I’m elated to be reviewing this next poem here because it is my first Arabic translation and as I promised, one of the priorities of the blog this year is to explore more Arabic poetry as I find translations. This poem was written by the Egyptian poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm who died last month before he could be awarded the Prince Claus Award. Thanks to Walaa Quisay for the translation and the permission to use it. (You can check out more Arab-conscious literature from Arablit).
Negm was one of Egypt’s foremost poets often referred to as a poet of the people. Al Fagoumy (as he was known) was a satirical poet who spent jail time under Egypt’s former Pharaohs for the criticism his works packed. He was adored by the commoner for speaking protest in sarcastic words they could identify with. His early life was rascally and before he was old he had spent jail time for forging documents, had lived in different orphanages and had become a part of the street.
But Negm died as a national hero. His Prince Claus award tribute said he was to be:
“honoured for creating true poetry in vernacular Arabic that communicates deeply with people; for his independence, unwavering integrity, courage and rigorous commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice; for speaking truth to power, refusing to be silenced and inspiring more than three generations in the Arab-speaking world; for the aesthetic and political force of his work highlighting the basic need for culture and humour in harsh and difficult circumstances; and for his significant impact on Arabic poetry bringing recognition to the rich literary potential of the colloquial language.”
Commentators have said that he is most likely the single most influential revolutionary protest poet Egypt has ever known. During the Arab Spring, Cairo gathered in Tahrir Square and sang a song he wrote titled “The Brave Man is Brave”. You can see a Storify of images from his funeral here. On his death, CNN quoted him (you should read all of that article) to have once said – “The love for a woman exists in the body. It is temporary and passes. But the love for a cause lives in your mind and in your blood forever.” Egypt was the cause he lived for. The best article to give you an insight into the man was written by Michael Slackman for the New York Times back in 2006. I promised the review of this poem when he passed and so here we go:
What’s Wrong With Our President?
I never fret, and will always say
A word, for which, I am responsible
That the president is a compassionate man
Constantly, busy working for his people
Busy, gathering their money
Outside, in Switzerland, saving it for us
In secret bank accounts
Poor guy, looking out for our future
Can’t you see his kindly heart?
In faith and good conscience
He only starves you; so you’d lose the weight
O what a people! In need of a diet
O the ignorance! You talk of “unemployment”
And how conditions have become dysfunctional
The man just wants to see you rested
Since when was rest such a burden???
And this talk of the resorts
Why do they call them political prisons??
Why do you have to be so suspicious?
He just wants you to have some fun
With regards to “The Chair”
It is without a doubt
All our fault!!
Couldn’t we buy him a Teflon Chair?
I swear, you mistreated the poor man
He wasted his life away, and for what?
Even your food, he eats it for you!
Devouring all that’s in his way
After all this, what’s wrong with our president?
Is this the best poem you ever read? Sheer brilliance. The entire poem from beginning to end is sarcastic, making a mockery of a president who has taken his people for granted.
Two phrases in the first two lines define Negm’s life – ‘I never fret’ (line 1) and ‘I am responsible’ (line 2) emphasize the fact that he knew the gravity of his words and was ready to own them till the end. Nobody could intimidate him. He talks about how Egypt has been so inconsiderate for not appreciating the ‘compassionate man’ (line 3) they have as president. How this compassionate man has occupied himself ‘busy’ (lines 4 and 5) on his people’s behalf. But what has been the business? Negm says the compassionate president has been gathering Egyptian cash in accounts in Switzerland on behalf of the people. How can they complain? It’s almost laughable. The alarm though, is the fact that those accounts are ‘secret’ (line 7) and will never ever belong to Egyptians.
He goes on, lashing the president with a merciless torrent of words; how he has a kindly heart (line 9) and good conscience (line 10), with which he starves the people for their own benefit – they need to lose the weight (line 11). ‘O what a people! In need of a diet’ (line 12) should be my best line of all the poem. When they talk of unemployment, Negm says the president only wants them to stay at home and rest (line 15); when they talk about state prisons for suppressing the masses, Negm responds by calling those place ‘the resorts’ (line 17). There can’t be a better Arab poet as my first reviewed.
There is anger in the poem but it is suppressed and wrapped in comedy. He even chides Egypt for the seat of power, alluding to it as ‘The Chair’ (line 21), and remarking that a ‘Teflon Chair’ (line 24) would have been better, perhaps more comfortable, so the president can sit well and loot the state coffers. Hahaha…I can’t help laughing. What brilliance!
In closing, he says that the president, not wanting Egyptians to bother themselves, even took the courtesy to eat their food for them (line 27), devouring (line 28) it as though he was a locust swarm. He swears that Egyptians mistreated the poor man (line 25) whose only concern was to help them.
But his reflections turn around and face reality and ask the hard question: “What is Wrong With our President”! A brilliant title for a brilliant poem written by a most colourful poet who has left us too soon. Tell me you enjoyed this poem cos I totally enjoyed reviewing it.