Stories of Tahrir Square

As those who follow the news know, the political situation in Egypt has been especially salient this week. The protesters’ actions, and the response from the government and the world, have challenged a lot of people to think about the meaning and implications of democracy, political expediency, compromise, peaceful protest, reform, and revolution, among other political hot topics.

Tonight, I was intrigued by an article in The New York Times that took a slightly different angle. “At Night, Protest Gives Way to Poetry” by Anthony Shadid visits the night scene in Tahrir Square to paint a different picture of revolution. Here’s  a snippet:

Down the street, men took their seats on the wet pavement, to a performance of colloquial poetry by a man in a wheelchair, speeches by a brawler draped in an Egyptian flag and slogans led by Mohammed Mahmoud, a 16-year-old with a knack for words.

“God reigns over the crisis, and that guy has the mind of a shoe,” he cried of President Hosni Mubarak as he stood under a drizzle. (It rhymes in Arabic.) “Oh Mubarak, you coward, we’re the people in the square” went another. (It rhymes, too.)

A speech followed. “Finally the decision is in our hand,” it ended.

The energy, the passion, and, yes, the aesthetics of the scene Shadid describes are compelling. It seems fitting to find art, poetry, and photography in this scene.

At the apex of the article, Shadid pauses to quote a protester named Mohammed Ali: “The words of people,” he added, “are stronger than guns.” The literati in me applauds his sentiment, but the realist hesitates: in the face of a gun, words don’t seem very imposing.

And yet there is no doubt in my mind that individuals with something to say and an Internet connection — whether via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or another social networking site — have had a great effect on public awareness and have fostered important conversations about the events in Egypt.

Whether that phenomenon is enough to effect long-lasting, material change is another story. Whether the change that takes place will be beneficial, to how many and whom, and at what cost, are also stories that need to be told. Less poetic, perhaps, but equally vital.

After all, although in the face of a gun words may not be the difference between living and dying, they do have a great deal of power. Shadid’s article concludes with a quote from Mohamed Farouk, who says, “You feel like this is the society you want to live in.” To me, his statement calls attention to the promise — and risk — of performative language.

Journalists, bloggers, and politicians are competing for the right to narrate the story of Tahrir Square. Historians will do the same. Some use poetry. Some use art. Some use video, or sound bytes. Some use diplomatic channels. Some use shows of force, or determination, or self-destruction.

Their choices (and their words) have so much weight because ultimately, they are not only narrating the past; they are also drawing up blueprints and proposing sketches of the future.

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