Obituary: Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, the last side of the Egyptian poetry triangle

Mohammed Saad , Wednesday 22 Apr 2015

Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, one of the most prominent vernacular poets of the last fifty years, died on Tuesday afternoon aged 77

Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi in 1990 (Photo by Yves Paris / Courtesy of Ahram Weekly)

The death of the iconic Egyptian vernacular poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, who shaped a considerable part of the Egyptian sensibility to political and social crises over the past 50 years, did not come as a surprise, not because of the critical health condition that forced him to have brain surgery, but because he made his audience ready to receive the news of his death in his last poems.

"You went old boy Abdel-Rahman, you became an elderly man, why so fast? When and how? (…) when death comes to you, open your arms, when death calls on you, respond, you will be the winner, don't think about it and make calculations, don’t think about the girl or the boy, this is a time when honesty became lies, leave this life to them with its money and status and run," he wrote in his poem Yamna, that he named after his aunt.

With the death of Abnoudi, which was preceded by the death of Ahmed Fouad Negm in 2013 and Salah Jaheen in 1986, Egypt has lost the last member of the trio that dominated the scene of vernacular poetry for over half a century. They reshaped the scene that reached its peak in the 50s with the poetry of Bayram El-Tunsi.

Born to a religious family in Qena in Upper Egypt in 1939, his father was a cleric and marriage official, who provided him with a rich library full of books. His mother and aunt, who raised him, helped to shape his imagination with the folkloric songs they memorised and were a mix that came from Pharaonic and Coptic origins. He gained his magnificent way in reciting poems in his Upper Egypt accent from his mother and aunt. That ability and his remarkable voice helped bring him closer to his audience when he recited his poems in a way that you can never forget or compare.

Abnoudi moved to Cairo in the late 50s as many young writers and poets then did. Egypt's cultural and media institutions have always been centered in Cairo, the city that he left in his last five years, because of its polluted air that his sick lungs could not take anymore, and moved to Ismailia, where he was buried last night.

Abnoudi introduced himself as a poet and lyricist, whose poems were sung by the finest Egyptian and Arab singers. They helped make his poetry heard, sung and recited nationwide, and quoted in normal conversations to reflect on the status of the country, especially in its critical, articulating moments.

He wrote song lyrics for some of the most famous Egyptian and Arab singers in the second half of the twentieth century, such as Abdel-Halim Hafez, Mohamed Rushdie, Najat El-Saghira, Shadia, Sabah and Mohamed Mounir, who attended his funeral in Ismailia.

His poems reflected the ups and downs of this country and became synonymous with big events, such as the setback of 1967, the Six Day War, the Camp David treaty with Israel, and the January 2011 uprising.

He gained popular admiration in the Arab world for his unique ability to turn tragic moments in Egyptian history into genial sonnets that provided both a sense of closure and hope to millions coping with adversity.

One of his most famous poems, Ada El-Nahar (The Day has Passed), which he wrote in aftermath of Egypt's bitter defeat to Israel in 1967, and was quickly turned into a song by Abdel-Halim Hafez, remains one of the most iconic patriotic songs in the memory of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.

The genial poet always had a fraught relationship with power. He was jailed in the 60s under Nasser’s rule on charges of being a member of a communist group and was released days before the Six Days War in 1967. During the Sadat era he was harassed by the security forces, the thing that made him leave for Tunisia then London, and when he came back he vehemently criticised the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

Abnoudi did not have much trouble under Hosni Mubarak, in fact things were going fine, yet he was always a critic of the repressive ways of the police, and when the January 2011 revolution broke out, he was one of the first intellectuals and poets to voice their support for it.

Yet his strong support for President El-Sisi and his regime brought him some angry responses from the youth.

One of his greatest achievements is collecting the poems that kept the history of Bani Hilal, who were a confederation of Arab tribes that migrated to Egypt and the Maghreb. He collected them in five volumes while he was in Tunisia, entitled Sirat Bani Hilal (The Biography of Bani Hilal), and it tells their adventures and their migration from Najd (now in Saudi Arabia) to Egypt then Tunisia and the Maghreb during the second half of the 10th century

Abnoudi is survived by his wife, TV host Nehal Kamal, and two daughters, Aya and Nour, and thousands of poem that live in the memory of the Egyptian people.


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