Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The face of freedom

Yara’s Face: Poems for Freedom, Maha Shaba, Refaat Sallam et al, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2015. pp122. Reviewed by Rania Khallaf

Al-Ahram Weekly

This book is the cultural community’s response to the imprisonment of 28-year-old human rights activist Yara Sallam and her comrades for two years following their protest of the demonstrations law in June 2014. It is made up of poems by both Egyptians and writers from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and India, written spontaneously in solidarity with Sallam.

A lawyer who has worked for, among other organisations, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Yara is the daughter of the celebrated 1970s generation poet Refaat Sallam, whose Facebook page responded to the initial verdict, “The arrogance of power and its lust for revenge on the 25 January Revolution is the reason behind the imprisonment of Yara and her comrades. They are digging their tombs with their own hands...”

By September 2014, Refaat had collected enough poems about Yara to publish a complete file in the quarterly Shi’r (or “Poetry”). At the same time writer and Al Ahram journalist Maha Shahba had set up a Facebook page entitled “Yara’s Face” — and the genesis of the book was underway.

Four months ago, the first edition appeared with Kotob Khan, the Maadi-based bookshop and publisher, where it was also launched. It is made up of three parts: a preface entitled “First Wedding”, an introduction and poems by Refaat Sallam entitled “Until the Dawn Responds” and the selection of 53 poems. The book proved so popular it was soon sold out, and the second edition was launched last week at Al Thaqafa Al Jadida publishing house downtown.

Part of the power of the book is how it combines styles and languages. Poems in both colloquial and classical Arabic by such Egyptians Mohammed Riyad, Abdel-Reheem Tai’, Gamal Al-Qassas, Amin Haddad, Walid Al-Khashab, Nagat Ali, Hala Mohammed, Ahmed Sirag as represent a wide range of approaches and generations. The book has also been translated into English, and will be published within a few months in London.

According to Refaat Sallam, “Seven copies of the book were signed during the second launch by poets who attended, to be sent to the seven jailed girls. But the books were denied entry. Luckily, the girls have read the reviews published in official newspapers,” he smiles, “which are allowed. Around fifteen Arab poets  participated in the book. The number of participating poets is on the rise, and they show unforgettable solidarity. This kind of initiative is unprecedented. Never before have poets spontaneously rallied to express their refusal of oppression and their relentless support for innocent prisoners.”

He went on to indicate that, as 1970s generation poets, he and his peers were used to issuing statements on political issues, but publishing a book of poems to this end is a new revolutionary tactic. Nor are these political poems in the sense of the work of celebrated 1960s generation poets: the topic may have a political angle to it, but the poems in the book are written from a human perspective and in a lyrical tone.

“This initiative, and this beautiful poetic spirit, would not have been felt if not for the 25 January Revolution,” he said. His own poems, he insisted, “are not the book’s best”. He explained, “I don’t have control over my feelings. The situation is too emotional for me to write good poetry. I usually do not let my emotional mood control my writing process. What I have written so far about Yara’s imprisonment is a mere preliminary reaction.”

After frequent visits to Yara at Al-Qanater Prison for Women, while awaiting the ultimate verdict by the Court of Cassation, Refaat believes his daughter is in good spirits.

“She still has this lovely childish spirit. On one of my last visits, she left her place on the bench to come and sit on my leg, in a childish manner that impressed me. I could not help hugging her, and feeling even stronger. She is the one who is responsible for contacting the prison administration. She has made small achievements, such as the administration agreeing to leave the cell door open. I am so proud of her, and I am sure she will resume her career and strive for the defense of human rights.”

Many statements and petitions have been released since Yara Sallam was arrested last June. They were issued by international human rights organisations including the International Federation for Human Rights, as well as a group of Arab woman judges. Demonstrations were staged and initiatives launched worldwide...

“This crisis has revealed the ugly face of the ruling regime. The killing of activist Shaymaa Al Sabaagh moved me equally and I wrote a poem about this bloody and contradictory murder, which I find puzzling. Does the ruling regime want to deliver a message that imprisonment is a better option than freedom? Is it safer for our young activists to stay in prisons? Murdering free citizens and activists will never strike fear in people’s hearts. On the contrary, it prompts an even more revolutionary response on the part of the public. This is one of the main lessons unfortunately lost on the powers that be.”

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