From Acre prison, with love

From Acre prison, with love

From Acre prison, with love
The life and times of Nuh Ibrahim, poet of the 1936 Revolt

Banned by the British and memorialized by the masses, Nuh Ibrahim’s poetry embodied the Palestinian spirit of resistance in the 1930s.

The year was 1930. The Great Depression was in full swing, devastating lives from Australia to Egypt. In Cairo, the divine, haunting voice of Umm-Kulthum had started to attract attention, as she went from unknown daughter of a rural imam to legendary diva who would soon hold the Arab public in thrall. And in Syria, the French introduced a new constitution to assert power over the Syrian nationalist movement, as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience punctuated life in Damascus.

That same year, on a June morning in the coastal Palestinian city of Acre, the British executed three young militants, Muhammad Jamjoum, Atta al-Zeer, and Fouad Hijazi for their part in the 1929 Buraq Uprising against British Mandate rule in what came to be known as Red Tuesday.1 According to the historian Rena Barakat, the executions were intended to sow fear in the hearts of Palestinian-Arabs and silence their growing protest movement. But far from subduing them, these executions gave Palestine its first recognized martyrs, memorialized in poetry, song, and in public gatherings.2 A letter allegedly written by Fouad Hijazi shortly before his execution was circulated and reprinted. In it, he addressed the public:

  • 1. “Siyasat al-Dima’. Hal Takun Wasila lil Salam? [The policy of blood. Is it a means to peace?]” Filastin, June 25, 1930. Barakat, Rena. Thawrat al-Buraq in British Mandate Palestine: Jerusalem, Mass Mobilization, and Colonial Politics, 1928-1930. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Chicago, 2007.
  • 2. Barakat, Rena. Thawrat al-Buraq in British Mandate Palestine: Jerusalem, Mass Mobilization, and Colonial Politics, 1928-1930. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Chicago, 2007.

“I am not just your brother or son, I am the brother and son of our umma [nation]. Do not cry or wail after me… you must sing and be happy… my death should be celebrated… [because the] umma that stands in the face of this misery and fights it, is an umma that will forever survive.”1

  • 1. Quoted in Barakat. “Thawrat al-Buraq” Second bracket in the original.
Fouad Hijazi shortly before his execution, 1930.

Red Tuesday was also the name of a poem penned by the famed poet Ibrahim Tuqan in memory of these martyrs, written in the eloquent literary Arabic of the educated classes. But though Tuqan was most prominent poet in Palestine at the time, it is not these words that are widely remembered and performed today, but those of a poet who has nearly been forgotten, a round-eyed young rebel named Nuh Ibrahim who wrote poetry in the everyday language of the people.

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Born in Haifa in 1913, Nuh Ibrahim lived with his family on a meager income; his father was killed when he was a child.1 After finishing vocational school in Jerusalem at the age of sixteen, he returned to Haifa to work at the printing press of a tobacco factory.2 Unlike the literary elites of Palestine at the time, he composed only zajal: folk poetry recited aloud in colloquial language, semi-improvised and semi-sung. There is no such thing as the definitive version of a Nuh Ibrahim poem, each work exists in the moment it was performed – in different guises – with new lines added, thrown out and changed during the performance. These are poems that live in the moment and are hard to pin down, much like the poet himself who – during his short life – lived and worked in Palestine, Iraq and Bahrain and travelled across the Arab world.3 

  • 1. Shaheed, Samih. “Poetry of Rebellion: the Life, Verse and Death of Nuh Ibrahim during the 1936-39 Revolt.” Jerusalem Quarterly 25 (2006), p. 65.
  • 2. Hijab, Nemer. Al-sha‘ir al-Sha‘bi: al-Shahid Nuh Ibrahim [The Popular Poet: the Martyr Nuh Ibrahim]. al-Yazori Press: 2006.
  • 3. Ibid. And: Shaheed. “Poetry of Rebellion," p. 66.
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In memory of Hijazi, Jamjoum and al-Zeer, he wrote:

نادى المنادي يا ناس إضرابِ، يوم الثلاثة شنق الشبابِ، أهل الشجاعة عطا وفؤادِ، ما يهابوا الردى ولا المنونا

The town crier called, a strike’s at hand
On Tuesday, they will be hanged
Ata and Fou’ad, who are so brave
Fear not reprisal, fear not the grave.

Since the 1930s this poem, From Acre Prison, has been popularized as a folk song. Most famously, it was recorded in the 1980s by the band al-‘Ashiqin, who have performed it in festivals from Palestine to Algeria and Yemen.

مشحّر يا زوج الثنتين - نوح إبراهيم by Palestinian Journeys

Mshahar ya zawj al-thintain - Nuh Ibrahim

Though known at the time as the poet of the Palestinian Revolution, Nuh Ibrahim also had a lighter side. In one poem, he curses the devil that tempted him to waste his entire paycheck on gambling, cognac, and a curvaceous dancer who consumed nine bottles of whiskey in one sitting.

مشحّر يا زوج الثنتين - نوح إبراهيم by Palestinian Journeys

Mshahar ya zawj al-thintain - Nuh Ibrahim

الله يخزي هالشيطان - نوح إبراهيم by Palestinian Journeys

Allah yikhzi hal shaytan - Nuh Ibrahim

It is hard to imagine him as the same man who was a favored disciple of the legendary anti-Zionist leader and imam Izzeddin al-Qassam, and the same man who–as soon as he heard that a revolt against the British and Zionists had started–left his job in Bahrain and returned to Palestine to join the effort.1

  • 1. Hijab. "The Popular Poet."

الله يخزي هالشيطان - نوح إبراهيم by Palestinian Journeys

Allah yikhzi hal shaytan - Nuh Ibrahim

In 1937, Nuh Ibrahim was himself sent to Acre prison for five months. There, he became known for writing poems for the prisoners and reciting them. His most famous work during this time, Mr. Bailey, became the anthem of political prisoners, both men and women, during the British Mandate.1

  • 1. Shaheed. “Poetry of Rebellion,” p. 66.

من سجن عكا - العاشقين by palestinian journeys

From Acre Prison - al-'Ashiqin

After being released from prison, he joined fellow fighters in the revolt while continuing to write zajal, and his work became so popular that the British press censor issued a ban against its publication:

Based on my jurisdiction as censor of the press, and as established by the emergency laws, I, Owen Tweedy, warn against the printing or publishing of the book containing the collection of poems by Nuh Ibrahim which was printed outside Palestine, and which is also known as “The Song Collection of Nuh Ibrahim”, whether printed or published in the open or secretly.”1

Nuh Ibrahim’s fame as a poet was fated to last only four years. In 1938, he died at the height of his fame–only 25 years old–in an ill-matched battle with the British in the Galilee.2 His death personified the spirit of sacrifice that he praised in his poetry, and it is this authenticity that makes him so compelling. He was not only a poet but rather shahed wa shahid: a witness and martyr.

  • 1. Ibid, p. 67. Note that this is not the English version of the warning, but rather a translation from the Arabic.
  • 2. Ibid, pp. 65-78.