“A poem is a thought that bores through the heart—exploding it”
- Marie Lundquist
Ten years have passed since we witnessed the Arab world’s much longed for uprising against decades of tyranny and oppression. The Arab world is a generalizing term for a geographical area that stretches over two continents and that includes several different ethnic groups, but it is also a heterogenous world where the Arabic language dominates.
People—women and men, young and old—mobilized and demonstrated in the streets and in the squares. With peaceful means they demanded democracy and human rights. The spark of this heady uprising was the young Tunisian vegetable dealer Mohamed Bouazizi who in desperation committed the act of self-immolation in the town of Sidi Bouzid. He literally became the torch that ignited the people’s revolt. When the people demanded the end of tyranny there was at last hope for the future.
This young desperate man fired the already existent democracy movements throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East and down the Arabian Peninsula.
The words and the slogans lay latent in people’s hearts.
My Arabic heart was overjoyed—this uprising overturned the idea in the West that people in the Middle East and in North Africa seemed mainly to be marking time. True advocates of democracy welcomed it. In news reports well-phrased men and women were suddenly speaking fluent English. These were political activists, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers, doctors, academics, artists, writers, and poets dressed in faded jeans and t-shirts. Television screens in Europe had never before portrayed the Arab people with such nuances. Suddenly it was not as easy to dispatch Arabs as being uncivilized, dogmatic, full of hatred and with a propensity for violence. Samuel Huntington’s thesis was given its antithesis. Muslims demanded democracy and they were therefore prepared to sacrifice their own lives. Thus spoke my Arabic heart.
But the synthesis did not happen, and spring turned into autumn and the leaves fell.
The pen will survive though and despite having seen even harsher censorship in some countries after the Arab Spring than before, as for example in Egypt with the dictatorship of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, poets and most writers continue to do what they have always done: they write. They write as witnesses to their own times. They operate in their home countries under a programmed self-censorship that they are either aware of or not, others keep writing much as they always have done and without warning find themselves behind bars. Some have distanced themselves from these events finding themselves in forced or voluntary exile; most keep up their writing activities from a more obfuscate position—that of the refugee’s.
Such poets have applied their pens in this issue of PenOpp, supplying a short cut to the essence of these events.
Today, on January 25, it is exactly ten years since the first demonstrations took place in the Tahrir Square in Cairo. We begin this issue, therefore, with two Egyptian poets. Hoda Omran who lives in Cairo contributes a text about the position of women poets in the literary history of Egypt. Women are the first victims of the revolution, she writes. Also, Muhammad Ashraf, at present an ICORN writer in Berlin, contributes two poems written just after the demonstrations in the Tahrir Square.
We remain on the African continent and present a text by the Sudanese poet and academic Najlaa Eltom. This text offers an insight into the recent political developments in Sudan; Eltom claims that the struggle against the censorship of the Fur language and other minority languages—all victims of violent cultural politics—is the major cultural occurrence these past years.
In August 2020, Abdulwaheb Latinos, a highly popular young Sudanese poet, drowned in the Mediterranean Ocean on his way to Europe. Latinos writes about death and his longing to disappear; the unknown waters turned into his grave. Two of Latino’s poems are here translated—each text remains grieving until it is translated, says Derrida. And in his essay Ali Thareb, ICORN poet in Jönköping, Sweden, deliberates whether suicide might be the optimal alternative for a poet from Iraq. Also, I have interviewed Hassan Blasim, the internationally acclaimed Iraqi poet, writer, and filmmaker, about the Iraqi October Revolution and the death of poetry.
We also publish an interview with the Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar about the great Syrian tragedy. To write about the Arab Spring without mentioning the Syrian catastrophe would be a crime. The title of the interview is “Assad has reduced Syria to a point where hell pales in comparison.” Further, the Algerian poet Samira Negrouche, one of the few poets still living in Algeria, contributes an essay called “From the intimacy of the collective to the horizon of the self.” Negrouche reminds us of the silenced and fading voices of the poets:
“I live in a country that has been grieving far too long, a country that has not properly managed to honour their dead or to fully free them, a country that keeps pushing life and all living into the future, a country where one is creating a snare of conflicts in order to avoid touching at the heart of the real conflict. One must manage to be silent in order to accept the grief, be silent in order to break out of this whirlwind of convulsions, be silent to avoid the language of conflict—to be silent is sometimes the only possible breakpoint, the only possible act of resistance.”
These voices, and many others, are presented in this issue. To cite Najlaa Eltom, common denominators for these texts are that they represent the history of resistance, the history of defeat, the histories of colonialism and slavery, the histories of unsuccessful post-colonial regimes, the history of racism, the history of civil war, the history of genocide, and the history of neo-colonialism.