of resistance.

    While the interested and motivated reader could find such material by looking further afield (I found it here), a more typical approach would be to read the blog as a stand-alone piece, or in conjunction with pages directly linked from the text.

    I suppose it’s all dependent on the expected audience. But finding a way to make clear, rather than assuming, the basis for one’s sympathies is always worthwhile. It’s wise, of course, not to go too far the other way and produce something that makes an argument more than it lifts the heart. Affecting the heart is something good poetry (and good propaganda) should always seek to do.

      1. Hi Bim,

        Thanks for the reference to the background information. It is a useful link… although as you point out, there are a lot of sources online for anyone who wants to go more deeply into it (and I’m not sure that anyone who reads online should (any more) be assumed to read anything in isolation, because online searching is second nature for most new media consumers that I know. But yours is a good general point about making clear the basis for one’s sympathies and this applies to posts about any subject, not only political ones.

        Thanks also for your observations re the similarities between good poetry and good propaganda – they certainly do affect the heart!

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