Poetry in the Arab world, like ballet in Russia and football in England, is public property. Poetry retains mass popularity and an immediate political significance. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that poems have played an important role on the streets during the revolutions.
First, some background. The context of military, social and economic failure, and of spiritual stagnation, which stretched from 1967 to 2011 is perhaps most effectively evoked by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s ‘Footnotes to the Book of the Setback’. Qabbani was better known for his love poetry until the Arab defeat (or Setback) of 1967 prompted him to address his people’s political malaise head on. The poem became an instant classic despite being instantly banned. It rails against Arab dictatorship and backwardness, and calls for a new generation of Arabs to break their chains and overcome defeat.
The old word is dead.
The old books are dead.
Our speech with holes like worn-out shoes is dead.
Dead is the mind that led to defeat.
Our poetry has gone sour.
Women’s hair, nights, curtains and sofas
Have gone sour. Everything has gone sour.
My grieved country, In a flash
You changed me from a poet who wrote love poems
To a poet who writes with a knife.
What we feel is beyond words:
We should be ashamed of our poems.
Stirred by Oriental bombast,
By boastful swaggering that never killed a fly,
By the fiddle and the drum,
We went to war
Our shouting is louder than our actions,
Our swords are taller than us,
This is our tragedy.
We wear the cape of civilisation
But our souls live in the stone age.
You don’t win a war
With a reed and a flute.
Cost us fifty thousand new tents.
Don’t curse heaven
If it abandons you,
Don’t curse circumstances.
God gives victory to whom He wishes.
God is not a blacksmith to beat swords.
It’s painful to listen to the news in the morning.
It’s painful to listen to the barking of dogs.
Our enemies did not cross the border
They crept through our weakness like ants.
Five thousand years
In our caves.
Our currency is unknown,
Our eyes are a haven for flies.
Smash the doors,
Wash your brains,
Wash your clothes.
Read a book,
Write a book,
Grow words, pomegranates and grapes,
Sail to the country of fog and snow.
Nobody knows you exist in caves.
People take you for a breed of mongrels.
We are thick-skinned people
With empty souls.
We spend our days practising witchcraft,
Playing chess and sleeping.
And we the ‘Nation by which God blessed mankind’?
Our desert oil could have become
Daggers of flame and fire.
We’re a disgrace to our noble ancestors:
We let our oil flow through the toes of whores.
We run wildly through streets
Dragging people with ropes,
Smashing windows and locks.
We praise like frogs,
Swear like frogs,
Turn midgets into heroes,
And heroes into scum:
We never stop and think.
We crouch idly,
And beg God for victory
Over our enemy.
If I knew I’d come to no harm,
And could see the Sultan,
I’d tell him:
Your wild dogs have torn my clothes
Your spies hound me
Their eyes hound me
Their noses hound me
Their feet hound me
They hound me like Fate
Interrogate my wife
And take down the names of my friends,
When I came close to your walls
And talked about my pains,
Your soldiers beat me with their boots,
Forced me to eat my shoes.
You lost two wars.
Half of our people are without tongues,
What’s the use of people without tongues?
Half of our people
Are trapped like ants and rats
If I knew I’d come to no harm
I’d tell him:
‘You lost two wars
You lost touch with children’
If we hadn’t buried our unity
If we hadn’t ripped its young body with bayonets
If it had stayed in our eyes
The dogs wouldn’t have savaged our flesh.
We want an angry generation
To plough the sky
To blow up history
To blow up our thoughts.
We want a new generation
That does not forgive mistakes
That does not bend.
We want a generation of giants.
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don’t read about our windowless generation,
We are a hopeless case.
We are as worthless as watermelon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are a generation
That will overcome defeat.
Translation by Abdullah al-udhari