A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dissident Poet of the Poor Ahmad Fuad Negm, 1929-2013

As Egypt's revolutionary moment increasingly seems a distant memory, its most famous revolutionary poet, Ahmad Fuad Negm, has died at the age of 84. For over three decades his revolutionary lyrics were combined with the musical genius and oud playing of the blind composer Sheikh Imam to provoke a powerful blend of radical, satirical lyrics and powerful music. The partnership endured from their meeting in 1962 until they eventually quarreled prior to Sheikh Imam's death in 1995.

A Younger Negm (l.) and Sheikh Imam
Born in a Delta village and partly raised in an orphanage, Negm lived all his life in the poorer quarters in Cairo, and spent time in prison as a youth. His work was usually banned from state media so he wrote, and he and Sheikh Imam sang, in coffeehouses and before student groups. His poetry celebrated the oppressed workers and fellahin, and satirically skewered he ruling elites. It was a voice of the left; as M. Lynx Qualey notes in her appreciation at Arabic Literature (in Translation):
Promotional material on Alwan for the Arts once stated that, “if the Internationale were to have been written in Arabic, its author would likely have been Ahmed Fouad Negm.”
He died just two weeks before he was to be awarded the Prince Claus Award. Their tribute, now in past tense, reads:

Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013, Kafr Abu Najm) was a master poet, fearless social and political critic, and beloved advocate of the poor and the disenfranchised. Rooted in local working class culture, he had been a perceptive public intellectual and a much-loved balladeer of the people for many decades. Negm was both an icon and a folk hero, renowned in literary circles for the quality, lyricism and beauty of his work, from love songs to radical satires that take the complex, highly nuanced vernacular Arabic to unprecedented poetic levels. He was celebrated on the streets of Cairo and across the Arab world for giving voice to the spirit of the people’s movement for social justice.
       Negm drew creatively on the rich colloquial language, its rhythms and traditions of song, invocation and especially humour, to give vibrant expression to the people’s concerns and aspirations. Since the 1960s, he criticised the succession of authoritarian regimes and elites in Egypt – from British colonial times onwards – exposing their willingness to oppress and impoverish people, their abuse of power, their self-serving deceptions, hypocrisies and corruption. Achieving this through hilarious caricatures, double meanings, reworked slogans, satiric mimicry and devastating irony, Negm uplifted, encouraged and inspired people, keeping hope alive in the face of tyranny.
       Liberal and open-minded, Negm reminded his audiences of Egypt’s heritage of ethnic and religious diversity, its deep pluralist and humanist roots and universal values of mutual co-existence and social solidarity. In the 1970s and 80s, when such public performances were outlawed, Negm's charismatic underground performances with legendary musician Sheik Imam were well attended despite great personal risk. Combining poetry and music in this traditional form, Negm spread his message to the widest possible audience including the illiterate and reached populations across the Middle East through samizdat cassette tapes. And today his stirring message is still highly relevant – many young Egyptians know his poems by heart, chant them on the streets, use them in graffiti and posters, and reinterpret them in new music.
       Ahmed Fouad Negm is honoured for creating true poetry in vernacular Arabic that communicates deeply with people; for his independence, unwavering integrity, courage and rigorous commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice; for speaking truth to power, refusing to be silenced and inspiring more than three generations in the Arab-speaking world; for the aesthetic and political force of his work highlighting the basic need for culture and humour in harsh and difficult circumstances; and for his significant impact on Arabic poetry bringing recognition to the rich literary potential of the colloquial language.
An earlier appreciation by Al Jazeera English here.

Zeinobia offers a tribute and is Storifying the funeral.

Egyptian media in English at Ahram Online, Daily News Egypt, Egypt Independent (Al-Masry al-Youm), and Mada Masr.

Other English appreciations by The Washington Post, and The Guardian.

But eulogies and obituaries are not the way to remember a poet who moved the masses. A poem and an excerpt from  a selection of Negm poems translated (with the original Arabic) by Walaa Quisay at the Revolutionary Arabic Poetry (in Translation) site.

First, "What's Wrong with our President?": 

(What’s wrong with our president?) ماله الريس?

English Translation

I never fret, and will always say
A word, for which, I am responsible
That the president is a compassionate man
Constantly, busy working for his people
Busy, gathering their money
Outside, in Switzerland, saving it for us
In secret bank accounts
Poor guy, looking out for our future
Can’t you see his kindly heart?
In faith and good conscience
He only starves you; so you’d lose the weight
O what a people! In need of a diet
O the ignorance! You talk of “unemployment”
And how condition have become dysfunctional
The man just wants to see you rested
Since when was rest such a burden???
And this talk of the resorts
Why do they call them political prisons??
Why do you have to be so suspicious?
He just wants you to have some fun
With regards to “The Chair[1]”
It is without a doubt
All our fault!!
Couldn’t we buy him a Taflon Chair?
I swear, you mistreated the poor man
He wasted his life away, and for what?
Even your food, he eats it for you!
Devouring all that’s in his way
After all this, what’s wrong with our president?
Arabic Original

أنا مابخفش وحفضل أقول
كلمة حق عليها مسؤل
إن الريس راجل طيب
وبشعبه دايماًَ مشغول
مشغول إنه يلم فلوسهم
بره سويسرا يحوشهلنا
وف حسبات سريه يشلها ....نفسه يأمن مستقبلنا
شفتوا إزاي بقه قلبه رحيم
عنده إيمان وضميره سليم
بيجوعكوا لجل تخسوا
آه يا شعب محتاج لرجيم
من جهلكوا بتقولوا بطاله
وإن الأحوال مش شغاله
دا الراجل نفسه يريحكم
هي الراحه تبقي عواله ؟؟
أما حكاية المنتجعات
ليه بتسموها معتقلات ؟؟؟؟
ليه الظن...... وسوء النيه
نفسه يفسحكوا يا بهوات
أما الكرسي واللى تقال
دا كلام مش محتاج لسؤال
الغلطه دي غلطتنا يا عالم
إن مجبناش كرسي تيفال
والله إنتوا ظالمين الراجل
ضيع عمره ومين يستاهل
حتى الأكل بيكله بدالنا
طالع واكل نازل واكل
ماله الريس بعد دا كله ؟؟؟

Excerpt from "We support Your Excellency" (excerpt from a much longer poem, so do follow the link):
(We support your Excellency) نؤيد سيادتك لفترة جديدة 
English Translation

We support your Excellency for another term
In which we will continue the happy march
Maybe we can sell the curb
As there is nothing more one can sell

We support your Excellency to achieve more
Than what has already been accomplished under your reign for sure
We are now at last under the mercy of God
And God alone can have mercy on us

We pledge allegiance to your Excellency and no one else
It’s quite enough for us to swarm in your luxury
The people of Egypt are sound asleep
Which tells the thieves, to steal on

Arabic Original

نؤيد سيادتك لفترة جديدة
نكمل خلالها المسيرة السعيدة
و بالمرة فيها نبيع الحديدة
مفيش حاجة تانية نبيعها خلاص
نؤيد سيادتك لأجل المزيد
من اللي تحقق بفضلك أكيد
بقينا خلاص ع الحميد المجيد
و ربك لوحده ف ايده الخلاص
نبايع سيادته ولا حد غيره
كفايا علينا نبرطع في خيره
و نوم شعب مصر العظيمة و شخيره
يقول للحرامي ما تسرق كمان
He was, of course, a strong supporter of the 2011 Revolution.

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