With the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi (1938-2015), Egypt and the Arab world lost the last of the pioneers of colloquial poetry who have significantly enriched poetry written in the spoken Egyptian dialect and expanded its horizons. Together with Fuad Haddad (1927-85) and Salah Jahin (1930-86), Al-Abnudi was instrumental in moving Egyptian colloquial poetry beyond the poetics of mass mobilization and explicit political expression to more complex and diverse realms. Over the last two decades, al-Abnudi had become a familiar household face, voice and name (also nick-named al-Khal, or the uncle) through his frequent recitations of new as well as old poems of his and numerous interviews on satellite television shows.
Al-Abnudi was born in 1938, in the Upper Egyptian village of Abnud. As a high school student, he began to write poetry that was partially inspired by his readings of Salah ‘Abd al-Sabur (1931-81) and Ahmad ‘Abd al-Mu’ti Hijazi (b.1935) whose modernist poetics had an important influence on Al-Abnudi’s. He, however, chose to write in the colloquial register, which he says was “much closer to his heart,” as well to the abundant legacy of traditional Upper Egyptian oral verse traditions This oral verse would also continue to be an influence on his poetry throughout his career.
Al-Abnudi did not become familiar with the poetry of Haddad and Jahin until travelling to Cairo where, in 1958, his poetry was published for the first time in a section of the weekly Sabah al-Kheir (edited by Jahin). In 1961, Al-Abnudi moved to Cairo and began to earn his living as a song writer. His first anthology, al-Ard wil-‘iyal (The Land and the Children) which comprised 22 poems, was published in 1964. From the outset, his poetry was highly distinct as that of an insider who not only represents the poor and disenfranchised but also shares their life with its fears and sorrows, its small pleasures and endearing ambitions.
In 1969, al-Abnudi’s popularity spread to a large number of households nationwide through a radio show for which he composed and recited Gawabat Haragi al-gutt al-ʿamil fi al-sadd al-ʿali ila zawgituh Fatnah Ahmad ʿAbd al-ghaffar fi gabalayat al-far, or The Letters of Haragi al-gutt, the High Dam Laborer, to his wife Fatnah Ahmad ʿAbd al-ghaffar in Gabalayat al-far, twenty four letters in verse recited using the colloquial spoken in Upper Egypt. The letters exchanged between Haragi and his wife covered a period of six years, 1960–1966, during which the wife lived with two young children in the couple’s hometown of gabalayat al-far while Haragi lived and worked at the construction site of the High Dam in Aswan. The letters, which are at once highly emotional and poignantly critical of the regime’s inability to deliver the socialist utopia it promised, were an instant hit and continue to be among his most beloved poems. Al-Abnudi’s repertoire includes more than 15 anthologies and tens of songs that were sung by ‘Abdul-Halim Hafiz, Sabah and Shadiah, and more recently by Muhammad Munir and the Lebanese Majda al-Rumi. Together, his poems and song lyrics encapsulate key moments in modern Arab history, touching on the Egyptian anti-colonial era, the popular opposition to Sadat’s Camp David treaty and to his open-door policies, celebrating the first and second Palestinian intifadas and lamenting the reactionary positions of Arab regimes towards the Palestinian struggle, denouncing the American invasion of Iraq, and more recently, celebrating the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
In addition to his contribution as one of the most influential and highly esteemed poets of Egyptian colloquial who have truly carved a place for this genre alongside the modernist poetry written in standard Arabic in Egypt, Al-Abnudi will also be remembered for his efforts at preserving the classic oral epic of “al-Hilaliyya”. Al-Abnudi’s recordings of the epic began in 1967, and he recorded multiple versions including some from the Sudan, Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa. In 1988, he published the first part of the epic in five volumes. Additionally, he presented numerous radio and television shows that featured recordings of live performances of the epic, introducing it to younger audience.
Following the military ouster of President Morsi in July 2013, al-Abnudi, like the majority of Egypt`s liberal and leftist intellectuals, expressed enthusiastic support for the new regime, a position which was controversial and seen by some of his fans as inconsistent with the opposition to autocracy that reigned in his poetry.