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Essay on the Poetics of the Tahrir Protests Wins Prize

March 23, 2011

Elliott Colla’s essay on “The Poetry of Revolt” took third place in the 2011 “Three Quark’s Daily Arts and Literature Prize” web writing award. The essay was originally posted in Jadaliyya on Jan. 31, 2011.

It was gratifying to see this brilliant essay given the recognition it deserved, especially given my interest in the ways verbal poetry, music and art contributed to the communitas of Tahrir Square during the 18 days of intense protest.

Colla, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, describes in his post the poetic elements in the revolutionary slogans that don’t survive the translations we read or hear in the news:

The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.

He goes on to emphasize the longstanding role poetry has played in Arabic political and revolutionary activity.

In awarding the prize,  judge, Laila Lalami wrote:

Elliot Colla’s analysis of Egyptian revolutionary slogans for Jadaliyya is both sensitive and original. In discussing how poetry is created, performed, andremembered—not just right now in Tahrir Square, but also during earlier historicalperiods—he reminds us that literature and life are not distinct or divergent spheres,but indivisible aspects of the human experience.

Elliott Colla is author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2007), and has translated many works of Arabic literature, including Ibrahim Al-Koni’s Gold Dust (Arabia Books, 2008).

Three Quarks Daily is a site that aggregates some of the best writing on the web, as well as offering original content. It’s prizes are notable in that they are not merely virtual but include a cash award (3rd place gets $200).

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