Ethar El-Katatney

The Devil of Poetry

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on May 7, 2008

The Devil of Poetry
Egypt Today
May 2008

Available at:
Photo Credit: Mohsen Allam

Explicit in her opinions about the failings of the Egyptian political system, outspoken poet Iman Bakry discusses her love of poetry and how she believes in its power to bring about change.

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Perfectly groomed with bright red fingernails and a jaunty beret to match, Iman Bakry seems more like a funky fashion model than a poet, yet her name has spread like wildfire across the country, paired with accolades for her tongue-in-cheek poems poking fun at the Egyptian government. When this 50-year-old mother of three opens her mouth, it is clear that she is not only deeply immersed in the Arabic language, but also passionately in love with it.

She has made this love her life’s work. An Arabic teacher for half a decade and a former publishing manager at the General Egyptian Book Organization, Bakry has 13 diwans — or poetry collections — to her name. While she is an expert in both ammiyya and fus’ha (colloquial and classical Arabic), her fame is derived from her colloquial poems.

Bakry’s poetry addresses topics ranging from unrequited love to the way Egyptian women dress in the streets of Cairo today, but her most famous poems all touch on political topics. She is a master of Arabic and its subtleties. The title of her latest collection, Al Deek da Tor (This Rooster is a Bull), plays in two languages; read out loud without pausing, it sounds like “Al dic-ta-tor.”

A Poet is Born

Born into an artistic family of six girls and one boy, Bakry spent her childhood immersed in creative activities such as gymnastics, ballet and music. Describing herself as a rebel and class troublemaker, Bakry credits her defiant nature to her late father Mohamed Bakry. A lawyer and former member of the Wafd political party, he participated in demonstrations and made headlines as a vocal supporter of the 1919 Revolution, at the tender age of 12.

“My father’s interest in the political sphere had a big influence on me,” she says. “I particularly was very attached to him, he was my role model. My family was very patriotic and cared very much about the state of affairs of the country. [It was this] that made my outlook on life a rebellious, challenging and provoking one.”

Nationalism wasn’t her father’s only legacy — he also bequeathed to her a love of language. “Once I reached a certain age, my mother decided sports were not for girls. My father used to read to us [] and he had a huge library.” This helped her find an outlet for her energies.

It was at the Women’s College For Arts, Science and Education where she “developed an intimacy with the Arabic language [and fell even more deeply in love] with the language, Arabic history and Islamic philosophy.” The death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser inspired her to use her love of Arabic to express her emotions. Her words stirred more than her own sentiments: When the school wouldn’t let the students attend the president’s funeral, Bakry led a protest march through campus, taking the crowd to the college gates before they were turned back.

Bakry’s mentor in colloquial Arabic poetry was Ahmed Rami, renowned for writing the lyrics for the majority of Omm Kolthoum’s songs as well as pioneering the genre of tasteful colloquial poetry. After the death of Omm Kolthoum, Rami retired and lived in seclusion for the rest of his years. His only concession to his adoring audience was teaching young and upcoming poets.

The only female — and the youngest — of his students, Bakry, then aged 18, spent four years under his tutelage before he passed away. Her education at university mostly focused on classical Arabic and had not prepared her for the beauty of colloquial Arabic, nor its power to touch those who struggle with the obscurity of classical Arabic.

“[Rami] taught me so much,” she reminisces, “he taught me how to choose the proper word and how to feel the meaning of words before you write them.” After his death, she stopped writing and eventually got married and had three children. “But I always felt that something was missing and it was my husband who pushed me to present my poems and be present in literature circles.”

Expressions from Within

Her first diwan fell into the hands of the celebrated literature critic, Abd El-Fattah El-Baroudi, who encouraged her to “regain the lost link between [her] and classical Arabic,” says Bakry. Within six months she had produced another diwan, this time completely in classical Arabic.

“I wrote colloquial because of my strong influence with Ahmed Rami and how [it could be used] to describe the real pulse of Egyptian life,” explains Bakry. “But I loved classical Arabic because of its glamour, expressiveness and the ability of one to use it to fully describe emotions.”

