Rebel poet appeals to Egypt’s intellectual and illiterate alike
Iman Bakry has a fortuneteller’s voice, husky and cracked. It coaxes you into her colloquial poems, which once were about romance, but have since shifted to a cutting critique of President Hosni Mubarak’s government and an Egypt plagued by self-doubt, repression, corruption and a dangerous divide between rich and poor.
“I see a storm coming,” begins a stanza in one of her poems.
Bakry is a media-savvy wordsmith who has risen to national prominence through television appearances and public readings. Her politically barbed verse articulates the frustrations and false dreams that have embittered a cynical public and laced the air with hints of rebellion. Opposition forces are often silenced and intimidated by the authoritarian government, but Bakry senses the anger welling.
“The explosion is already happening,” she said in an interview in her Cairo apartment. “There’s demonstrations, political activism, labor strikes, protests over clean water and bread shortages. All this signals the collapse of the whole society. We are walking to hell, toward a very dark future.”
A former Arabic language teacher, Bakry has a curious relationship with the government she pillories. Until recently she headed the publishing department of the Egyptian Cultural Ministry. She resigned after complaining that her superiors resisted new writers and new ideas. She also sensed that some within the ruling National Democratic Party were fed up with her criticism of Mubarak’s 27-year rule.
But Bakry has not been censored. She publishes and speaks when she wishes; she gets invited onto state-owned TV. And that, she said, illustrates the irritating, beguiling power of a police state that creates the veneer of democracy by tolerating a degree of freedom of expression.
Some dissident bloggers and political opponents are jailed. However, there is no reliable pattern of whom the government targets. The state allows certain artists such as Bakry, regarded by officials as passionate but harmless to national security, to write about whatever they choose, even if it causes a few politicians to wince. She skewers the state but does not directly call for unrest or overthrowing the government.
“Yes we can say it. The only problem is the regime doesn’t listen to what we say,” said Bakry. “The people listen to me instead of telling political jokes. My poetry allows them to vent, but as far as the government is concerned, neither I nor any other poet has much of an impact.”
Nonetheless, her jabs are thrown with wily force. One of her poems, “Hello, Our Masters,” attacks the ruling party’s 2005 rewriting of the constitution to make it easier for Mubarak’s son, Gamal, a 45-year-old businessman with no government experience, to succeed him. In the poem, Mubarak is a manipulating patriarch grooming the way for his child:
They are going to promote kindergarten students.
Heredity (succession) will become fashionable.
Call on the men and follow me to the coffee shop so we can weep and cry.
He intends to do it, he is making tactics even before he bids us farewell.
If you agree just say okay.
If you agree just say okay.
Either way, there is no way.
Shaaban Youssef, a literary critic, said he believes Bakry is the first Egyptian woman to master conversational-style political verse. “She has succeeded in widening the popularity of this type of poetry,” he said. “Her poems appeal to highly sophisticated intellectuals . . . as well as to those who don’t even read.”
The other night, Bakry strolled into her living room, a jumble of design styles that include a stuffed fox, porcelain ballerinas, French baroque tables, a treadmill, horse statues and ruffled curtains that look as if they were on loan from an opera house. She sat, dressed in black, makeup carefully done, a headband slightly aglitter. In her deep voice, each syllable is granted distinctive weight.
She began writing love songs, she recalled, when she was a student at Cairo University under the tutelage of one of Egypt’s most respected poets, Ahmed Rami. Her first collection was published in 1987, when, she said, the nation’s poets stayed safe from arrest by scribbling verse heavy in symbolism. Her poems grew increasingly political throughout the 1990s, and her writing today is that of a street sage summoning satire and defiance to shake a mood of resignation.
“I became more aware of people’s struggles,” she said. “I didn’t think about repercussions. I wasn’t calling for war or killing. I just called people to hold to their dreams, their dignity.”
Bakry does credit Mubarak for keeping the country out of war and improving infrastructure. The economy is growing and foreign investment is up in a painful push toward privatization. But these gains, she added, don’t inspire a nation’s soul when so much else is wrong: unemployment, inflation, religious extremism, and the embarrassing reality that nearly half of Egypt’s population lives on $2 a day or less.
“We are living as if in a theatrical play,” Bakry said. “All the actors have their makeup expertly on, but no one believes them. They don’t speak the truth.”
In her poem about fraudulent democracy, she writes:
Democracy is our ruse.
The big guys in the alley fabricated it, just to improve our image,
and to believe that we live an easy life.
Out her window, beyond the chic CityStars mall, the pyramids rise in the desert, testaments to a great, ancient civilization that has for centuries lost its way. And Bakry worries what the future will bring.
“The most uplifting trait of Egyptians is a sense of belonging,” she said. “Throughout history we have felt attached to the land, the Nile, the country. But you can’t keep this alive through force. It has to be felt naturally, a belief. And that is what’s disappearing, our sense of belonging is diminishing.”
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.