The power of spoken word has been an essential tool in the ongoing Lebanese revolution. Poets Lisa Luxx and Dayna Ash underscore its power to overcome oppression ahead of a digital appearance at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.
While the beginning of lockdown in the UK was typified by its quietness, its final weeks echoed with protest. Many of us will emerge from lockdown with a greater understanding of the language of protestation. Here in Liverpool, many voice boxes will still be raw and unswerving in commitments to the Black Lives Matter campaign. But over in Beirut, Lebanon, the language of protest was swelling on the streets back in October.
LISA LUXX and DAYNA ASH are two poets, performance artists and activists who have been on the frontline of the protests and women’s revolution rising up across Lebanon. The two best friends and artists live together in Beirut. However, due to prompt lockdown restrictions, they have spent the last three months separated – Lisa here in the UK, which makes up half of her shared Syrian heritage; Dayna in the USA, who recently returned to Lebanon.
In their separation on opposing continents and away from the revolution taking place outside the doors of their shared home, the pair remained dialled into the protests and revolution as much as possible via the internet. With an integral part of the activism on display in Lebanon centring on poetry and chants, the two poets harnessed the medium for the dissemination of revolutionary discourse via regular shows on Hammam Radio as a means of continuing support for their comrades on the ground.
Here in Liverpool’s digital sphere, Lisa and Dayna will come together on 11th July for an evening celebrating Arab heritage and poetic lesbian sisterhood through performance and spoken word. Ahead of the performance at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Elliot Ryder spoke to the two poets about poetry’s centrality to protest in the Arab world and its enhanced power in the digital age.
To what extent do you think there is a defined role for the poet? Do you think it differs depending on which culture they are writing in or reflecting?
Dayna: It’s not my quote, but the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible, and the role of the poet is to be the historian. Especially in the midst of revolutions. Not protests, revolutions – which is what Lebanon is currently living. I don’t think it is defined, because every revolution requires a poet to react differently. I think in and of itself, the poet constantly remoulds and is able to reflect the time and space that we live in, in a way that usually we cannot express.
Lisa: When one says the poet is the historian, my argument is often that the poet’s job isn’t to write history, but to write heart. Our only reference over the history of written and spoken literature of emotion and heart is that which has been written by the poet. The history books have their story, their facts, their wars and their victors. Time and time again, it is used as a weapon to instigate power dynamics. That’s what we know history to do. Poetry does something else. It gives power to the heart. It gives a timeline to the heart. It gives community and uprising and roar to the heart. I believe in the poet as the archiver of the heart. There’s dispatches poetry that observes a moment, but often if you’re too much a slave to fact, or only writing about fact, go and write an essay. There’s no place for that in poetry. Poetry isn’t concerned with fact, it’s concerned with truth.
So the poet should be reactive, rather than deeply solipsistic? If so, should the poet understand this position, and how do they put it into practice in times of protest?
L: I’ve been thinking recently how you need distance from something to be able to write about it. Being within a revolution, when I see Dayna and a community there functioning within a revolution, man, people are too busy to write poetry.
D: Absolutely, we write poetry in the form of chants and song. But when it comes down to it, we’ve both had that moment where we thought artists should be on the ground right now – not in their studios. We had a few of these discussions with other artists in Beirut who said ‘Yeh, I wanna produce a piece for the revolution’. It was cute because what they did to produce this piece about the revolution was to actually leave the revolution. They went and sat in their well-lit studios for two weeks and had models come in and pose, which seemed contradictory to what we required. If you want to be representing the revolution, right now, it’s on the streets. It’s through protests, through chants, through mobilisation, agitation, organising. It’s not through self-expression, as in to express one’s self outside of the revolution.
L: When you talk about the poet, you can’t write about something you haven’t been a part of. If you went down there on the streets, rather than observing from your balcony, it’s a very different perspective. And it is right what Dayna was saying about chants. In the Egyptian revolution, one of the most famous poets was Ahmed Negum, who was very much the people’s poet. His work became many of the chants. And like Dayna says, the work has to live and breathe, it has to have a function. It has to have a purpose in the moment.
D: Same with the chants here in Beirut, Lisa. Do you remember [Dayna chants to Lisa]? That is the flow of a poem and it became this massive chant. It allowed us to use the terminology that was within the poem and to add an update that was from that day’s protest – for instance different places of protest, different people we’re protesting against as we’re protesting against the entire system. We would amend a few things from songs and poems, and then on the ground it became so visceral and most poems were done there on the spot. People would collaborate and by the end there would be a 20-minute chant.
