Introduction by Elliott Colla: Like hundreds of other prisoners of conscience now languishing in Sisi’s prisons, Ahmed Douma has a long background in activism. One of the founders of Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement, Douma was incarcerated eighteen times under Mubarak and SCAF and twice again during Morsi’s brief year of rule. Most recently, Douma was arrested in December 2013 for violating the country’s harsh anti-protest laws. Though his health has deteriorated to the point that his life is now at risk, an Egyptian judged recently sentenced him to three years in prison.
Forgotten in all this is that Ahmed Douma is also a poet with an original voice. His 2012 diwan, Sotak tali3 (Your Voice is Rising) is a remarkable document, wholly unknown in English. It deserves to be widely read — not just by people interested in Douma’s case, but also by people interested in seeing the whole range of Egypt’s literary scene.
All the poems in Douma’s collection emanate directly the poet’s experience as an activist in protest movements and moments leading up to January 25 and continuing until this day. Douma has spent a decade in the good fight — from Kefaya to the April 6 Youth Movement, from solidarity trips to Gaza to January 25, Maspero and beyond. Douma’s poems bear witness to a life lived bravely, openly and in verse. Each line describes the most remarkable fact of his life: he is simply not afraid.
Admittedly, some of these poems come across more as slogan than lyric, more occasion-bound than timeless. But in the original colloquial Egyptian (but not in the translations below), these poems are light on the tongue, their rhymes powerful, their images capable of real surprise.
While the themes never move far from the slogans and action of street protest, the collection forms a startling map of the country. About one third of the collection’s thirty-three poems were composed in Tahrir Square (or nearby) during the Spring, Summer and Fall of 2011. Most of the others were composed in jails and prisons in the years that precede January 25 (and a few, during a visit to Gaza). The datelines of most of the poems form an index to Egypt’s ever-growing network of incarceration facilities: Tanta Prison, al-Arish Prison, Damanhour Prison, Giza Detention Center, Ismailillya Prison, Qatta Prison and so on.
Put differently, the map of Egypt that Douma’s diwan has to offer is a stark one. On the one hand, there is the public square, a place of freedom, self-expression and possibility. On the other hand, the claustrophobic, lightless cells of a sprawling Egyptian Gulag. For Douma, neither of these places is a metaphor.
Below are the first two poems of Douma’s collection. The first poem is a conversation with (or rewrite of) Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s The Will To Life, a poem that was, of course, a source for one of the most famous slogans of the 2011 uprising, The people want. The second poem was written in May 2010, after Douma was arrested at a demonstration on trumped-up assault charges. In this poem, he restages the scene in which he was accused of injuring no less than thirteen police officers…
If one day the People wills to live,
Then they can go revolt.
And the echo of their songs can chase away palace dogs
And they can raise their banners whose cloth has been dragged in the dirt
Dragged through streets, servility and surrender.
And they can turn those banners into a plan of attack
And hang the darkness of their night on the gallows.
While the dreams of their night tremble
At a spark flickering in the heart
At a light…
If one day the People wills to win,
Then decision must dictate
That silence is no longer an option
And they must create, with their own hands,
Daylight rays for the sun of emancipation!
They must help give birth to a country, as yet unborn
Pulling the country hard and harder,
Shouting out in its ear the call to prayer, “Revolution has risen!”
And “There is no revolution but the Revolution you make yourself!”
Let our country nurse on the many meanings of dignity.
Let it come to know how to break the siege.
If one day the People wills to arrive at its destination,
Then it has no choice but
To gather the ammunition it will need for the journey
To call what lies between us and them
The length of countries
Saying, “You sons of…”
Its time for the Dog to go.
Enough with the howling.
Enough with the voiceless shrieking.
Enough with death.
The People opens their eyes and finds their guide
They see that the one who betrayed them
No longer exists.
In their victory, they cross bridges and borders
Shrieking and shrieking.
I am now free.
Now I am free, without chains.
If one day, the People wills to live,
Then they must learn to break their chains themselves.
(Midan Tahrir, May 2011.)
Police cordon, police cordon
Dog and guard,
Black, black, black
Is your uniform
Street front, war front
This is the youth of our country!
One hundred bosses, one hundred chiefs,
And countless gentlemen, epaulets stuffed with eagles
The stars of their insignias rising
In the middle of the afternoon
Spreading fear in pure hearts,
Spreading insults about my mother and my mother’s mother,
And the person who gave birth to you and me,
And the living and the dead,
Religion too, and that dog unashamed
(definitely a ranking officer)
Spewing every cussword in the book.
Now, in the middle of the square, the bloodbath begins.
And out, into the light, injustice arrives,
Electric cattle prods,
Tear gas, whose stench creeps toward us.
Beatings all around.
The best and the brightest are there in the fray,
There is no escaping death.
You either die here or there
Or you can die for the country as it slips from our grasp
As it falls into ruin’s embrace
And you, and your country, wherever you run,
Will find nothing but police cordons around you.
The fighting still going on, uninterrupted
There is no difference between boys and girls,
They insult her while bashing in her head
While the son of a bitch just stands there, smiling
Saying, “Bring them here. Drag them over.”
They beat the pulp out of them
Then send them off in cuffs to get booked.
Go ahead and hurt us,
But don’t forget to cry about it,
Or say, like kids in the playground, “Those bullies hit us,
And kicked us around,
Even though we were there to protect them.”
In the charges they write: The assailants
Had written the word Enough on their clothes
They were waving the flag
Claiming that the country
For twenty-five years has been robbed
Looted, and oppressed.
They insult the dear King,
He is a despot
And fit to be tried in court.
All rise and be silent.
Only the judge has the right to speak.
The defense rises, the accused, the prosecution.
The press will broadcast the ruling,
When it has been pronounced
The defense is not allowed to speak,
The defendant is guilty
And the judge pronounces it loud,
In the name of the magnanimous ruler of this country,
Each of these dishonest demonstrators is to be imprisoned
Justice has died in Egypt.
Those who displease the regime
Receive open-ended sentences
That might go on to the end of time.
Only a revolution against all shackles
Can break them.
Only that can restore Egypt’s glory.
Revolution is coming.
Despite the cordons,
Light will shine.
Despite the blackness
Of their uniforms, of the warfront streets
And the enemy: this country’s youth.
Down with every police cordon.
Down with every cordon
(Qasr al-Nil Jail, May 2010)