ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — She approached beaming, headscarf hardly visible behind big bursting cheeks, eyes ablaze, arms sweeping up the warm Alexandrian sun.
Marwa Maamoun is a prominent Egyptian poetess. She’s also a professed seeress.
“Two years ago,” she told GlobalPost within minutes of sitting down, “I wrote something that everyone now calls ‘The Prophecy.’ Can I say it in Arabic?”
I love you, my country, even if it kills me / And no matter how much the cowards resist / Get up, Egyptian! Wrap yourself with the flag! / Write with your blood on the walls / Tell the voice of injustice ‘no’ no matter how often it turns it into ‘yes’ / Make yourself a parliament, leave that to rule the palaces as it pleases / And you rule from the streets and the square.
In the weeks following Egypt’s landmark presidential vote in May and June, a historic election that saw two of the top five candidates openly campaign on Islamic platforms, the place of Islam in Egypt continues to be a topic of heated debate — one that increasingly concerns the nation’s artists.
The ousting of President Hosni Mubarak by popular protest last year prompted some serious soul-searching in Egypt, a conversation welcomed by ardent Muslim believers like Maamoun, but alarming other Egyptian artists, who worry their work will be constrained by politicized Islam.
“If we talk to a Muslim community and we’re saying, ‘secularism, liberalism,’ they will not listen,” Maamoun said. “We have to talk to them with what they understand: you want Islam? I want Islam too. I want the real Islam.”
Citing Muslim reformist thinkers like Dr. Heba Aaruf, Maamoun’s work is informed by a progressive interpretation of Islam. She believes that modern Egypt is misunderstanding its main religion, arguing that liberal positions on controversial issues like gender equality, for example, have support in fundamental Islamic texts. Her poetry and educational campaigns in this regard – most recently a Twitter-led debate – constitute a direct challenge to more fundamentalist Islamist ideologies on the rise in her own homeland.
“What we need in Egypt, and in the Arab world, and in the Muslim world, is to educate people with their rights,” she said, adding that many offensive cultural practices made in the name of religion, such as beating one’s wife, have “nothing to do with” Islam.
The 34-year-old was born in the northeastern city of Port Said and wrote her first poem when she was only eight years old. Her family, fearing there would be “talk,” swiftly banned her from writing, and she didn’t return to verse until college, at which point she was also arrested for advertising a boycott on American products in protest of the US-led invasion of Iraq. But even after she married and had a son, she said the idea of being a career poet never occurred to her.
Events in Tahrir Square — protests that led to the toppling of a dictator — soon changed that, along with other former sureties. “I never thought I would truly stand out to my parents, my family, and get involved in politics,” she said. “Now I’m so much involved in politics, in feminism; I always had it in me. I found that when I talk, I have this way, people do listen.”
They do. Maamoun has published essays and has appeared several times on television, but her poetry remains unpublished because she said she does not approve of “profiting” from events in Tahrir.
Her work has nonetheless been forever changed by the revolution. When protests first broke out, she said, poetry started “pouring out” of her.
“I was writing every night. A poem a night. I used to write every six months, three months,” she explained, adding that she was surprised to find herself “documenting the revolution, day by day, in poetry.” She quickly joined the prominent April 6 opposition movement and began writing chants used to rally crowds of thousands.
“Right now, because of the revolution, everybody who has something to give, has to give it,” she said. “So if all I have is my voice, and my words, then it’s an obligation, it’s not a choice. I have to give it. I have to put my foot down and start working.”
Ahmed El Essaily of ONTV introduced Maamoun to national audiences by featuring her several months ago on his popular “On the Street” weekly talk show, where he would interview people on the show’s signature bright red couch placed at random on various Cairo streets.
“She’s a revolutionary, she’s very honest, and she speaks her mind,” said El Essaily. “In Arabic we say, ‘her hand is in the people,’” he added, saying Maamoun stands out because she purposefully incorporates old Arabic words not popularly used by the younger generation. “You can be a poet that knows the language, but she also knows the people well, that’s what special about her,” he said.
Even today, Maamoun faces resistance from her own household.
“When I first wanted to go to the protests, my husband said, ‘your priorities are mixed up. You have a baby, and you want to go and die and leave him alone.’ And I said, ‘no, honey, I just have different priorities. My priority is that I go now and change my country, because this boy will be a fighter like his mom,” she said.
“I don’t want him to grow up and find the country as corrupt as it is now, so that he needs to go to a demonstration and come back to me with a bullet in his chest, because I did not change the country today.’”