[Egyptian colloquial poetry occupies an ambivalent, if not dubious, status in the Arabic literary canon. Whereas it is largely absent in school syllabi and programs of Arabic literature at institutions of higher education in Egypt, critics and researchers tend to deal with it as an instance of folklore, oral poetry, or popular culture, rather than as simply part of the rich corpus of Arabic poetry. This has often resulted in quarantining the study of this kind of poetry in narrow circles, thus consolidating an implicit judgment of inferiority. Egyptian colloquial poetry is, moreover, seldom translated into other languages. The ‘genre’ is, nevertheless, as is apparent to those observing the literary scene in Egypt, more widely disseminated and more accessible to the public than its counterpart in standard Arabic. Egyptian colloquial poetry often deals with issues touching the lives of ordinary people, in rhythms and metaphoric language that are close to their daily lives and their ordinary speech. Although it mostly appears in print, this poetry, due to its oral roots, still owes part of its richness and popularity to oral performance. Performances of Egyptian colloquial poets, especially by the more popular contemporary ones such as Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, Abdul-Rahman al-Abnudi, Jamal Bekhit, and Iman Bakri, draw huge audiences and tend to involve the participation of members of the audience in the performance.
Abdul-Rahman al-Abnudi, born in Qena in the south of Egypt in 1938, is one of the most important contemporary Egyptian colloquial poets. In his poetry, he uses a mixture of the dialects of Upper Egypt and of the poorer quarters of Cairo. His poetry betrays his stance of solidarity with the underprivileged members of the community (particularly the rural poor) who have been subjugated by various forces of oppression throughout history, whether under colonialism or under successive post-independence regimes in Egypt.
“Yamna” was written in 1998 and appeared in the poet’s 1999 collection, Matter-of-Fact Griefs (al-Ahzan al-Adiyya), though it had appeared a few months earlier in some Egyptian and Arabic newspapers. The poem was enthusiastically received by readers, and was republished in the poet’s 2001 volume of poetry entitled “Yamna” and other poems (“Yamna” wa Qasa’id Ukhra). Between 2001 and 2004 the book was reprinted seven times.
The poem is a monologue introducing the voice of Yamna, the poet’s aunt who lives in a village in the south of Egypt. She takes the opportunity of a visit by her nephew, who is briefly returning after a long absence in Cairo, to muse on various issues of past and present, and move freely in place and time, fusing topics such as her imminent death, her aching knees, her nephew’s belated marriage, while intermittently remembering unconnected episodes from her past life. However, Yamna’s monologue is not totally without logic. In her free movement between past, present and future, she reveals an overwhelming preoccupation with aging, and an approaching death. She also voices both grief and contentment at a life that has gone by, a land whose features have almost completely changed, relatives and acquaintances who leave or die, and others who remain alive but are as good as gone.
Yamna’s monologue can be seen both as an attempt to reconstruct the land she belongs to through the creation of concrete pictures which function as structural motifs holding the poem together, and as an act of symbolically defying an imminent death. In talking about death, however, her tone is flippant and irreverent, which renders her death at the end of the poem a natural outcome of the decay of an old way of life rather than a melodramatic closure. Yamna, however, does not seem to have been ultimately defeated; her monologue and her jerky narration are but an embodiment not only of her solitary voice, but of the voices of others like her (some of whom are referred to by name within the course of the poem). The monologue gives her the centrality and the authority to reconstruct her lost place, while also allowing her a space for contemplation that makes possible the act of (re)writing her personal history, as well as the history of the larger community, and the history of a fast-disappearing land.]
[Translated from the Arabic by Randa Aboubakr]
Your hair has gone grey, Abdurrahman!
You’ve grown old, lad!
When and how?
Aging at home isn’t the same
As aging alone!!
Women have burnt you out, eh?
I saw you once on TV
And once they showed me your picture somewhere
I said: Abdurrahman has grown old!!
I must have been dead for a hundred years!!
I am worried, sonny, I would linger here for long.
Sheikh Mahmud has died
Fatna ab Andil has died
ab Ghabban’s orchard has been sold
And here I live and grow old.
And it looks like I’m going to live on and on.
I’ve lived long -
Long enough to see you aged, Abdurrahman.
They tell me you got children-
At such an old age, brother?!
And what do I hear? Girls? How?
What were you doing all your life then?
And what good is it to have them now?
They will be your smell on earth
And keep each other warm.
Here we are at last, snatching a glimpse and a whiff of you!
Only now you remember Yamna and come calling: Amma?
You’re my darling Abdurrahman,
By God, love, you are a dear,
You stay busy out there
But you still have a heart-
Unlike the bastards
Who walked out on us before!!
Are your wife and daughters pretty?
Or do they look like us here?!
What have you called them? Aya and Nur, they say.
Couldn’t you have got yourself a boy?
What good in this world
Were those we had?
If it weren’t only for man’s greed!
You bring me velvet and flannel!
Do you think Yamna will live to wear new clothes?
You could have better given me money
To buy balm for my knee.
Oh my! What a dandy you’ve always been, Abdurrahman!
I have been here for six years
Planted next to the door
But no-one comes to call.
Ok, I’ll keep them anyway
They could serve as my shroud!
My face has grown wrinkled!
Do you remember Yamna and that face?
Don’t you ever believe this life
It’s all a lie!!!
If death comes to you my son
Die at once
Those who died young
Have remained alive in the heart
As if they have never left
But those who died bit by bit
And dried up alive
Do not even bother to send a greeting
Across the door.
When death comes to you, open up
When it calls out your name, run to it!!!
You’re the winner
Don’t you ever stop to calculate!!
Not son nor daughter will do
These times are liars
Even when they tell the truth.
Leave money and stuff behind and run
Don’t you ever look back!
Wealth is nothing but sand
And the walls of time are but mud
And your kids shall live, with or without you around.
Oh my! Rumman!*
It’s a long road,
And he who seeks to prolong it further
Is a jackass, my love!
I need the medicine for the pain in my knee
Not to make me live on
Don’t you ever believe its bright colors- yellow and red!
Weren’t I beautiful, lad?
Weren’t I this and that?
Bold and daring and feared by men?
But how could know?
You were only kids then!
My daughters Radiyya and Najiyya are dead and gone
But I have lingered on
Well then, what can I do?
Don’t you ever live for one day past your kids
Don’t you ever, Abdurrahman!
Life is full of all sorts of pain and grief
That people do not know,
But the hardest is when you live
After your kids go
Will you learn what death is!!
When it comes to you, jump aboard!
Do you still tell people up north
The tale of “Fatna w Haraji-l Gott?”
Oh my! What a naughty boy you were!
Unlike all the other boys,
And in your magic-filled eyes
A lot lay hidden
Like a mother-kite
Descending over something
Then flying away
What sharp claws and becks you had my boy!
But you were never untrue
And here I am, lingering on in this life
To see your hair gone grey!
The house has grown old
Many a house had fallen apart
But this one still holds on
Waiting for me to die!!!
Will you be coming the next Eid?
And if you did
Would you come to see Yamna?
And have tea with her?
I will come, Auntie, I will, I swear
And when I did
Neither Yamna nor the house was there!!
[Abdul-Rahman al-Abnudi, al-Ahzan al-Adiyya (Cairo: Dar Qiba’, 1999) pp. 104-111.
* The poet’s nickname as a child.
ii- Figures from an early and very popular collection of poetry written by the poet in the 1960’s.
iii- Days of festivity marking religious occasions.