Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egypt’s ‘poet of the people,’ dies at 84

December 3, 2013

Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egypt’s “poet of the people” whose sharply political verses in colloquial Arabic skewered the country’s leaders and inspired protesters from the 1970s through the current uprisings, died Dec. 3 in Cairo. He was 84.

His close friend and publisher Mohammed Hashem, director and owner of Merit publishing house, confirmed the death. No cause was reported.

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

Mr. Negm rose to fame in the 1970s and the 1980s when his poetry was sung by blind musician Sheik Imam Issa, who played the oud, a lute-like Arabic instrument. The duo, who mostly performed in popular coffee­houses and for university students, inspired generations of youth aspiring for change.

Mr. 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 characterizes the language of the street in Egypt, a nation of about 90 million people who are sometimes derided for corrupting the Arabic language.


Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, known as the “poet of the people,” in 2006. (Mohamed Al-Sehety/AP)

“A judge once told me that my poetry was crude,” Mr. Negm recalled. “I asked him: ‘Is it more crude than what is happening in Egypt?’ The judge laughed.”

His poetry communicated the sentiments of marginalized Egyptians and shocked officialdom. His poems 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, billionaire Naguib Saweris, was a vocal fan.

His verse also reflected 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 once said, suggesting that people care more about “morality” than ensuring everyone can afford clothes.

A self-proclaimed secularist, Mr. Negm was a harsh critic of Islamists. They did not like him either and offered scathing rebukes to his poems and public statements.

Mr. Negm had been scheduled to travel to Amsterdam next week to receive the Prince Claus Award, one of the Netherlands’ top cultural prizes.

“Negm is both an icon and a folk hero, renowned in literary circles for the quality, lyricism and beauty of his work, from love songs to radical satires that take the complex, highly nuanced vernacular Arabic to unprecedented poetic levels,” according to the citation of the prize, awarded by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund. “He is celebrated on the streets of Cairo and across the Arab world for giving voice to the spirit of the people’s movement for social justice.”

Mr. Negm had little formal education. Over the course of his life, he took jobs as a house servant and a postal worker. He was jailed a total of 18 years for his political views under the rule of former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat. But he saved his harshest criticism for Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 29 years but never jailed the poet.

“Compared to Mubarak, Abdel-Nasser was a prophet and Sadat was a very kind man,” he said in 2006.

His poetry took added significance during the years of Mubarak’s rule, when its sense of deep-seated dissatisfaction spoke to growing numbers of Egyptians and their seething anger with that era’s corruption, heavy-handed police tactics and broken promises of reform.

Mr. Negm’s appearance and lifestyle matched the bluntness and the nature of his verse, immersed in the language of the poor. He wore a galabia, a flowing Egyptian robe, at all times. His last home was a small apartment in a government housing project given to him by authorities when he lost his humble home in a 1992 earthquake.

“Poverty is my choice. My whole family is poor, so why should I be different?” he said. “I live with people, eat what they eat and am surrounded by the same pollution and garbage,” said Mr. Negm, who in recent years sported a mass of silver hair and a face deeply lined by age and decades of heavy cigarette smoking.

He was reportedly married at least six times. He is the father of prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, who helped galvanize the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak, and two other daughters, 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.

— Associated Press

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