[Marxism] Ahmed Fouad Negm, Dissident Poet of Egypt’s Underclass, Dies at 84
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Sat Dec 7 11:27:20 MST 2013
NY Times December 6, 2013
Ahmed Fouad Negm, Dissident Poet of Egypt’s Underclass, Dies at 84
By KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — Ahmed Fouad Negm, an Egyptian poet whose irreverent writing,
forged by poverty and prison, lacerated Egypt’s strongmen, gave voice to
its underclass and inspired its dissidents, died on Tuesday at his home
here. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by Sayed Enaba, a longtime friend.
Over four decades, Mr. Negm (pronounced NEG-em) wrote verse in
colloquial Arabic that channeled the privations and grim humor that were
part of working-class life. His fearless and often mocking critiques of
power made him a folk hero, but also earned him a total of 18 years in jail.
With little recognition from the establishment except as derision —
President Anwar el-Sadat once called him “the obscene poet” — Mr. Negm’s
reputation as a counterculture poet grew in the poor neighborhoods where
he lived and among students, leftists and others who passed around his
writings or tapes of his performances.
His personality was as diverting as his poems: He cursed and teased,
extolled the virtues of hashish and boasted about his many marriages. On
a wall of his home he painted a line of poetry: “Glory to the crazy
people in this dull life.”
Mr. Negm’s work, which owed debts to earlier Egyptian vernacular poets
and to leftist authors, both chronicled the country’s modern history and
served as an accompaniment to its struggles. Young activists mined his
poems for inspiration and transformed them into chants of protest.
His words echoed across Tahrir Square in Cairo during the 2011 uprising
against President Hosni Mubarak “as if they were specifically written
for that moment,” his friend Mr. Enaba said. Lines from his poem “Who
Are They, and Who Are We?” became a chanted slogan in the square,
marking Egypt’s perennial struggles and sharpening the lines of the
battle at hand.
They were “the sultans,” and the people were “the war: its kindling, its
fire,” the poem read.
“They wear the latest fashions,” the protesters shouted, “and we live
seven to a room.”
Mr. Negm started writing in the late 1950s, during a three-year prison
sentence on a forgery charge. After he was released in 1962, he
published his first book, “Images From Life and Prison.”
In the 1960s he teamed up with Sheikh Imam Eissa, a composer and oud
player, who put music to Mr. Negm’s verse. Their collaboration made both
men famous and established them among Egypt’s foremost dissidents. They
were roommates for a spell, and were locked up together, too. The
partnership lasted for more than 20 years.
One composition, which criticized President Gamal Abdel Nasser after
Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, landed Mr. Negm and Sheikh
Imam in jail. Sadat, who succeeded Nasser as president, released them,
but sent Mr. Negm back to prison a few years later for mocking his
Little was sacred in Mr. Negm’s world: He skewered Islamists, government
functionaries, Richard M Nixon and even Egypt’s most famous singer, Umm
Kulthum, in poems that spread beyond Egypt.
Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet who teaches literature at New York
University, first came across one of Mr. Negm’s books, “Egypt, Wake Up!”
as a teenager in Baghdad.
“When you read, or hear, his poetry, you are struck by the power of his
language and its intricate rhythms and registers,” Mr. Antoon wrote in
an email. “At times, it’s almost incantational.”
In Mr. Negm’s poems, Mr. Antoon said, “the aesthetic and the political
went hand in hand.”
Egypt’s chronic inequality and decades of political stasis gave Mr.
Negm’s work a timeless quality. Words he wrote in 1967, about official
attempts to pacify ordinary Egyptians, never lost their resonance:
Don’t tire your brain
in the work of politics
mind your own business
with vim and vigor
Ahmed Fouad Negm was born on May 22, 1929, in the village of Kafr Abu
Negm, north of Cairo. His father, a police officer, died when he was 6,
and his mother, unable to provide for Mr. Negm and his siblings, placed
him in an orphanage in the city of Zagazig.
After leaving the orphanage, he worked as a laborer on a British
military base, as a farmhand and as a street vendor before his first
imprisonment, in 1959.
Mr. Negm was married at least five times and as many as eight; friends
who had known him for decades were not sure. In 1972, he married the
journalist and literary critic Safinaz Kazem. Their daughter, Nawara
Negm, is a prominent Egyptian activist. In addition to her and his last
wife, Omaima Abdel-Wahab, survivors include two other daughters, Afaf
and Zeinab Negm.
A few days before he died, with Egypt once again mired in civil conflict
and tilting toward authoritarian rule, Mr. Negm fretted about the
But his beloved revolutionaries were still in the streets. “The youth we
have are devils,” he said affectionately. “Nobody can fool them.”
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.
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