How poetry fuelled the Arab Uprising

‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words’, like all great maxims, this musing of Robert Frost may seem on the face of it too suspiciously beautiful to hold any real truth. But with recent events in Egypt, the world watched as a nation which had long suffered from suppression of expression fought back through the written word.

During a regime of controlled press and, in its later stages, restricted use of social media etc. fears and criticisms had been left to lie unarticulated from fear of repercussion. Crucially, this year a poetical revolution accompanied that of politics; with the former lending itself to the wider social change in pivotal ways. We felt it through the pulsating beat of sharply rhymed couplets chanted in Tahrir Square. We saw it in the neat stanzas which accommodated the Twitter generation’s need for brevity. We see it now the employment of the heroic couplet as Egypt examines the legacy of what it has lost. Throughout the last six months, new permissions with the written word and poetic form in particular have gushed forward.

Poetry’s new role in the Arab Uprising was sadly recognised last month when a Bahraini woman was sentenced to a year in prison for reading a poem which included the direct plea to the king, “We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don’t you hear their cries? Don’t you hear their screams?”

 It’s ripples are still being felt throughout the Arab World as Palestinian poet Tamim al-Barghouti  argued that in Tunisia the use of poetry had “widened people’s imagination, changed their perception, increased their self-confidence and showed them how fragile their tyrants are”.

The London Mayor’s Office is finally acknowledging the work of such poets (including that of al-Barghouti himself) through the ‘Poet in the City’- a festival of poetry of the Arab Spring at events throughout London this week.

In our culture where the idea of poetry most often conjures up the image of gushy sonnets in teenage diaries or the dusty artefacts of ancient writers, the importance of poetry in this context is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate.

To really get an insight into how this new permission with the written word is affecting Eygpt, one has to watch the remarkable video of Hisham el-Gokh ( as he strains to articulate the experiences of his nation. The intensity of what he feels being present not only in his words but in a physically visible ache and shiver flowing through him as he speaks through his tears. Palpable too is the sense of catharsis emanating from his audience; many of whom can be seen to writhe with pain as they journey through his thoughts together; whilst at the same time enthusiastically willing him on. In the new transition phase whereby Eygpt can reflect upon what it has lost as well as gained through recent events, perhaps it will learn of the cathartic effect of poetry in examining trauma and loss- of which fellow poet John Donne spoke when he wrote, “Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce/ For he tames it that fetters it in verse”.


Poet In The City is holding events until 20th July as part of the London Mayor’s Office festival- ‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’