Khalil Mutran’s Poem “Boycott” and the Power of Censorship

By Terri L. DeYoung
Submitted to Session P4999 (Nahda, Translation, and the Transnational, 2017 Annual Meeting
In March 1909, Sir Eldon Gorst (British Consul General) re-instituted of Egypt’s 1881 censorship law, which had been suspended upon the British invasion of Egypt. In reaction, a leading poet, Khal?l Mu?r?n, penned an 8-line poem , “Al-Muq??a‘ah (Boycott),” which galvanized opposition to Gorst but was ultimately unsuccessful in leading to the withdrawal of his initiative. The poem has been considered one of Mutran’s most rhetorically effective compositions (Hijazi 1975, 11 and Saadé 1985, 129). I propose to examine the elements (diction, thematics, repetition and prosody) that contributed to the poem’s success.
I will contextualize the poem in the politics of the time and examine its role in Mutran’s oeuvre. Unlike the immediate assumption (Khouri 1971,149-50) that this poem is an anomaly among lyrics shaped exclusively by Mutran’s preoccupation with creating organic unity and thereby allowing it to express more clearly and fully individualism and the psychology of the self (as influenced by European Romantic thought), “Boycott” in fact represents a constant strain found in Mutran, which links it especially to the Romanticism found in English poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, which M.H Abrams has said makes them “all centrally political and social poets” (Abrams, 1963 101). It focuses on political and social themes—particularly Mutran’s concern with freedom and individual rights.
Gorst’s re-imposition of the 1881 Press Law followed more direct attempts to weaken the populist and nationalist political party al-Hizb al-wa?an?, whose charismatic leader Mu??af? K?mil had died the previous year. Gorst was unable to exile the new leaders of the Nationalist Party (Khouri 1971, 92) so he effectively used the registration regulations in the old 1881 Egyptian Press Law and its provisions for prior restraint of publication to harass and repress Nationalist Party activities (Jankowski 2000, 102). Mutran, a follower of Mustafa Kamil and once a journalist himself, was determined in his opposition to Gorst’s moves, but it was only after Gorst’s retirement in 1911, and an intervention by the Khedive that he was able to regain his prominent role in the development of modern Arabic poetry.
M.H. Abrams.
1963 “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age,” in Romanticism Reconsidered. Ed. Northrop Frye. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ahmad ‘Abd al-Mu‘?? Hij?z?.
1975 Khal?l Mu?r?n: qa??’id. Beirut: D?r al-?d?b.
James Jankowski.
2000 A Short History of Egypt. London: Oneworld.
Mounah Khouri.
1971 Poetry and the Making of Modern Egypt. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Nicholas Saadé
1985 Khalil Mutran. Beirut: Librairie Orientale.