Revolution’s Softer Side: Tahrir Square Is a Stage for New Poetry and Performance
Amid all the other messages spray painted around Tahrir Square, calls to action and demands for President Mubarak’s resignation, one military tank sticks out. “The revolution is in Tahrir,” it says, “no sleeping in bed.”
It’s a common consensus amongst protestors, who have been rallying tirelessly for almost two weeks to replace government corruption with reform, and despite concessions and departing journalists, one thing is clear: their energy shows no signs of waning. Instead, it has been ceaselessly evolving as demonstrators continue to provoke themselves and each other as creativity splinters through the cracks of censorship.
“Between protesters roaming around shouting sarcastic anti-government slogans into handheld microphones, others attracting the crowd with original poetry, and young bands playing music, the sit-in in Tahrir Square has turned into a street festival,” Noha El-Hennawy wrote in Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum. At night, instead of giving way, the crowd quiets down, and the square turns into a stage for poetry, performance and art.
A man in a wheelchair performs colloquial poetry.
Another, wrapped in an Egyptian flag, gives speeches to anyone willing to listen. Political debates rage on over a microphone.
“If I die, mother, don’t cry,” Mohi Salah sings to the crowd. “I’ll have died so that my country can live.”
By 3 a.m., the crowd is singing Egyptian songs from the ’60s and ’70s: “Oh Egypt, our numbers are still great, don’t be scared of others’ might.”
“Everyone here is awake,” said Ahmed Abdel-Moneim. “I might be weary, but when the morning comes, I can breathe freedom. What I’ve seen here is what I’ve never seen in my life.”
And then there is 16-year-old Mohammmad Mahmoud, who leads the crowd in reciting anti-Mubarak slogans such as “God reigns over the crisis, and that guy has the mind of a shoe” and “Oh Mubarak, you coward, we’re the people in the square.”
Sprinkled in with the medical and lost-and-found stations are tents dedicated to art. One artist called the occupation of Tahrir Square a “Revolution of Light.” Fruit vendor Ashraf Gaber asked demonstrators to write out what they’re feeling on little pieces of paper. Those pieces have now grown into a collage that Gaber anchors down with rocks. “We have to make the people happy!” he shouts to the crowd. “Express what it is in your hearts!”
“We are learning a culture of respectful disagreement here,” Egyptian Christian Nashat Cross told Salon. “The level of cultured discussion is something I really admire.”
It’s more than entertainment; it’s a platform where people can express themselves without the threat of being muted. “We were inspired by carnival-like protests held in Europe and the United States,” said protester Samir. “We must have entertaining episodes that can serve the context.”
“We should stay here until the president leaves. We should not get bored,” said electric engineer Ahmed Metwalli. “We should find everything we need here including entertainment. We need to feel that we are at home.”
These periods of performance and poetry are really not all that out of the ordinary for the Middle East. Poetry was an Arab tradition long before Islam, and in modern times, it’s been a common tool for creating political unity and calling people to political action.
“Outside the West poetry is still very powerful,” Columbia University professor Muhsin Jassim al-Musawi told The Daily Beast. “It might not be very conspicuous, but it is there, an undercurrent, and whenever there is a need for it you will be surprised that people have something to say.” He went on to explain that poetry’s political power is largely ignored by postcolonial literary criticism, which places more emphasis on how narratives shape cultural and national identities. Yet “it’s easier to rally around a verse than a novel,” which is why people turn to poetry in times of protest and forming these new identities.
“The words of the people,” said protester Mohammad Ali, “are stronger than guns.”
“We shouldn’t be so naive as to neglect the power of poetry,” said al-Musawi, “because in the moment of the actual making, you need poetry, when action is taking place it needs to be around a catchphrase- people need it.”
If there ever was a testament to the need and the salvation of poetry and performance in today’s society, this is it. Where politics divides, art unites, because expression can’t exist in the same vein as persecution or preferential treatment. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square come from backgrounds as variant as the ones that built up our America.
And yet they see no differences from each other, but rather commonalities that are their bridges, not only to each other, but to their country, to the outside world and to a coherent future that has bonded more strongly through cultural exchange than it ever did when under suppression. What we’re seeing, in poetry, in art, in singing and performances–this is the stuff that democracy is made of.
“We have been stifled for years, and denied any real chance to express ourselves,” said demonstrator Abdel Razek. “I am not an artist, I am an engineer who has had to resort to construction work to make a living. But this revolution has made artists of us all.”
Photo courtesy of Ghazala Irshad via Facebook