Poems Poems translated by Mona Anis My Country First Mother Egypt This is My Handwriting Light a Candle Pablo Neruda Your Wondrous Sea, Oh Alexandria Message Number 1 from Tura Prison The Prison Ward The Consolations of Poetry Alone Essays Ahmed Fouad Negm: ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ by Hala Halim Exploding into the Seventies: Ahmed Fouad Negm, Sheikh Imam, and the Aesthetics of a New Youth Politics by Marilyn Booth Acknowledgements 4 8 12 14 18 24 28 32 38 42 5 9 13 15 19 25 29 33 39 43


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MY COUNTRY FIRST (1967) My country first, My country second, My country third. My country first, I’m improvising before singing my mawwal.1 My country second, I say my words out loud. My country third, It’s my treasure, my wealth, and my pride. My country first, I’m improvising before singing my mawwal According to what has been prescribed. My country second, I say my words out loud And without any punning. My country third, It’s my treasure, my wealth, and my pride, And it’s esteemed by all. My country first, I’m improvising before singing my mawwal According to what has been prescribed for the sick. My country second, I say my words out loud, Without punning and to the bull’s eye.



My country third, It’s my treasure, my wealth, and my pride. It’s esteemed by all, and it’s time, My country, that you drew a line Between truth and lies, Time you raised your banner high, A proof of your strength. My country first, My country second, My country third.

1  Mawwal, is a traditional form of vocal music that is usually presented before the actual song begins


MOTHER EGYPT (1969) Let our words be preceded by our greetings to all who are listening, Little sparrow chirping rhymed words full of meaning About a dark land, a moon, A river, a boat and a shore, And fellow travellers on a hard journey And an image of a huge gathering And processions Reflected in the eyes of a beautiful young woman, Who is the reason for my words and meanings. Beautiful Mother Egypt Wearing a tarha and a long robe, Time’s grown old, and you’re still young, It’s now departing, and you’re still coming, Coming after a hundred and one nights, Treading on hardship, Smiling as always, As strong as ever. When you laugh, morning appears After dark and dusk, And the sun rises above you, A young, playful and beautiful woman. Islands of night Are swept by the sea, And dawn’s a high torch Undrowned by the waves, And the shore is looming Near sunlit cities. Come, give us a hand, Help us; No matter how rough the waves may be, Together, with resolution And perseverance, We will make the crossing.



Mother Egypt, you’re like a ship; No matter how rough the sea may be, Your peasants are your sailors; They will harness the winds. The helmsman is a worker And the oarsman, an Arab knight, And the one up on the mast Can see all that has passed And all that is to come. Two knots, and a third for luck, You ride on the crest of a strong wave To reach the shore safely, Young, playful and beautiful. And our sweet words carried by our greetings Hover above the gathering once more, Like a sparrow singing its merriment, Dropping songs as if they were seeds Kissing the land which receives them with joy. They blossom, They grow, Become songs again, Singing: He who built Egypt Was a sweet maker.



THIS IS MY HANDWRITING (1970) This is my handwriting, And these are my words. Cover the paper with tears, Oh my eyes, For the olive groves are mine, And this land is an Arab land. Its breeze is my breath, And its dust is of my people, And it would not forget me If I tried to forget. This is my handwriting, And these are my words. I shall write, Oh my eyes, You are forbidden sleep. And I shall dim my eyesight with tears all day, Until I pay my debt That is as sacred As prayer and fasting. For debt to the free man Is bitter agony, disgrace, And worries towing hidden grief. This is my handwriting, And these are my words. I shall write on my hand, With my blood as ink, Oh my resolve, don’t fail me, Oh my people, do join in. And when we fulfill our promise We shall rejoice in the names Of those who died young In shelled houses and schools, And those workers buried Under the factory’s rubble. This is my handwriting, And these are my words.



LIGHT A CANDLE (1970) Light a candle, loved ones, Lead my steps. Two eyelashes Are bidding me follow: One course leads to blame, The other to regret; Two courses, each one risky, Tell me, people, where to go, Light a candle, Lead my steps. Two piercing eyelashes On magical eyes. They raise my heartbeat, Promising me love; Promises like raw fruit Growing on the other bank, Flirting with me, Calling to me From afar, saying I am yours. I wish I could, I want to cross, But premonitions slow me down. One course leads to blame, The other to regret; Two courses, each one risky, Tell me, people, where to go, Light a candle, Lead my steps. Light a candle, young maids, Lead my steps, allay my fears. A sea separates me from my love With waves like my premonitions, Each wave carrying its own load: A night’s dream,



A night’s worry. Count the waves of the sea, you Who have seen me, And tell my loved one I wish I could, I want to cross, But premonitions slow me down. One course leads to blame, The other to regret; Two courses, each one risky, Tell me, people, where to go, Light a candle, Lead my steps. Why, my heart, has love crossed our path? Why be blamed by those not in love? Love has come, bringing anguish, Disturbing our sleep at night. From dusk to dawn We are awake when others sleep. Wounds are our destiny, But one day the wounded shall be cured. Oh my heart, all this anguish? Calm yourself and follow reason: One course leads to blame, The other to regret; Two courses, each one risky, Tell me, people, where to go, Light a candle, Lead my steps.



PABLO NERUDA (1973) Shoulder your gun And consign your promises And excuses To the dustbin. They massacred the roses On the cheeks of the girls And the greenery In their hearts. There can be no peace, Oh fabricators of the age of prosperity, With the ogres all around. Wounds are still fresh; They, History, And memories Have not been forgotten: Imam Hussein, Spartacus, Allende, Lorca, Abdel-Rehim,1 A peasant from our country Who was burnt before Doomsday In the hell of betrayed Sinai, Constantly betrayed. Ernesto Guevara The great, Khamis and Baqari,2 Shafie,3 Adham4 With his old mawwal, And Qotb, the pivot of religion himself,5 Punished for reciting the Qur’an. A garnet necklace, beaded with martyrs From the time of Socrates.



Today, a diamond has been added: Neruda, the morning piper, The pipe of the breeze. In the morning beautiful Santiago Drinks milk from your songs. Scared, the sparrows Scattered When the owl cried The portents of your death. You, a martyr, Whose presence fills the space, A surgeon visiting the wounded, Examining their wounds. They rise, Reach for their guns, And with all the might of the afflicted They stab at what has plagued them, Putting an end to the plague. The sun rises in the morning, Bidding good morning To all those Carrying guns and wounds in one hand And flutes in the other. And the sun rises in the morning Above every palace And every wilderness, And the sun falls At dusk As Pablo Neruda is martyred. Oh earth, Mother of boys, Rotating, counting the years. Oh earth, Mother of girls, Rotating, counting the past:



Hardships, Wars, Peoples’ ordeals, Dogs, Agony, Fog, Sunsets, Lightning, Thunder, Sunrise, Uprisings, Struggles, Just duels, Unjust ones. And justice was And remains At all times The cause And the gamble. And the land will always remain A stage for the knights in the arena: Imam Hussein, Spartacus, Guevara, Lorca, Abdel-Rehim, Neruda, the morning piper, Neruda, The pipe of the breeze.

1 an Egyptian soldier killed in the Arab-Israeli 1967 War 2 two workers hanged in Egypt in 1952 3 leader of the Sudanese Communist Party hanged in 1971 4 an Arab folk hero who sided with the poor 5 Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayed Qotb hanged in 1966



YOUR WONDROUS SEA, OH ALEXANDRIA (1976) Oh Alexandria, Grant me some of your love, Let your wondrous sea Toss me from the arms of one wave to another While it’s rough and the fishing is plenty. Let me wash my clothes and hang up my worries, With the sun rising above me and me rising with it, As if I were a peasant in Urabi’s army1 Who died guarding the fortress And was swept away by your sea; As if I were a breeze atop the hills Coming from the sea to drown in your magic; As if I were words from the mind of Beiram,2 A song straight from Sayed’s heart;3 As if I were a student who In the heart of a demonstration Chanting your name died rejoicing. As if I were the voice of Nadim by night4 Waking up your people To help you back onto your feet; As if I were a brick in a house in an alleyway; As if I were a tear in a sleepless eye; As if I were a star over the lighthouse Guiding wanderers When there is no moon. Oh Alexandria, you who are Egyptian, Your smile heralding laughter, The sea is a window made of lattice work, And you are a princess watching the world go by. Oh Alexandria, I am in love, I want to rest in your embrace, My tender words a dowry For intimate talk between us. Oh Alexandria, you Where the poor spend sleepless nights



In search of bread, Where morning comes, and night returns, And the poor suffer without respite. Pity those worn out by time, All their efforts unrewarded; Their nets have been cast on a rough sea But have come out empty. Oh Alexandria, there are wolves among your people And beasts above the people. And there are also passionate lovers Who will not betray you in treacherous times. And among your people There is an olive-skinned woman Before whom I stand defenceless, Compelled to sing, Each time I see her.

1  Ahmed Urabi, commander of the Egyptian army at the time of the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 2  Poet Beiram al-Tounsi (Bayram al-Tunisi) 3 Alexandrian composer Sayed Darwish 4  Abdullah al-Nadim, an Alexandrian writer and nationalist leader at the time of the British occupation of Egypt



MESSAGE NUMBER 1 FROM TURA PRISON (1977) With every harbinger Of January’s arrival Light enters the prison cells, Driving away fear And darkness. Go prison breeze, Give your greetings to the trees, For the blossoms are flowering And the doves are nesting in the cells. My voice comes From the silence of the prison. It’s my heartbeat, Pulsing from the coffin, Addressing you, my loved one, Asking you to convey my words From deep inside the whale. Give my love, sweetheart, To all those I love. Give each a share Of my greetings. Embrace the world With your eyes, And send me That look of yours, So I can see those I love And quench my heart’s thirst. And ask All the learned men in our country, Ask every tower and every minaret, Ask every friend, And every child, If any of them had seen The signs of resurrection Before the good tidings Of 18 January1



When Egypt rose up, Cursing hunger, humiliation, Injustice and its rulers, After it had been believed To have been dead. Give my love To the dark-skinned boys In the alleyways. Give my love to The girls, promised from birth To concubines’ beds. And ask Each reader of the book With a reproach, Whether they would have believed, With all the ignorance And the deaths, That the instincts of the people Would precede any voice? This is great Egypt, My love, This is Egypt, For whose sake you preferred Our humble nest Over all the palaces. This is Egypt, Azza.

1 There was a popular uprising in Egypt dubbed the Bread Riots on 18 January 1977, during which the poet was arrested for a few months


THE PRISON WARD (1978) 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, The bringi The kingi And the shingi,1 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. First, hail to the Prophet who freed mankind, Cured the afflicted, and rescued the poor; You honoured man above the animals, Raised the sword of righteousness high above oppression, And declared to your people If one day injustice should prevail, And right be trodden down, No rain will there be, no greenery, no civilisation, Just snakes and crows Wreaking havoc on the mountains and valleys, No moon or light in the skies, Only blindness, sorrow, And fear of the jailer’s cruelty; Thus, people become scared of each other, And they scare the Sultan.



Second, I say I’m Job; When Job was afflicted And suffered for a couple of days, Stories were told about him, and he was given two names, Called both a prophet and a saint. But what about me, here in prison, twice patient? Patient after I was kidnapped from my people, And patient with what has been dealt out to me? The rascals rule, and their reign is one of shame. It’s the law of animals over people. I swear by the grave of the Prophet That one day the scales of justice will be twice upheld, And I shall be satisfied, seeing justice twice applied. Third, my estrangement in a world of rascals, Where they are protected, And free people are endangered. When the mean climb, they hire sycophants, Thugs, crooks, thieves, hypocrites, (Praise be to the Prophet); Naked tarts dance vigorously for no reason, Strangling words, Drowning out the sound of music And the poetry in the mawwal, Smothering the meaning of songs And the ringing of bells. One, the One and the Only; Two, the grandfather of Hussein;2 Three, it’s ugly to gloat; Four, the ink of the press; Five, my strong resolve; Six, the coming tomorrow; Seven, my heart in love; Eight, the longing of my fellow inmates; Nine, the wide world; Ten, damnation to all the traitors. Let it be known by all



That prisons are only walls, That ideas are like light, That light can jump over a thousand walls, And that walls never hold back the spirit. And let it be known by all That injustice has grown old, That the gates of the prison are weak, That the handles of the gates have disappeared, And that soon all this will just be memories, And that these promises will be fulfilled tomorrow, And that all your days, and ours, will be filled with light.

