Ahmed Fouad Negm, Dissident Poet of Egypt’s Underclass, Dies at 84
Mohamed Al-Sehety/Associated Press
By KAREEM FAHIM
Published: December 6, 2013
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 speaking style.
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 country’s path.
But his beloved revolutionaries were still in the streets. “The youth we have are devils,” he said affectionately. “Nobody can fool them.”
Ahmed Fouad Negm (Arabic: احمد فؤاد نجم, pronounced [ˈæħmæd foˈʔæːd ˈneɡm]; 22 May 1929 – 3 December 2013), popularly known as el-Fagommiالفاجومي ([elfæˈɡuːmi], was an Egyptian vernacular poet. Negm is well known for his work with Egyptian composer Sheikh Imam, as well as his patriotic and revolutionary Egyptian Arabic poetry. Negm has been regarded as "a bit of a folk hero in Egypt."
Ahmed Fouad Negm was born in Sharqia, Egypt, to a family of fellahin. His mother, Hanem Morsi Negm, was a housewife, and his father Mohammed Ezat Negm, a police officer. Negm was one of seventeen brothers. Like many poets and writers of his generation, he received his education at the religious Kutaab schools managed by El-Azhar.
When his father died, he went to live with his uncle Hussein in Zagazig, but was placed in an orphanage in 1936 where he first met famous singer Abdel Halim Hafez. In 1945, at the age of 17, he left the orphanage and returned to his village to work as a shepherd. Later, he moved to Cairo to live with his brother who eventually kicked him out only to return to his village again to work in one of the English camps while helping with guerilla operations.
After the agreement between Egypt and Britain, the Egyptian National Workers’ Movement asked everyone in the English camps to quit their job. Negm was then appointed by the Egyptian government as a laborer in mechanical workshops. He was imprisoned for 3 years for counterfeiting form, during which he participated and won first place in a writing competition organized by the Supreme Council for the Arts. He then published his first collection “Pictures from Life and Prison” in vernacular Egyptian Arabic and became famous after Suhair El-Alamawi introduced his book while he was still in prison. After he was released, he was appointed as a clerk in the organization for Asian and African peoples. He also became a regular poet on Egyptian radio.
Negm lived in a small room on the rooftop of a house in Boulaq el-Dakror neighborhood. When he met singer and composerSheikh Imam in Khosh Adam neighborhood, they became roommates and formed a famous signing duet. Negm was also imprisoned several times due to his political views, particularly his harsh criticism of Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser,Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
The residence of Ahmed Fouad Negm in the poorest neighborhoods of Cairo, Egypt, exposed him to the most talented professionals such as Sheikh Imam Issa, impoverished poets and artists. But, Sheikh Imam in particular compensated Negm for the earlier rejection by his orphanage-mate Abdel Halim Hafez.
In 1962, Negm was introduced to Imam by a friend who believed that the two, poet Negm and composer Imam, could make a perfect duo. On the first occasion, Negm noticed that Imam took over an hour to tweak the strings of the Oud before starting his first demonstration to the new guest. Negm shouted "Allah" upon listening to Imam's singing and playing the Oud. The blind Sheikh was equally longing for inspiring words of the sort Negm had. That was the spark that lasted 30 years of concerted writing by Negm, composing by Imam, and singing by the two combined.
Negm was quick enough to sense that the blind Sheikh was a hidden treasure of Islamic literacy and music talent, and with his physical handicap, he could use the help of Negm's eyes and words. Hence, Negm proposed to stay in Imam's residence. As he recounted, his other rented room has properties worth 6 Egyptian pounds, thus if he threw away the key for his other room, the landlord was required three months before breaking into the room and possessing its content. Negm took the risk, abandoned his rented room with its contents and stuck with Sheikh Imam from 1962 throughout 1995.
In 2007, Negm was chosen by the United Nations Poverty Action as Ambassador of the poor.
In the early hours of 3 December 2013, Negm died at the age of 84 in Cairo. Although he had been ill for a long time,publisher Mohamed Hashem said Negm sounded fine the day before his death, but remarked further that his voice was "a little heavy". Negm's funeral is set to take place in Al-Hussein Mosque, Cairo.