L: It relates to the old Arab tradition of gathering and speaking poetry. The people bouncing off one another and making new chants. It really says a lot about tradition being alive and well in heart and spirit, not in this office academic space tradition is seen in. It’s in necessity. Necessity doesn’t change over history. Whether it’s for entertainment or revolution, those practices comes back again and again.
What is it about poetry that makes it such a powerful utensil for those standing up to physical power?
D: First and foremost, it’s a mode of communication. In the midst of protest, I think the most imperative facet for momentum to continue is to communicate. Poetry allows us to translate deep profound emotions of oppression, of pain, of the corruption we’ve been dealing with, of the financial crisis, of capitalism, classism, racism, sexism – it makes it communicative. Poetry no longer makes it these jargon terms, rather a translation of emotion. Secondly, the dissemination of information when it comes to chants and protests – them being poetic and therefore being able to be automatically recognised, memorised and repeated – allows for not just quicker communication channels, but the dissemination of information itself. The way you talk about corrupt politicians in Beirut, and then you hear it again in Tripoli with a Tripoli accent made into the poem, that of itself shows the impact of poetry. Whereas if you’re saying a chant that has no feel to it, no rhythm, no emotion, no anything, something based around facts, you’ll come to a point where people will end up forgetting. They don’t connect to it or it becomes something that is in passing. Poetry is something that clings on to your flesh. It becomes something of an articulation of your emotions – beyond the current moment and embody all the pain that you’ve been feeling.
L: The poet Mazen Maarouf said that once a poem has been spoken, it’s the final word. Once it’s been said and put out there, it cannot be taken back. And why that’s important, and why that artist said that, is because people can be captured, people can be exiled, silenced. But once a poem is out there, and it has a rhythm, like Dayna says, it passes across the country, then is passes outside of the country. And then years later it’s still being spoken, long after the poet has deceased. It lives on and has a life of its own. It carries forward that spirit into various different places. It transcends the mortality of the body.
Would you say that the poetry of protest is in fertile ground online? Conceptually, poetry was a form of social media that predated the digital age, a vessel for sharing ideas, that could cross borders, communities and ideas via print. In the digital age can it can go further?
L: I think it definitely accelerates it. There was always the practice of passing chants on. Also, tacitly, in Arab literature tradition there are the hung poems which would be displayed and you would go and see them. The internet and meme culture derives from that practice, it comes from hung poems and old ideas. All the digital sphere has done is accelerate it. It has made it a lot louder. What we’ve seen the last month and a half with Black Lives Matter, you can see how that acceleration happened; everyone was at home plugged into the internet ready to hear each other, ready to do the work. That’s how it became a global movement. The digital world plays a wonderful role. But I don’t think that poetry needs it.
D: It’s a nice additive, definitely.
How’ve you found the experience of the past three months separated and still leading protest, compared to the more tangible action of the Lebanese protests from October last year?
D: Firstly, we were in different continents, that was an obvious cause to really rely on the internet. In particular in the last three months, rather than using my phone to inform others what’s happening on the ground, I’ve used my phone to understand myself what’s happening on the ground of the protests. I was stuck in New York as Lebanese airports wouldn’t let anyone back in, so I was outside myself constantly. If it wasn’t for being online and being able to communicate, I don’t think I’d have been able to make it through the last few months. However, with Lisa, what it did was allow me to expand my own thinking as I wasn’t bound to time and place anymore. Especially our work with Hammam Radio we were going through our own isolation and quarantine. And when we’d meet on the radio on Wednesday, it wasn’t only a way for us to vent and to cope, but also a way for us to build on thoughts on the emotions that we’d been feeling. Or kind of deconstruct them. Before, we used to do the exact same thing except it was in the living room face to face.
L: It gave time to understand. As Dayna said, this is how we’d have been spending our time when living together anyway. But on Hammam Radio, we had more time to sit and read rather than prancing around a coffee table – you know, talking a lot more shit than we would when having our own line of communication.
D: There was a lot more structure to the conversations.
L: And a lot more time to research and pass things back and forth between each other. I feel that I am coming out of lockdown as a different activist.
L: I’m a much better activist than I was before quarantine. I still haven’t even left. I’m still waiting to go back to Beirut. Nothing can make up for not being there though. No amount of talking to friends there can make up for that. I am away from the revolution, and I feel away from the revolution. I can intellectualise it, but in my heart it feels distant. It’s been great to work out the intellectual side of protests, and it’s important to do that, but it does mean that you’re pretty raring to go to get back.
D: It’s very emotional right now in Beirut.
L: This is it. Feeling all of that emotion. Feeling what Lebanon is going through and not being there. Trying to be there from a far, and we know that through sisterhood from how much my friends in Lebanon have been able to be there for me from all different continents during my lowest points in quarantine. But knowing what’s happening there, being away from is hard.
