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

Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote his poetry in colloquial Arabic.
(Mohamed Al-Sehety / Associated Press)

CAIRO — 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, has died. He was 84.

Negm died Tuesday at his home in Cairo, said his close friend and publisher Mohammed Hashem, director and owner of Merit publishing.

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 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.

Negm shot 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 coffee houses and to university students, inspired generations of youth aspiring for change.

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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 90 million people who are sometimes derided for corrupting the Arabic language.

“A judge once told me that my poetry was crude,” 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, lampooning an elite seen as co-opted by successive regimes or isolated from the rest of the nation. 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.

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 for a total of 18 years for his political views under the rule of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. He saved his harshest criticism, however, 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.

He is the father of prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, a key figure of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. He has 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.

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His funeral was held on Tuesday at the historic Imam Hussein mosque in the medieval section of the Egyptian capital.

news.obits@latimes.com


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