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Singing for the Revolution

[Nigm and Imam Performing, Image from Unknown Archive] [Nigm and Imam Performing, Image from Unknown Archive]

So was it Wikileaks, Facebook, or Twitter? Perhaps all three contributed to the revolutionary winds in the Arab world? This is one of the questions repeated ad nauseam by a great number of commentators and parroted by many in the United States and elsewhere in the “civilized world.” Others wonder if perhaps it was Obama’s speech in Cairo or even the Bush doctrine (for Fox-infested minds and they are many)? Yes, new technologies and social media definitely played a role and provided a new space and mode, but this discourse eliminates and erases the real agents of these revolutions: the women and men who are making history before our eyes. Members of our species have done that before, you know, before “Bookface” and “Kleenex” [Wikileaks] as Qadhdhafi calls them. In a very familiar gesture displaying the discursive cargo of colonial mentality, any positive phenomenon has to, somehow, be traced back to this or that white man (well, in Obama’s case, it’s a black man, but his words are white).

As if the inhabitants of the region didn’t have a long history of struggles and revolts against all kinds of oppressors, indigenous, but mostly foreign colonizers (white men, by the way). As if liberationist inspiration has only one boring trajectory always emanating from the west and then heading east. As if the uprising in Iran wasn’t an inspiration as well. But why do I even have to expect the citizens of the civilized world to know about the strikes, riots, uprisings, intifadas and protests of previous decades. As if there wasn’t a proud and potent revolutionary tradition and a collective memory crowded with symbols, martyrs, moments, poems, and songs about freedom and justice. One of the rallying chants in Tunisia was a line from the Tunisian poet Abu ‘l-Qasim al-Shabbi (1909-1934) “ If, one day, the people want life, fate must yield” Every literate Arab knows this line by heart.

These new revolutions are spearheaded by a new generation and they already have their symbols and aesthetics. If Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the spark in Tunisia, the brutal beating to death of Khalid Said, a 28-year old man from Alexandria, at the hands of two undercover policemen back in June of 2010 angered many Egyptians and spurred demonstrations. A few days before the Day of Anger last week, Said’s mother recorded a message that was posted on YouTube on January 23rd. She urged young Egyptians not to stay at home and to go out on January 25th and protest against injustice, emergency laws and torture and said she too would protest. Facebook has a number of pages for Khalid Said, which include clips and links. Here is one titled “We are all Khalid Said.” Two days ago, the great vernacular poet, Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, was on al-Jazeera. He told the youth who had led the revolt: “Egypt is cleansing herself through you.” Nigm is one of those great symbols of resistance and opposition, not only for Egyptians, but Arabs. He’d been an outspoken critic of Mubarak and his regime and supported the various opposition movements that sprang in the last decade. In May of 2008, he recorded a YouTube message in support of a movement called “ Solidarity: Project Hope.”

“A Message from The People's Poet, Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm"

“People of precious Egypt. Egypt is a bride, but it needs a groom. We all feel what we’re going through. I can’t imagine that anyone is thinking alone. We all have the same thoughts and have one concern.
I recently received a piece of paper from a group of youth. May God save them and multiply their numbers. It fascinated me that there are people who think this way. They say that their project is called “Solidarity: Project Hope”. Let’s all get together, brothers, and forget about those in power. We have nothing to do with them. Let’s see why our country is drowning and how we can save it. What can we do? You will read the paper, of course, after these words. Whoever is in agreement, just give us your signature. Let’s act to save our country. Our country is drowning. Do we want to look back and say: we wish what happened had never happened? No! It’s still in our hands. There are a lot of us. . . There are many of us. . . who love Egypt. Let’s see what we can do for Egypt. Let’s put our hands together in solidarity. I don’t know what this solidarity would look like? Like this? [clasps his hands] Let’s stands in solidarity to save our country and save the future of our children. And to save ourselves as well! (May 2008)”