From your own perspectives, to what extent are female voices the most salient in contemporary protest in Lebanon?
D: Lebanon has always had women at the forefront, it’s just been very difficult for the rest of the world and in particular media to start realising that Arab women are loud and demanding and they know their rights and what they are missing. Now what’s happening is people are realising that most of civil society is run by women. Most of the structures are supported by women. Most NGOs and grassroots sector are all women. The government is mainly the patriarchal male body because our entire government is male. We have a total of six women in power and they have non-operative positions. They’re just positions but they don’t really have jobs.
We are exactly 50 per cent of the population here in Lebanon. You have academics saying they don’t want to call it the women’s revolution because you wouldn’t call it the male revolution. But until it is obvious that to every human being, that it is an equally male and female revolution – sorry about the binaries in explaining the concept – until it is automatic that we associate a revolution with all of the body, all entities within the society, then no: it will be a women’s revolution, especially when the women are leading it. Especially when the chants on the ground are mostly written by women. Most of those with megaphones are women. Most of those leading societal initiatives to distribute food and support health are women. I’m not belittling our male counterparts in the country. But to assume that now this is happening for women because there is some light on it [is wrong], it has always been there.
The suppression has been so powerful. What happened here is that the revolution started with everyone. It wasn’t just young men breaking stuff, we were all breaking stuff. Then we got to a point when we, the women, demanded to stop the violence. It wasn’t a case of us saying we will stand in the front because we’re women and we won’t get beat up. Because god knows we were beat. We stood in the front because we wanted to take control of the revolution. Because we wanted our revolution to be different. We wanted it to succeed. We wanted it to have plenty of time before we get hit, to make sure we had strategy, distribution of aid to those who might be hurt who need water. The women on the frontlines had had enough. They’re the ones who had the short end of the stick when it came to the civil war. To the structure of the system on the whole. To the patriarchy, how our culture and religions go to further oppress women and to make them second class citizens. The men in control had done nothing but lead the country to absolute collapse. It’s time for the women to take over the revolution and for the men to step back.
You mention there the power of female voices on the megaphones and leading the chants. As performance artists, do you think the power of poetry is curtailed in anyway when it cannot be delivered to an audience in the flesh? Can the digital connection carry the full emotive sentiment, or simply reading it on your own?
L: I think it’s important to remove the ego of the artist in that equation. Yeh, it feels good to have an audience in front of you. It feels wonderful. But what about accessibility?
L: This whole three months has allowed so many more people to access other people’s work and other people’s voices. People who wouldn’t get to go to events, or live in other countries, people who for various reasons who can’t attend events in inaccessible venues. I think artists really need to shut up about the lack of audience. Sure, it feels fucking great, you can feed off the energy, but it’s not all about that.
D: It’s not all about you! [Laughs]
L: Exactly, it’s not a case of saying no words because there isn’t an audience. If you’re going to only focus on having able-bodied people in an audience who are geographically close to you or have the money to come to events…
D: …You might as well stay home!
L: You’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.
D: I don’t go to the sisterhood salon to read my poems. I go to the sisterhood salons to hear Lisa critique my poem. Hear you read a poem and enrich me even more and make me sceptical about reading mine after yours. That’s what you do it for. Otherwise I don’t think it merits. I think there is a quote that says, ‘If I write poetry for the public I lose myself, if I write poetry for myself I lose the public.’
Going back to 2011, the Arab Spring was heavily reliant on social media organising – with the current BLM protests equally dependent on the digital sphere to coordinate support through lockdown. On both occasions the digital sphere has changed the landscape around us in a tangible sense.
Recently we’ve seen the statues fall and many commitments made, and perhaps more powerfully in 2011 a number of leaders we removed from power. Do you think all protest of the future will be driven by their digital organisation?
L: Organising yes, but not completely. I don’t think protests can only happen online. No way. It can too easily be kneecapped. It’s much harder to make direct action online. It allows for more people to be involved and information to be passed and organisation to happen. I don’t think it will take away from being on the streets in protest. When we look at the landscape, those statues couldn’t come down with online protest. We have to be able to change the landscape around us, and reclaim that. Otherwise what we’re at risk of doing is feeling very liberated because we’re yelling into echo chambers online we’re never even leaving our houses. So we basically end up in a liberated house arrest if the only place we can feel liberated at our computer screens, you know?
Lisa Luxx and Dayna Ash – Grinding Saffron takes places online on Saturday 11th July. Sign up to view the event here. Lisa Luxx is LAAF 2020 artists in residence.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival takes place from 7th – 18th July. To view all LAAF events and programming click here.
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