1 Turkish military ranks given to the guards, meaning first, second and third 2 Prophet Muhammad is the grandfather of Imam Hussein


THE CONSOLATIONS OF POETRY (1979) How consoling poetry And singing are At times of hardship. How consoling words and love are In troubled times. We have wandered far from each other, And we were dispersed, Now we are together, In prison. Oh comrades, What maze is it When the moon is strangled by long nights, When friends tread in darkness, Stumbling over friends, And when a two-step road Takes a whole year to tread. Look where we are today And how many of us there are. How many will there be tomorrow, And where we will be after tomorrow? What is our situation now, And what will happen to us the morning after? Where have we been, And where did we end? We visit a new place every day, And our number increases every day. We open doors every day, And every day we remove obstacles. A building goes up every day, And every day another comes down. Every day we are pregnant with new songs, And every day we give birth to new hopes. Whether we are inside a prison, Or outside a prison, This is how we should be.



How consoling poetry And singing are At times of hardship. How consoling a green branch is Amid desolation. We have wandered far from each other, But now we’re together, Writing the first words of our book: Damned be he who bows down Before oppression By a cowardly ruler; Damned be the word That bends in the throat Or escapes before it’s uttered; Damned be an hour of one’s life That’s consumed by subjugation; Damned be bread eaten with humiliation; Damned be the cowards. Oh comrades, You who taught the stones strength, I am calling out against Monotony, Depression, And boredom. You who can speed up the light of dawn And its advent, Listen attentively To a singer’s cry Emanating from the bottom of nothingness: Unite, Unite.



ALONE (1987) You’re alone, And I’m alone, Crying for hours Over the long journey And darkness. Oh, how lonely I am, Alone. It’s a desert, and I’m a camel man, Alone. There’s a heavy load, and I’m the carrier, Alone. And there’s a story I have to narrate, Alone. Oh, it’s lonely being alone. And you, the whisper of the breeze, The touch of music’s strings; You, with winter cheeks, And eyes like rivers. You spend autumn Between fire and nostalgia, Colouring dreams, And making the blossoms open. As for me, my autumn is fruitless, Spent alone Between thirst and fasting; Alone, Unable to sleep, Or spend the night awake, Alone.
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That the poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm (b. 1929) resonated in the 2011 Revolution in Egypt and in subsequent protests is hardly unexpected. It is a testament to a magnificent corpus that speaks directly to the causes codified in the revolution’s slogan, “bread, freedom, and social justice”. Negm’s corpus belongs to a canon of modern Egyptian poetry composed in the colloquial rather than the classical language, often deriving its forms from dexterously reworked folk traditions, and committed to the themes of social equality and political justice. Over and above the accessibility of his poems’ register and the fact of many of them having been set to music, his poetry is secured in Arab memory by virtue of its association with movements of protest and with historical junctures in Egypt and the Arab world for more than half a century. “Al-Fagumi”: Negm glosses his epithet for himself that serves as the title of his memoir as “impulsively outspoken”. The folktale with which he illustrates the archetypal fagumi – an indigent scholar-sheikh at the Azhar University who refuses to bow to the conquering sultan seeking to turn the religious establishment into his mouthpiece and rejects the sovereign’s gift – is a precise illustration of Edward Said’s adage about the intellectual’s role as “speaking truth to power”.1 Negm has always been firmly situated within the populist left. Having joined forces in 1962 with Sheikh Imam ‘Isa (1918–1995), the singer, composer and lute-player who set his poems to music, the duo’s performances – whether live or, more often, in view of the state’s clampdown on them, recorded non-commercially on cassette tapes – were the main channel through which the lyrics reached a wide audience. Imprisoned under Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Negm’s formation was eclectic. This “ambassador of the poor” and the oppressed acquired his politicisation through direct exposure to injustice in rural and then underprivileged urban contexts, activism and mixing with leftist milieus.2 Spending his childhood on the family estate in the hamlet of al-‘Abbasa in Sharqiyya province where he received traditional Qur’anic schooling, Negm lost his father, a police officer, at the age of six. The family fell on hard times and Negm lived for nine years in an orphanage, after which he returned to the village and worked the land for some years. What is striking about his glowing recollections of this formative period is the formidable repertoire of oral traditions it put at his disposal: his unlettered, eloquent mother’s songs and proverbs – “the heritage of fools whom I believe Christ, peace be upon him, called ‘the salt of the earth’”, as he puts it – the village lore and the mawawil (folk ballads; singular mawwal).3 The years that followed, from the mid-1940s until the early 1960s, saw Negm move between Cairo and the Suez Canal zone, then back to the capital where he settled definitively. Those were the years of Negm’s incipient initiation into political activism: his participation in strikes against the British in whose military bases he was

employed led to his first encounter with the left when a communist lent him Maxim Gorky’s Mother. A three-year stint in prison was a turning point: it put him in closer contact with leftist intellectuals who were fellow-inmates; he reconsidered his cultural affiliations; and wrote his first collection of poems which, thanks to the prison authorities’ personal encouragement, won a state-sponsored first book manuscript competition on the eve of his release. In hindsight, Negm asserts that he “discovered [in himself in prison] the poet whose name was to be on everyone’s lips from the Gulf to the Ocean and in any town or village on earth where Arabic is spoken”.4 Years after his first collection was published, Negm was to dedicate his 1998 diwan of “Complete Works” (a curious title given his in-flux corpus) “to Ahmad bin ‘Arus, ‘Abdallah al-Nadim and Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi… immortal poets of the people”.5 Superimposed here, over his childhood’s folklore and colloquial songs, is a genealogy of Egyptian poets who composed in the spoken language and with whom his own poetry was to enter into dialogue increasingly since the first collection. Negm attributes to that first period in prison his “awakening” to an earlier poetic and musical corpus that he, who had acquired a preference for Egyptian cultural production that “bore a whiff of Europe”, used to shun as “folksy” (“baladi”).6 True, it was while incarcerated that he first became acquainted with the colloquial poetry of his Marxist contemporary Fu’ad Haddad (1927–1985), and that he harked back to the colloquial poetry of Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi (1893–1961), the anti-colonial writer whose texts evince deep concern with social issues. But Negm’s staking a claim to colloquial poetic forebears who were part of the nationalist movement, such as ‘Abdallah al-Nadim (1845[?]–1896) – journalist, writer and orator of the 1882 ‘Urabi uprising – and al-Tunisi, also had much to do with the socio-political and cultural currents of his own time. In the 1960s, that decade of socialism, pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism, when Negm had a clerical job in the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization, he moved in the circles of journalists, artists and intellectuals whom he credits with greater exposure to cultural debates and trends.7 The Arabic term for colloquial poetry “was coined in 1961 by a group ˉ rus’ [whose name of young poets… The group named itself ‘Jamˉ a‘it Ibn ‘A appears in Negm’s dedication cited above], after the Egyptian poet… (b. 1780) who wrote in colloquial Arabic… In coining the term… the new colloquial poets were putting an end to the centuries-old Arabic tradition of restricting the term shi‘r to poetry written in the canonical literary language,” as Noha Radwan has argued.8 It was a trend that was concurrent and shared affinities with the experimentation, not least on the level of diction, in “modernist Arabic poetry” written in the classical language.9 If Negm found sanction and enrichment in this trend and some of its



practitioners, he continued, simultaneously, to dialogue with both the pre1950s colloquial poetry and the oral traditions of his childhood. Increasingly sought after by the Cairene milieu of literati in the ‘60s, Negm was to find himself – gradually, and more so towards the end of that decade – disenchanted with the Nasser regime, in particular with the gap between its professed socialism and the reality of persistent social inequality, as reflected in his poems.10 It would be misleading to suggest that Negm’s corpus is entirely inscribed within committed poetry; his poems also treated private themes, albeit later often interwoven with collective concerns. The 1973 poem ‘Nawwara’ – named for his infant daughter, now an esteemed activist and journalist – opens with invocations of blessing for the child and for the Egypt of her future, followed by tenderly humorous tableaus of the infant, then a medi­­­ tation on how her generation would regard his generation’s struggle, closing with his own unvanquished optimism.The beloved, at times a specific woman as in the 1977 ‘Ughniyya Hizar’ (‘Playful Song’), is at other times Egypt, and at yet other times both. ‘Baladi wa Habibati’ (‘My Homeland and My Beloved’; written in prison in 1972) opens with a deeply nostalgic address to the beloved, reminiscent of the amatory prelude in classical Arabic poetry, before the speaker is rudely awakened from his dream by a police search campaign. When “one of the layabouts / looked me in the eye” in hopes of “spotting the slightest trace of fear / […] and which of us is the coward / which the traitor”, he trembles and sputters gibberish when the speaker returns his gaze: “because he saw two beautiful images / in my kindly eyes / Egypt in the left eye / and you in the right”.11 Negm’s ‘Bahiyya’, arguably one of his most well-known poems, was repeatedly recalled since the beginning of the 2011 Revolution. In appealing to Bahiyya (the name also signifying beautiful or radiant), the trope of a feminised Egypt, Egypt as the peasant woman addressed here as “mother”, the poem extols her youth, vitality and for­­­ bearance that will shine through when the night has given way to a new dawn. Written in prison in 1969, two years after the defeat in the June 1967 War with Israel, the poem then depicts Mother Egypt as a ship on a stormtossed sea, steered by its peasant-sailors over mighty waves to the safe haven. The lyric, as set to music and sung by Sheikh Imam, was to reach a wider audience through the film by Youssef Chahine (1926-2008), al-‘Usfur (The Sparrow, 1972), which thematises the conditions that led to the defeat. Sung at the opening of the film, stanzas of the lyric are voiced over again at the close after Bahiyya, the woman protagonist whose household is the meeting place of diverse characters, rushes out into the street right after Nasser’s speech announcing the defeat, shouting, “No, we will fight.”12 The 1967 War launched Negm into committed writing, his first response to the defeat, ‘Risala’ (‘Letter’), having been written on 8 June as the first

news of what had actually taken place was barely breaking. Written in the locutions and accent of an Upper Egyptian, the poem is a message from a father, Hasan Muharib (his surname also denoting fighter) who works as a guard in a village, to his son fighting on the border. Bearing tender greetings and messages from kith and kin, and news of relatives’ volunteer work in the war effort, the father’s letter strengthens his son’s resolve to fight, calling on him to avenge his brother who was martyred. While the pathos of the poem enhances the bitterness of the reader, privy to what has transpired in the war, Negm’s choice not to alter it, save for a few words, was undoubtedly intended to motivate resistance. By contrast, ‘Baqarit Haha’ (‘Haha’s Cow’), a poem written in the wake of the defeat, is a poignant lamentation of what has befallen the country, represented here as a “dark butting cow” (reminiscent, one is tempted to suggest, of the goddess Hathor) full of bounty and fertility. The lament squarely lays the blame on the authorities for the defeat: the cow’s abundance is plundered by the people of the household and when the day comes when “foreigners” break in and steal its milk, “the guards escape” while the people of the house are fast asleep, heedless of the creature’s crushed calls. The power of the poem derives from its simple diction and elemental imagery, and the bullet-like short verses, punctuated by the refrain of a single two-syllable word, “Haha”.The lyric thus lent itself to a call-and-response format in public performances by Sheikh Imam.13 This was one of the poems that constituted the “red line” in public performances that the authorities, post-1967, allowed Negm and Sheikh Imam to hold in the belief that “containment within the regime’s official media would guarantee their moderation” – except that the duo “crossed that line”.14 I would note that Negm adapted some of the poem’s elements from a folk song that begins with “Uha, Haha’s cow” that he overheard the village children singing as he was being taken to the orphanage many years earlier.15 In the course of discussing Negm’s poetics, Kamal Abdel-Malek dwells on his use of “folkloric forms” in the service of his “identification with the causes” of the people, such as the mawwal, children’s songs, riddles (in this case lampooning public figures and establishment intellectuals and artists), wedding songs, cries of peddlers, proverbs, and the “subu‘ songs” chanted at the traditional celebration held on the seventh day after a child is born.16 Indeed, Negm’s poem ‘Sabah al-Khayr’ (‘Good Morning’) appro­­­ priates imagery, such as “the sprinkling of salt”, from the subu‘ ceremony to greet and welcome secondary school pupils arrested in protests and brought to the Citadel Prison where he himself was incarcerated in 1973. The “zaffa (procession) here… is not the communal act of celebrating the newborn and of striving to ward off the invisible evil spirits. Rather it is the revolutionary zaffa of the newly born participants in the national struggle



