1962 was the definitive turning point in my life. That was the year I met Ahmed Fouad Negm, the year my entire life changed course, the year Negm and I began our journey together, the journey that made us who we are.
Negm had just gotten out of prison. Back in 1959, he’d gone in on forgery charges, if I remember correctly. He did three years. It was during that spell in prison that he produced his first diwan of poetry, whose title, if my memory doesn’t fail me, Pictures from Prison and Life.
I met Negm because of that diwan. One of the intellectuals who lived in Hosh Qadam had read it and really liked it. That was Saad el-Mogy who, at the time, was working a Publications Director in the Ministry of Tourism. Negm’s cousin was a colleague of his at the ministry. Saad was a sophisticated character with a refined taste in poetry and music. He got to know Negm and the two of them became good friends. At some point, Saad told him, “We’ve got this guy who sings and plays the oud in our alley, and he’s pretty good too, even though people say his style is old-fashioned. I wish you’d come by and hear him some time and tell me what you think of him. Maybe you two could work together on something?”
So Negm came by my place in Hosh Qadam. Saad introduced us, “Mr. Negm is a very talented poet. He’s come to hear you play. Come on, Sheikh Imam, play us a little something!”
I grabbed my oud and sang something classic, something by Umm Kulthoum if I remember correctly. Negm loved my voice and asked, “Sheikh Imam, do you ever set lyrics to music?”
I answered him back right away, “I’m just waiting till I find the kind of words that speak to me.”
Negm instantly took out a pen and paper and wrote down the outlines of a song. Later I found out that he’d tried to get the composer Baligh Hamdi interested in it sometime before. The first lines go like:
Between the guy who said this and the other that,
Loving you is making me a wreck…
We agreed to meet again and he went away. When he came back a few days later, he asked, “How’s the song going?”
“Honestly? I wasn’t impressed. The words didn’t speak to me, so I didn’t compose a melody for them.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
And he gave me lyrics for a new song. This became the first piece we worked on together. It goes like this:
I repent loving you, I do
And there are songs to sing, after you
All I ask, all I plead,
Keep me busy if we’re going to be
Or let me forget if you’re not for me…
These were lyrics I liked. I grabbed my oud and started noodling around on it right away. After an hour or so, I had something. I sang it to Negm, and he loved it—and that’s how our journey together began. Our next song was “The Love of Young Women”:
I fell for a girl, eyes dark as night
I loved her till I forgot what morning was like
I drowned in that night of torment-love
So thirsty, but oh—so awake!
And then “Just Before Sunset”:
Just before sunset, O Breeze!
My heart wanders and the river sleeps
Over there, a sweet girl walks, anklets singing
Telling me everything she’s thinking…
The success of this song cemented our relationship once and for all. Then Muhammad Ali joined out troupe, accompanying me on the tambourine. Negm left his apartment in Boulaq Dakrour, and moved in with Muhammad in our alley. And that, more or less, is how we began and how we did things for the first years.
1967 was the year of our great defeat (Naksa)—and everything that came with it. These things left a deep scar in the conscience of every Arab. The defeat of 1967 was the turning point in the life of our troupe. That’s when Negm and Muhammad and I began to sing political songs, the songs that established us with the Arab public.
from Mudhakkirat al-Shaykh Imam, ed. Ayman al-Hakim (Cairo: Dar al-Ahmadi li-l-Nashr, 2001).
- Translated Elliott Colla