Negm: Powerfully present, even in his absence
CAIRO BY DALIA BASIOUNY Devotees of Egyptian poet and songwriter Ahmed Fouad Negm held a memorial for him at the Cairo Opera House last week, which morphed into an emotional affirmation by the audience that the “revolution continues”.
Negm’s poems and Sheikh Imam’s music have been the voice of rebellion in Egypt for decades and appropriately became a true expression of the Jan. 25 revolution. The songs they wrote more than 30 years ago, were so befitting for contemporary Egypt, reflecting the current revolutionary situation so much so that activists used them as chants in demonstrations. People called Negm “the Siren of the Revolution” as Mohamed Hashem, one of the organizers of the memorial said.
Actor and director Ahmad Abdel Aziz coordinated the memorial event and directed the performance. Abdel Aziz opened the evening with a remark on the irony that the poet who chose to live amongst the people in the poorest areas of Cairo was being celebrated at the most elitist theatre in town, the Grand Theatre of the Opera House.
The same irony was at play last month. Negm was awarded the 2013 Prince Claus award but died days before the award ceremony. Designer and graffiti Artist Bahia Shehab, one of the people who lobbied for Negm’s nomination for that award, had booked a flight to attend the ceremony and to see with her own eyes Negm in his traditional garb “the Egyptian gallabyya” receiving the royal award. Commenting sadly on the timing of his death, she said, “The gallabyya refused to enter the palace!”
In the memorial the “gallabyya” had its secure place in the cultural palace of Egypt. The poems and songs of the prolific writer were celebrated by hundreds of his faithful fans. These songs of rebellion that were smuggled out of prison and whispered or read secretly in fear of persecution were performed on the main stage of the Opera House, with great audience participation.
The auditorium was full of ardent supporters who knew the songs and poems by heart. It felt like preaching to a converted crowd who couldn’t get enough of the message. When one of the performers misread a line from a poem the audience spontaneously corrected him – in unison.
This was not a eulogy; it was a celebration of the life of a poet who loved life. At age 84 he was still a rebel in every sense of the word, defying death with his words, strong sense of humor, and a pack of cigarettes.
Abdel Aziz had the challenging task of coordinating all the poets, musicians and artists who wanted to celebrate the life of Negm. He planned the event to replicate one of the gatherings at the poet’s house, where people trickled in and by the end of the evening it was packed with activists, artists and musicians. “We wanted to feel his presence on stage with us throughout the performance. We managed to do this not just through the poems and songs performed, but also through his physical presence.”
Indeed a large photo of the poet was displayed on stage in front of a sign of his beloved street “Hosh Addam”. In the videos the Egyptian bard of the poor and oppressed recited a couple of poems and expressed his desire to attend “the wedding of Egypt” and celebrate her freedom.
The director alternated songs and poems, using lighting and simple staging to maintain a rhythm throughout the evening. Poet Sabry Fawwz delighted the crowd with his dramatic and witty reading of the poem “El Beta’”, while actor Mahmoud Hemeida gave a powerful theatrical reading of “El Leel”, and poet Gamal Bekheet paid tribute to Negm by reading Negm’s self portrayal in “Saber”.
El Awwla Balady troupe led by El Sheikh ‘Alaa Ibrahim and Zein Al Abedeen Mohamed performed a number of songs that warmed up the audience. But when Eskenderlla group got started, they electrified the audience, capturing the spirit of the renowned duo Imam/Negm. Hazem Shaheen and his revolutionary team delighted and inspired the gathering with their renditions of the duo’s powerful songs.
Another highlight of the evening was Mariam Saleh’s virtuoso “‘ab-Wadoud” with no music accompaniment. Her powerful female voice expanded to fill the space in the song written as a letter to a soldier on the border, in a thick upper Egyptian accent.
On the down side Mohamed Mohsen’s (sweet) voice failed to muster the power and vitality necessary to perform songs that are integral to the Egyptian legacy of rebellion; lacking the gusto of Shiekh Imam and the vocal prowess required to command such classics.
In the second half of the performance, Eskenderlla belted out three revolutionary songs. When they sang “Build Your Palaces on our Fields” most of the audience, who knew the song by heart, couldn’t contain the energy.
“Build your palaces on our fields / From our work and toil / And the pubs next to the factories / And the prison instead of gardens. / Release your dogs in the streets / And lock us in your prison cells. / Workers, farmers and students / We are taking a path of no return / But victory is near,” they sang to an excited audience that stood up and sang with the full range of their voices – possibly the first time the Opera House witnesses such passionate participation.
The energy of Eskenderlla supported by the words of Negm and the music of Sheikh Imam created a magical mix that revived the revolutionary spirit of the attendees. In defiance, many started to chant slogans opposing military rule, and against all those who betrayed the revolution.
But the true star of the evening was Negm himself. In the short videos of him projected during the performance were intercepted by vigorous clapping. When a window opened in the later part of the evening revealing another image of Negm overlooking the stage, the audience cheered in nostalgic adulation.
Those who claim that “the revolution is over” needed to check out the Cairo Opera House last week, where the revolution was alive and kicking and chanting the songs of Ahmad Fouad Negm.