On 3 December, the Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm died in Cairo at the age of 84. With his passing, the world lost a literary giant whose words have inspired poets, activists and intellectuals in Egypt and the Arab world since 1967. His colloquial verse was alchemy—turning the melody of everyday speech into protest songs that could be wielded, like weapons, against the rich and powerful, the corrupt and tyrannical. It was not without reason that he was imprisoned by Nasser and then again by Sadat. It was not without reason that Algerian and Palestinian activists recite his verse just as Egyptian students and workers do.
Born in Sharqiyya province in 1929, Negm’s early years were ones of mixed hardship.1 From an orphanage in his youth to employment with the British military in the Canal Zone, he eventually found himself incarcerated on forgery charges by the time he was thirty. In prison, he turned to composing colloquial strophic poetry (zajal), and sometime after his release, in 1962, published his first collection of verse, Images from Life and Prison. Over the next decades, he would publish many more collections of poetry, characterized by intense language play, effortless melody and, later, sharp satirical and political edge. His memoirs, al-Fagoumi, are no less striking as a literary achievement—chronicling a life of struggle and verse in the same lively vernacular idiom of his verse.2 As Negm shows throughout his corpus, idiomatic language does not mean simple language. On the contrary, Negm remained committed to the phonic aspect of language as a medium in its own right. His fierce punning and his regular use of nonce (and nonsense) words allowed him to develop a register that was simultaneously common and extraordinary, at turns full of meaning, at turns apparently empty. He invented and inverted words and made obscure sounds meaningful. And because sound is part of the thing itself, most of his verses are famously untranslatable, as the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has noted.
By harnessing language play to political critique, Negm showed that one needed only a wit and voice to challenge dictators. As caustic and dark as some of his poems are, they are never hard on the tongue. Much of his poetry cannot be sung without smiling or even laughing. But to do so, one has to engage seriously with play and commit sincerely to irony. Negm’s love of the Egyptian Arabic language was unique, and ran contrary to the aesthetic ideologies of Arab literary gatekeepers. By the 1970s, Negm had established himself as heir to Egypt’s illustrious tradition of colloquial poety, a tradition that featured giants like Bayram al-Tunsi, Fu’ad Haddad and Salah Jahin, as well as Negm’s contemporary, Abd al-Rahman al-Abnoudy.
Negm’s earliest poetry was largely unconcerned with politics, and it is difficult to recognize what he became—the Arab world’s premiere protest poet—without appreciating the turn he had to make during the 1960s. Three events during this period stand out. There was his partnership with Sheikh Imam Isa (1918-1995), the blind protest singer. The two men began to work together in 1962 and this encouraged Negm to relocate to Hosh Qadam, an alley in the popular Ghuriyya district of Cairo. Also during this time Negm was employed at the Afro-Asiatic People’s Solidarity Organization and this brought him into contact with the Third-World solidarity networks for which Cairo was metropole. And finally, there was the Naksa of 1967, the military defeat which compelled brave new lines of critique among poets, intellectuals and activists.
Negm’s poetry is not meant to be read, but recited. Or, better, to be sung loudly in public with many others. And indeed, it is largely through song, and his famous collaboration with Sheikh Imam that Egypt and the Arab world came to know of him and his poetry. The poet and the musician collaborated extensively throughout the 60s and 70s, often while running from Nasser’s and Sadat’s mukhabarat, or in prison. Legend has it that the two men would pack for prison before going to perform protest songs, always expecting to be jailed.
In the absence of an opposition press, Negm’s and Sheikh Imam’s most famous collaborative pieces functioned like lyrical op-eds responding to political developments in Egypt and the region. “Baqarat Ha-Ha,” for instance, was written in the wake of the 1967 defeat, and lambasts the military for their utter failure to protect Egypt from foreign pillage. The short refrain of the poem—“ha ha”—sits somewhere between a tearful sob and laughter, tragedy and comedy. Their famous “Guevara mat” was composed in the wake of Che Guevara’s death in 1968. The mournful song was more than mere elegy. It also served as an insistent reminder that Egypt’s battles were part of a wider global struggle. Negm’s elegy of Nasser is similarly moving, especially when we remember it was about a leader whose police had hounded and imprisoned him. “Riga‘u al-talamza” celebrated the mass student protests of 1972 that forced the Sadat regime to re-initiate the liberatory struggle against Israel. Similarly, the poem-song “Nixon Baba,” written during Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974, is a double-edged skewer—against the bankruptcy of “peace diplomacy” and also against the corruption of Arab leaders who would sell national dignity and sovereignty for a place at the children’s table of American empire.