against visible and evil oppressors.”17 The opening verses – “Good morning to the flowers that have blossomed / in the gardens of Egypt” – it should be added, echoed in the 2011 Revolution after they were used as a headline for a newspaper spread, while the events were unfolding, on the young martyrs of the protests against the Mubarak regime. Subsequently reproduced on placards and banners, the verses allusively underscored this revolution’s continuity with earlier revolts against authoritarianism and corruption, via Negm’s poetry.18 Negm and Sheikh Imam were to become involved in protests, mainly by university students, who appealed to the duo and with whom they were in solidarity. The protests took place first, under Nasser, demanding an investigation into the causes of the defeat in 1967, and then under Sadat in 1972 – on different university campuses but also involving a sit-in in Tahrir Square which Negm joined – primarily in response to the president’s repeated deferral of action to liberate the Egyptian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Other demonstrations, and not only by students, would take place after the 1973 War, protesting against the regime’s rapprochement with the West and the government’s decision to cut subsidies on basic foodstuffs.19 Perceived by the authorities as the poet who “disrupts public peace”, Negm’s repeated imprisonment would inspire several poems; in addition to recording the date of composition of these texts, per his usual practice, he would also add the name of the prison.20 His 1972 poem ‘Waraqa min Malaff al-Qadiyya’ (‘A Page from the Dossier of the Court Case’) mimics the interrogation format in a dramatised counter-document that puts his positions (concerning the veering away from socialism, the stalling on war, the students’ movement) on public record and questions the state’s claim to representing the people: “-First, may I ask who I’m talking to? / -The State Security Prosecutor / -Whose state? / -The State of Egypt / -Egypt the shack / or Egypt the palace?”21 With the suspect repeatedly outwitting him, the interrogator, at the close of the poem, avers that a good beating will change his mind. The poem’s ending, rather than indicate that “[a]ny victory that could have been gained by the preceding witty repartee is thus lost”, underscores that the authoritarian state can wield nothing more than brute force in the face of legitimate demands and protest.22 Negm’s criticism of Sadat’s Open Door Policy and rapprochement with the West was effected in his poems by resorting to a whole gamut of satirical exploits. The 1976 ‘Bayan Hamm’ (‘An Important Announcement’) is a devastating parody of a broadcast of a speech by Sadat; the 1974 ‘Mawwal al-Ful wa’l-Lahma’ (‘Mawwal of Fava Beans and Meat’) mocks an announce­­­ ment by “a so-called responsible source” extolling the virtues of eating fava beans over the potentially venomous results of consuming meat; and ‘Boutikat’ (‘Boutiques’), written while Negm was in prison at the end of the

Sadat period in 1981, adapts idioms from the folk lingo of magic and the vernacular calls of souk hawkers to send up the advertising hype surrounding the consumerism at the expense of “the poor and their problems”.23 One of his most celebrated poems of the period is ‘Nixon’, written in 1974 on the occasion of the American president’s visit to the country. The poem mockingly derives its diction and imagery from phrases of excessive welcome and celebratory occasions in a mordant critique of Sadat and other Arab rulers playing their countries into the hands of American policy. In “what came to be known as ‘the Nixon Baba Case’”, Negm was arrested, together with Sheikh Imam, and a motley group of guests who were spending the evening at their place (the latter soon released). At the interrogation by the state security prosecutor, Negm reiterated his opposition to Nixon’s visit “while the blood of our sons spilled in the [1973] October War specifically by Nixon’s bullets has not yet dried” and his disapproval of certain journalists’ cheering for American aid.24 In a memorable scene in her first novel, In The Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif has her protagonist Asya grapple with explicating the complexities of ‘Nixon’ while translating it to a roomful of people at a social gathering in England as they listen to a smuggled tape recording of Sheikh Imam performing it. When “the Sheikh’s harsh, rasping voice comes on: ‘Sharraft ya Nixon Baba, / Ya bta‘ el-Watergate’,” Asya explains that, “he says, ‘You’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba – ‘Baba’ means ‘father’ but it’s also used, as it is used here, as a title of mock respect – as in ‘Ali Baba’, for example… you could also address a child as ‘Baba’ as an endearment – a sort of inversion: like calling him Big Chief because he’s so little – and so when it’s used aggressively… it carries a diminutivising, belittling signification.” Of the second verse, she adds that “the structure ‘bita‘ el-whatever’ (el- is just the definite article…) posits a close but not necessarily defined relationship between” two nouns. Hence, she continues, “‘bita‘ el-vegetables’… would be someone who sold vegetables… So Nixon is ‘Bita‘ el-Watergate’, which suggests him selling the idea of Watergate to someone – selling his version of Watergate to the public – and pursuing a Watergate type of policy, but all in a very non-pompous, street vernacular, jokingly abusive kind of way.”25 But Negm’s poems on socio-political themes are far from exclusively dedicated to Egyptian issues: his pan-Arabism, opposition to colonialism and neo-colonialism, and commitment to socialist struggles elsewhere are woven into his poetry. Palestine is at the centre of his pan-Arab orientation: ‘Ya Filisitinyya’ (‘O Palestinian’), written two years after the 1967 War, strengthens Palestinians’ resolve to resist and spells hope that they will overcome, while ‘Mawwal Filistini Masri’ (‘A Palestinian-Egyptian Mawwal’) resounds with Palestinian mourning and yearning for an Egypt that is the cure. ‘Saigon’ is a joyful lyric that celebrates the liberation of that city

– “a pearl, revolutionaries” – and the triumph over American imperialism in the Vietnam War.26 Three separate poems can be considered a triptych on icons of the left that bespeaks Negm’s internationalism: while ‘Allende’ is an elegy for “Salvador, the kind-hearted” who misread the signs, both ‘Ho Chi Minh’ and ‘Sarkhit Guevara’ (‘Guevara’s Scream’) eulogise the principles that the two figures stood for.27 Thus, the speaker in ‘Ho Chi Minh’ urges one Ragab to witness the story of “heroism” and proceeds to extol the dead “ruler” who became “an ascetic” and “renounced power”, a “Christ” whose legacy constitutes signs that provide sound guidance to be followed unswervingly.28 In the second poem, Guevara “the ideal freedom fighter is dead”, the speaker proceeding to taunt phony, dandy “latter-day freedom fighters / on the houseboats” with the manner of his death that “embodies his struggle”. But the speaker then exhorts workers, “the deprived” and all those who are “shackled” to heed “Guevara’s scream” for “there is no alternative” in “any homeland, any place” but to “prepare an army for salvation”.29 In the years leading up to Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, Negm recited his poems at protests, and was vocal against the Mubarak regime’s corruption and the president’s plans to transfer power to his son. Revered as a leftist whose life and corpus straddle so many signal moments in the region’s history, Negm, by virtue of his masterly vernacular poetry, remains incomparable. The poems will speak to newly “blossoming flowers” through the vicissitudes that lie ahead for the region “from the Gulf to the Ocean” in completing the work begun in 2011; and beyond that, the poems will speak to anyone who cares about the integrity of the word and the craft of poetry.
Ahmed Fouad Negm is also transliterated as Ahmad Fu'ad Nijm



WORks CiTED anD FURTHER REaDinG ‘Abd al-Fattah, Ibrahim. ‘Safir al-Fuqara’. Akhbar al-Adab, 15 September 2013. Abdalla, Ahmed. The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt 1923–1973. London: Al Saqi, 1985. Abdel-Malek, Kamal. A Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990. . mad Fu’a ____________. Al-Tariq ila Thawrat 25 Yanayir fi Shi‘r Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012. Abou-bakr, Randa. ‘The Political Prisoner as Antihero: The Prison Poetry of Wole Soyinka and ’Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm’. Comparative Literature Studies 46.2 (2009): 261–286. Booth, Marilyn. Bayram al-Tunisi’s Egypt: Social Criticism and Narrative Strategies. Exeter: Ithaca Press (St. Antony’s Middle East Monographs no. 22), 1990. Cachia, Pierre. Popular Narrative Ballads of Modern Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Chahine,Youssef, dir. Al-‘Usfur (clip). Misr International Films and l’Oncic, 1972. http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=jFAHrAaixfY. Al-Hadi, ‘Umar. ‘Shuhada’ Thawrat 25 Yanayir… al-Ward illi Fattah fi Ganayin Masr’. Al-Misri al-Yawm, 6 February 2011. Hirst, David and Irene Beeson. Sadat. London: Faber and Faber, 1981. ‘Isa, Imam (Sheikh), musical composition and performance. ‘Bahiyya’. http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=CKlE8GSUEOQ. ____________. ‘Baqarit Haha’. http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=7Y7URCj6rFI. ____________. ‘Guevara Mat’. http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=tqnyhP7N0rs. ____________. ‘Nixon’. http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=9p2jauOUBUk. ‘Isa, Salah. Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am. Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2007. Iskindirilla band performance. ‘Bahiyya’. http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=7loyzu3OI6k. Negm, Ahmed Fouad [Nigm, Ahmad Fu’ad]. Al-A‘mal al-Kamila. Cairo: Dar al-Ahmadi, 1998. ____________. Blog: http://elfagoomy.blogspot.com. ____________. Al-Fagumi: al-Sira al-Dhatiyya al-Kamila. Cairo: Maktabat Jazirat al-Wurud, 2009. ____________. Ya Ahli ya Hubbi ya Hitta min Qalbi. Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2008.

Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, Ahmed Fouad Negm award citation: http://www. princeclausfund.org/en/programmes/awards. Radwan, Noha. Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon: New Readings of Shi‘r al-‘a ˉ mmiyya. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. Soueif, Ahdaf. In the Eye of the Sun. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.

