It is something of a cliche of contemporary Arabic literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.
In this context it may be said that Donqol’s best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol’s political poems (La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).
The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as “personal rights”. In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet’s role in a forcefully homogenised “modern” society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet’s readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol – or Darwish – afford to write poetry for its own sake?
Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a “half revolution” (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss’s expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat – the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation – with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.
Rather than situating itself – also pragmatically – within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.
At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the “stone cake” of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake – and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem – is quite another.
The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence – something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.
Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called “What Arab Spring”, in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the “political” poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.