Ahmed Douma: Two poems

Introduction by Elliott Colla: Like hundreds of other prisoners of conscience now languishing in Sisi’s prisons, Ahmed Douma has a long background in activism. One of the founders of Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement, Douma was incarcerated eighteen times under Mubarak and SCAF and twice again during Morsi’s brief year of rule. Most recently, Douma was arrested in December 2013 for violating the country’s harsh anti-protest laws. Though his health has deteriorated to the point that his life is now at risk, an Egyptian judged recently sentenced him to three years in prison. 

Forgotten in all this is that Ahmed Douma is also a poet with an original voice. His 2012 diwan, Sotak tali3 (Your Voice is Rising) is a remarkable document, wholly unknown in English. It deserves to be widely read — not just by people interested in Douma’s case, but also by people interested in seeing the whole range of Egypt’s literary scene.

All the poems in Douma’s collection emanate directly the poet’s experience as an activist in protest movements and moments leading up to January 25 and continuing until this day. Douma has spent a decade in the good fight — from Kefaya to the April 6 Youth Movement, from solidarity trips to Gaza to January 25, Maspero and beyond. Douma’s poems bear witness to a life lived bravely, openly and in verse. Each line describes the most remarkable fact of his life: he is simply not afraid.

Admittedly, some of these poems come across more as slogan than lyric, more occasion-bound than timeless. But in the original colloquial Egyptian (but not in the translations below), these poems are light on the tongue, their rhymes powerful, their images capable of real surprise.

While the themes never move far from the slogans and action of street protest, the collection forms a startling map of the country. About one third of the collection’s thirty-three poems were composed in Tahrir Square (or nearby) during the Spring, Summer and Fall of 2011. Most of the others were composed in jails and prisons in the years that precede January 25 (and a few, during a visit to Gaza). The datelines of most of the poems form an index to Egypt’s ever-growing network of incarceration facilities: Tanta Prison, al-Arish Prison, Damanhour Prison, Giza Detention Center, Ismailillya Prison, Qatta Prison and so on.

Put differently, the map of Egypt that Douma’s diwan has to offer is a stark one. On the one hand, there is the public square, a place of freedom, self-expression and possibility. On the other hand, the claustrophobic, lightless cells of a sprawling Egyptian Gulag. For Douma, neither of these places is a metaphor.

Below are the first two poems of Douma’s collection. The first poem is a conversation with (or rewrite of) Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s The Will To Life, a poem that was, of course, a source for one of the most famous slogans of the 2011 uprising, The people want. The second poem was written in May 2010, after Douma was arrested at a demonstration on trumped-up assault charges. In this poem, he restages the scene in which he was accused of injuring no less than thirteen police officers…


If one day the People wills to live,

Then they can go revolt.

And the echo of their songs can chase away palace dogs

And they can raise their banners whose cloth has been dragged in the dirt

            Dragged through streets, servility and surrender.

And they can turn those banners into a plan of attack

And hang the darkness of their night on the gallows.

            While the dreams of their night tremble

            At a spark flickering in the heart

            At a light…

If one day the People wills to win,

Then decision must dictate

            That silence is no longer an option

And they must create, with their own hands,

Daylight rays for the sun of emancipation!

They must help give birth to a country, as yet unborn

Struggling midwife,

Pulling the country hard and harder,

Shouting out in its ear the call to prayer, “Revolution has risen!”

And “There is no revolution but the Revolution you make yourself!”

Let our country nurse on the many meanings of dignity.

Let it come to know how to break the siege.

If one day the People wills to arrive at its destination,

Then it has no choice but

To gather the ammunition it will need for the journey

To call what lies between us and them

            The length of countries

Saying, “You sons of…”

Its time for the Dog to go.

Enough with the howling.

Enough with the voiceless shrieking.

Enough with death.

The People opens their eyes and finds their guide

            They see that the one who betrayed them

            No longer exists.

In their victory, they cross bridges and borders


            And shrieking,

                        Shrieking and shrieking.

I am now free.

            Without shackles.

Now I am free, without chains.

If one day, the People wills to live,

Then they must learn to break their chains themselves.

(Midan Tahrir, May 2011.)


Police cordon, police cordon

Dog and guard,

Black, black, black

Is your uniform

Street front, war front


This is the youth of our country!

One hundred bosses, one hundred chiefs,

And countless gentlemen, epaulets stuffed with eagles

The stars of their insignias rising

In the middle of the afternoon

Spreading fear in pure hearts,

Spreading insults about my mother and my mother’s mother,

And the person who gave birth to you and me,

And the living and the dead,

Religion too, and that dog unashamed

            (definitely a ranking officer)

Spewing every cussword in the book.

Now, in the middle of the square, the bloodbath begins.

And out, into the light, injustice arrives,

Electric cattle prods,

Tear gas, whose stench creeps toward us.

Beatings all around.

The best and the brightest are there in the fray,

There is no escaping death.

You either die here or there

Or you can die for the country as it slips from our grasp

As it falls into ruin’s embrace

And you, and your country, wherever you run,

Will find nothing but police cordons around you.

            The fighting still going on, uninterrupted

            There is no difference between boys and girls,

They insult her while bashing in her head

            With fists.

While the son of a bitch just stands there, smiling

Saying, “Bring them here. Drag them over.”

            They beat the pulp out of them

            Then send them off in cuffs to get booked.

Go ahead and hurt us,

But don’t forget to cry about it,

Or say, like kids in the playground, “Those bullies hit us,

And kicked us around,

Even though we were there to protect them.”

In the charges they write: The assailants

Had written the word Enough on their clothes

They were waving the flag

Claiming that the country

For twenty-five years has been robbed

Looted, and oppressed.

They insult the dear King,

They claim

He is a despot

And fit to be tried in court.

All rise and be silent.

Only the judge has the right to speak.

The defense rises, the accused, the prosecution.

The press will broadcast the ruling,

When it has been pronounced

            The defense is not allowed to speak,

            The defendant is guilty

And the judge pronounces it loud,

In the name of the magnanimous ruler of this country,

Each of these dishonest demonstrators is to be imprisoned

Justice has died in Egypt.

Those who displease the regime

Receive open-ended sentences

That might go on to the end of time.

Only a revolution against all shackles

Can break them.

Only that can restore Egypt’s glory.

Revolution is coming.

Despite the cordons,

Light will shine.

Despite the blackness

Of their uniforms, of the warfront streets

And the enemy: this country’s youth.

Down with every police cordon.

Down with every cordon

(Qasr al-Nil Jail, May 2010)

Ahmed Douma 

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