Poetry night brings the Egyptian revolution across the globe to Louisiana

Farah Montasser, Tuesday 31 Jan 2012

On the anniversary of Egypt's revolution, a poetry reading against a backdrop of photos, recordings of protest chants and muezzin sought to give a New Orleans audience a taste of Tahrir

Photo by Salwa Rashad

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, on the other end of the globe, a small Middle Eastern venue called "Istanbul" in New Orleans, Louisiana holds a tribute to the bravery of the Egyptian people on 25 January 2012. They relived Egypt's uprising that started with mass demonstrations in Tahrir on the same date a year earlier through poetry, music, and photography exhibition on " 'The People' is Singular" night.

“Being married to Egyptian poet Khaled Hegazzi and having Egyptian family and friends, well, Egypt has always been in my consciousness,” Andy Young, American poet and organiser of the event, told Ahram Online.

“When the uprising in Egypt began – as well as those in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria and throughout the Middle East which then took off around the world – they inspired me as an artist and as a person, regardless of my personal connections to Egypt,” Young states.

“Seeing the bravery of ordinary people willing to, literally, risk their lives for the ideals of freedom," she continued "and to do so peacefully, with a commitment to unarmed resistance, touched the idealist and revolutionary in me. That identity transcends personal or national boundaries,” she explains.

“This small event is dedicated to the January 25 uprising and the will of the people, which can never be broken again,” said Young.

She named the event " 'The People' is Singular " after her poetry book with the same title. The event featured a number of performances that Young hoped would recapture the ambiance of the 18 days from the start of the uprising in 2011 to the day Mubarak was forced out. 

Young recited some poems from her book 'The People' is Singular, with an exhibition in the background by Egyptian photographer Salwa Rashad of the massive demonstrations throughout the past year.

Not only was there an artistic ambiance, but guests feasted on a full Egyptian banquet to experience a bit of Egypt’s culture.

Some "fantastic musicians" as Young described Tao Seeger, who comes from a tradition of American protest music, Alsarah, a Nubian singer who grew up in Sudan and now lives in New York and a percussionist named Dave Sobel played through the night.

“Their music, at times, gave breathing space to the intensity of the poems. Tao also brought in a contrast through the music – he sang a song from the Spanish Civil War, for example, and a coal mining song about a union organiser who was martyred by coal company thugs.

"The music brought in the global sense of uprising that I think was primarily inspired by Egypt's example, as well as a sense of the universality of struggle and sacrifice," Young expounded, highlighting Earl Scioneaux's sound effects.

Young incorporated into her poems recordings of chants in Tahrir Square and the call to prayer that echoed through the landscape.

Adding visuals, music, and sound effects to Young’s poems, "helped the audience see the events of the revolution in a more personal, human way, which makes me very happy," she said, pleased.

According to Young, her poem on the late Khaled Said (who was killed by police from the Mubarak regime and was one of the inspirations for the January uprising) and his mother, entitled We Are All Khaled Said received the greatest response from the audience.

The poem captured the moment on 11 February when Said’s mother held a pillow with her son’s face just when Mubarak stepped down.

Young's poem reads: "With a dead-son pillow his face spread lace edge
to lace edge his
 face also on her cell phone screen, she smiles with his pre-beaten face 
not yet the stranger’s in Egypt’s papers…"

“The poem is about that moment and in the show I cradled a picture of Said as if I am his mother and, at one point, hold that same image out, away from me, to show the other side, which featured his disfigured face. I remember being in Alexandria when he was killed and beginning to feel the importance of the event and the pivotal role the image of his face, in both its incarnations, played in rallying people,” she says.


The book'The People' is Singular

In her poetry book Young includes her reflections when she was trying to process all of the emotion and confusion during the 18 days from the start of the uprising to when Mubarak stepped down. From her home on the other side of the world, poetry was her outlet.

"Poetry is how I cope with upheaval – internal and external – I suppose, so this was kind of a natural process for me," Young comments.

The book is a third in a series for Press Street Press, a New Orleans-based publisher. The series features poems paired with visual art. “In this case I asked Alexandria-based photographer Salwa Rashad if she was willing to be part of it,” she says.

“I'd been moved by the photos she posted on Facebook, especially by the very human, intimate portraits of individual faces who don't make the news here so much. She graciously agreed to be part of the project. So the book features her vision, which is from inside the revolution, with mine, which is from the outside.”


Andy Young is a poet and creative writing teacher at an arts high school called New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts. Young grew up in rural West Virginia. She studied journalism at the University of North Carolina and recently completed her MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson College. 'The People' is Singular is Young’s third chapbook and she has published poems in journals throughout the United States, as well as in Ireland, Egypt, Mexico and Lebanon.

“As is evident in this project, I'm deeply interested in marrying poetry to other art forms such as music, visual arts, and dance, and my poems have been featured in some unusual places like Flamenco productions, jewellery designs and electronic music,” Young shares her vision with Ahram Online.

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