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Farewell to Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egypt’s ‘poet of the people’

Hundreds turn out in Cairo for the funeral of the man whose words were the soundtrack to change.
The renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm died at 84, early on Tuesday. AP Photo
The renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm died at 84, early on Tuesday. AP Photo

CAIRO // Ahmed Fouad Negm, the poet whose verses became the soundtrack to Egypt’s 2011 revolution, died on Tuesday. He was 84.

Known as the “poet of the people”, Negm’s use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic endeared him to his countrymen, who saw in his verse an unvarnished reflection of how they felt about milestones in their nation’s history such as the defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Negm was also critical of the country’s first freely elected leader, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who was removed from power in July after mass protests against his rule.

Negm shot to fame in the 1970s when his poetry was sung by the blind oud player Sheikh Imam.

The duo, who mostly performed in popular coffee houses and to university students, inspired generations of youth aspiring for change.

Hundreds of family, friends and fans turned out at Cairo’s historic Imam Hussein mosque for Negm’s funeral yesterday. Among the mourners was Omar El Ayat, whose band played the songs of Negm and Sheikh Imam during sit-ins in 2011.

“We lost one of the most important people in this country,” said Mr El Ayat, 28. “Negm’s songs changed my life.”

Negm was a firm supporter of the 2011 uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. His verse is often littered with expletives or obscene puns, a trait that characterises the language of the street in Egypt.

“Every period that Egypt has passed through, since the 1950s till now, you can listen to Negm’s poems at any time. They’re timeless. That’s their value. You can listen to it anytime and it what will explain what we’re going through,” Mr El Ayat said.

Negm had little formal education. Over the course of his life he took jobs as a house servant and a postal worker. He spent a total of 18 years in jail for his political views under the rule of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

“I am not a humble person and I am not stupid; I know I am a poet that has affected this nation,” he once said.

Negm’s poetry communicated the sentiments of marginalised Egyptians and shocked officialdom. They lampooned an elite seen as co-opted by successive regimes or isolated from the rest of the nation, although one of the country’s top businessmen was a vocal fan.

His verse also reflected both a love for his country and scathing criticism of its ills.

“We are a society that only cares about the hungry when they are voters and only cares about the naked when they are women,” he said, suggesting that people cared more about “morality” than ensuring everyone could afford clothes.

A self-proclaimed secularist, Negm was a harsh critic of Islamists. They did not like him either.

“Thank God for the blessing that is his death,” said an anonymous posting on an Islamist website yesterday.

Negm had been scheduled to travel to Amsterdam this month to receive the Prins Claus Award, one of the Netherlands’ top cultural prizes.

“It is very sad news, one of the saddest I’ve heard in my life,” said Mohammed Hashem, his close friend and publisher. “This great person, and wonderful friend, this is heavily felt in my heart and those of all his friends.”

Negm held court on the roof of his ramshackle apartment building in Cairo. To get there, visitors had to climb up a wooden ladder and through a narrow hatch to the dun-colored shack with bright blue window frames. Scrawled on one of the walls was “Poetry is like a horse that freely roams the world despite the prison bars.”

Mr Hashem and Negm set up Writers and Artists for Change, a group of intellectuals that would meet on Negm’s rooftop in 2005 during the many movements that began at the time against Hosni Mubarak.

“We signed a statement and we went down to the street after that to take part in the many protests against Hosni Mubarak,” Mr Hashem said.

Farida Al Naqqash, a member of the leftist Tagammu party, met Negm at university and remembered him as having “a very deep insight into the populace and life experience that’s connected with the people, and poor people’s lives, workers and farmers, those who live in slums”.

“He was a voice for all those who didn’t have a voice,” she said.

Negm is the father of prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, an iconic figure of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. He has two other daughters in addition to Nawara, Zeinab and Afaf.

“You may not find in the life of your father something to brag about, but you will certainly not find anything that you will be ashamed of,” he wrote in the dedication of a book of his verses to his three daughters.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press

Updated: December 3, 2013 04:00 AM