8 Radwan, Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon, 37. See also ibid., 53–61 on the “subject matter and themes” of these poets. On Bayram al-Tunisi, see Booth, Bayram al-Tunisi’s Egypt. 9 Radwan, Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon, 39; see also 40–48. 10 See Negm, al-Fagumi, 195–240, 293 and, on reading the complete works of Bayram al-Tunisi, 301–03. On Negm’s becoming acquainted with Fu’ad Haddad’s poetry while in prison, see ibid., 179. 11 Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 382–84; this and other quotations from Negm’s poems are my translation. For ‘Nawwara’, see ibid., 98-108 and for ‘Ughniyya Hizar’, 404–405. Abdel-Malek, A Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm, 17, observes . mad Fu’a that: “From 1967 onward, Egypt would loom large in the poet’s consciousness, now replacing the woman as a beloved, now subsuming her.” 12  For ‘Bahiyya’, see Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 24–27. For a recording of Sheikh Imam singing ‘Bahiyya’, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKlE8GSUEOQ; for a clip of the closing sequences of Youssef Chahine’s Al ‘Usfur (The Sparrow) with verses from the same lyric voiced over, see: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=jFAHrAaixfY; for a recent performance of this lyric by a young band, Iskindirilla, see: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=7loyzu3OI6k. 13 Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 569–572; quotations from 570, 572. For a recording of a performance of ‘Baqarit Haha’ by Sheikh Imam, see: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=7Y7URCj6rFI. For ‘Risala’, see Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 344–347; the date of composition of this poem, given in the volume as 9 June 1967, seems to be a typo. The date cited above, 8 June, is as given in Negm, al-Fagumi, 336. 14 Quotations from ‘Isa, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am, 27, 28. See also ibid., 25–28 on the poems of this period. 15 The song is reproduced in Negm, al-Fagumi, 97–98. 16 Abdel-Malek, A Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm, 89–104, quotation from 89. . mad Fu’a I reproduce here Abdel-Malek’s terms for the different categories he discusses under the subtitle “folkloric forms”. 17  Ibid., 98-99. For this poem, see Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 339–341. I quote the opening verses from ibid., 339. 18  Quotation from Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 339. See al-Hadi, ‘Shuhada’ Thawrat 25 Yanayir… al-Ward illi Fattah fi Ganayin Masr’. On the circumstances surrounding the composition of ‘Sabah al-Khayr’, see ‘Isa, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am, 44.

19 See Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt 1923–1973, Hirst and Beeson, Sadat, and ‘Isa, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am. 20 The quoted phrase is a rough translation of the title of ‘Isa’s book, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am, which researches legal documents pertaining to interrogations of the poet and his imprisonment. 21 Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 144–155; quotation from 144. 22  Quotation from Abou-bakr, ‘The Political Prisoner as Antihero: The Prison Poetry of Wole Soyinka and ’Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm’, 283. Abou-bakr’s article provides a rich discussion of Negm’s prison poetry. 23  See, respectively, Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 83–97, 479–481 and 464–466; quotation from 465. 24 ‘Isa, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am, 62, 64. 25 Soueif, In the Eye of the Sun, 496–497; Asya's commentary continues until 499. For ‘Nixon’, see Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, 510–513. For Sheikh Imam’s performance of this song, see: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=9p2jauOUBUk. 26 Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila,122. 27 Ibid., 485. 28  Ibid., 586, 588, 589. 29  Ibid., 590, 591, 593, 594. For Sheikh Imam’s performance of this song, see: http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=tqnyhP7N0rs.

NOTEs 1 See Negm, Ya Ahli ya Hubbi ya Hitta min Qalbi, 85–88. In invoking the adage “speaking truth to power” I adduce Said, Representations of the Intellectual, 85–102, and echo the Prince Claus Award citation for Negm: http://www. princeclausfund.org/en/programmes/awards. Abdel-Malek, A Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm, attributes Negm’s poetry’s . mad Fu’a “appeal to widely diverse segments of the society” to the use of “colloquial and… various folk forms”, that “it is protest poetry”, and “it is highly melodious and thus easy to memorize”. Quotations from ibid., 105. 2  “Ambassador of the poor” is the Arabic title of ‘Abd al-Fattah’s tribute to Negm, “Safir al-Fuqara’.” For biographical information on Sheikh Imam, see ‘Isa, Sha‘ir Takdir al-Amn al-‘Am, 19–20. For the first encounter between the poet and Sheikh Imam, see Negm, al-Fagumi, 188–192. 3 Negm, al-Fagumi, 26. On the mawwal genre, see Cachia, Popular Narrative Ballads of Modern Egypt. On Negm’s use of the mawwal genre, see Abdel-Malek, A Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm, 89–94. Negm’s resonance . mad Fu’a in Egypt’s 2011 Revolution is suggested in Abdel-Malek’s al-Tariq ila Thawrat 25 Yanayir fi Shi‘r Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm (The Road to the 25 January Revolution in Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm’s Poetry), which is essentially a translation of his Study on the Vernacular Poetry of Ah ˉd Nigm with a . mad Fu’a different appendix, containing a 2009 poem by Negm protesting against the then President Mubarak, on which see ibid., 197–199; Radwan, in Egyptian Colloquial Poetry in the Modern Arabic Canon, addresses how “Egyptian Colloquial Poetry Blooms in the Arab Spring”, the subtitle of her “Postscript”, 205–211. 4  Quotation from Negm, al-Fagumi, 149. I rely here on ibid., 125–185. 5 Negm, al-A‘mal al-Kamila, n.p. 6 Negm, al-Fagumi, 154. 7 See Negm, al-Fagumi, 173–319.






The power of artistic creation in performance to express collective political sentiments and to galvanise mass oppositional action has rarely been so clearly demonstrated as it was in the months after June 1967. All across the Arab world, citizens and subjects had witnessed the spectacular mismatch of official discourse and government action following Israel’s defeat of Arab forces and occupation of Arab territories. Stunned silence soon turned to anguished questioning and angry grieving on the part of millions. In Egypt, would disillusionment have metamorphosed into a broad, loud and studentled critique of the Nasser regime had it not been for the force of a symbiotic artistic partnership? A ragged-looking poet and a slightly built composersinger with a wicked grin became the performative beacon of a movement that challenged the final years of the Nasser regime and beyond, bringing together students, workers and other activists through an aesthetic presence that remains symbolically potent even now. If cultural work is always crucial to articulating shared sentiments as political discourse, only sometimes does such work sustain public political action. Ahmed Fouad Negm (b. 1929) wandered from a village childhood in the Egyptian Delta province of Sharqiyya, to an orphanage after his father’s early death, to farm work and employment in British occupation army camps near Suez. And then, on he went to prison on a forgery charge.With a prison officer’s encouragement, he submitted his colloquial Arabic poetry for a state prize and won, ironically foreshadowing the fact that many of his later poems would be composed from prison. Sheikh Imam ‘Isa (1918–95) went blind a few months after birth, moved at age 13 to Cairo to be trained as a Qur’an reciter, and found himself ejected from a religious institute because he haunted cafés and listened to tunes. From the mid 1940s until the early 1960s, he scratched out a living by hiring himself out to sing at weddings and other occasions while studying the secular musical compositions of Sayyid Darwish, Zakariyya Ahmad and others.1 It was May 1962 when the duo first encountered each other, shortly after Negm left prison. They met in Sheikh Imam’s one-room dwelling atop an old residence in medieval Cairo in May 1962 – in Khosh Qadam alley in al-Ghuriyya, later a true secular mecca for Egyptian and other Arab intellectuals. They exploded onto the public scene soon after the June 1967 War, first in print with Negm’s immediate poetic commentary on the defeat and then in song. Their synergistic inseparability soon earned them the name “NegmImam”. Their songs, performed to the accompaniment of Sheikh Imam’s ‘ud (lute), portrayed, chided and celebrated the student- and worker-led movement of resistance to practices of the Nasser regime, and then, after Nasser’s death in 1970, to his successor Anwar al-Sadat’s turn toward openness to Euro/American financial, commercial and political interests, including support of the Israeli state.

To explore this duet’s aesthetic-political power vis-à-vis the crystallising alliance between university students and factory workers from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, I focus on a few poems in a very large and temporally extended corpus – poems from the dawn of Negm-Imam’s fame. A longer study would carry the story on as far as the Bread Riots of January 1977 when Egyptians choked the streets of Cairo and other cities in protest of the government’s lifting of basic food subsidies under pressure from inter­­­­­­ national lending institutions.Tracing this sung poetry in the context of the student-worker movement, I argue that Negm-Imam’s lyrics and music fashioned a particularly effective political aesthetics for the moment, one that was extraordinarily powerful in a movement that by necessity com­­­ municated mostly through word of mouth.2 It was not just the message but rather the particular coherence of language, sound images, performance techniques and contextual performance elements – a performative enactment of the messages they were singing – that underlay the fast rise to fame and the political efficacy of this amazing and unique pair of artists, neither of whom is likely to have achieved such a powerful voice on his own. These songs circulated through underground tapes and concerts, often impromptu, hastily arranged, or private and advertised only by word of mouth (including one in my home in Cairo in 1980).3 They drew on oral storytelling, traditions of song and vernacular Arabic poetry, popular proverbs and other deeply-rooted expressive forms to couch a political voice that enacted a collectivity of those who felt disempowered but were not voiceless and refused to accept that status. To this day, these songs circulate in the memories of 1960s activists and onlookers, emotionally charged aesthetic echoes that strongly helped to shape a powerful set of political moments. I know that I am not alone in declaring that I cannot read or recite these poems without singing them or at least hearing Sheikh Imam’s voice and oud in my head. As a literary critic, I can appreciate and dissect the poems. But I found, returning to these poems years after I first knew them, and before I started listening to my old tapes, that I could not simply read them. I had to sing them: the music was there in my mind. So perfect is the fusion of song, articulation and lyrics that these works must have coalesced in a process of collective composition. Or perhaps it is simply vital that the listener believes this. I listen carefully to the fact that I cannot think or feel these poems without thinking and feeling their performance as songs. A Meeting of Minds and Voices In their respective memoirs and in interviews, Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam ‘Isa have recalled their first meeting. Negm was taken to Imam by a mutual friend. Negm described the moment in almost epiphanal terms
56 57

to journalist and activist Farida al-Naqqash in the late 1970s.4 It is worth listening to Negm’s memory of how the meeting shaped his subsequent art: “I followed my friend along the crowded way into Ghuriyya. From the window of a small house I heard his voice and his lute. At that time, he was singing the tunes of Sheikh Zachariyya Ahmad and Abd al-Wahhab. Even though he had not yet attempted his own compositions, I felt immediately that I was standing before a truly creative artist. I knew by heart the original songs he was singing, but every time I heard him singing them I felt that he was adding his own original elements to them.With the passage of time, I became convinced that Abd al-Wahhab was the imitation and Sheik Imam was the original.”5 Negm said that: “It was a summer night in 1962, the most important night of my life.”6 Indeed, the impact of this meeting on Negm appears to have been nearly immediate and absolutely decisive (at least in the retro­­ spective vision of memory). He told al-Naqqash: “The musicality of my poetry grew as I listened to the Sheikh, and my use of anecdotes and jokes, and of caricatures, grew and crystallised to become a fundamental element in poems I wrote afterward. When he began to set my words to music, my sense of responsibility increased sharply, for the melody and the rendition, especially for a man who carries in his very depths all this heritage, place the poet squarely in front of the masses, directly and immediately.”7 The pair began to perform for a few friends, at neighbourhood weddings and in cafés. Down and out in Khosh Qadam, they were a couple of adept tricksters, cadging a kilo of kebab from a would-be songster.8 (Later on, providing that kilo of kebab was de rigueur for anyone wanting to host Negm-Imam.) At the same time, Negm was exploring the world of Cairo journalism and songwriting,9 and artists were beginning to show up in Sheikh Imam’s room – “in the first tourist visit to this remote spot in the bowels of the republic of the lowest of the low, on the margins of the farflung city of Cairo of the 60s.”10 In his memoirs, Negm provides a taste of the collaborative work that went on, “a workshop night and day”. Negm might have been a powerful poet no matter what; and Imam was an able and creative artist. But the absolute synergy and match between words and song and performance which are a key to the power of Negm-Imam’s works began to gel then, in those rooms in Khosh Qadam. While political events from 1967 to the end of the 1970s produced Negm-Imam’s most lauded works and performances, it would be misleading to disconnect that decade from anything that came before. Although Salah ‘Isa argues that Negm “had no connection to politics or matters of govern­­ ment and did not write about them in his poetry before 5 June 1967,”11 an embryonic populist and oppositional political identity is visible in Negm’s

