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Poetry and singing as tools of change in Egypt

Ahmed Fouad Negm
The Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm rallies attendants during a public meeting organized by the opposition movement “Writers and Artists for Change” in a main plaza in Cairo 02 August 2005. Photo: CRIS BOURONCLE

Similar to the intellectual and philosophical movement that flourished in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, some people claim that the wheel of change in the Arab world has not stopped. For them, the Arab renaissance is still alive, and it emerges from Arabic poetry and singing.

In the following blog, Yussuf Sharqawi highlights the role that poetry and singing played to push the wheel of political and socioeconomic change in Egypt throughout the preceding century.

Yussuf Sharqawi

Who creates revolution? No one knows the answer better than Egyptians who came up with many revolutions in the modern age. The list includes Orabi’s revolution in 1881, the 1919 revolution, the 1952 revolution, the 1972 revolution and the January 2011 revolution.

Regardless of being sung or not, colloquial and eloquent poetry has always been a core element in starting revolutions. Sometimes, it was even the first engine for the revolution. One time, the Egyptian poet Amal Donqol described being a poet as “a revolution in its essence”. He believed that poetry is a permanent revolution and that People’s pursuit of poetry has always created revolution inside them.

Amal Donqol was once called “The Prince of Protest Poets”. He was known for preserving the collective consciousness of his people. Once he said: “As long as reality exists, the revolution will remain continuous. It will give birth to its poets, writers and fighters.”

Each and every revolution in Egypt was inflamed by the power of words and poetry. In January 2011 revolution, it was no wonder to see a passage from Donqol’s poem “Spartacus’ last words” drawn with graphite on the walls: “For behind every dying Caesar there is a new one”. The poem starts with the following:

“Glory to Satan, god of the winds
He who said an absolute (no) to those who said (yes)
He who taught man to tear apart nothingness
He who said no, thus did not die
Thus, he remained a soul in an eternal pain”

Al-Tahrir Square witnessed the intertwined partnership between the word (poetry) and action. Cairo’s streets have always been the space for such an enthusiasm. This occurs since the outbreaking of Orabi’s revolution. It occurred for example with the poems of Mohamed Sami el-Baroudi. Bayram al-Tunisi came also in 1919 with the following zajal poetry:

“Oh Egyptian,
Why to loosen up your arm while the universe is all yours
The beautiful and dulcet Nile is yours
It heals the burns
God created Macedonia and Sardinia
Thus, don’t be so bleak when others goof off in life”

In the same context, the words of poet Salah Jahin has been used in some songs of the famous singer Abd el-Halim Hafez. An example of these songs is “We are the people – Ehna Al Shaa’b”. The list of examples includes the first poetry collection of Fouad Haddad. This collection that was published in 1952 bore the name “Freemen beyond bars”. Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929 – 2013) started to get famous in the early 1970s. He worked at that time closely with the singer Sheikh Imam Issa (1918-1995). According to journalist Farida Naqqash, they were hard to tame.

Since Negm and Sheikh Imam formed their partnership, authorities made lots of efforts to contain them. Sheikh Imam said once: “They sent us a delegate from the ministry of culture. They wanted to negotiate with us giving performances through radio and TV broadcasts. I categorically refused to deal with them. Negm persisted then that we must deal with the media as they will provide us with space to spread our word.”

The regime could not buy them with money. They abstained from work after they were offered a bribe. The left-wing invited them then to join their movement. Consequently, Imam and Negm supported the student movement of 1972 against the policies of the former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. According to one of the student movement leaders, Sheikh Imam – who was blind – refused to stay outside the university after finding out that the gates were shut. He asked to let him in by any means, and they ended up lifting him across the fence.

The sit-in started in the faculty of engineering at Cairo University. Most of the attendees came to watch Imam and Negm who started reciting his poems. When the security stormed the university by force, students went out to al-Tahrir square and most of them were arrested, alongside with the “word-voice twin”.

In prison, new songs were written, such as the following:

“I went to the castle and met Yasin…
He was surrounded by soldiers and cells”

This song remains in the Egyptian people’s memory. Another song was the following:

“Oh, Uncle Hamza
Students went back to seriousness again
Oh, Egypt you will remain
You are the fruit of wishes”

Egyptian intellectuals were not absent from the scene. Back then, Egypt was like a man facing its executioner. That confrontation included students, workers, poor people and educated ones. Some major writers issued statements to support the students’ sit-in and demand their release. The list includes Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Hussien Fawzy, Tharwat Abaza, and others. The students were released thereafter.

Among the poets who contributed from inside prison during that phase: Zain Alabdin Fouad, Mohammed Seif, Naguib Shehab al-Din, Fouad Qa’ood, and many others.

“The revolution must have its art. It must have its voice”, says Shawqy al-Kurdi – one of the student movement leaders in the 1970s. At that period, al-Kurdi was put to jail along with Imam and Negm.

For more than a century, Egyptian streets remain a witness of the brilliance of that phase. And as long as reality exists, Egyptians – Poets and Citizens – assure that the revolution will continue. Since the 1970s, the following question has been raised: “Who can arrest Egypt, even for an hour?”

The answer will remain as always: no one.

This is the poetry that Amal Donqol talked about. It rediscovers the world surrounding you – most of the time this world was just a prison for the Egyptians – then rebuilds this world as it should be. That comes loud and clear in one of Imam’s songs who used to sing by heart a poem written by Negm to clarify that palaces built in farms came at the expense of poor people.

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