Bakry’s poetry captures in colloquial Arabic what most people cannot even fully articulate within themselves. “It’s hard,” she admits, “but I have the tools, the talent alhamdulillah and an important message [that is] directed, whether to myself or to humanity. To write what I do, I had to come closer to the shaab (general public) to understand our political and social problems. I began to feel the pain of others and I felt that I was extracting the words from their hearts and minds.

“I do not choose topics per se,” she continues. “Writing is a flood of powerful desire to express your distress in some way. For me, inspiration comes from events around me [] and I write once I reach a certain level of emotion.”

Although her poems may address current events, they are written to be as relevant 10 years from now as they are today. “Especially since history repeats itself in one way or another,” she notes. “The human calling for his freedom and rights and independence will always be here, and it is the job of the poet and intellectual to call for these rights.”

Reaching the People

Poetry in Egyptian society is not often played up as an important tool for affecting change, but Bakry believes that real poetry has the ability to change hearts and minds, to “wake up” those who are too busy with their lives to take note of important changes around them. “Poetry is a talent from Allah,” she explains, “and if a person can utilize it to the benefit of his community and country and translate feelings [into actions] then it as important as all other arts. Poetry is your language. It is the closest art to your hearts. [] It is the only art that was born before music, it is the first language on earth.”

Bakry believes poetry can change the public’s mind, raising awareness about issues and the ramifications of political actions.

Her depth of feeling, empathy and wholehearted conviction in what she writes is what she believes makes people love her and her poetry. “People can distinguish between the liar and the honest person. When you hear politicians calling for freedom, we are sometimes surprised: Why is it that though they portray themselves as heroes, people do not react to them and are not unified under them? Because you do not believe them; they are liars. Their history testifies to this and proves they traded the dreams of the poor [] for their own interests.”

Bakry, on the other hand, pours her heart out onto the page in the hopes that people who read it — from all segments of society — will reflect on what they have read. She considers herself successful when a reader “becomes engrossed in [the poem], leaves his world and enters [mine].” A real poet, she believes, is one who can “unify people with his experience, make them feel that his experience is their experience [and] speaks about their pains, sorrows, and dreams.” To do this, “poets need to get off their pedestals and come closer to the people, their problems. [] Poetry has to be part of him and he has to be one with the poem.”

It is this ‘oneness’ with her work that enables Bakry to effortlessly recite her poems from memory for up to two hours at a time. “I love the moment when I stand up to recite a poem,” she says. “It is a very strange moment. It is full of contradictions — consciousness and unconsciousness, presence and absence, silence and screaming and peace. A crazy moment. They call me the ‘devil of poetry’ because I transform when I hold the mike. I am in a moment of complete absorption and dissociation at the same time. I am separate from the people in front of me but at the same time I am in them and they are in me.”

The recitations have brought her words to life for many and have been noticed by the media. Bakry is one of the few guests to be invited twice onto Qahira El-Youm, one of the nation’s most watched programs, and a consistent guest at conferences in Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Switzerland, Algeria and Jordan, not to mention all over Egypt. Nevertheless, “media is overrated,” she says with a smile. “All the media attention I receive is nothing next to my happiness when I see youth reciting my poems; instead of singing boos el wawa [kiss my boo-boo, a mainstream Arabic pop song], they recite dostoor ya seyadna [Our constitution, my lords].”

Dostoor ya seyadna is only one of Bakry’s many poems that touches upon Egypt’s recent reforms. Others include Bahebak ya homar (I love you, donkey) and Ay haga (Anything). Sarcastic, witty and implicitly critical — is Bakry not afraid of backlash?

“I was never afraid,” she says. “I consider myself to be expressing the pulse of the Egyptian street, and I say truths that are obvious to everyone. If I [talk a lot about] negatives it’s because of my love and loyalty to my country. I say negatives so we can turn them into positives. I haven’t faced any problems of that sort — yet!”

Bakry acknowledges that while intellectuals and poets do not actually bring about change themselves, “they put issues on the table and offer the dream of how it should be; the mediator between the ideal and implementing it.” Change is the idea of the poet, but the responsibility for action is with the readers. “And this,” she says, “is my ultimate dream: for my poetry and I to witness a renaissance that will deal with all obstacles that remain in the way of advancement of the Arab region.” et


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