much earlier poems, including poems written before he met Sheikh Imam. That identity-in-poetry is shaped through nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments that crystallised during his time working in the Canal Zone. Negm was among the 80,000 workers who deserted British occupation army bases in 1951 in a boycott organised in response to the Wafd govern­­ ment’s urging. In his memoirs, he recalls the Canal Zone as the crucible of popular resistance. Drawing on a familiar trope, the nation as fecund woman (an image which surfaces in his poems), Negm recalls the atmosphere in 1951: “In those days Egypt was pregnant with something. Perhaps the features were not clear, but the pregnancy was certain, real, and obvious; everyone, of all [political] directions and rungs of the social ladder were waiting, as if they had an appointment with the moment of birth.”12 Nor was this the young man’s first presence in the political melee. As a teenager, he witnessed the 1946 student upheavals while selling stationery to tram riders; he traces the marching students from al-Azhar along the tramway route.13 His earlier poems show a sense of class grievance and polarisation, intensified, it seems likely, by his experience in prison (1959–62) where he also got to know a number of Egyptian communists. Likewise, Imam had not been isolated from politics, according to his own narrative: “I participated among al-Azhar University students in demonstrations against the king and the English [before 1952]”; anger at oppression “was rooted in me from childhood.”14 It was in the early 1960s, too, that Negm first read the poems of Bayram al-Tunisi, the great vernacular poet of an earlier generation, banished from Egypt in 1919 for having allegedly insulted the royal family in verse.15 Bayram’s voice had a strong impact on Negm’s poetic formation and his move toward a political voice constructed on the popular oral heritages of the Egyptian countryside and urban quarter. Indeed, Negm attributes his political-aesthetic awakening (and specifically, the concept of the union of politics and poetry) to reading Bayram’s poetry.16 The zajals (strophic poetry based on colloquial oral speech and set rhythmic and rhyme patterns) in his 1964 collection Suwar min al-hayat wa’l-sijn (Images from/of Life and Prison) are strong poems in the critical social tradition of Bayram al-Tunisi and others. They exhibit a thoroughgoing social conscience and a slightly rebellious identity, resisting patriarchal familial control. In one, a peasant addresses a feudalist, as Bayram al-Tunisi’s poems had done.17 Yet they do not point in the direction that Negm’s poems would later take. Among others, Muhammad Baghdadi, at the time a student from the provinces newly in Cairo, suggests that the period 1962-67, when Negm and Imam were performing together but as yet had a meager and very localised following, was a space of gradual political maturation for Negm’s poetic vision, honed by the continuing hardship of daily life. Negm and

Imam had been trying to garner local audiences through appearances in cafés; crashing the music hall circuit, Negm recalled, “we were laughed off the stage.”18 In sum, a close reading of their songs but also of the duo’s memoirs and of others’ memories of them suggests that the fairly traditional compositions that each was producing gave way through the synergy of encounter to newer and bolder art. It was a convergence already happening when the 1967 defeat demanded new voices. As for so many other Egyptians, though, the 1967 war did mark an emotional and political milestone, a devastating indication that the regime was not only repressive but also weak. Negm “disappeared into his room for days, and came out having written ‘Al-Balagh Ruqm 1’ [‘Manifesto No. 1’, also known as ‘al-Hamdu lillah’] … a clear indictment of the military bureaucracy.”19 Negm calls it “the first war dispatch from the operations room at Khosh Qadam”, saying that when it was published “it spread like flame across kindling because this was my first direct scuffle with the authorities and first forthright attack on Nasser personally”.20 Workers circulated it on the factory floor and people flocked to the alley. And, by the time the students were ready to erupt, Negm-Imam were ready, artistically, to join them. A Poem, a Manifesto If the sun were to drown In the sea of sad clouds If the earth were engulfed By a wave of dark shrouds And sight died away From all eyes and all minds And the pathway went missing Amidst circles and lines You might get around (You think you’re so wise!) Yet you haven’t a guide But the words’ very eyes21 This short poem’s final line is open to more than one meaning, as we shall see. It is no surprise that this poem opens Negm’s first post-1967 collection by the same name, ‘Uyun il-kalam (The Eyes of Words, 1976).22 Nor is it sur­­­­­­­ prising that his poem ‘The Eyes of Words’ (1970?) opened many of the pair’s performances.23 The poem is a manifesto, a challenge to the unnamed reader/auditor, a reminder that in a world fogged over by politicians’ lies and silences – metaphorically, a world veiled in clouds that are, as the word



ghamam suggests, perhaps grieved by their obfuscating role – the only guiding light remains “words”. Darkness, zalam, echoes zulm, oppression or tyranny, persistent wrong visited on others. In such murky conditions, sight, perception and judgment are impossible, and one loses one’s way amongst the hazy evasions of politics (“circles and lines”; the latter also connotes plans). The binding image of the poem and the collection, ‘uyun il-kalam, is a powerful one: the words’ very eyes – words that see, that penetrate, that reveal the truth – but also, perhaps, echoing another sense, ‘ayn as essence: the very essences of words (although ‘ayn is only used in the singular in this sense, and so this can only be an echo). Furthermore, we may read ‘ayn as a well or life source: the underground sources of sustenance that well up to create new life. Finally, ‘uyun il-kalam might also intimate the holes between words, the spaces, the silences, the things not-said, the things not permitted to be said, things buried in the “dark shrouds” of political repression and the “circles and lines” of political rhetoric that spins and eludes; that refuses to be held accountable. Here we have a manifesto of simple images but profound echoes, a song-poem that draws on apocalyptic natural processes to allegorise apocalyptic politics. But, contrary to natural processes, the man-made processes of politics can be met and resisted if words in their profundity, the essences of words, not the shallow words of the political centre, truly receive a hearing; if words, as well as the silences between them, are trusted. The movement from apocalyptic natural images and inexorable move­­­ ment on a grand scale, to the quiet power of words and silences happens not only through Negm’s lyrics but also through Imam’s performance. The declarative tone of the first lines, sermon-like and solemn, gives way to a more joyful and less pronounced evocation of words, following the swirl of “circles and lines”. If the necessity and urgency of words are a leitmotif for this duo, the death of speech – with its necessary, and always political, revival, as an ultimate challenge to the authorities – forms a constant thematic rhythm in Negm-Imam’s compositions. In the 1968 poem ‘Is-Samt’ (‘Silence’), Negm excoriates those who do not speak; here, he pinpoints the holes between words. A near-synonym to samt composes the first three lines and the second section’s intensified first line: near but not exact, suggesting not absolute silence but the act of muting oneself. Voiceless quiet Voiceless Mute Tales behind that hush So full of speech yet I am dumb Am dumb from mute surrounds

Mute voiceless quiet mute All words have died away And walls of a thousand houses Swap shushed-up words with me Mute voiceless quiet mute But our silence is a sense More eloquent than words And everyone who’s heard us Knows exactly what we say He who brought us together Must utter words today Must say, Silence has died Must scream into the hush Mute voiceless quiet mute24 The poem, composed in 1968, takes aim at the regime’s lack of self-critique after June 1967. Constituting a direct challenge to the Nasserist leadership that it voices for and speaks to Egyptians as audience and as comrades, the poem also insists that the regime allow speech, for a repressive hush – a void in the centre of the public space – has pervaded the nation. ‘Is-Samt’ is contemporary with the rebirth of Egypt’s student movement. Among students and other intellectuals, unease at Nasserist practices at home had begun to turn into a broader and more pointed critique of postmonarchical Egypt, although most critics shared the ideological direction of the regime. Concomitantly, Negm-Imam’s songs shifted from mourning the defeat – albeit with caustic criticism of the leadership’s self-serving deceptions and willingness to sacrifice the populace – to a more compre­­ hensive attack on the practices of those associated with the regime and the overarching climate of “muteness”, of the disfranchising and silencing of citizens. The Student Movement, the Left, and the Expressive Politics of Opposition Nasser and his associates had managed to suppress organised opposition as they consolidated control, not only by outright banning of organisations but also by co-opting elements of the population – not least by having garnered genuine enthusiasm for the 1952 revolution, and then offering entitlements to key constituencies, notably university-bound youth. In his definitive study of the student movement in Egypt, the late Ahmed Abdalla shows how Nasser drew students into the regime’s fold through tactics of socio-economic levelling that promised to enact Nasser’s socialist principles. The regime increased the education budget hugely, expanded secondary and university education, reduced and then eliminated



student fees, and gave students special privileges. From 1964, graduates were guaranteed civil service jobs, originally a temporary measure that the state could not retract even as the burden on the public sector became untenable. The combined impact of these policies meant that, in Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s words, “From 1954 to 1967, Egypt’s educated strata ceased to function as the country’s leading source of opposition activism.”25 Yet widened access to state institutions and social mobility, growing expectations and new horizons, were not matched by state capabilities. Moreover, with economic stagnation in the 1960s, graduates’ earning power was sinking.26 With socialist revolution emerging as less than revolutionary and less than successful, co-optation on a broad scale was no longer so effective. What had been a ready constituency for Nasser’s Third-Worldist socialism found the political structure they had espoused sagging.27 Yet, youth activism was not simply a product of disappointed hopes and thwarted trajectories; it was also an outcome of a yearning for participation and freedom to speak and act, particularly since many students did support the regime’s stated goals and wanted a critical hand in steering the gleaming new revolutionary ship of state. Within their own world, growing unease before June 1967 and then active opposition afterward, also responded to the regime’s controlling hand on campuses. As summarised by Wickham, “Soon after consolidating power, Nasser reorganised the universities, banning independent student unions, purging faculty and administration, and posting security police units on campus.”28 There were no independent outlets for students’ political ambitions.29 Harsh repression and university closures quieted student unrest, but ulti­­ mately contributed to its eruption. Pervasive surveillance and co-optation of university staff and students as eyes of the regime, notes Ahmed Abdalla, demoralised campus populations increasingly; there was lessened respect from students toward teachers constrained not to answer questions or foster independent thinking. In sum, says Ahmed: “Students welcomed the social and economic achievements of the Revolution and responded to the euphoria and sense of national pride inspired by Nasser’s leadership. They also responded to the government’s offer of wider educational opportunities and guaranteed employment… Only after the massive national defeat of 1967, and the slowing down of the regime’s social programme due to the burden of military expenditure, did an eventual split between the regime and its student body become a real possibility.”30 If June 1967 yielded stunned disbelief nationwide, it was only in February 1968 that a significant popular disturbance challenged the regime.31 The events of February 1968 began when munitions workers in Helwan demonstrated, on 21 February, to protest their sense that military officers



had been handed overly lenient sentences for their role in the military defeat. After clashes with the police, the unrest spread. February 21 happened to be Students’ Day, an annual commemoration of the 1946 student uprising. Workers were joined by students, who organised discussion forums at which they grilled officials. Only after that did students leave campus, marching through the Cairo and Alexandria streets in the thousands. Having been assured by Parliament Speaker Anwar al-Sadat that they could safely present student demands to parliament, a group of engineering students did so and then were promptly arrested, resulting in a mass three-day sit-in beginning on 25 February. A compromise was reached by allowing a roster of student demands to be presented more formally to parliament. Central were demands for democracy and abolishing the police state.32 “The uprising of February 1968 marked the students’ initial reaction to the defeat and the beginning of their confrontation with the regime,” concludes Abdalla. “It reflected the failure of the official youth organisations … to contain their movement. Its intensity was attributable to the scale of the military defeat itself as much as to the constraints on self-expression among students and intellectuals long before the defeat.”33 In 1968, says Wickham, “student activists were self conscious about their position as the country’s only vocal opponents of the regime’s policy.”34 Negm and Imam were placed to channel this potential vocality through their megaphone, yet this aesthetic-political synergy is all the more stunning for not having been a matter of conscious planning. For, meanwhile, back in Ghuriyya, if intellectuals and workers were coming to Khosh Qadam, students en masse had not yet found the pair. But a single song changed that. ‘Jifara mat’ (‘Guevara has died’), composed in late 1967, immediately caught the political and emotional imaginations of restless students. “This was our way to the hearts of the students,” Negm said a decade later.35 Said Imam, “This was the song that put my name and Negm’s on every tongue… My name became ‘the Sheikh Imam who does Guevara’.”36 And when recording executives from Cuba showed up at the pair’s door, Egypt’s intelligentsia began to take note. But what made the song particularly powerful was that through evoking a world hero, Negm-Imam addressed local issues. The Argentinian-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, active with Castro’s revolutionaries and then a senior official in Cuba’s government after Batista’s overthrow, and later a revolutionary theorist, was killed in Bolivia while training guerilla troops, on 9 October 1967. Che became an instant martyr-hero for leftist activists across the globe. For Egyptians, wounded by June 1967 and witnessing the fervour of growing student unrest, this solemn memorial to Guevara’s ultimate sacrifice in the cause of mass resistance to tyranny struck strong chords. It would continue to do so, often ending Negm-Imam’s concerts through the years. As one participant

