Palestine in Egyptian Colloquial Poetry

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VOL. 40


No. 4
P. 61
Palestine in Egyptian Colloquial Poetry


Palestine in Egyptian Colloquial Poetry   and the Discourse on the Right of Return, 1948–59


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By Noha Radwan
Shi’r al-‘ammiyya is a poetry movement whose emergence in Egypt in the early 1950s coincided with the heyday of Nasser’s revolution, when the Palestine question was a national concern. With numerous practitioners today, the movement has yielded a large corpus of colloquial poetry that has become a significant part of Egypt’s cultural landscape. This article presents a historical survey of shi’r al-‘ammiyya’s best known poets—Fu’ad Haddad, Salah Jahin, and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi—and their poems on Palestine. Among the essay’s aims is to dispel the common misconception that the use of colloquial Egyptian (‘ammiyya denotes parochial rather than pan-Arab concerns, with the standard (fusha) Arabic seen as a signifier of pan-Arab identity.

In an essay on the poetics of Arab nationalist literature, Palestinian scholar Yasir Suleiman recalled a scene from his childhood:

I remember as a little boy going to see an Egyptian film about Jamila with my cousins in . . . Jerusalem in the late 1950s. The whole cinema was in tears and people spoke about Jamila’s legendary courage and the barbarity of the French for weeks after that. The film helped make the struggle of the Algerian people ‘real’ and made us all feel ‘Algerian.’ When we related the story of the film to my mother, she said ‘We are all in the same boat.’ We all understood what she meant: Algeria is Palestine and Palestine is Algeria. As a tool of mobilization, the film was very successful indeed.

The film to which Suleiman is referring is Jamila al-Jaza’iriyya (Jamila The Algerian, 1958) by the Egyptian director Yusuf Chahine. That the movie was a “tool of mobilization” against the Zionist occupation of Palestine as well as against the French occupation of Algeria was not an accident, any more than was the choice of Egyptian colloquial, ‘ammiyya, for the movie dialogue. There is no need to speculate about whether the Algerian people’s struggle would have been any less “real” for the Jerusalem audience if Chahine had chosen to use the literary, fusha, register for his film, or about whether the Jerusalemites would have identified more with the “Algerians” had the actors spoken the Algerian dialect, impenetrable to Palestinians. It is enough to point out that the choice of the Egyptian colloquial seemed so “natural” that it did not even warrant mention by Suleiman, whose interest in the film lay in its emotive and political impact on a Palestinian audience. Chahine’s Jamila spoke to the entire Arab audience from the “ocean to the gulf” in a language familiar to them from Egypt’s robust cinema industry and radio, the period’s most powerful tool of mass communication. As Albert Hourani wrote,

This was the age of radio too. Radio sets were imported on a large scale in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1959 there were 850,000 in Egypt and half a million in Morocco, and each set might be listened to by dozens of people, in cafes or village squares. . . . Every government had its own radio station. . . . A large proportion of the programmes sent out by all stations—talks, music and plays—originated in Cairo, and they too spread a knowledge of Egypt and its ways of speech. . . . Certain Egyptian voices became familiar everywhere—that of the country’s ruler, Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, and that of the most famous of Egyptian singers, Umm Kulthum; when she sang, the whole Arab world listened.

It was in this sociolinguistic milieu that shi’r al-‘ammiyya al-misriyya, an Egyptian poetry movement, one of whose main characteristics is its use of colloquial Egyptian, emerged in the early 1950s.

A Modern Movement and Its Antecedents

Shi’r al-‘ammiyya poets wrote on a variety of themes, but the poems analyzed in this article concern only the Zionist occupation of Palestine, its calamitous consequences, and Arab reaction to these events. These poems establish their authors’ commitment to the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the role Egypt must assume in this struggle, a commitment taken here as signifying an embrace of a pan-Arabist political agenda. Any ostensible discrepancy between embracing a pan-Arabist agenda and the choice of the colloquial over the literary language hailed as a hallmark of Arab identity can be dispelled through knowledge of the special status enjoyed by the Egyptian colloquial since the 1940s.

On the literary spectrum, it is important to note that shi’r al-‘ammiyya is not an extension of earlier traditions or movements using colloquial verse. Rather, it is a modern movement that originated in the 1950s in the poetry of Fu’ad Haddad (1927–1985) and Salah Jahin (1930–1986), poets infused by the new poetic sensibilities of the wider movement of modern/modernist Arabic poetry of the late 1940s. Colloquial poetic expression has existed in multiple folkloric forms at least since the early Abbasid period in the ninth century, and many of these forms continue to enjoy wide popularity in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. As will be seen below, the poets of shi’r al-‘ammiyya at times engage these colloquial traditions, but as part of the engagement with tradition shared by modern/modernist Arabic poetry movements as a whole.

In this respect, it is important to distinguish shi’r al-‘ammiyya from two earlier movements of colloquial Egyptian verse that were part of the Egyptian cultural landscape at the time when shi’r al-‘ammiyya’s emerged. The first is a modern manifestation of the poetic genre zajal as practiced by Bayram al-Tunisi (1893–1961) and an earlier generation of zajal composers whose works were widely published between the mid-nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century. The second is best represented by the poems of Louis ‘Awad (1915–1994), an Oxford-educated Egyptian writer, critic, and professor of English literature in his collection Blutuland wa qasa’id ukhra (Plutoland and Other Poems), in which several of the poems are in the colloquial register.

The zajal genre had been most popular during the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries in many parts of the Arab world and survives today, especially as a Lebanese folkloric tradition. In mid-nineteenth-century Egypt, zajal reemerged in a large number of popular newspapers. Its practitioners, known as zajjalun, were mostly urban and well versed in the literary register, but they found in zajal’s colloquial register an effective medium of communication and mass mobilization in the service of social and political reform. Among the best known zajjalun of that period were ‘Abdallah al-Nadim (1854–1896) and Ya‘coub Sannu‘ (1839–1912). But it was in the hands of al-Tunisi that the Egyptian zajal, deployed in the service of social reform and the assertion of the Egyptian national character, reached an unprecedented degree of versatility and popularity. A number of al-Tunisi’s zajals remain an important part of Egyptian popular culture.

In contrast, Awad’s poetry was part of a short-lived call by some Egyptian intellectuals to adopt the colloquial as a means to disengage Egyptian literature from the larger Arabic literary tradition and thus give it a distinctive and separate Egyptian national character. This went counter to the Arab nationalist identity then gaining ground, which insisted on the use of a common literary Arabic. Sati‘ al-Husri’s (1880–1968) statement that “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people” remains the most widely accepted definition of Arab identity. Al-Husri regarded the colloquial as divisive and called upon all Arab literati “to understand fully the umma’s (nation’s) need for a unified and unifying language and to hold on to fusha.” Resistance to this linguistic affiliation was fomented in Egypt by writers and intellectuals such as Salama Musa (1887–1958), who argued that “standard Arabic cannot serve as a medium of the national literature of Egypt and should therefore give way to a refined colloquial language.” ‘Awad’s call in his introduction to Blutuland for a break from Arabic poetics and the standard literary Arabic was a continuation of this ideological stance, but neither Awad’s poetry nor his larger cause found much appeal with the Egyptian public.

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NOHA RADWAN is assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of California in Davis. Her book The Land Speaks Arabic: Shi’r al-‘Ammiyya and Modernism in Arabic Poetry is currently under review. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this article are that of the author.