When Elliott Colla, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, traveled to Egypt in early 2011, he witnessed the protests of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency that swept the country in January and February of that year. The illegal demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands of people into the public squares and helped force Mubarak out of office.
Most of these powerful protests, Colla noted in his lecture at the Community Foundation Theater on Monday, Nov. 6, revolved around the collective recitation of chants or slogans. Colla came to campus as part of the Storer Lectureship Series, which funds Asian studies speakers.
“[The protests] turned streets into stages,” Colla said, “the activists into actors.”
To Colla, these slogans sound a lot like poetry. His talk, titled “He who sings will not die: slogans and protest culture in Egypt,” analyzed these protest movements as indistinguishable from the poetic forms of the slogans used to embody them.
Most of the slogans Colla heard consisted of rhyming couplets, which the protesters shouted in a call-and-response format in Arabic. The chants made use of other common poetic strategies, like internal rhyme and assonance (the repetition of a vowel sound). Protesters would alter the tempo in order to keep crowds engaged.
Colla also identified distinct genres of slogans. There were slogans of encouragement and zeal, such as ones that ask the crowd to “raise, raise, raise your voice; he who shouts will never die!” Then there were insult slogans, which show contempt for specific enemies. The Egyptian protesters would sing, “Hey Gamal [Mubarak], tell your father/ Every Egyptian hates your guts.”
Most of the activist groups he encountered had their own composers, who called themselves poets. “It’s important to identify this as poetry, because these people see it as poetry,” Colla said.
Even so, Colla said, it’s hard to know what to gain from collecting these protest chants. For one thing, the slogans are out of date. For another, many of their authors have either died, been exiled or gone to prison.
But, Colla thinks, even if they do not last the way other kinds of poems do, the Egyptian protest slogans, tied as they are to a particular moment in history, did something else: “[They] provided a flesh and blood example of what it looks like to protest in public,” Colla said.
In addition to his research, Colla has translated several literary works from Arabic to English. In 2014, he published his debut novel, Baghdad Central, which looks at the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the point of view of an Iraqi police officer. Channel 4 is adapting it into a television series that will air in 2018.
Monday’s talk attracted a sizeable crowd and drew questions about protest movements in other countries of the Middle East, as well as the legacy of such fleeting moments in history.