reminisced, “Sheikh Imam moved our emotions strongly… especially with those songs expressing the reality of poverty and suppression that we suffered then. An evening performance would usually end with the song ‘Guevara has died’… that song still has such a powerful impact on me that I all but cry when I hear it even now. Perhaps it is a longing for those days…” Guevara has died Guevara has died Late-breaking news, all the radios cried A stark announcement, a sort of campus wall magazine declaration made aural, a piece of counter-news contesting the preoccupations of the official news, the poem implicitly enacts a broad solidarity as it eulogises the Cuban hero in Arabic terms that construct the mythological afterlife of traditional Egyptian and Arab heroes even as it gestures to the role of modern mass media in making such solidarities possible. Guevara is a gada’, and women’s mourning rhetoric for a young, strong, protective son embraces him: ya miit khusara, “O a hundred losses”. Moreover, the poet praises Guevara for eschewing the crown of public heroism, for not seeking the limelight, juxtaposed critically in the poem with the contrasting practices of others, implicitly ‘unheroic’ local politicians and military leaders. And in the churches And the mosques In the alleys And the streets In cafés and in the bars: Guevara has died Guevara has died Voices ply endless ropes of speech… Paragon of fighters, now dead and gone Aah, sigh a hundred for the loss of men! In thickets deep the young swain perished Still atop his firing gun Dead, he gives body to his fight He’s done it all in silence No drummers explode in ragged sound No communiqué goes sailing round

The short, stark language of news announcements – Jifara mat – contrasts with the invoked fullness of the popular response, everywhere, as the news echoes from the radios to the streets, bringing people of different identities together. This also has the effect of reminding listeners that just as Guevara is not alone in his death, the Egyptian people are not alone in their struggle. The poet turns from reportage to direct address, a pluralised interlocutor, those who must be held accountable, whether for Egypt’s defeat or the Bolivian rebels’ or others around the world. And what think YOU (your wealth and might live long!), You antique and twisted gnomes? Your bodies oozing, fed so well On tasty morsels with the trappings You, sitting comfy, cozily warm Though firing up your heaters still Garish, showy dopes you are! With your polished nodding pates… Like his “teacher”, Bayram al-Tunisi, Negm is a brilliant punner, exploiting the double meanings of colloquial terms, sometimes the gap between standard and slang meanings. Ya antiikat (“You antique ones”) he addresses the regime’s leaders and supporters, also defining them as an older generation, “O you antique [or ancient] ones”, hinting at their strong affinities with prerevolutionary politicians. Simultaneously, this term signifies funny-looking or grotesque. It also exploits the old (and cross-cultural) practice of suggesting that a person’s morals and personality are written vividly across the face; that surface reveals depth. Even in this powerful funeral dirge, the bitterly caricatured portrait of those who should have been Guevara’s – and the students’ – supporters, but have instead become their nemesis, invades the mourning with sharp reality. Finally, it counters Nasser’s Third World politics of solidarity by suggesting that a Third World hero (Guevara) represents the opposite of Nasser as Third World ideal. While Negm is pun-master, Imam, in his composition and performance, draws out and complicates double meanings through intonation, accent and emphasis. Imam’s music – and the duo’s performance – of this poem-song are crucial to its force. A funeral dirge, the tonal line descending, backed by mournful “ahat” (the opposite of many of the crescendos to which Imam’s songs reach), the song is also punctuated by a march beat, the sound of collective footfalls en marche; the sound, perhaps, not only of a march to the grave but of an inexorable forward march in the wake of this world hero’s death. The music and Imam’s singing are simultaneously funereal and upbeat.



Midway, a short series of raps might echo the nailing down of the coffin (of Third World strategic hopes?). It moves the song into a different intensity and a higher and faster tone, as if to suggest that Guevara’s death is not an end but a continuation and a beginning. In the second direct address, the poet turns from the antiikat to the rest of the populace – “O workers, O deprived” who, in contrast, are “bound in chains/feet and head”. From a funeral dirge, the poem becomes a call to arms to follow in Guevara’s path, a declaration that only armed struggle can allow the powerless any participation or hope. Performed in the heat of the first serious popular challenge to the Nasser regime, “The word goes to [those who have] fire and iron”, recognition of present power inequalities and simultaneously a hint of what might come. Refrains – Jifara mat Jifara mat – and the tearful, intimate and motherly interjection ‘ayni ‘alayh (“my eye is upon him”; that is, “poor dear”) – sound a dirge for hopes invested in Egypt’s revolutionary but tarnished hero. The people are the martyr. Rather than military personnel shirking responsibility for defeat, Guevara has stayed – and died – at his gun, on his own, in the forest. If Egyptians cannot seek “the fighter’s ideal” in their own army or leaders, they can seek “local heroes”, gada‘s, in a trans-struggle solidarity that celebrates and learns from other people’s experiences. And so Guevara appears the antithesis – having “died the death of men” – of the Egyptian leadership post-1967. Negm-Imam punched the leadership in the gut by also suggesting their lack of socially sanctioned masculinity, with the values of bravery, honour and chivalry this implies. In the performance, with its complex repetitions and overlain choruses, Guevara’s shadow hovers closely over recent Egyptian history. Movingly linking a shattering world event, another liberation struggle and Egypt, the poem localises world history and makes the link explicit through its powerful strategy of direct address. Negm’s clever reworkings of the regime’s bywords and his poem’s satiric echoes of names and slogans, plus Imam’s extraordinary ability to create musical parody in his use of tonal lines and mimicry of easily recognisable public voices, gave to the political song in Egypt a performative punch. Negm’s semantic puns combined with Imam’s voice puns – or, unexpected words and incongruous voices – exploded open the closed social categories that the revolutionary regime had not been able, or willing, to disable.37 The internal structure of these songs and their unorthodox use of language find their correlates in the contexts of performance. Contextual contingencies of Negm-Imam’s combined persona and presence are important to historicise their role in Egypt’s history of oppositional movements. Wickham characterises three modes by which authoritarian regimes attempt to stop the emergence of opposition activism before it starts: “disable potential agents of mobilisation [e.g., by imprisoning group



members]… control potential sites of mobilisation, [by] tolerat[ing] the existence of an opposition group but… limit[ing] its access to the mass public… co-opt the targets of mobilisation and ‘inoculate’ them against the opposition group’s appeal” while buying support by distributing resources.38 As students found their voices, Negm-Imam worked against – resisted – this co-optation by constantly reminding listeners of its dangers.They worked against the regime’s attempt to “control… sites of mobilisation” by showing up for impromptu concerts – literally, attacking the stage – and offering encouragement to those who would try to retake those sites through demonstrations, university sit-ins, occupation of university buildings, and unofficial, unlicensed, unsanctioned publications. Negm-Imam were themselves an unsanctioned text, a living text in dramatic performance, whose words remained in people’s minds and on their tongues. Using such forms as children’s songs, work songs and pseudo-security interviews, their compositions invoked communal culture in use and insisted on participation. It is no wonder that, as Kamal Abdel-Malek says, “In almost every manifestation of mass unrest, whether by students, workers or both, from 1968 onward, both Negm and Sheikh Imam were implicated and consequently arrested and locked up in prison for ‘disturbing the public peace’.”39 It is also important that Negm and Imam refused to co-operate with the communications channels of the state from the start, though they did briefly flirt with the radio and TV authorities. When I interviewed Sheikh Imam in London in 1985, for Index on Censorship, I asked him whether he would ever reconsider that refusal, since after all, such a venue would give him a broader audience. “I would still refuse unequivocally,” he said, “because the state would still be the one to decide which songs to record. And I don’t want that. After all, the mass media – the radio and television headquarters – can be hit and disabled any time. The Israelis did so in 1967. My mass media are the masses.”40 Following the February 1968 events, Nasser announced his 30 March programme to liberalise the political system; yet the proclamation was not matched by events on the ground. As Ahmed comments, “After a few months of liberal deeds and declarations the trend was reversed and Egyptian politics reverted to its authoritarian mould.”41 Student activism had a role in this; after February there was space for liberal notions, but when another student eruption followed the announcement of the new Education Bill in late November 1968, centered in Mansura and Alexandria, this was used by hardline elements in the regime to retract any such possibility. By that time Negm and Imam were in jail, but their aesthetic and political contributions to the opposition continued apace. Their work itself constitutes a dialectical dance with imprisonment: poems written outside prison might cause the duo’s detention, and yet those written in prison

found their way out to the students; and the very fact that they were composed in prison added to their oppositional power.42 The pair enacted rather than simply articulated the issue of political freedom and the right to dissent. Like artists before them – Bayram al-Tunisi in exile and the 19th-century poet-activist ‘Abdallah Nadim in hiding – their lives on the run and in confinement displayed the tyranny at work which their songs declaratively exposed. In their first and spectacular emergence onto the public scene with poems and songs critical of the defeat, Negm and Imam had been public celebrities: a television show, public appearances arranged by artist-bureaucrats attached to the regime, profiles in the press. But as their performances had turned from critique of the military’s readiness to more pointed attacks on the regime itself, the leader could not abide their parodying presence. Negm had in fact attacked Nasser in his first post-1967 poem, calling him ‘Abd al-Gabbar (servant of God/the Omnipotent, but also the Tyrant or Oppressor), and the combination of their relentless critique and their growing popularity earned them a life sentence decreed from the top, which turned out to be a sentence of incarceration through the end of Nasser’s life. They spent from mid-1968 until mid-1971 in the Barrages Prison, coming out only after Nasser died and his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, felt securely enough ensconced to let many imprisoned dissidents out of jail.43 They were released into the ferment of renewed student activism. Sadat’s proclaimed “year of decision” had produced no victories, and students were impatient. According to Ahmed Abdalla, questions of self-expression were basic to the activism of 1972-73 “and this time its meaning broadened to include the ultimate freedom of ideological choice”.44 “We went to Mansura, Minufiyya, Ayn Shams and elsewhere,” Imam recalled. “We participated in the demonstrations organised by the students in Liberation Square in 1972” demanding both war to recover territories captured by Israel and an end to the strong security presence on campuses.45 Negm-Imam performed ‘The Students Are Back’ to the gathered crowd in Liberation Square. The students are back (Look, Uncle Jack!) To serious attack Egypt, you’re forever here Pick of all hopes Football – no use! Nor fraudulent excuse! No Byzantine debates over nothin’

No headline, no hack Could keep our young away From the cause forever here… 20 January 1972: the poem plays cleverly on the historical moment, the “return” of students to openly challenging the regime after the post-1968 lull. But a physical political “return” to the scene is also a “return” to serious effort. It is the students who are active, subjects of the verb. In contrast, politicians and journalists – those of “Byzantine debates” (an idiom for futile talk) – are static. And Negm and Imam were re-arrested promptly. A mere two weeks later, Negm composed one of his most beautiful and complex poems, ‘Baladi wa habibati’ (‘My Country and My Beloved’), a cry from Cairo’s Ottomanera fortress, now a prison in the age of independence. For Egypt’s university students (and many secondary students too), exposing the false promises and premises of each regime was a primary goal. Grounding their activism was the demand for an open system permitting forthright critique and political discussion, and in which true political participation was possible, both on campus and for the nation. Negm-Imam’s targets were often more specific. In topically charged and satirically layered sung poems, the duo attacked hollow policies and hypocrisy among high bureaucrats, politicians and a commercial bourgeoisie that spoke the pious language of nationalism while running after personal enrichment. Orality was matched by visuality, in sharply drawn verbal caricatures that were the correlate of political cartoonist (and Negm’s mentor) Higazi’s visual ones: in the “summer [of 1967], as stiflingly under wraps as the ful in a narrow-necked ful-pot”, Higazi was drawing the regime’s men as “fullbellied, wearing black suits, in dark glasses, and riding in late-model black cars as they smoked Havana cigars”.46 Negm’s portraits in verse were just as sharp: playing on the Nasserist rhetoric of “an alliance of forces”, he satirically portrayed social categories that had benefited from the regime and were implicated in self-interested pursuits. My countryfolk live And among them there ain’t Know-how allowing the alliance to live. Every group breathes alone Afraid of other folks And curtains come down over goblets and smokes But in every mulid O my people, O Khalid,47



