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Books & arts

A problem of definition

Review of 'Fire in the Soul – 100 Poems for Human Rights'

Amira Kheir

2010-04-22, Issue 478

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'Fire in the Soul – 100 Poems for Human Rights', writes Amira Kheir, is a great set of poetic works, but one whose 'human rights' framing 'does a disservice to the beautiful poems encapsulated in this collection'.

The premise itself of a human rights-themed collection of poems might seem a bit bizarre to some of us. I was somewhat hesitant and fearful of cringe-worthy moments when I first picked it up and read the title of this New Internationalist edition of ‘Fire in the Soul – 100 Poems for Human Rights’.

However, should you be sitting on the fence as to whether or not to flick through the pages of this publication, let me compel you to choose to engage and discover a new manifestation of the age-old union of art and politics. ‘Fire in the Soul’ reminds us that human rights – although increasingly marred by debates over the construction of an ideology, the politicisation of enshrined legal mechanisms and what sometimes appears to be a disguise for neo-imperialist agendas – are more simply and primordially an aspiration to our collective possibility. In the words of its editor Dinyar Godrej, 'The urge to realise who we are, the journey of becoming and being is at the heart of what we call human rights.'

The collection is coloured by a range of stylistically and aesthetically diverse pieces, varying in content, structure, object and symbolism. From classics like Nazim Hikmet’s ‘On Living’ and Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘The World Is Closing In On Us’ to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s ‘The True Prison’, they contemplate questions of mental, institutional and collective imprisonment. From the riveting ‘We Are Struggling To Understand’ by Azad Essa, to Ama Ata Aidoo’s pungent ‘Speaking of Hurricanes’, they challenge normative notions of identity and its definition. From spellbinding sonnets of love in all its beauty and anguish like Forugh Farrokhzad’s ‘The Sin’ to Nadia Anjuman’s ‘Nazam’, they expose the vastness of human solitude and tenacity in the face of oppression. From Margaret Atwood’s ‘A Women’s Issue’ to Paul Celan’s ultimate call of despair ‘Deathfuge’, they pierce right to the core of questions of existence.

However, there are some problems of definition that come to the surface. If we take the best of what we understand human rights to be – a basic minimum standard, an intangible entitlement to dignity, a preserving of all that constitutes our humanity – and de-contextualise the location and political baggage that comes with them, then human rights are a phenomenal endeavour and this collection a great emblem for them. It encompasses a multitude of different stories from different provenances, and resonates a powerful common theme of empathising with injustice.

Yet as we know too well, politics are inextricably linked to human rights. The human rights discourse ignores the politicisation of its curtain definition and attempts to universalise issues (which sometimes cannot be universalised) by simplifying regional relativism and appealing to our common humanity. In extreme cases, we have seen the flag of human rights legitimate un-humane and un-rightful military invasions and interventions. Furthermore, the curtain title of ‘human rights’ is limiting to the array of human emotions, struggles, victories and defeats illustrated in these works. My problem is therefore one of definition rather than of content. The framing of this collection is its weakening factor. The overarching title of human rights is simply too loaded with a problematic sense of entitlement which does a disservice to the beautiful poems encapsulated in this collection.

Consequently, that which it tries to convey so vigorously – and which it sets out to do quite uniquely – results in a manipulation of these relevant works in their own right, to the ends of the sometimes not so legitimate human rights agenda. Let's just say that reading through these poems is a pleasure and inspiration in spite of the fact that they have been branded and ‘marketed’ as human rights symbols. If this hadn’t been a collection drafted specifically for the purpose of joining in the universal choir to end a generalised view of all injustice and celebrate a generalised view of our common humanity, it would have been better. Simply, I am sceptical of the very dangerous curtain term of human rights itself, the connotation of an ideological revolution it carries with it and the multiple dimensions of historical, economic and context-specific burdens it ignores.

Although it is a great tool for us to collectively fight injustice and reclaim citizenship and power, the human rights agenda at its worst is a mass-branding facet of globalisation, seeking to paint everyone with the same brush, often leaving little space for the real organic sprouting of beliefs. And like all institutions borne of a revolution, it becomes entrenched in its own beliefs, which substantiate it and hinder its progress in the face of the changing world around it. Like other institutions such as governments, nationhood and religion it becomes more preoccupied in sustaining itself rather than truly challenging and redefining what it stands for. And that is why even revolutions have to constantly be scrutinised, so that they continue to serve the best interests of people.


* Dinyar Godrej (ed) 'Fire in the Soul – 100 Poems for Human Rights' (New Internationalist, Oxford, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-906523-16-9).
* Amira Kheir is a freelance writer and musician based in London.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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