Elliott Colla: “The Poetry of Revolt” in the New Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s.

Poets were invariably major players — in heady, optimistic, galvanizing roles as popular risings took off. Novelists (including the great Naguib Mafouz) got the darker job afterward of detailing regrets and reversals. Most of Egypt’s ten popular rebellions before the epochal events of this winter were against the British, and most of them were sorry failures.

We’re talking about the “the poetry of revolt,” street songs, chanting for courage, the tradition more than a century old of satire, ridicule and invective that has finally toppled a US-chummy police state and, for now, beaten the odds against a people’s rebellion.

Memo for the next explosion: tune in on the poets and the jam bands; tune out the newspapers. So much of what we’re told about places like Egypt — and so little of the story now unfolding — gets centered on the geopolitics of the place, and its holy books. It’s the novels and the pop culture, as Elliot Colla’s reminding us, that suggest how people live and love, aspire and mourn. Astonishing, isn’t it, how little we hear from the earth-shakers in Tahrir Square about the U.S. or Israel. Or the Koran. Or, for example, about the Arab nationalist giant of the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seems as remote from today’s proceedings as the Sphinx.

I am asking Elliott Colla why the rebels who busted Mubarak have been so tender about his great backer, Uncle Sam. Are they playing to President Obama, who could still be their partner? Or to their young Facebook Friends in America? Or are they just ignoring us? Or maybe unaware of us?

This is a new generation, a generation of activists who are not ideological. In other words, they have looked at the struggles of their parents and even grandparents against imperialism, against capitalism, against all the “isms.” By and large, they are saying that’s not how they want to understand the world, and that’s not how they’re going to organize their response to the problems that they face. In this sense, many in the leadership have no ideological platform; they are starting their analysis and their project from how they live their daily life, what they see, what they experience, what they would rather have. …

Look at their demands, these aren’t specific to Egypt, these are simple, straightforward civil and human rights that they started with. They’re confident in this: if they can have those things, they can have a government that actually represents their interest, and not the interests of a ruling elite, and then they can handle these other things that might be called ideology. It’s a completely new way of doing revolution. We usually think you get your ideology straight first, and then you do your program; this is doing it the other way around.

Elliott Colla of Georgetown University in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 15, 2011.

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  • Potter

    Maybe parachute some radio into this part of the old British Empire too?

    This interview is a wonderful supplement for those like me who have been moved by the astonishing Egyptian Revolution. I should have listened with a notepad to jot down all the names mentioned: poets and novelists. I must read a few poems at least– and I still want to read Mafouz to get a feeling from him.

    I think I found the article mentioned by Aswany in the Guardian:


    Elliot Colla poured forth about a world to me unknown.

    Thank you.

  • Prof. Colla mentioned the novel “Yacoubian Building.” If “Magnolia” from 1999 depicts San Fernando Valley anomie and mayhem, “Yacoubian Building” captures the same kind of disquiet for Cairo. (Joan Didion calls the syndrome, “all motion and no direction.) The 2006 movie based on the novel is discussed here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0425321/
    Don’t miss the following semi-anthems of the Egyptian ferment:

    “To the Tyrants of the World”

    Abou-Al-kacem El-chebbi (pronounced Abo Al Qassim Al Shabbi‎, 24. February 1909 – 9 October 1934)

    “Oppressive tyrants, lover of darkness, enemy of life, you have ridiculed the size of the weak people. Your palm is soaked with their blood.

    You deformed the magic of existence, and planted the seeds of sorrow in the fields.

    Wait, don’t be fooled by the spring, the clearness of the sky or the light of dawn, for on the horizon lies the horror of darkness, rumble of thunder, and blowing of winds.

    Beware, for below the ash there is fire, and he who grows thorns reaps wounds. Look there, for I have harvested the heads of mankind and the flowers of hope, and I watered the heart of the earth with blood. I soaked it with tears until it was drunk. The river of blood will sweep you, and the fiery storm will devour you.”

    The poem “To the Tyrants of the World,” written by the Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi.

    The people were also chanting an Arabic poem. It is titled “The Will of Life” by the famous and the tragic poem Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, the poem was first used in the early colonial uprising against the French and now, almost more than 80 years later, his same words are the flame of revolution in Tunisia and now in Egypt.

    Abou-Al-kacem El-chebbi (pronounced Abo Al Qassim Al Shabbi‎, 24. February 1909 – 9 October 1934) was a Tunisian poet. He is probably best known for writing the final two verses of the current National Anthem of Tunisia, Himat Al Hima (Defenders of the Homeland), that was written originally by the Egyptian poet Mustafa Sadik el-Rafii.

  • aepytus21

    This conversation really hit the spot for me. Thanks!

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