Cairo: Notes to the Future

The brave, dignified, resolute, peaceful and determined people of Egypt have made history today.  The Egyptian revolution – the most hopeful event of this century so far, likely to be as defining a moment as the Russian Revolution was for the last.  Lenin once coined the phrase, ‘Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’.  It was nonsense – there were no festive feelings in him, and 20th century revolutions were made with guns, led by vanguard parties with their own precise agendas and had deadly consequences.  Tonight the scenes from Cairo really do look like a festival of the people.

The movement symbolised by the occupants of  Tahrir Square this past 18 days has no leaders and only home-made banners.  They organised using the new communication technologies of Twitter and Facebook.  But, as Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, new forms of protest are combined with something as old as the hills:

New in Cairo 2011 is that it is now Arabs and Muslims standing up in large numbers, with courage and (for the most part) peaceful discipline, for basic human dignity, against corrupt, oppressive rulers. New in 2011 is the degree of decentered, networked animation of the demonstrations, so that even the best-informed observers there struggle to answer the question “who is organising this?”. New in 2011 is the extraordinary underlying pressure of demography, with half the population in most of these countries being under 25. Old in Cairo 2011 – as old as the pyramids, as old as human civilisation – is the cry of oppressed men and women, overcoming the barrier of fear and feeling, however fleetingly, the sense of freedom and dignity.

Tariq Ali has just written on Comment Is Free at

A joyous night in Cairo. What bliss to be alive, to be an Egyptian and an Arab. In Tahrir Square they’re chanting, “Egypt is free” and “We won!”….The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied.

And he has quoted this extract from a poem written in 1967 by ‘one of the great Arab poets’, Nizar Qabbani:

Arab children,
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Arab children,
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Arab children,
Spring rain,
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.

Here’s another poem, For Tahrir, For Egypt, posted by Egyptian blogger Diptychal (‘I live in Cairo, where by day, I work at a publishing house. I’m 1/2 poet, 1/2 geek with a heavy dose of techno-joy….I post photos taken mostly in the streets of Cairo’).

that public square
named for fate and history
as though it knew what was to come
we stood our ground
saying, we will not be moved
painted poems on the hard asphalt
that had softened, soaking in our blood

and the world watched.

The world watched as we were called
and on television screens
in homes, doors locked refusing to let in
the truth,
men spit scorn into cameras
and women screamed into their phones
eyes and hearts full of rage
unable to understand
that Tahrir was theirs, for them,
while government eyes showed only what they wanted
us to see
the sun setting over the Nile

but all it would take, was the smallest turn of the head to the left
a glance from the corner of the eye
to show the haze of Cairo’s sun through tear gas,
to show men charging the street with only their bodies
met with police trucks running them down.

Newspapers wrote of unrest across the Mediterranean
pretending that this day that had begun in Cairo
was like any other.

But something had begun.

Men and women shook the earth
with their voices.

From north to south
bodies fell to the ground, hearts stopped beating
but in Tahrir, we held our heads high for them
moving away from the walls that, our whole lives
we had walked close to, hiding in the shadow
of conformity and fear

opened our chests to murder
opened our faces to rocks, our eyes to bullets
our minds to molotov fires thrown down onto our heads

and said

we are not afraid

because the fear of living with your face buried
in the soil of a land that can no longer feel
was nothing, nothing compared to
the fear of dying
without once having said

I am free.

Let us pray that the promise of Tahrir Square is fulfilled.  As I watched the joyous scenes there this evening, I thought of Patti Smith’s poem, ‘Notes to the Future’. Here are extracts that seem to speak of this moment and its hope for the future (apologies to Patti for butchering it):

Listen my children and you shall hear
The sound of your own steps
The sound of your hereafter
Memory awaits and turns to greet you
Draping its banner across your wrists
Wake up arms
Delicate feet
For as one to march the streets

Each alone, each part of another
Your steps shall ring
Shall raise the cloud
And they that will hear will hear
Will hear voice of the one
And the one and the one
As it has never been uttered before
For something greater yet to come

And all their hearts were as one heart.
And all their voices were as one voice.


This is our birthright.
This is our charge.
And we have given over to others.
And they have

Now my children
You must overturn the tables
Deliver the future from material rule
For only one rule should be considered

The eleventh commandment
To love one another
And this is our covenant across your wrist
It is merely a cloth,
Merely our colors,
Invested with the blood of the people
All their hopes and dreams.

Our flag
It has its excellence
Yet it is nothing
It shall not be a tyranny above us


And the children shall march
And bring the colors forward
Investing within them
The redeeming blood
Of their revolutionary hearts.

The full text can be heard on YouTube:

One thought on “Cairo: Notes to the Future

  1. This is no time for hippies. A protesting mob can do only so much – in this case, withdrawing legitimacy from power. But as 1989 showed, and 1917 cynically in abundance, after the poems and the protests comes the grim business of filling the vacuum. No poet ever does this. Soldiers and political leaders do – not often as the people might wish.

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