The poetry of the Arab uprisings

The mass demonstrations that took place in the main squares of Arab countries in 2011 were the result of extraordinary daring shown by the people vis-à-vis their totalitarian leaders. What caused them to break through the barrier of fear after all these years?

Certainly one factor was the critical writings by Arab intellectuals over the years, mostly from outside the borders of their own countries, that prepared the ground for the mass outbursts.

The poet Nizar Qabbani has been one of the harshest critics of the Arab rulers for decades. In his poem “The Actors,” that was published in April 1969 following the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, Qabbani criticized  the Arab leaders — “the actors” — for controlling the people’s destinies and suppressing their freedom, their thoughts and their free expression. He was angered by the rulers who exploited “Palestine” (the Arab-Israel conflict ) as an excuse to rule their people ruthlessly. Qabbani’s call was one of the seeds that grew into the present uprising.

Qabbani’s poem was given contemporary relevance by the Arab intellectual-philosopher Adonis, who, in an article of March 3, 2011, called for the rebellious masses to demand first of all that the supervision on their thoughts and on their lives cease. Then, as now, freedom is mankind’s primary concern.

Below is a translation of stanzas from Qabbani’s poem the Actors:


When thinking in a country becomes

Flat like a horse’s hoof, round like a horse’s hoof..

Any gun raised by a coward.. can crush a man;

When a whole city becomes a snare and people are like mice,

And the directed newspapers become sheets of death notices,

Everything dies, everything dies:

Water, plants, voices, colors; trees desert their roots,

A place flees from its place, and man ends.


When a letter in a country becomes hashish, prohibited by law;

When thought becomes as prostitution, sodomy, and opium:

A crime punishable by law;

When people in a country become blind-eyed frogs,

Never revolting, never complaining, never singing, never crying,

Never dying, never living.

Forest, children, and flowers burn ,fruits burn..

A man in his country is reduced to less than a cockroach…


When justice in a city becomes a ship sailed by pirates,

And man in his bed Is surrounded, by fear and sadness;

When tears in a city become longer than eyelashes,

Everything falls; everything falls:

Sun, stars, mountains ,valleys ,night, day ,seas ,shores ,God and Man!


When a helmet becomes as God in heaven, It does to men as it likes,

Chafes them ..crushes them. .kills them. .resurrects them..

When government in a country  becomes a prostitution of sorts…

And history in a country becomes a floor mop,

And thought… a shoe;

When breezes blow by decree from the authorities

And the grain of wheat which we eat grows by a decree from the authorities;

And the water drop which we drink

Drips by a decree from the authorities;

When a whole nation becomes

Cattle fed in the barn of the authorities,

Infants choke in the womb, and women abort,

And the sun falls on our courtyards

Like a black guillotine!


When will you go?

The stage has collapsed on your heads.

When will you go?

The people in the Hall are cursing ,spitting.

Palestine was a hen to you, from whose precious eggs you eat.

Palestine was “Uthman’s shirt” to you, with which you trade;

Blessed are you!

Thanks to you, our borders became scraps of paper…a thousand thanks!

Thanks to you, our country became a woman free for all!

A thousand thanks!!


The war of June ended…

And we are – praise to God – as best as can be;

Our writers ..on the pavement of thought are idle,

They eat from the sultan’s kitchen,

Our writers have not practiced thinking for centuries now,

They have not been killed, nor hung…

Did not stand on the edge of death and madness.

Our writers…have a vacation, living outside history.

The war of June ended…

The morning newspapers have not changed…

The large red letters…have not changed.

The obscene, nude pictures…have not changed,

And people pant under the whips of sex; they pant

Under the whips of the large red letters, they fall.

People are like bulls in our country;

By the vivid red they are vanquished.


The war of June ended …as if nothing had happened…

The face and eyes which we behold have not changed..

The inquisition returned and the inquisitors

And the Quixotic still stare, wide-eyed

And people ..laugh from too much crying.

But we are resigned, to war, to peace, to heat, to cold

We are resigned to barrenness , we are resigned to progeny.

We are resigned to what is written on our tablet kept in heaven,

And all we can say is :“To God we shall return.”


The stage is burnt, its pillars fallen

But the actors have not died yet.