Book Review: The Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm phenomenon

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 8 Apr 2015

Novelist Abdou Gubeir started writing the book in the seventies when Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm were at the apex of their fame, recording about 60 hours with both of them


Al-Naghem Al-Sharid…Al-Ma'araka hawl Zaharat El-Sheikh Imam wa Ahmed Fouad Negm (The Stray Melody- the Battle around the El-Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm Phenomenon) by Abdou Gubeir, Afaq Publishing, Cairo 2015. pp.191

This book tells a story that deserves to be told. Its author, the novelist Abdou Gubeir, started writing it in the 1970s when Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm were at the apex of their fame as part of a political and artistic phenomenon. He recorded around 30 hours with the poet Negm and with Sheikh Imam another 30, as well as his close associates and those surrounding him living in the "Khosh Qadam" alley. In addition, he collected many documents, manuscripts and newspaper clippings amounting to a sizeable archive.

After he had finished a significant part of the book, State Security Investigations Service officers (SSIS) stormed his home, arrested him and confiscated the archive, the cassettes and different documents related to the book. This was during the period when there were serious tensions between President Anwar Al-Sadat and his regime and the democratic and leftist political powers during the 1970's.

Luckily, a part of the book was rescued because the author wrote three copies on the typewriter. While the SSIS officers confiscated one copy, two remained; one of them was with the painter Adel El-Siwi and the other with the film director Magdy Ahmed Aly. Gubeir relied on this unfinished copy, which was saved from the next raid, according to the author's description. The contents of his book were confined to early incidents and events, starting with the early childhood of both of them, the circumstances of their meeting, and its zenith after the 1967 defeat.

The author mentioned that a part of the book was serialised as episodes and was published in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in the 1970's. From another perspective, the author benefitted from his experience as a novelist as he was living the phenomenon as opposed to being a mere witness. Many times he invited Imam and Negm to sing in his home, accompanied by friends. This was the only way to meet and hear them sing, especially in light of their exclusion from the media. Thus, Gubeir became a close friend with both of them.

The author didn't just describe in detail Imam and Negm's neighboring homes in Khosh Qadam alley in Al-Ghuriya neighborhood, he even presented their neighbours and those who were close to the phenomenon and participated in it. Among those were Mohammed Ali, the drummer who was taught by El-Sheikh Imam, who besides being a spontaneous artist, also organised several exhibitions. There was also Mahmood Al-Labban, the eclectic sculptor and milk seller.

The truth is that the writer was able to recall the essence of the era and its details in an exceptional way and revealed unknown aspects, especially about El-Sheikh Imam. While Negm wrote his autobiography- which attained a good deal of publicity and outreach- Sheikh Imam didn't have the access which was given to Negm.

El-Sheikh Imam was born in 1918 in a village in Giza governorate. His father was a hawker and an affiliate to a famous religious society. Imam lost his eyesight when he was two months old. The first thing he heard was religious hymns and benedictions in which all the religious society affiliates participated in.

Since his early childhood, his beautiful voice distinguished him from others. At twelve, he learnt the Holy Qur'an by heart, so the religious society sent him to Al-Azhar to learn, free of expense. However, he was eventually expelled from the society because he preferred the company of the most famous characters and composers of the time such as Sheikh Abu Al'aa Mohammed and Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed. What's really astonishing is that all those composers put together their well-known musical works in the same house which Imam occupied later.

Starting his life in Cairo as a blind man, homeless and expelled from mainstream society, Imam was obliged to earn his living through reciting verses from the Holy Qur'an in the streets and alleys of Fatimid Cairo.

While the historical meeting between Imam and Negm was coincidental in 1962, the 1967 defeat in the war against Israel was the major catalyst in developing their relationship and pushing it forward. Imam met Negm immediately on his release from jail after passing three years in prison in an embezzlement case.

The reader will find rare documentation of this period in which Negm started to live in the room underneath Imam's room when he began to compose the music for Negm's poems and as well as invitations to sing in the homes of friends.

The 1967 defeat led to their widespread fame because their creativity became focused towards satirical and political songs. Though their output was satirical, the politics were serious, as they examined the existing social and political situation.

The book devotes a considerable section to shed light on attempts to contain them. For instance, Mohammed Fayek, the Information Minister, visited them in their humble home and asked for their cooperation.

The late critic Ragaa Al-Naqqash prepared a daily radio programme that was aired for two months to showcase the musical compositions of El-Sheikh Imam. However, they didn't yield to the attempts to contain or domesticate them.


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