Nigm is one of the greatest vernacular Arab poets of the 20th century. I came across one of his books when I was still a teenager back in Baghdad. The title was Ishi ya Masr (Egypt, Wake Up!). A few years later, like so many across the Arab world and beyond, I listened to his lyrics sung by al-Shaykh Imam (1918-1995), the blind musician, with whom Nigm formed an immortal duo. Their songs spoke to the struggles of the poor and the downtrodden and celebrated the spirit of resistance to dictatorship and imperialism. Imam would’ve been leading with chants these days at al-Tahrir Square, but he isn’t alive. His songs, however, are living and can be heard everywhere. The protestors in al-Tahrir Square are singing them as I write this. Imam’s comrade, Nigm, lived to see and take part in the revolution he wrote about for five decades. So many of Nigm/Imam’s songs are memorable and apt these days, but the determination and resilience of Egyptians these past few days reminded me of “Ana sh-Sha`b” (I am the People):

I am the People

I am the people, marching, and I know my way
My struggle is my weapon, my determination my friend
I fight the nights and with my hopes’ eyes
I determine where true morning lies
I am the people, marching, and I know my way

I am the people. My hand lights life
Makes deserts green, devastates tyrants
Raising truths, banners on guns
My history becomes my lighthouse and comrade
I am the people, marching, and I know my way

No matter how many prisons they build
Mo matter how much their dogs try to betray
My day will break and my fire will destroy
Seas of dogs and prisons out of my way

I am the people and the sun is a rose in my sleeve
The day’s fire horses galloping in my blood
My children will defeat every oppressor
Who can stand in my way?

I am the people, marching, and I know my way


Another of Imam’s immortal songs is Unadikum (I Call on You). The words belong to the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-1994) and the peom’s title was that of Zayyad’s first collection, published in Haifa in 1966. When one of the Egyptians protesting outside the Egyptian embassy was asked what he wanted to say to Egyptians back home, he recited this poem. Here is Zayyad himself reciting the poem (1:49 to 2:57) in Palestine. And here is another version. Imam sang it first, but other versions by Marcel Khalife and Ahamd Qa`bur followed.

I Call on You

I call on you
I clasp your hands
I kiss the ground under your feet
And I say: I offer my life for yours
I give you the light of my eyes
as a present
and the warmth of my heart
The tragedy I live
is but my share of your tragedies
I call on you
I clasp your hands
I was not humiliated in my homeland
Nor was I diminished
I stood up to my oppressors
orphaned, nude, and barefoot
I carried my blood in my palm
I never lowered my flags
I guarded the green grass
over my ancestor’s graves
I call on you
I clasp your hands

We all clasp your hands!


6 comments for "Singing for the Revolution"


Wonderful piece Sinan. I research Shaykh Imam and am thrilled to see his work inspire people now. We need to constantly remind people that the ME has a long tradition for popular movements of people seeking justice.

Sune Haugbolle wrote on January 31, 2011 at 04:09 PM

Sinan.. this is a great piece which has, indeed, filled a gap in the recent river of articles about 'the two successive Arab revolutions' in the present Arab world. For it is so important to remind all the Arab people that they were, and alone, the prime mover of all their revolutions throughout history. They still are and this is why they should always have faith in themselves, not in external foreign 'white' entities.

Dr Nahla Torbey wrote on January 31, 2011 at 05:03 PM


Michael Cooperson wrote on February 01, 2011 at 01:04 AM

Sinan... Thank you... Wonderful piece, as always. I salute the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples heart and soul. Their revolutions are a watershed in Arab history, and can only be recognized as such. Egypt is not in crisis, as some pundits claim.

Wadood Hamad wrote on February 01, 2011 at 02:24 AM

Thanks. I'm glad you liked it!

Sinan Antoon wrote on February 02, 2011 at 03:15 AM

I find it tedious that such an otherwise intelligent article, has to be prefaced with the leftist au rigour diatribe against "the West". Why do such intelligent writers feel a need to pander to their colleagues in "the party"? If the West, or White People (like you for instance?) is not responsible for the benefits of revolution, why implicate us in your woes? Why does Obama speak like a "white man"- who is this "white man"- you look very white to me sir, are you going to hid behind the blood of a single ancestor, or construct your blood through culture and/or political affiliations? Why taint such a good article with absurd allusions to racism and ethnocentricity? Oh, of course, it suits the present agenda of the party does it not? A specific kind of racism and ethnocentricity is demanded- for the present- and you, the "revolutionary" comply so obediently. Long live the Revolution my good man.

W. Gerard Poole wrote on November 22, 2011 at 11:35 AM

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