Egypt is mourning its iconic vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm who passed away on Tuesday 3 December at age 84. Known by the popular name al-Fajoumi, literally the bohemian,
Negm partnered with the late singer composer Sheikh Imam in the 1970s to produce works that spread like wildfire, scandalising reactionary thought and the tyranny of political regimes. His outspokenness against Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak landed him more than once in prison. Vexed at his stark criticism, Sadat described him as the ‘indecent, vulgar’ poet. He became recognised as a voice of protest in 1967 when he wrote poems on the Arab-Israeli war. Even though he earned no favour with the powers that be, he gained wide popular acclaim.
Malcontents, dissenters, and rebels of all ages and at all times sang his songs and found in al-Fajoumi’s biting, sarcastic poetry an echo to their raw pain. Straight up to the January 2011 revolt which forced long-standing president Mubarak to step down, and until this day, protestors have recited his revolutionary poems at Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square.
Negm has to his name some unforgettable poems, such as Yaeesh ahl baladi (Long live the people of my country), Baqaret Haha (Haha’s cow) and Dukkan Shehata (Shehata’s shop). He also wrote the lyrics of many songs.
Negm lived very simply, in a small room on the rooftop of a building in one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, Boulaq, enjoying a free-spirited life.
He leaves behind his sixth wife and children of various ages, including Nawara Negm, a revolutionary journalist and blogger.
Earlier this year Negm won the prestigious 2013 Prince Claus Award by the Dutch government, and was to be handed the award in an official ceremony at the Dutch Royal Palace in Amsterdam next week.
The Netherlands embassy in Cairo extended its condolences to Negm’s family. “Mr Negm is the 2013 Principal Prince Claus Laureate, an honour bestowed upon him in appreciation of his literary contributions,” the embassy communiqué said. “He intended to travel to the Netherlands on 11 December 2013 in order to receive the prestigious award in an official ceremony at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.
“An excerpt from the jury report of the 2013 Principle Prince Claus Laureate reads as follows: ‘Ahmed Fouad Negm is honoured for creating true poetry in vernacular Arabic that communicates deeply with people; for his independence, unwavering integrity, courage and rigorous commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice; for speaking truth to power, refusing to be silenced and inspiring more than three generations in the Arab-speaking world; for the aesthetic and political force of his work highlighting the basic need for culture and humour in harsh and difficult circumstances; and for his significant impact on Arabic poetry bringing recognition to the rich literary potential of the colloquial language.’”
Al-Fajoumi’s life was far from easy. He was born, one of 17 brothers, into a peasant family in the east Delta province of Sharqiya. His father Muhammad Ezzat Negm was a police officer. Like many of his generation, he was educated at the village kuttaab, a traditional religious school attached to a mosque or church.
When his father died he was placed in an orphanage while still seven. At 17 he left the orphanage and returned to his village to work as a shepherd. He later moved to Cairo to live with his brother who eventually kicked him out only to return to his village to work in one of the British army camps while helping with guerilla operations against the British occupiers.
From 1951 till 1956 Negm worked for the Railways Company, where he later recounted that he witnessed the biggest robbery operation at the hands of police officers who robbed British-owned machinery from sites in the Suez Canal zone. “I was outraged,” Negm said, “and kept protesting, until they tired of me and moved me to the ministry of social affairs. But I had learned a lesson for life. After seeing those ‘great’ officers robbing sites while other poor Egyptians sacrificed their lives to defend Egypt against the British [Egypt gained its independence from Britain in 1954], I recognised that national issues can never be separate from social issues.”
In the ministry of social affairs Negm worked as a postman in rural areas. During these times, he said, he realised how unbearably oppressed the peasants were, and grasped the full extent of the ugliness of class discrepancy.
In 1959 Negm was taken to the police station with other workers who were accused of inciting riot. “There we were beaten so hard that one of our colleagues died,” Negm said. He was later implicated in a fraud case and was put in prison for 33 months.
During his time in prison he participated and won first place in a writing competition organised by the Supreme Council for the Arts. He published his first collection Pictures from Life and Prison in vernacular Egyptian Arabic and became famous after the renowned literary critic Suhair al-Qalamawi introduced his book while he was yet in prison. After he was released, he became a regular on Egyptian radio, but his fame really took off when the blind Sheikh Imam began singing his poems.
4 December 2013
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