Artscape: Poets of Protest

Ahmed Fouad Negm: Writing a Revolution

Dubbed the voice of Egypt’s revolution, this film follows an 83-year-old finding his place in a revolution of the young.

Editor’s note: The film was originally broadcast in 2012. Ahmed Foaud Negm died in December 2013, aged 84.

The outspoken, irreverent and controversial Uncle Ahmed, as poet Ahmed Fouad Negm is known in Egypt, discovered poetry in prison in the 1950s and has been writing ever since.

When the Egyptian revolution erupted in 2011, it was the words of Negm’s famous poems, like The Brave Man is Brave, that were chanted in Tahrir Square. But now, just as people look to him for leadership, Negm finds himself unable to write.

In this rare, intimate portrait, we witness him seeking his place in this revolution of the young, and searching for the inspiration to write again.

FILMMAKER’S VIEW: The politically incorrect poet

By May Abdalla

“What do you mean you’re not in love? A crazy woman like you will make a man very happy! I’ve loved crazy women my whole life and they have kept me young,” says Ahmed Fouad Negm.

“I still write like I’m 25, eat like I’m 25, and please a woman like I’m 25,” he says.The wiry 83-year-old poet has shot verbal daggers at every Egyptian president he has lived under – resulting in him spending 18 years of his life in prison. Now, the poet famous for his carefree lifestyle and quick wit, sits in his cluttered living room and peers over his thin-rimmed glasses at me with a twinkle that belies his age.

Ahmed Fouad Negm is a living legend in the Arab world and famous for not holding his tongue. One of 17 children, Negm was raised in an orphanage and sent to prison as a young man for forging papers.

During his three-year sentence he began to write poems in the street slang of everyday Egyptians, merging inside working class jokes with the harsh reality of oppression. Prisoners began to smuggle tape recorders into his cell to bootleg his new writings and his prison guards, themselves struggling to get by, would help pass on his poems.

He became a working class hero and his writings became more openly political. When he was given an 11-year sentence under President Anwar Sadat for a poem that mocked his television addresses, he achieved underground fame across the Middle East.

Over three decades later in Tahrir Square the same poems came to life – chanted now against Hosni Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  

During tense nights in the Square protesters would chant his poem The brave men are brave:

The brave men are brave
The cowards are cowardly
Come with the brave
Together to the Square

I had met Negm in the tiny backroom of a radical publishing house in downtown Cairo. A dozen poets and writers spanning three generations were seated between pillars of books reaching the ceiling. Wedged in at a computer table, Negm, in his smoker’s rasp, was holding court.

Between the Shakespearian-style word play and classical Arabic verse, the subject was the new religious rulers of Egypt.

“Let me tell you,” began Negm, “I met a lot of Muslim Brothers in prison. Sometimes I would offer to lead them in prayer. When their heads were still on the ground I would walk off and leave them for hours trying to work out: Is this permissible? Is this not? How do you imagine they can run a country as rich as Egypt? The poor of Egypt are geniuses, don’t underestimate them.”

Egypt’s tide towards religiosity has clearly affected Negm’s reputation. His openness about hashish and girlfriends and his love of a good curse word mean that many Egyptians have dismissed him as beyond the pale.

His daughter, Nawara Negm, has been one of the revolution’s leaders since its inception. She inherited her father’s sharp tongue and politics – singing his Guevara is Dead anthem at her step-sister’s wedding. But earlier in the year, she was assaulted by a mob who shouted “daughter of the druggie” as they beat her.

It was of little surprise then that whilst filming, Negm received the news that he was being sued for blasphemy after he used a rude word on live television which invoked religion.

His wife was terrified, but Negm slid comfortably into his old fighting position: “I am not scared, they are trying to frighten us into shutting up. But how can I be frightened? I have already spent more time in jail than you have even been alive!”

There was even the small sense that a court case, especially one that was being referred to the higher courts, was the assurance Negm needed to know that he was still as relevant as ever in the midst of a revolution branded in Egypt as ‘The Youth Revolution’.

About the series:

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.