Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Eternal graffiti

Hala Mohammad, an exiled poet living in Paris, writes about the tragedies of the Syrian crisis. 

Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi's poem If the People Wanted Life One Day, despite being written decades before, ignited the people against the Tunisian government. Today, contemporary poets add to the fire of revolutions through their words, as seen recently in the Arab Spring. In nearly every country experiencing hardships, poems have emerged "the medium for expressing people's hopes, dreams and frustrations." 

Poetry is eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.
- Twentieth century American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry is often a means to convey strong emotions, which grow stronger when facing oppression and violence, as can be seen in historical and contemporary episodes of conflict. Hence the development of protest poetry and song. In fact, political sociologists often pegged poetry to social movements as a accompanying artistic tactic and even holds a role in state formation and state dynamics.

 Al-Shabi's poem was referred to as a tool of motivation in the Egyptian revolution. Despite the cries that "Egypt is not Tunisia," poetry prevailed as a leading source of inspiration in Egypt as well, where lines of his poetry were in newspaper articles and dispersed through social media outlets, most notably Facebook. At the same time, Ahmed Fouad Negm, one of Egypt's best-known poets, writes for the country's oppressed. Called "the voice of the revolution," his poems, unlike many poems in Arabic, are written in colloquial Egyptian and criticize the Egypt created by the past century's regimes. In Egypt, Negm and al-Shabi's words even formed poety-graffiti on city walls. 
Many poets in surrounding countries were not as lucky as Negm, who has faced little retribution for his poetry.  Manal al-Sheikh resorts to sharing her work via Facebook and Twitter from Norway, as her homeland, Iraq, has become too dangerous to write in. Mazen Maarouf, a Palestinian living in Iceland for safety after receiving death threats for some of his journalistic pieces, writes for the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, such vocalization of emotions is not always handled lightly by the government. A Bahraini protester named Ayat Hassan Mohammed AlQurmazee (al-Gormezi) was jailed for  publicly reciting anti-regime poetry that she composed. It led to an arrest by the Bahraini National Safety Court in 2011. Following the arrest, al-Gormezi claims to have been tortured while jailed.

The artsy form of slander landed scores of protestors in jail. Amnesty International noted dozens of artists, including writers, poets and activists are facing time in prison for action such as insulting the Sultan of Oman that sent students, poets, and photographers to jail. However, many such actions are being challenged by the international community and human rights organizations calling it a violation of freedom of expression.

Poets are not the only artists subject to punishment for their protest pieces. Cartoonists, writers, and artists of all sorts faced violence for their visual or vocal dissent. For example Ibrahim al-Qashoush, was found dead and missing his vocal chords after composing an anti-regime song in Hama, Syria. Ali Ferzat, a famous cartoonist in the Middle East, was beaten for his anti-regime cartoons. Others have been banished from Syria for similar work.  The most recent jailing of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot for its performing a song that was critical of President Vladimir Putin. The “punk prayer,” performed in a church, “was inspired by the women's anger about the relationship between the Russian government and the Orthodox Church.” Such writers, poets, and artists were once deemed “engineers of the human soul” by Joseph Stalin himself. 

Likewise, it is both a historical and contemporary phenomenon. History holds many examples of poets that attempted to fuel and cool the flames of protest against Vietnam to the Cold War in the form of "creative expressions" against nuclear warfare. During the Darfur conflict, poets were paid to compose war songs to influence the populous toward the cause. One singer recalls "the day she sent thousands of fighters to war." In some cultures, its use even surpasses being a motivation tool. It has been used in negotiation between tribes in Yemen.

However, there are some skepitcs of the usefulness of poetry during protests. This month's Caravan of Peace against the U.S.-Mexico drug war features Javier Sicilia, Mexican poet and member of Mexico's Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. He is a key player that criticizes Mexican President Felipe Calderon's. However, Sicilia refused to write poems after his son's death traced to cartel violence and has, in fact, lost some faith in the power of poetry, claiming "the world is no longer dignified enough for words. They are choking inside of us."

The writers' belief in the power of words as a tool to assist a revolution will continue to influence future conflict. The content of the poems, conveying an array of emotions shared by the people, can be used to motivate. It provides words for a chant or song to unite or a subject for graffiti to publicly display. It often transports an important message that the receiver refuses to see, even at violent costs.Whatever the use may be, poetry and related arts hold a strong role in conflict and revolution.

For more information on poets of the Arab Spring protests, al-Jazeera will broadcast a show dedicated to six poets of the Arab Spring beginning August 31.

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