Between laughter and revolution

Poets of Protest focuses on the lives and works of poets at the centre of resistance in the Arab world.
It questions our notions of what poetry’s space ought to be, says ARITRA BHATTACHARYA
In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the poet Baal says: “A poet’s work: to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
This might prompt us to ask: Does whatever a poet say—to name the unnameable, to shape the world—become poetry? It might prompt us to question whether Ahmed Fouad Negm’s words—when he talks about his “sister”, when he says that she has been married and divorced, something which his wife feels ought not be “said” because it is rude and unpleasant—are to be treated as poetry?
Perhaps, we ought to. Perhaps, the context of where Negm is saying these words will make us think of them as poetry.
For Negm says these words in an episode of Artscape: Poets of Protest, a six-part series running on Al Jazeera English. Poets of Protest looks at the lives and works of poets at the centre of resistance in the Arab world. As a body of work, poets of protest seems to question our received notions of what poetry is about and what poetry’s space ought to be.
The space of poetry
The connection between poetry and resistance is not new. Neither is the effort to capture it on camera, to create a sort of video montage that expresses the angst of the oppressed, the ineptitude of the powers-that-be. In the context of India, Amar Kanwar’s A Night of Prophecy comes to mind; in the context of the Middle-East, Iara Lee’s Cultures of Resistance offers a recent point of reference.
Yet, if there is anything that makes Poets of Protest stand apart, it is in the series’ questioning the space of poetry in resistance, and in the larger society. As the introduction to each of the episodes of the series posits, poetry is also “…writings on the wall” which the corrupt oppressive regimes refuse to see.
So the Syrian peoples’ cry, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated!” is poetry. In fact, according to Hala Mohammed, the Syrian poet who lives in exile in Paris and is the “subject” of the second part of the series, “it’s the most beautiful poem written this year”. We see archival footage of hundreds and thousands marching in the streets or standing in the squares of Syria—in Homs, Hama, and Deraa, across day and night—cry out this very line, as they clap, as they express a sea of humanity that provides a poignant break from the images of conflict that characterise Syria in the news media.
“The Syrian people will not be humiliated!” is a cry from the people in the streets of Syria—a people tired with cycles of violence and injustice. The writer of the line—perhaps the collective—shares her solidarity with the oppressed not only in attitudes, but as a “producer”. That makes the line radical, and poetic.[i]  The epithet of “the most beautiful poem” for “The Syrian people will not be humiliated!” is not mere sophistry of an exiled poet—for as Walter Benjamin remarks in “Author As Producer”, what is important is not the attitude of the work towards the “relations of production”, but its position in it.
Dialectical relationship
The first three episodes of Poets of Protest seek to explore this link between poetry and the social conditions it is born out of and seeks to change. It points to the dialectical relationship of the two, and tries to show how poets—some of them in exile—are working to keep the respective resistances in their country alive; to inspire, lead, and offer hope, through conferences, recitations, performances, and Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.
These poets of protest (profiled in the series) are not merely providing an escape valve for political dissatisfaction. They are engaged in developing ideas and practices, in gaining new comrades; they are engaged in activity that is intensely political[ii].
Images of resistance
One might question how these lines of poetry quoted above are performing a political function. But it might also be worthwhile to consider how the series of videos itself is performing a political action.
Poets of Protest, for one, seeks to challenge the dominant images of resistance that occupy the mediated realities that we have of the Arab world. Resistance here is not just gunfights on the streets; it is not only tankers confronting militias or pictures of devastated houses; it is not merely the raised fist or the shrill cry.
Instead, the almost surreal composure of Hala Mohammed as she reads from her new work at a conference at the University of Chicago—a work that talks about how death is not death in Syria—is an image of resistance. The warmth and tenderness in her voice is a resistance to the war’s brutality.
Negm’s “naming the unnameable” and yet not being able to write in the last four years because he has slowed down and is learning from the children who are his new teachers; his kissing the graffiti which talks about resistance using his very words and which has been created by the children from whom he is learning is resistance. His urgency and willingness to learn from 25-year-olds in the streets of Cairo is resistance.
Yehia Jaber’s black humour—his hearty, no-holds-barred laughter when he sees the “paper smiles” of a woman on a hoarding announcing a realty project in Beirut is resistance. “Every city needs its icons”, the hoarding says, and this connects with Jaber’s comments a few moments ago about how every political movement is a struggle for icons. Jaber’s laughter at these new “windy” icons that cloak the violence and injustice is resistance.
Each of the episodes of Poets of Protest is directed by a different person, and each sets out to create alternative images of resistance that encapsulate the work of the specific poets and their views about the role and place of poetry in society. Jaber’s poetry is questions—for him, change begins with questions, and revolutions begin as poetry. As his poetry talks about journeys, we see him travel across Lebanon to visit Wadi Jilo, his parents’ home where he grew up, and then to their graves. He recalls the difficulty with which he managed to bury his mother; he talks about how the Israeli Army prevented him from taking his mother’s body from the hospital to the South, where he wanted to bury her, for seven days. His poetry talks about his dead mother (and the dead of Lebanon perhaps) waiting for the touch of warmth, the touch of the earth, which the Israeli Army denied. The visuals and the words point to the long history of conflict from which his words are born and seem to ask the viewer: why should life be so?
However, for a series that tries to delve “into the soul of contemporary poets in the Middle-East as they try to lead, to interpret and to inspire”, the effort falls short of expressing how each of the poets draws from a distinctly different tradition. For instance, what does it mean when Hala Mohammad says that her refusal of traditions (of poetry) means that she has refused routine in her writing? It also does not help us understand how poetry of protest “in a region where (it) is vital to expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations[iii]’ is different from the poetry of other regions.
The fact that each episode is directed by a different person means that the filmic grammar in each case is different—would it not have been better if it were helmed by one person who could draw parallels, who could explore threads left by the wayside now? But then again, different voices mean different points of view. And in the context of the Middle-East and the hackneyed images of the region that dominate the mediascape, perhaps multiple voices are sacrosanct in this kind of an effort.
Poets of Protest, in its first three episodes, leaves us with images—some that will be “blown by the wind”, and some that will be lodged in our memories for tens of years. Perhaps, the most poignant of them is the image of Hala Mohammad reciting her poem “This Fear”:
I can’t handle this window
that opens to alienation
It’s like a wall
I see nothing through it
I can’t handle this window
that opens to alienation
As she recites, we see shots of windows that open out on to vistas of Paris; windows that provide glimpses of the beautiful architecture, the demure sunlight, the open blue sky. But these are not images Mohammad wishes to see. This is not the beauty that she pines for. The tenderness in her voice longs for images of Syria.
Her windows in Paris, therefore, are nothing but a wall: a constant reminder of her alienation.
The fourth episode of Artscape: Poets of Protest featuring Iraqi poet Manal Al Sheikh can be seen on

The fifth episode featuring the Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf is currently airing on Al Jazeera English (beginning Friday, September 28) at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.

The final episode featuring Sahrawi war poetess Al Khadra can be seen from Friday, October 5, at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.

[i] Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections, Peter Memetz (ed.), New York: Schocken Books, 1986, pp. 220-38.
[ii] As Stephen Duncombe states, cultural resistance, of the kind that the series tries to capture, could merely be an escape valve, a stepping stone to political activity, or be seen an intense political activity itself. See Introduction, Cultural Resistance Reader, Stephen Duncombe (ed.), New Delhi: Aadarsh Books, 2012, pp. 5-8
[iii]The introduction to each of the episodes mentions this line.
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