For Egyptian dissidents, activists and militants, the Negm-Sheikh Imam collaboration was a perennial soundtrack—an evolving script—and when they were not in prison, they performed regularly at protests, rallies and sit-ins. Outside activist circles, however, Negm and Sheikh Imam were not well known in their home country. Except for the brief moment during which Negm and Sheikh Imam were invited to host a radio show, their work was completely absent from Egyptian media. With the introduction of the cassette tape in the early 1970s, their work began to circulate beyond these confines, by-passing Egyptian state media altogether. You were more likely to hear Negm’s poetry and Sheikh Imam’s melodies on the airwaves in Beirut or Tunis than in Cairo. At the height of their partnership, in the 1980s, they were arguably more beloved outside than inside Egypt, particularly in Tunisia and Algeria where they performed a number of times.
Eventually, Negm and Sheikh Imam parted ways. Negm’s poetry remained vernacular, but in the last decade of his life, his poetry began to cleave to the page more closely than it had in the past. He himself remained an active poet, a fixture of salons like Dar Merit`s, and a mentor figure to the Egyptian left. His irreverence and folksy manner also made him a darling of satellite television, and it was mostly from the proceeds of his frequent appearances on it in the last few years that he lived. He moved from old Cairo to the Mokattam hills on the outskirts of Cairo after the earthquake of 1992.
As Egypt rediscovered its protest culture during the last decade, Negm received the full public notice that had so long deserved. Many of the best-loved Negm-Sheikh Imam collaborations became part of concert repertoires for performers like Iskanderella over the last few years, and more recently, Maryam Saleh. As younger Egyptians discovered him, new connections were made between the present moment and earlier histories of emancipatory struggle. It is not just that Negm’s work from the 1970s was so good that it transcended its moment of conception. It was also that the popular discovery of Negm opened up new vistas for imagining that Egyptians were not complacent or passive, but rather capable of fighting for their rights. When protesters took to the streets on 25 January 2011, often it was Negm’s words that were in their mouth.
After the uprising of 2011, his appearances in the media began to increase. Proceeds from the appearances allowed him to move out of the public housing built for earthquake victims to the neighborhood known as “Zamalek Mokattam,” named, of course, after Cairo’s upscale island neighborhood of which he had poked fun in his 1966 poem, “al-Tahaluf.”
Negm died as he was preparing to travel to Amsterdam where he was to be honored as one of 11 recipients of the annual Prince Claus Awards. The award is given to individuals and organizations that make outstanding cultural contributions “in areas where resources and opportunities for cultural expression, creative production and research are limited and cultural heritage is threatened.” It is hard to imagine an award more fitting for Negm, a poet who managed to create beautiful art in the most difficult of conditions. The wonder is, not that he won the award, but that it took so long for him and his work to be thus recognized. Never at a loss for stirring multivalent words, let us end here with his own, from his 1978 “The Prison Ward,” as translated by Mona Anis:
Prison ward, listen in:
I’ve shaken the dice many times,
And gambled with everything on the big prize and lost,
And bitter though prison is,
I’ve never once wanted to repent.
Having bid the night guards good evening,
Every single one of them,
And the shingi,
I say we’re wicked inmates all,
Though the storeroom clerk
Has given us different uniforms.
My First Words are for The Prophet
My second, for Job;
The third are for my estrangement;
The fourth, for my destiny;
My fifth, I will say that he who oppresses others
Will himself be defeated one day...
1. For more on Negm’s life and his collaboration with Sheikh Imam, see the rich contributions of Hala Halim and Marilyn Booth in “My Words Out Loud." For more on the poetics of vernacular poetry, see Noha Radwan, Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon: New Readings of Shi‘r al-‘ammiyya (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
2. His memoirs were made into a feature film in 2011, starring Khaled al-Sawi as Negm. The filmmaker Ali Shawki has also made a documentary series based on al-Fagoumi that features Negm himself and showcases his undeniable and irreverent charisma, largely undimmed by his advanced age. To get a sense of the Negm on film, see this 1984 documentary from Algerian television or this 2012 documentary from Al Jazeera.