Near to Ghouria, the place that witnessed the birth of his unprecedented talent, the funeral of Egyptian iconic poet Ahmed Fouad Negm took place among hundreds of his fans. The news of his sudden death could have been a usual rumour, one that used to circulate every couple of months. Yet the news came from his closest friends through social media and news websites, shocking intellectual society.
Ahmed Fouad Negm, who died at 84, spent most of his life chased by the authorities, none of whom he spared from mockery. What is remarkable about the sudden departure of Negm is that the man who lived on the margins of society died as a renowned, enthralled poet who asserted his place in the history of modern Arabic colloquial poetry. A man who lived in the footnotes, made his own text.
Sadly Negm, who died a few days before receiving the Prince Claus Poetry Prize for “his contributions that inspired three generations of Egyptians and Arabs and asserted the values of freedom and social justice,” did receive any official prize or honour from his country that always looked at him as a poet out of its context.
The author of Al-Faggomi lived an extraordinary life since he decided to write slang poetry rooted in social and political criticism. Negm could have remained nameless but for the political transformations he witnessed and that pushed him, via harsh experience, to reflect and merge his private concerns with the public concerns of his people.
Negm was born in Sharqiya in 1929, one of 17 other boys in the family. Conditions in his village were harsh: six of his brothers died. After the death of his father, he moved to Zagazig to live with his uncle. Shortly afterwards he was placed in an orphanage, where, in 1936, he met iconic Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez.
After leaving the orphanage he returned to his village, taking up marginal careers that put him in the lower class of Egyptian society. Then arrived a marking point in Egyptian history: 1952, when the July revolution, led by the Free Officers, toppled the Egyptian monarchy, establishing a new republic.
Negm found himself and discovered his class in society, meeting with communist workers who provided him with Marxist literature that helped to build his conscience.
Shortly Negm, who was fond of the 1952 revolution, found himself clashing with the authorities that led the revolution itself when he criticised President Nasser and his policies. He was accused of incitement against the regime — a charge that became an epithet that followed him until his death.
Jailed for 33 months on fabricated charges of counterfeiting, while in prison Negm participated in a literary competition organised by the Egyptian Arts Council, winning first prize and getting his first collection, Pictures of Life in Prison, published with a foreword by famous writer Suhair El-Qalamawi. Negm became famous while still in prison.
After his release, the state sought to tame Negm, offering him a job at the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation, hoping that he will stop criticising the regime, which never happened. A dramatic transformation happened to him at that time when he met blind revolutionary composer Sheikh Imam in 1962, entering a new phase of his life that continued until 1984, and that is deemed the richest of his career. They became the most successful duo of the time, living and working together at Khosh Qamam in Ghouria, near Al-Hussein.
At first their songs were romantic, but after the 1967 war with Israel, the political crisis saw them produce songs that vehemently criticised Nasser’s regime. Their many protest songs, containing searing words against Nasser himself, led them to prison, where they spent three years.
Though Nasser jailed him, Negm wrote an obituary for him when Nasser died in 1970 and defended him against those who saw his rule as disastrous. Negm had the same troubled relation with President Sadat, who jailed Negm and Sheikh Imam for 11 years for mocking one of his television addresses.
Hosni Mubarak succeeded to avoid a direct clash with Negm, until January 2011, when the revolution broke out and Negm’s poems became an inspiration for the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Negm took to Tahrir Square himself and participated in all protests and marches from 25 January 2011 until his death.
Negm never got the critical attention he deserved, aside from some reviews written by great Egyptian writers like Al-Taher Makki, Ibrahim Fathi and Ali Al-Rai. His poetry never penetrated the academic field, remaining largely unrecognised despite his strong influence on the Arabic poetry scene. But during the past 10 years, with the rise of satellite television channels, Negm became a well known face.
Though passed over by officialdom in the cultural sphere, Negm remains the closest to the people of his contemporaries. He is, indeed, the real poet of the people that never put his stake on this or that ruler, understanding that the praise of those who are in power always ends up in the dustbin of history.