El-Fagommi, from Neauphle-le-Château to Tahrir Square
A Glimpse at the Political and Literary Life of Ahmed Fouad Negm, the Father of Revolutionary and Anti-Colonialist Poetry in Egypt
October 26th, 2016
El-Fagommi used to say that Iran’s Islamic Revolution was the best example of a popular revolution in which the voice of ordinary people and their protest was heard, and that was the kind of revolution they envied and wanted to have in Egypt for years. He published his poetry collection “The Collection of Iran” during the first days of Iran’s Revolution. He had listened to Imam Khomeini’s interview on Radio Monte Carlo, when he had just set foot in France with a bag in his hand. When he was asked what was inside it, he said a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Negm was deeply moved by Imam Khomeini’s austerity, being the leader of a revolution, and that inspired him to write a poem called “Morning Tehran,” for which he was imprisoned for a year by Anwar Sadat:
“Morning O dear Tehran!
dawn of Victory,
dawn of growing awareness,
we played the fiddle,
wrote our song,
mounted our horse of imagination,
talked about Iran,
and shouted aloud the duplicities of the US,
which is terrified of security in Iran,
and the betrayal of the Shah,
whose condemnation is a revolution.
Revolution is a maneuver
to reveal his crimes and corruption
and this revolution made him homeless
I will tell you of Iran
we’re all thrilled
every revolutionary is happy
even those who were killed fighting …
those who were present and participated in it…
those who lived at the fronts,
those who adhered to their beliefs,
and those who adore thinking,
and I tell you of fear
how should I tell you dear,
that they’re terrified?
those who danced in Carter’s embrace
those who went on pilgrimage to see Golda Meir (the then president of Israel)
those who lit her cigarettes
yes, Khomeini is a narrow minded and prejudiced man!
and Arab rulers are civilized!
when they plunder oil from the Sinai desert
and shield themselves from our pens of protest
and put their trust in none but the Zionists
and I have a question for you, is there anything left that we haven’t given to the Zionists?
Ahmed Fouad Negm, had a special role in vernacular poetry and supporting people against corrupted systems of government in the Arab world. Louis Aragon, a French poet, recognized him as a man with the power to bring down barriers. Ali al-Ra’ee, an Egyptian literary critic, called him “the poet of the gun”, but the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was the one who addressed him as “the discourteous poet”.
El-Fagommi was born in a village and lost his father at a young age. He was sent to an orphanage at the age of seven. When Negm turned seventeen, he returned to his homeland and worked as a shepherd. ِDuring those days, Egypt used to be a British colony, and he also worked in an English camp as a worker, observing the crimes and racist policies of the Western bourgeoisie firsthand. In 1946 Fouad Negm, along with thousands of other Egyptians, took part in labor protests against the discriminatory policies of the then Egyptian regime. As a result, he was fired from the camp and started to work as a vendor. After the agreement between Egypt and Britain was broken, he joined the Egyptian National Workers’ Movement and was imprisoned a few times afterwards.
When in jail, he participated in a competition, organized by the Supreme Council for the Arts and won first prize. Later in prison, he published his first collection of vernacular poetry “Pictures from Life and Prison,” introduced by Suhair al-Qalmavi, a famous Egyptian writer. After Negm was released, he joined the Organization for Asian and African People and became a regular poet on Egyptian Radio.
El- Fagommi made a name for himself fighting against Western colonialism and imperialism. He was able to recognize traits of colonialism and imperialism in any disguise and was well aware of their tricks. They disguised themselves in the Crusades or in shape of occupying countries or even in globalization. Although the colonizers wear a different mask each time, their real face was exposed in Fouad Negm’s poems. He introduced them with different terms: Evil, ibn-Harmalih (the last child of an elderly couple, symbolizing someone cunning), al-Bormah (a con artist), al-Nakhas (a slaver, someone who doesn’t care whether he’s selling people or animals as long as he makes good money), al-Khawajah (the stranger, whether American or European and is used to symbolize a foreign con artist who has a different life style), al-Samsar (the broker), and more.
Working with Sheikh Imam
Wherever Negm’s name comes up, it’s almost always associated with Sheikh Imam, an Egyptian composer and singer. Negm’s lyrics were brought together with Sheikh Imam’s music to reflect popular protests before and after the Arabs’ humiliating defeats in the war against Israel. Because of his political stance and his opposition of the regime, he was imprisoned and tortured during the 18 years of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak’s presidencies. He accompanied people in their protests and his poems became slogans of revolutionary youth during the Arab Spring in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
The only Egyptian president Negm praised was Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he dubbed “Emir of the poor”. Tyranny, oppression, a repressive atmosphere, ineffectiveness and the useless compromises made by governors after him, made this revolutionary poet shout his dissatisfaction through his poems. He ridiculed Anwar Sadat in his poem “al-Bita’”. Even Mohamed Morsi couldn’t escape his satirical poetry. Negm wrote the poem “Morning to the flower that blooms in Ganayen” in support of the people’s movement and it was sung a lot during the Revolution of Jan 25th. He wrote another poem after the collapse of Morsi’s government to express his delight.
El-Fagommi‘s lyrics inspired Sheikh Imam and his music. The collaboration of Imam’s music with Negm’s satirical poems was the best way for them to express their dissatisfaction with the tyranny of rulers and the miserable condition of the working-class to awaken society.
The Arabs’ defeat in the war against Israel in January of ’67 was a bitter experience for them and its bitterness could be felt in the works of all writers and poets. It was then that El- Fagommi’s cry of protest against Egyptian Rulers was heard and attracted attention. “Alhamdulellah”, “Carter or Wendell” and more, are the titles of some of songs made by the duo to show their hatred for the Camp David Accords.
The duo’s songs gained popularity both in national and international media, but since their songs gained a political hue, they were banned from performing in official ceremonies. When their protest against the Camp David Accords continued, Anwar Sadat did his best to silence their voices and imprisoned them, unaware that their widespread popularity would soon release them.
Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam first met each other in 1962 during the days of the war with Israel. In their first meeting, Negm simply asked Sheikh Imam: “Why don’t you compose?” and he answered: “Because I haven’t found lyrics that inspire me yet.” It was the beginning of their duo in which Negm was the lyricist and Imam the composer. This collaboration, which lasted for years, led to a revolution in Egypt’s protest-oriented music, and together they resisted all issues and prohibitions caused by dictators and their regimes. The memories of the duo from those chaotic days were published in magazines and newspapers and awakened Arab intellectuals. The songs “love of youth” and “clock of time” were some of their most memorable songs and were considered turning points for the duo.
El-Fagommi’s history in opposing regimes, criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Azhar party, his anti-imperialist poems, his support of Shias, Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Palestinian refugees, represented him as a figure belonging to the Islamic left party. He was a poet whose songs had always adorned the placards of Egyptians demonstrators throughout different periods of their history