Lababidi explores what poetry can help us see amidst the upheavals of the Arab Spring @ Berfrois. Physical distance is difficult because of the helplessness it engenders. To see one’s world unraveling continents and oceans away and to feel that you can’t do anything can be terribly frustrating. But with distance, one also sees more clearly. Art, as I understand it, and this includes philosophy, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of historic events. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actors. At least this is how I justified my decision, as an Egyptian, to remain in the United States, my adopted home of the past six years, during the Arab Spring Revolution.
Since the Egyptian Revolution began over a year ago, discerning the meaning of poetry in trying times has been a quandary very much weighing on my heart and mind. Until then, I pretty much viewed art and politics as separate spheres. Journalism, I thought, was better suited to tackle the here and now, like Kierkegaard’s parable of the “matchstick” men: upon their head is deposited something phosphorescent, the hint of an idea; one takes them up by the leg, strikes them against a newspaper, and out comes three or four columns. Artists were creatures of another order, I suspected; they were closer to Nietzsche’s lovers of truth (in Zarathustra): “Slow is the experience of all deep wells: long must they wait before they know what fell into their depth.”
Of course, Kierkegaard is not being entirely fair to journalists, and there is a place and a need in this world for both: speed of coverage and slowness in reflection. For a journalist to achieve his highest function, which is to serve as a kind of moral watchdog, it might be necessary to rush—to the battlefield and to print—to keep their eye on the moment and to tell the story as it unfolds. Such near-sightedness is a virtue. For their part, artists and thinkers excel in a form of far-sightedness, somehow seeing just past the moment, over its head, to tomorrow. That is how they are able to lend us their vision.
And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: Vision. By “vision” I mean that unblinking witness is only half of the equation. This is what I mean by seeing over the head of the times. It is not enough to bear witness to Now; journalists, to an extent, do that. Poetry lends us a third (metaphysical) eye, one that collapses distances, at once reminding us of our essential selves and who we can become. This vision provides more insight than mere sight.
Back to the here and now. There is a very touching story (one of many that do not receive media attention) that came out of the Egyptian revolution that I’d like to share. A middle-aged man learns of a young activist having been (deliberately) blinded in scuffles with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and calls in to a television show offering to donate one of his eyes to the unfortunate young activist.