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A rebel poet with a cause

By Ramadan A. Kader

"Do not reconcile even if they give you gold
Suppose I gouged out your eyes and fix two gems in their place would you see?
These things are priceless. …
Would my blood turn to water in your eyes?
Would you forget my clothes drenched in blood?
Would you wear – over my blood – clothes embellished with silver and gold?
Do not reconcile over blood even with blood
Do not reconcile even if it is said a head for a head
Are all heads equal?
Is a stranger’s heart equal to your brother’s?
Are his eyes equal to your brother’s?"

The above are parts from a famous poem by Egyptian poet Amal Donqol. The poem was published in 1977 ahead of Egypt’s then president Anwar el-Sadat’s epoch-making trip to Israel, which culminated in a peace treaty between the two countries two years later.

The poem titled “Don’t Reconcile” has since become an anthem to opponents of having normal ties with Israel. It anointed Donqol as the “poet of refusal” across the Arab world. The poem was evoked during the 2011 popular uprisings in the Arab region.

Donqol, who died in 1983 aged 43, is one of the greatest modern Arab poets. His poetry reflects obvious influences of the Greek mythology and pre-Islamic tales with unmistakable implications for present-day Arabs.

His poem “Crying in Front of Zarqaa Al Yamma”, published in 1969, is a brilliant case in point. It captures feelings of despair and bitterness that overwhelmed Arabs in the aftermath of the military defeat in the 1967 Middle East War.

“Oh you, sacred fortune-teller
I have come to you covered with stabs and blood.
I crawl in coats of those killed and over the stacked bodies
With my sword broken, and the eyebrow and limbs covered with dust
I am asking, oh Virgin, about your ruby mouth
About the Virgin’s Prophecy
About my chopped arm
While still holding the bowed banner.”

Born in Qena in South Egypt in 1940, his father named him Amal, Arabic for “hope” because his birth coincided with obtaining a degree from Al-Azhar University. The father died when Amal was at 10, leaving him a library rich in heritage books and a family to support.

Amal repeatedly acknowledged the effect of his father’s library on shaping his mind, saying in an interview that he benefited from its books much more than from the formal education.

Younger Donqol completed his secondary education and enrolled at Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts. But he soon left academic studies to work as a clerk at a courthouse in Qena and later as an employee at the customs department in the Mediterranean Sea city of Alexandria.

During those years, he published some of his poems in Egyptian newspapers. His poems with their own distinct style and imagery drew attention. Soon, he soared to renown, establishing himself as one of the leading Arab poets of the1960s.

His anti-establishment works followed and earned him fame across the Arab world. In the 1970s, several Egyptian writers, who opposed el-Sadat’s policy, left the country and chose to live in self-exile. Donqol chose to stay in Egypt where he continued to write rebellious poems that earned him the nickname “Prince of Refusers”.

In May 1983, he passed away after a long struggle with cancer, an anguishing experience he recorded in his anthology “Papers of Room No 8” that was printed after his death. Forty-six years after his departure, Donqol continues to stand out as a pioneer
of rebellious and innovative Arab poetry that outlives frustration and rigidity.