We come together as buddies And we call out, “Long live!!” May my countryfolk live Ya’eesh! Ya’eesh! The thinker resides at the Café Riche Ya’eesh! Ya’eesh! Preening and pompous, glib, slick and loquacious: Never goes to the demos – Crowds? never, good gracious! With a few empty words And some wide turns of phrase He whips up solutions for every bad case The thinker lives, may he live long, live, live! Live on, my countryfolk, live on, ya’eeesh!48 No wonder Nasser was blaming the caricaturists for his woes.49 Such images would not only be inescapably clear to a broad audience but also familiar, as they drew from the popular lexicon exploited by earlier poets – notably, Bayram al-Tunisi – to make similar political points. Yet the topical cadences produced a broad and thoroughgoing critique of the Egyptian state’s post-1952 trajectory. Moreover, Negm’s pointed verbal imagery and Imam’s suggestive use of musical and spoken tonalities performed notions of outspokenness and democracy even as they employed parody to expose official rhetorics of populism as anything but democratic. To truly trace the role of Negm-Imam in sustaining the student move­­­ ment and giving it a sense of itself – as well as to consider how that movement shaped the phenomenon of Negm-Imam – would require extensive work on the ground, eliciting memories of activists. A reception-focused study could elucidate the particular effects of this performative presence at discrete moments, the galvanising power of certain songs, the significance of collective moments in concerts on campuses ringed by security personnel; in sum, the resonances of these often spontaneous – or at least unannounced – performances in a context of flowing energies and a sense of possibility among Egypt’s educated young. As one participant in that movement, who was neither an organiser nor a member of a political group, recalled, “Negm’s and Sheikh Imam’s mere presence at the university would signify, and produce, a demonstration. I attended one of these meetings in 1973 or 1974… an evening in which Imam sang and Negm recited some poems. It all led to a large number of students going out in the streets and holding massive demonstrations.”50

The Old and the Bold One can see Negm-Imam’s lyrics and music fashioning a political aesthetics that is new, even as it summons a long tradition of vernacular resistance poetry.Yet, to isolate exactly what that ‘new’ consists of is not easy. For one central element is a sustained evocation of familiar poetic structure and diction, and musical form, associated with popular oral performance and collective life (from mawwals to orally performed heroic epics to children’s games). The pair’s compositions and performances combined such familiar popular elements with a bold, indeed unafraid and utterly unapologetic political vocality that had been largely missing in public discourse, and further, laced this powerful mix with a deep and wry satirical humour. Furthermore, these songs, performed, countered the “naïve folkism” that Nasserist rhetoric – including publications for the populace in the form of poems, songs and studies of “folk life” – incorporated.51 The combined effect of familiar expres­­­ sive modes and “outrageous” critique, or of the old and the bold, produced a unique sphere of articulation. And surely there was a synergy at work: were not the students as fundamental to Negm-Imam’s art and the ways it developed as the pair were to that particular and breathtaking moment of popular articulation and resistance in Egypt? When united to the collective emotions and sense of possibility that propelled the student movement and gave it broad public support, the result was politically explosive – a fact that was not lost on the security forces at the time, for when seduction and co-optation proved ineffective, Negm and Imam were repeatedly sent to prison.52 Moreover, the evocation of popular oral forms and older traditions of vernacular poetry was extraordinarily potent in a movement that by necessity communicated mostly through word of mouth and printed ephemera, most famously the wall-magazines of the seventies campus landscape. Not only that, oral culture was still strong. That Negm-Imam both communicated orally and based their aesthetic on an oral poetic tradition and a range of popular music traditions, delivered a double dose of the oral expressive traditional culture in which so many Egyptians were rooted by upbringing and social context. Sheikh Imam’s voice and music drew on both secular song traditions and the Qur’an chanting and religious compositions in which he had been trained.53 Negm’s poetry voiced and reshaped the images, invocations and spoken rhythms of colloquial poetic tradition. This was crucial for the movement of which they were a part. Saad Zahran, veteran opposition activist, explains it thus: “The Egyptian left was fundamentally a movement of intellectuals. Although discrete groups from among the popular classes interacted with it, the movement’s stances, outlooks and leaders



were mostly intellectuals. But what propelled the popular spirit (al-ruh al-sha’biyya) was not documents and learned culture, not only because the majority of people did not read and write, as is well known, but because oral culture remained strongly influential and effective, even among the educated. The popular spirit made its impact and was roused and stimulated as a result of the ever present and still deeply moving oral culture: in the era we are now in, this is represented in Islamic sermons delivered in mosques and through media channels, which have an impact on people orally for the most part, without requiring a resort to a real or further cultural authority. Imam and Negm were the oral facet of the leftist movement, and therefore their impact was huge. This influence extended to the university students because oral culture still powerfully shapes the people’s emotional and spiritual identities and outlooks even if they are educated. So Imam and Negm had the ability to spark demonstrations and strikes and oppositional assemblages. They were able to move the masses when, without them, the leftists could not do so, except within the narrowest circles.”54 Negm was not the only vernacular poet in the 1960s and 1970s who was fashioning a new aesthetic for colloquial poetry, leaving behind the tradition of zajal while building on the breakthroughs in poetic form and sensibility achieved by the great poets Salah Jahin and Fu’ad Haddad from the 1950s on.55 Indeed, another innovative colloquial poet, Fu’ad Qa’ud, worked with Negm and Imam for a time; Imam set to music and performed some of his poems. But as Dalia Sa’id Mustafa argues convincingly, while Negm learned from and worked with innovations in poetic voice crafted by the brilliant new colloquial poets of the era – Haddad, Jahin, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi and others – he was not at the forefront of what was truly a revolution in ‘ammiyya poetry.56 Yet, among the new colloquial poets of the 1960s, it was Negm – or rather, Negm-Imam – who voiced and embodied the desires and worries of many Egyptians, post-June 1967. Negm’s poetry, and therefore Sheikh Imam’s performances (for, as I have suggested, performance must be emphasized as much as composition, of both lyrics and music), are rarely couched in the third person. Poetry and performance draw on the “I/eye” of the beholder of the state of things, the things of the state. By using “I,” it invokes “you”, and direct address moves from the individual “you” to the collective, emphasised through the musical-rhetorical strategies of the refrain, repetition and dialogue. This is poetry not to be heard in silence, and not in the first instance to be read individually, but rather meant for choral response and involvement. It is interactive and incitatory. It means – is meant as – action. By its very form and mode of dissemination, this sung poetry resisted the tactics of cooptation and isolation of individuals that the regime tried to propagate.57



Foundational to this aesthetics of the interactive, the parodic and the incitatory is a political truth claim and a refusal to be silenced, which of course the poems enact and re-enact endlessly. The political truth claim, by announcing the will to speak and a first-person rejection of “the lie”, sets up a community of trust that explicitly counters and resists authorities who claim the nation’s allegiance but are shown up as authors of doublespeak, thus, perfect targets of parody. Circling through these poems are the poet’s and singer’s experiences, as poem after poem is dated and situated: “written in Tura prison”, “written in detention”, “written in the Sijn al-isti’naf”. No less than the students whose work on behalf of the nation Negm-Imam celebrates and encourages and documents, in the very spaces and times of their performances the two are subject to the repressive consequences of their outspokenness, thereby demonstrating (or allowing the authorities to demonstrate) the power of poetry and song as an aesthetic of incitement and collective action. If the students were the beating heart and active nerves of a political opposition in formation, Negm and Imam seemed to offer a voice that articulated broad concerns on which many, many Egyptians could agree, if quietly. Recalling her political formation into principles guiding her life and career, actress Fardous Abdel-Hamid remembers her father, a factory owner, “clos[ing] the door to listen to secret tapes which I was to find out [later] were the lyrics and songs of Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam”.58 In another resonant example, a judge, in the position of having to pronounce a jail sentence for Negm-Imam, asked them first to perform a song.59 Rather than speaking for, or from, one particular political agenda, Negm-Imam seemed to breathe in and then sing out the mass disappointments and the broad demands of those across a range of broadly leftist – and even some emergent Islamist – positions. As one participant put it, “Hope filled us at that time. We were certain that the demonstrations must produce results that would be to the betterment and benefit of the populace… it’s enough to recall that every one of us saw himself or herself as playing a role, simply by expressing opposition, and believed that going out into the streets would be an adequate means of pressure.” As the question of political freedoms became increasingly central and students grew more vocal about it, Negm-Imam rapidly garnered an audience. Their songs of this period claimed that space of political freedom and enacted it by blasting apart the silence, “like bullets”, as Negm himself put it. In simple, understandable colloquial language whose metaphoric resonances were constructed squarely on daily patterns and idioms of confrontational speech, they articulated issues of social versus political freedom that were being asked even within the closest circles of the regime. (There are some

wonderful stories about how people in power, or semi-power, appreciated these poems.60) Negm-Imam’s enactment of these issues had real conse­­ quences for the two composer-performers, for the authorities recognised the power of their performances and sought first to co-opt them and then to silence them through imprisonment, which did not work. “The eyes’ very words” could see through prison walls. The power Negm-Imam continued to demonstrate through the 1970s is not depleted. New generations have taken up Sheikh Imam’s and Negm’s performances, preserving and uploading the original songs and performing them anew. Groups such as Awj and al-‘Awda in Palestine, Jawqet El Sheikh Imam in Toronto, and Iskandarilla in Egypt draw nostalgic and still-hopeful 60s leftists while renewing Negm-Imam’s performative political force for new audiences in what many of us hope is another era of ascending activism globally. In street demonstrations of a new millennium, those songs have been audible. The dynamic duo’s political and aesthetic force retains its aura and its communicative power, in a new form. As today’s young Arab singers return to the works of Negm-Imam, they locate and build an aesthetic home for their own collective struggles.
This essay was previously published in the American University in Cairo Press publication Cairo Papers in Social Science, 29 nos 2–3 (2006)

WORks CiTED Abdalla, Ahmed. 1985. The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt 1923–1973. London: Al Saqi Books. Abdel-Malek, Kamal. 1990. A Study of the Vernacular Poetry of Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm. Leiden: Brill. Baghdadi, Muhammad. 1995. ‘Sabah al-khayr ‘ala al-ward illi fitih fi ganayin Masr’, Ruz al-Yusuf no. 3497 (19 June 1995) 43–46. Beinin, Joel. 1994. ‘Writing Class: Workers and Modern Egyptian Colloquial Poetry (Zajal)’, Poetics Today 15 (2) 191–215. Booth, Marilyn. 1985. ‘Shaykh Imam the Singer: An Interview’. Index on Censorship 14 (3) 18–21. ____________. 1990. Bayram al‑Tunisi’s Egypt: Social Criticism and Narrative Strategies. Exeter: Ithaca Press (St. Antony’s Middle East Monographs no. 22), 1990. ____________. 1992a. ‘Colloquial Arabic Poetry, Politics, and the Press in Modern Egypt’. International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (3) 419–40. ____________. 1992b. ‘Poetry in the Vernacular’. In The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Modern Arabic Literature, ed. M. M. Badawi, 463–82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Farag, Fatemeh. 1999. ‘Fardous Abdel-Hamid: The Art of Resistance’, Al-Ahram Weekly 450 (7–13 October 1999), http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/450/profile. htm. ‘Isa, [al-Shaykh] Imam. 2001. Mudhakkirat al-Shaykh Imam, ed. Ayman al-Hakim. Cairo: Dar al-Ahmadi lil-nashr. ‘Isa, Salah. 1992. ‘Salah ‘Isa yuqaddimu mudhakkirat Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm! Sha’ir takdir al-amn al-‘am!’ in Ahmed Fouad Negm, Al-Fajumi: Mudhakkirat al-sha’ir Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, vol. 1, 9–28. Cairo: Dar Sfinkis [Sphinx]. Jacquemond, Richard. 2001. ‘La poésie en Egypte aujourd’hui: état des lieux d’un champ ‘en crise’,’ Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 21 182–231.

