• Reports
  • May 16, 2006
  • 7 minutes read

A Poet Whose Political Incorrectness Is a Crime

THIS is my sweetheart,” said Ahmed Fouad Negm as he gently kissed the dried head of a dead tortoise, patted its shell and tenderly put it away.

Mr. Negm was on the roof of his apartment building, high above the sprawling, chaotic, filthy, garbage-strewn neighborhood of Mokkatam, where he dispensed with formalities and introduced himself as a man who loved a tortoise.

“Glory for the crazy people/In this stupid world.” The words were carefully painted in yellow on the wall, right beside the tortoise. They were his words, the words of a poet, a harsh critic of power, who spent 18 of his 76 years in prison largely because Egypt’s leaders tended to despise his words.

It was vintage Negm, a kiss, a comment, a bit of poetry. Mr. Negm (pronounced NEG-um) is among Egypt’s most popular poets and has been for four decades. He is regarded as the first to have written in colloquial Egyptian, and from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Gamal Mubarak, a son of President Hosni Mubarak, he has skewered those he feels have led a once great country to the tangle of poverty and indifference played out in the fetid landscape beneath his rooftop.

“Congrats our groom,” he wrote in a widely circulated poem about Gamal Mubarak’s recent engagement to a woman nearly 20 years his junior. “You of fortune and fame for whom we’re all inheritance/Be merry, be game/We couldn’t care less!”

Mr. Negm is a bit of a folk hero in Egypt, and has remained popular even while the street, his street, has turned away from his largely secular vision of modernity. The changes on the street have only fueled his contempt for the ruling elite. Their illegitimate government, he said, has made Egyptian identity less distinct and more defined by faith.

“The government has always been run by pharaohs, but in the past they were honorable,” Mr. Negm said, returning to one of his favorite topics. “Now, Egypt is ruled by a gang, led by Hosni Mubarak, and he is only there because America and Israel support him. He does not have the support of the street.”

It is that contempt for power, his giving voice to a desire for justice, that seems to keep him popular, keeps his books selling and recently led to a revival of a popular play called “The King Is the King,” which showcases his poetry.

HE had laughed and smoked his Merit Ultra Lights as he climbed the rickety wooden ladder through a narrow hatch onto the rooftop above his apartment in a public housing block. He loves to smoke. He loves to curse. He loves to boast with a wink and a smile that he was married six times, that his current wife is 30 and that his youngest daughter, Zeinab, who is 11, is not forced to adhere to the strict religious practices that have spread throughout his country in recent years.

“I am free,” Mr. Negm said, as he scratched his head with long, carefully cut fingernails. “I am not afraid of anybody because I do not want anything from anyone.”

And then, looking down from his rooftop perch upon a pile of rotting trash, where children, dogs and donkeys competed for scraps, he lamented what has become of Egypt.

“This is not Egypt,” he said. “I weep for Egypt.”

And then a return to levity.

“Coffee,” he hollered over the ledge to the sidewalk six stories below. “Bring tea to Uncle Ahmed,” he called in his raspy, cigarette smoker’s voice.

That’s how people know him. Uncle Ahmed.

He has no formal education. In fact, as a young man in Cairo he was sent to jail for theft and forgery. But it was there, behind bars, that this slender man, with a narrow face and a large full nose, found his voice.

In 1959, he published “Images From Life and Prison,” a collection of poetry he wrote while in jail on a theft charge. A few years later, back on the outside, he became partners with a blind traditional singer, Sheik Imam Essa, and together they developed a biting satirical repertoire that won a huge national following and the enmity of the head of state.

“The state of Egypt is submerged under lies,” Mr. Negm wrote after the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967.

And the people are confused

But everything is O.K. as long as our damned masters are happy

Because of the poets who fill their stomach with poems

Poems that glorify and appease even traitors

With God’s will, they will destroy the country.

Egypt tried pan-Arab nationalism under Nasser. It tried peace with Israel under Sadat. Both men jailed Mr. Negm for mocking their leadership. President Mubarak, who has avoided the bold moves of his predecessors, has not yet jailed Mr. Negm, but that has hardly spared him from Mr. Negm’s contempt.

As the sound of a donkey braying echoed through the neighborhood, Mr. Negm deadpanned, “Mubarak is giving a speech.”

Few people in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt would talk like that, especially to a foreign reporter. But Mr. Negm delights in being flip, caustic and dangerously politically incorrect.

“They are not rulers, they are dogs,” he said of the Arab heads of state. “I challenge all our kings and leaders to step into the street without their guards for five minutes.”

MOMENTS later, he was nearly blasted out of his plastic chair when the call to prayer boomed from four speakers mounted on a nearby roof. He instantly feigned spitting toward the source of the sound, and then mocked the chanting imam. “His wife will not let him speak at home, so he tries to impress us with his big voice,” he said. “Then he goes out and steals.”

It is all said with a smile and a laugh, and there is usually a punch line or coarse word to inspire a laugh. He is, after all, Uncle Ahmed, dressed in poor clothes, living in a small, crowded apartment in a small, crowded neighborhood.

Need directions to his apartment? Just stop and ask in the market. Anyone will know. Past the woman using a rag to wave flies off a vat of cheese. Past the child grilling fish to sell. To the third block of apartments, up five flights and it’s the apartment to the left.

Make an appointment, and maybe he will keep it. Maybe not.

“Egypt is a candle submerged by the river,” he said, when asked if Egypt still holds its role as the center of Arab thought and culture, and if not, why. “When the earth is dark, Egypt comes out of the river and lights the world.”

But he despairs that the light he calls Egypt is, at least for now, not burning brightly. “The people down there are not Egyptians,” he said. “They are oppressed people.”