Posted on February 22nd, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, News, Social Issues, Uncategorized
Tagged with celebration, Christianity, Egypt, Interfaith, Islam, Nazik Al-Mala’ika, Protests, Religion, Revolution, Reza Aslan, Violence, war
Last week, amid the slowing of protests and the celebratory atmosphere in Egypt following the departure of former President Hosni Mubarak, a debate emerged over the honoring of police officers allegedly killed by anti-government forces. As Bob Drogin reported in the Los Angeles Times, hundreds of officers blocked traffic in Cairo with chants and posters commemorating their fallen colleagues. “These men are martyrs, too,” said Mohamed Sayed, a 19-year police veteran. Yet, anger from anti-government protestors swelled in the face of these marches. One protestor, Ahmad Abdel Rahman, shouted “They are not martyrs! … We only suffered from them.”
While over 350 people have died in Egypt as a result of the anti-government demonstrations, the protestors have largely been praised for their peaceful perseverance. As The Economist noted last week, “Day after day Egypt’s largely secular young protesters have peacefully defied the pessimists.” Other stories recount religious unity in the face of persecution, with Muslims and Coptic Christians joining hands to protect praying masses from riot police. With violence quickly mounting in Libya (over 200 dead in five days) and elsewhere, we have many reasons to celebrate the largely peaceful revolution in Egypt.
Yet, this weekend I encountered a poem by Nazik Al-Mala’ika that gave me reason to pause and reflect on the character of such celebrations and the difficulty of understanding violence in a time of revolution. Al-Mala’ika is an Iraqi poet and literary critic currently living in Cairo. The poem, “Jamilah and Us,” has been translated and included in a new volume edited by scholar of religions Reza Aslan, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. In the poem Al-Mala’ika reflects on the public response to the imprisonment and torture of Algerian nationalist revolutionary Jamilah Bouhired (b. 1935). She offers a strong warning against justifying violence by placing it easily into a larger narrative of revolution. “Did we not use her suffering to give meaning to our poetry? / Was that a time for songs? Songs, be ashamed. / Be silent before this noble suffering.”
The tension over chants and marches commemorating Egyptian police officers is one example of the difficulty in knowing when suffering calls for silence, for songs, or for a call to arms. How do we avoid hurting those who suffer with what Al-Mala’ika calls “ignorant, uncouth words”? And how do we avoid glossing over the difficulty of violence with simple “drunken promises” of revolution? I am hopeful that sober and beautiful words like these from Al-Mala’ika will help us find a way forward.
Nazik Al-Mala'ika, "Jamilah and Us"
Translated by Basima Bezirgan and Elisabeth Fernea
Jamilah! Beyond the horizon, far beyond the borders of nations, you weep.
Your hair loose, your tears soak the pillow.
Are you really crying? Does Jamilah cry?
Don't they give you music and song
Didn't they make offerings, of words and more words to you?
So why the tears, Jamilah?
The details of your torture were on every tongue,
And that hurt us, it was hard for our sensitive ears to bear.
You were the one imprisoned and shackled
And when you were dying for a sip of water
We marshaled all our songs
And said, "We'll sing to you, Jamilah, through the long nights."
All of us said: They gave you blood and fire to drink.
All of us said: They put you on the cross.
But what did we do? We sang, we praised your heroism, your glory.
We said: "We'll save her (Yes, we will)!"
We made promises, false promises, drunken promises
And we shouted "Long live Jamilah! Long live Jamilah!"
We fell in love with Jamilah's smile.
We adored her round cheeks.
The beauty that prison had gnawed revived our love.
We were infatuated with her dimples, with the braids of her hair.
Did we not use her suffering to give meaning to our poetry?
Was that a time for songs? Songs, be ashamed.
Be silent before this noble suffering.
Their intent was evil. They cut her with sharp blades.
We gave her smiles, good intentions.
They hurt her with knives.
We, with the best of intentions, hurt her with ignorant, uncouth words.
The teeth of France tore her flesh.
She was one of us, our kin.
And the wounds we inflicted are more painful to bear,
Shame on us for all the suffering of Jamilah!
Reza Aslan, ed. Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
Adam Hollowell received a Ph.D. in theological ethics from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 2009, where his research focused on Christian political theology, philosophical perspectives on church and state, and theories of justified war. Through his current position at Duke University Chapel, he teaches undergraduate courses on religion, politics, and ethics in the department of religion and Sanford School of Public Policy.