Kazim, Safinaz. 1992. ‘Qira’a islamiyya fi a’mal thuna’yy Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm – al-Shaykh Imam,’ al-Hayat no. 10671 (27 April 1992) 14. Mustafa, Dalia Sa‘id. 2001. ‘Nigm wa’l-Shaykh Imam: Su’ud wa uful al-ughniya al-siyasiyya fi Misr’, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 21 128–57. al-Naqqash, Farida. 1979. ‘Muqaddima: Zahirat al-sha’ir wa’l-shaykh’. In Ahmed Fouad Negm, Baladi wa-habibati: qasa’id min al-mu’taqal. Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun 3–25. Negm, Ahmed Fouad. 1964. Suwar min al-Hayat wa’l-sijn. Cairo: al-Majlis al-a’la li-ra’ayat al-funun wa’l-adaab wa’-‘ulum al-ijtima’iyya. ____________. 1976a. Bayan Hamm Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi. ____________. 1976b. ‘Uyun il-kalam: Shi’r Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm. Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, n.d. [1976]. Ser. Ash‘ar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida. ____________. 1979a. Baladi wa habibati: qasa’id min al-mu’taqal. 2nd printing. Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun. ____________. 1979b. Ishi ya Misr. Beirut: Dar al-Kalima. ____________. 1981. Ya’ish ahl baladi: Ash’ar misriyya. 5th printing. Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun. ____________. 1992. Al-Fajumi: Mudhakkirat al-sha’ir Ahmad Fu’ad Nijm, Pt. I. Cairo: Dar Sfinks [Sphinx]. ____________. 1993. Al-Fajumi: Mudhakkirat al-sha’ir Ahmad Fu’ad Nijm, Pt. II. Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli al-Saghir. al-Sarki, Ashraf. 2001. ‘Hal ahtafi bi’l-mughanni al-batal?’ Reprinted in Imam ‘Isa, Mudhakkirat al-Shaykh Imam, ed. Ayman al-Hakim, 227–39. Cairo: Dar al-Ahmadi lil-nashr. Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. 2002. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press.



NOTEs 1 On Negm’s and Imam’s early lives, see Booth 1985; Negm 1992; Negm 1993; ‘Isa 2001; Abdel-Malek 1990 chap. 1. All translations in this essay are my own. 2 Material drawn upon in this essay includes my own collection of 27 tapes, some of which I recorded, as well as the published poetry collections, three quasi-autobiographical works, my 1985 interview with Sheikh Imam, three communications (2007), and journalistic and scholarly sources. 3  Negm’s poetry except for his first (1964) collection was banned in Egypt at least until 1976, according to Abdel-Malek 1990:6 citing Negm 1979:137–38. 4 This is my translation, quoted with a few modifications from Booth 1985:19. 5  Al-Naqqash 1979:10–11, translated in and cited from Booth 1985: 19. All translations from the Arabic in this essay are mine, whether rendered specifically for this essay or cited from an earlier translation of mine. 6  Negm 1992:248. With this climactic moment, the first volume of Negm’s memoirs ends. 7  Al-Naqqash 1979 quoted in translation in Booth 1985:19. See also Negm 1992:242–47. 8 Negm 1993:97–100. 9 Negm 1993:84ff. 10 Negm 1993:113. 11 ‘Isa 1992:14. 12 Negm 1992:173. 13 Negm 1992:152–53. 14 ‘Isa 2001:67 15 On Bayram al-Tunisi, see Booth 1990. Some have said Negm first read Bayram while in prison; Negm (1993:135–36) attributes reading Bayram seriously to the urging of the brilliant caricaturist Hijazi, named by Negm (1993:114–16) as a major influence on him in this period. 16  In his poem to Bayram (‘Al-Ihda’: ila Bayram’ (1971), Negm declares the continuity of poetry’s responsibility and of his debt to Bayram: “We will go on walking in your path / marked out by night as people slept” and calls him ‘uyun al-shi’r, both “eyes” and “wells” of poetry (Negm 1981:11), a consistent imagery in Negm’s corpus: see below.

17 On Negm’s poetry as an outgrowth of worker poetry, see Beinin 1994. 18  Al-Naqqash 1979 quoted in translation in Booth 1985:19. See also Negm 1979 Baladi 12. 19 ‘Isa 2001:18. 20 Negm 1993:199. 21  ‘’Uyun il-kalam’, also known by its first line, “Idha ish-shams ghirqit”; Negm 1976:7. 22  It also opens the 1976 collection Bayan hamm published in Beirut (Negm 1976 bh 49). 23  It is important to consider the order in which compositions were performed, a task beyond this paper’s reach. Furthermore, poems composed before 1967 become a seamless part of the post-1967 repertoire and are frequently republished in Beirut in the 1970s: for example, the 1965 poem ‘il-Khawaga’l-amrikani’ (Negm 1976 uk 52–54). 24 The text appears in Negm 1997b:28-29 and Negm 1976a:109–10. 25 Wickham 2002:31. 26 Wickham 2002:31–32. 27  In the mid-1960s, political scientist Malcolm Kerr viewed the students at Egypt’s public institutions as “among the most reliable enthusiasts of the regime” (Wickham 2002:31). 28 Wickham 2002:24. 29  Students had organised a Student Front that brought together those of different political outlooks but they tended to back forces within the regime who had advocated in the 1950s for civilian rule but were unsuccessful. 30 Abdalla 1985:137. 31 There had been earlier confrontations with university teaching staff, in March 1954 (Abdalla 1985:120). 32 Abdalla 1985:152–53. 33 Abdalla 1985:140. 34 Wickham 2002:33. 35 Booth 1985:19. 36 ‘Isa 2001:51.

37  An academic paper cannot convey the power of this poetry, especially the bad-boy performances of Sheikh Imam, Ahmed Fouad Negm, their stalwart backup the artist Muhammad Ali, and occasionally others. I think here particularly of Imam-style “French” in his performances of ‘Faliri Jiscar Dastan’ (‘Valery Giscard d’Estaing’, 1975) – Imam’s wailing “oui oui” counterposed to “aywa”; the nasal French “accent” coupled with the very colloquial diction of wa’s-sitt bitaa’tuh kamaan. This hilarious and slightly wicked quality of performance does not of course detract from the power of the political critique; rather, it intensifies it. Imam’s brilliant parody of French in this poem points up the importance of languages and of performance in the political world. 38 Wickham 2002:10. 39 Abdel-Malek 1990:5. 40 Booth 1985:21. 41 Abdalla 1985:145. 42  Abdel-Malek (1990:9) also suggests this. 43 There is disagreement on these dates of imprison­­­ment; Abdel-Malek, for example, gives May 1969 (1990:21). Sadat was later to order Negm imprisoned after having faced trial on the accusation of having insulted the president in his poetry (1978) following the notorious satirical mimicry of Sadat in ‘Bayan hamm’ (1977). The substance of the public prosecutor’s case makes clear the crucial role that performance played: according to Salah ‘Isa, it was not the words of the poem so much as the mode of delivery that was under attack (1992:25). Negm went underground for three years before the police captured him. 44 Abdalla 1985:148. 45 ‘Isa 2001:66. 46 Negm 1993:147. 47  “Khalid”, a popular given name, so “everyman”, also means “everlasting”; but Negm applies this to his people rather than to the Nasserist state, in a sly reuse of state rhetoric. 48  Negm 1981:71–76 [poem composed 1968], quote, pp. 71–72. 49 Negm 1993:148. 50  Communication to the author from Sahar Tawfiq, February 2007.

51  See for example al-Sarki 2001. This essay also exemplifies the contestation over memory and over “possession” of Imam and Negm, a consistent theme in writing about them since their breakup in the mid-1980s. Al-Sarki accuses the Egyptian left of celebrating “what Negm said” and isolating “what Imam composed and performed” from broader horizons that should have been open to him; Negm was the dominant partner and the duo’s success rested on his maintaining a high level of tension with the regime based on a continuous stream of sukhriya wa-shata’im (sarcasm and insults). While I agree that there were certain “internal contra­­ dictions” shaping the Negm-Imam “experience” (tajruba), I do not agree with this narrow assessment of the bases of the oeuvre’s popularity. 52 On this, see Booth 1985. 53  Safinaz Kazim (1992) emphasises this and upon it builds an argument for an Islamic interpretation of the oeuvre; yet, she ignores that Imam was deeply influenced also by secular song and, with regards to the poetry, refuses to take religious metaphors as anything but literal. 54 Communication to the author, Cairo, March 2007. 55  See Booth 1992; Jacquemond 2001. 56 Mustafa 2001:135–46. 57  It is significant that when Negm wrote his memoirs, he did so in an oral colloquial style; the fascinating rhetorical structure of this two-volume work is beyond the scope of this essay. 58 Farag 1999. 59 Negm 1992:320–21. 60  For example in ‘Isa 1992:12–13.





MOna Anis is Senior Editorial Consultant with al-Shorouk Publishing House, a leading publisher in the Arab world. She is former Senior Culture Editor and former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of al-Ahram Weekly, and has served on the Board of Editors of al-Ahram Weekly since its foundation in 1991. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Literature and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Essex, UK. Her translations from Arabic into English and vice versa include poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Saadi Youssef, Abdel-Rahman el-Abnoundi and Ahmed Fouad Negm, and she was research assistant and editor (in Arabic) of the late Arab American scholar Edward Said from 1991–2003. She writes in Arabic and English on topics including Middle East Politics and Arabic literature. She is a founding member of the Egyptian Committee for the Defence of National Culture and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Arab and African Studies in Cairo. MaRilYn BOOTH holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh and co-directs the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW). She has written widely on Egyptian vernacular poetry as a form of political opposition and its relationship to forms of media in Egypt; her first book was Bayram al Tunisi's Egypt: Social Criticism and Narrative Strategies (1990). She is currently writing two books on early feminist writing in Egypt (1880s–1930s) including Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces:Writing Women’s History through Biography in Fin-de-Siècle Egypt (forthcoming 2014). She edited Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces (2010), and a special issue of Journal of Women’s History on ‘Women’s autobiography in the Middle East and South Asia’ (2013). Her 14 literary translations comprise novels, short story collections and a memoir. She is Middle East and Europe regional editor for the Encyclopaedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (EWIC). Hala HaliM is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at New York University. She has published on such subjects as the postcolonial redrawing of British educational policies in Egypt, the films of Youssef Chahine, E. M. Forster's Egyptian texts, and the translation and reception of Constantine P. Cavafy's poetry in Arabic. She is currently revising a manuscript entitled ‘The Alexandria Archive: An Archaeology of Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism’ which identifies and critiques a Eurocentric, quasi-colonial paradigm of cosmo­­ politanism associated with Alexandria and seeks out alternative modes of inter-ethnic and inter-religious solidarity that speak to current postcolonial Middle Eastern imperatives. She has held an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCLA's Humanities Consortium, and her translation of a novel by Mohamed El-Bisatie, Clamor of the Lake, received an Egyptian State Incentive Award in 2006.

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