CAIRO: When it comes to criticizing the current political and social conditions in Egypt, Egyptians tend to get creative. From using props in demonstrations against soaring prices such as plates, spoons and pots, to forming the Cairo Complaints Choir, in a bid to sing their sorrows away.
Recently, Hesham Al-Gakh helped revive a forgotten art form, that’s been used since ancient Egypt, to express people’s frustration and pain; poetry.
Al-Gakh’s now famous poem “Juha” harshly criticizes the deterioration of Egypt’s political and social sphere and vividly expresses the people’s frustrations.
“It’s a horrible feeling to realize that your country is weak, your voice is weak, your opinion is weak, to realize that if you sell your soul, your body, your pen and your name, you still wouldn’t be able to afford a loaf of bread,” the poem says.
“When you want to heal a wound, the first thing you need to do is admit that there’s a wound to begin with, that’s what I’m doing, I’m trying to reveal the political and social reality we live in,” Al-Gakh told Daily News Egypt.
“Juha” is a poem that many Egyptians can relate to, as it delves into their painful reality and addresses serious issues including the increase in power cuts, water cuts and police brutality.
“What does it mean when you are the gift of the Nile and yet there are water cuts everyday? What does it mean when I complain about the [electric] bill, and they tell me complain all you want but you still have to pay,” the poem says.
Al-Gakh is an Egyptian vernacular poet from Sohag, Upper Egypt, a society known for its harsh conditions and tough dialect. According to Al-Gakh “the best poetry stems out of painful experiences.”
The vernacular poet transferred from the faculty of commerce, at Sohag University to Ain Shams University in Cairo. He helped establish the Culture Center at Ain Shams University and became head of the center when he graduated in 2003.
“I quit my job in November because I couldn’t be a government employee any longer, there’s so much bureaucracy involved in organizing just one concert at the university, it could take a year, it just couldn’t accommodate the ambitions of any human being,”Al-Gakh said.
While Al-Gakh’s popularity started in college, a Facebook fan page he created last November so far managed to attract over 29,000 fans.
His debut performance was on stage in March at the Sawy Culture Wheel and ever since then his career has skyrocketed beyond his expectations. He’s appeared as a guest on renowned talk shows and his performances have reached Alexandria and Al-Arish.
“My dream was to get people to leave their homes and actually buy tickets to listen to poetry,” Al-Gakh said.
Apparently his prayers were answered; tickets to his performances are sold out weeks in advance.
“Now I’m invited to perform in Paris, London and several Arab countries,” he said.
Al-Gakh does not merely recite poems in his performances, he goes all out starting with the soft rhythm of the oud playing live in the background, the rustic decorations filling the stage and the light show.
“I did a lot of theater before I started performing, around 300 plays, so I understand theater very well,” he said.
Mohamed Saad, oud player, is the one who composes the unique music for each poem.
“People suggested that we use international music like love story for example as background music for my poems. But I wouldn’t go for it, I prefer the whole performance to be done live and every poem should have a unique piece of music playing in the background,” he said.
He won the Best Colloquial Poet prize in 2008 awarded by the Writers’ Union.
Al-Gakh was inspired by several renowned Egyptian vernacular poets, known for their powerful political poems including Mahmud Bayram El-Tunsi, Salah Jaheen, Abdel Rahman El-Abnudi and Ahmed Fouad Negm.
However that didn’t stop Al-Gakh from adding romantic poems that to his mix, most prominently his poems to “Nana,” a former love interest.
As a son of Upper Egypt, Al-Gakh faced many obstacles during his career.
“For someone like me, from Upper Egypt, to be the head of the culture center in a renowned university like Ain Shams raised a lot of hostility and spite against me. I was always considered an outsider,” Al-Gakh said.
According to Al-Gakh, police officials have never harassed him for his outspoken criticism against the government and especially the police, in fact Al-Gakh said that a lot of police officials were his personal friends and sometimes even attend his performances.
“What does it mean when I’m walking minding my own business, and the police take me in on suspicion? What does it mean when I get arrested four years as a pre-trial detention, an arbitrary detention is more like it,” the poem says.
“Police in Egypt don’t mind peaceful opposition, they do mind vandalizing public property and that’s when they intervene,” Al-Gakh said.
“We weren’t raised to have the proper awareness on how to object and oppose something in the correct manner without getting angry or acting out, we end up hurting ourselves or others,” he said.
“They taught us with a stick, we were breast fed fear, they taught us at schools how to stand up in attention and fear the principle, we were prevented to speak, they taught us how to fear, but they forgot to teach us how to respect,” the poem says.
The poet has never participated in a demonstration, he prefers to express his frustration the way he knows best, poetry.
Al-Gakh addresses Egypt at the end of “Juha,” “All those who say they love you are hypocrites, when I said I loved you, I was a hypocrite,” he recites.
“Love is a state that can’t exist among people who fetch their dinner from garbage cans.”