Ahmed Fouad Negm's autobiography: Eighty years of freedom and recklessness

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 5 Apr 2014

The General Egyptian Book Organisation has released the complete autobiography of the late Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm — a searing work on a magical life

Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm
Iconic Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm

Al-Fagoomy – Al-Seera Al-Zatiya Al-Kamela (Al-Fagoomy – The Complete Autobiography) by Ahmed Fouad Negm, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Family's Library, Cairo, 2013. pp.536

After his death, the Family's Library has published a new edition of Ahmed Fouad Negm's autobiography Al-Fagoomy, which in its first edition was issued several years ago and quickly sold out.

Perhaps the first thing that meets the eye in this autobiography is that it was written fully in vernacular Arabic. After the reader finishes its pages, which exceed 500, she or he will realise that this statement of a life couldn't possibly been written except in street Arabic. It is an amalgam of misery, naughtiness, madness, steadfastness, singing, imprisonment and love of the people. It occupies a deserved place among the most important and sweetest books ever written in everyday Arabic. The first such book is Qantara Who became an Unbeliever by Mustafa Mushrafa; the second Memoirs of a Research Grant Student by renowned critic Louis Awad.

Leaving us after more than 80 years, Negm was not just a poet who lived his life as he pleases, according to his persuasions and choices, but one who learnt from his own life. He derived his culture not from books but from the chants of peasants working the fields where he was born on 22 May 1929 in a village in Al-Sharqia governorate. His father died early and he worked as a farm labourer until 1936 when he was moved to an orphanage and stayed there until 1945, and where he got acquainted with another orphan, Abdel Halim Hafez, who became afterwards the well-known singer. 

Although the charity orphanage had an objective, which was to teach its orphans certain crafts, such as tailoring, printing or shoe-making, Negm failed to learn any of these trades. The solution appeared to him to be getting out of the orphanage and going back to his village to work as a shepherd in return for food, while trying to help his mother bring up his siblings.

In 1946, Negm joined his brother in Cairo who arrived a few years earlier. His experience in the city was similar to that in the village, in that it was a chance to get acquainted with the dregs of society. He worked as a tailor's apprentice, textile factory worker and a hawker in trams and buses. When the demonstrations of 1946 broke out against the British occupation, Negm participated in them like everyone else.

Despite being unemployed and poor, Negm lived a very broad and rich life. He moved to work in the British occupation camps in the Suez Canal zone. Here he got his first direct contact with politics. The zone was a centre of worker's activity, from which he knew a number of communists. The first book he read, given to him by a communist colleague, was Maxim Gorky's novel The Mother.

Negm moved one more time to work in the railway company, which was the last governmental work he had, because he was imprisoned in 1959 on charges of forgery. He doesn't only confess to his involvement in this shameful crime; he stated that the three years he spent in jail turned his life upside down and made him a new human being adding: "Three years in which I discovered the poet who became the talk of the people afterwards."

In prison he came to know three leftist intellectuals and writers: the novelist Abdel Hakim Qasem, the critic Sami Khashaba and the writer Hussein Sha'alan. According to his account, the discussions and questions those three opened up to him led him to a whole new world of knowledge and understanding.

After leaving prison he met accidentally Sheikh Imam Eissa, his companion in his next and most significant and influential journey. Their meeting in 1962 was in the alley of Hosh Qadem, which gained huge fame, for in one of its ramshackle houses the first of a number of songs resisting the 1967 defeat emerged. From this house the grand phenomenon was launched, with all the recklessness and madness, to oppose and even to attack the regime that was responsible for the most ignominious defeats in Egypt's contemporary history.

This part in the autobiography, in which Negm focuses on official media attempts at containment, has a special significance. The Ministry of Culture and the Arab Socialist Union had a particular role in this effort to impose silence. But their songs began to be aired on the radio, and renowned writers and critics wrote about them, and official concerts were organised for them. Their ramshackle house became something like Mecca, where tens of writers, artists and journalists went in pilgrimage.

Attempts to silence them failed and Negm and Imam continued to produce songs opposing the regime with decisiveness and the loudest voice. The regime changed tack. They were framed in a drugs case and imprisoned.

About this restless and tense period after the 1967 defeat, Negm records, as a witness, participator and even as one of the key players, unique scenes for the Egyptian intelligentsia. There were those who encouraged and supported the Imam and Negm phenomenon, and there were those who tried to contain it, and then to destroy it. Negm records the most fateful moments of this remarkable time.

Both Negm and Imam paid the price of their freedom in full — under the regime of Nasser until his death, and then throughout Sadat's rule. They used to leave prison to return to it in mostly fabricated cases involving drug possession. Perhaps the most famous, for Negm, was being charged with insulting the president in one of his poems.

Finally, Negm's autobiography is also characterised with an unprecedented sense of humour — a satirical streak at once hilarious and profound. He was able to transform what he narrates into an animated caricature, and using vernacular Arabic helped him in writing his book, not only because he is the great vernacular Arabic poet, but because he also thinks in vernacular the same as the marginalised children of the alleys. This what the late critic Louis Awad pointed out when he wrote about Negm in his early beginnings: "All of the vernacular Arabic poets in Egypt think in classical Arabic except Ahmed Fouad Negm, who thinks in vernacular and writes in vernacular."

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