Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Negm - Pic cred: debalie.nlI’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.

Ahmed Fouad Negm - Pic Cred: Relais

Ahmed Fouad Negm – Pic Cred: Relais

One of Egypt’s most-loved and greatest poets has passed away today at the age of 84. Ahmed Fouad Negm (pronounced Negum) was a satirical poet who spent his life trolling government after Egyptian government for what he called ‘submerging Egypt under lies’.  He was also known as the ‘poet of the people‘, because his views and poetry were popular with the masses and very unpopular with the elite. He served jail time under Egypt’s former pharaohs Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

Negm was a writer in ‘Arabic vernacular’ and his works were infused with cadence that may be lost in translation to English or any other language. His works were powerful and did not mask his fury in their satire. A typical street urchin who got jailed for forging documents, he knew first-hand the suffering that marked his writing. One tweet said his loss for Egypt is of Pablo Neruda proportions.

Prior to his death, he was due to travel to be awarded the 2013 Prince Claus Award. The prize website says Negm 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.”

I am working on permission to review one of his translated poems next on the blog and when I do, you will see the brilliance of his poem titled ‘What’s Wrong With the President?’ Arab African poetry is powerful, if only we had enough translations.

Fare thee well, Ahmed Fouad Negm.

We stand in historic times. All religious scrolls will most likely have some record of the Pharaonic era of the Egyptians. Now in our time, we witness the fall of the last.

Egyptians have put their ailing former head of state in court and are prosecuting away. Since his health fails him, he is brought in his hospital bed and kept in a cage while proceedings continue. That may sound cruel but for a country bent on making a transition to democracy, this may be the gesture that states their uncompromising stand of not returning to the past anymore.

The last Pharaoh

The last Pharaoh

There have been notable Pharaohs without whom Egyptian lore will not have been as attractive. There may not have been the Sphinx and Pyramids. Talk of Ramses and the days of the Pharaonic conquest into West Asia, his father Seti who had started that expansion, talk of Tutankhamen the boy king and his father-in-law, Akhenaton who himself preached a single universal god (the sun god), banning all other religions in the dynasty, Amenhotep who was Akhenaton’s father, the list goes on. It is in this same era that beautiful maidens who have charmed literature such as Nefertiti the wife of Akhenaton, and Cleopatra also were named. Today, we witness the end of their reign.
Let me write Mubarak a poem. He deserves it.


Final on this bulwark propping
A stone hewn from a broken stone.
The cisterns of the gone men broken
And the courts of Thebes do moan,
Pity Alexandria, pity Cairo,
pity the hard dark face of the Rosetta stone.
trudging per foot,
with revolution in heart, with liberation in hand,
men set aflame by the burning of one man,
Men!! Sons of the Nile-dwellers,
the sun-worshippers, the waist wrigglers and the snake-charmers
Many manner of men!!
Men of the Ancient conquests,
and the hieroglyphics.
Men of the Sphinx, the mighty man-lions!
Men of the Pyramids, the godless tetrahedrons!
Mubarak, you away, that stone.
Tell your fathers before that we have come home.
We the sons of the land.
And we no more shall heed the oppression of their single arm
The blood of Egypt boiling,
boiling hot in our heads
has sent you tumbling down.
If we had met them all, sorry their story.
But we send you, an emissary…
A pot-load of Grecian misery.
To tell them we have come home.
Owners of our forgotten destiny.

I will not review this poem now. I hope Egypt will find it a worthy letter to be sent to the Pharaohs gone by. I send it to them.

Egyptian Revolution

Egyptian Revolution

It’s been a few weeks here. I have gone across half of Ghana in that time and been at a couple of events too. The latest of them was a visit to Citi 97.3 FM for programme, Writers Project. I had to read a couple of poems there and it was fun meeting other writers and talking about African poetry. I must say that there are many African poets out there whose works are never seen and so are never appreciated. That should change. And when I was there, the producer of the show, Nana Nyarko who also invited me, made it clearer that there are not many people solely promoting African poetry. That’s the truth and I really hope I can find a lot of people along the way who can join on this journey. It is worth a lifetime’s work.

So, I shall share one poem I read when I was in the studio. It is a tribute to the new breed of Africans born and who are ready and willing to possess their continent and make it their own; children of the continent who are ready to colonise it and own it. So here goes a poem that is my tribute to all the young revolutionaries, many not even older than me, who are shedding blood, sweat and tears for the liberation of their people and the greater freedom of their children yet unborn.

We are of a new breed
such seed as has never trespassed
this land
We are of them that sail
the seas
that sail and assail the sun
We are of them that own
the horizon
That belong to the sky
And that touch heaven
We are of them that say no to stifling
Yes to freedom
We are the Hakeems of Egypt
The Bouazizis of Tunisia
Of the toiling Lateefs of Libya
Our song is different
We seek, we search
We plead, we bleed
We live, We die
for our freedom
We are the breed
that topple the pharaonic
We quit our seat
We drag our feet
Lift our hands to heaven
and rhyme our beats

Yet we march on
to ready tomorrows
For the Hallelujahs of our future selves
the Praise-the-Lords of our yesterdays
and the Amens of the now

We are of the new breed
of Africa
Africa. Afri_Can
Because we can
And we clasp our hands together
from the Nile to the shacks of Soweto
From the sands of the Sahara
to the waters of the Congo
The Masai of Kenya
the Sahel of Mali
the wonder of Uganda
We are a new breed
None before us has existed like us
And we trudge on..
claiming tomorrow
Peering beyond smoking gun barrels
To the tomorrows unseen

We trudge on
A new breed
Undisappointing of our applauding fathers
And on
we trudge!!
A new breed.

Photo Credit



April is National Poetry Month in the United States. I am not joining the American National Poetry Month Write A Poem A Day Challenge because this blog is sinlessly African only. But I think it is a worthy challenge and writing a poem a day for a month may not be too difficult a thing to do. In place of missing out on the Challenge, I’ll do my best to flow with the spirit of poetry and blog more African poetry this month. Maybe, I should set a personal challenge to update this blog everyday of April. That is quite a Challenge in itself. I have written poetry for the first two days of April already, the first being my April Fool’s Post and then this one written yesterday. Hope you enjoy it somewhat.


Life and death.
We trudge on
From one to another.
Mercenaries. Bound.

If only death was life
And life was death,
Then we’ll die first
And live forever

Still we rise..

We breath.
We live.
We live.
We breath.
We sleep.
We wake.
We live.
To die.

Yet we live still…
To die soon…

This poem is actually a response to the epidemic of lost lives the world has seen in only three months of this year. An earthquake in Haiti, floods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries across the globe, brutal after-effects of elections in Cote d’Ivoire and bomb explosions in Afghanistan and many other countries. The list is endless. I am sure I have missed something still. But it gives a though to the contemplative: how valuable is life today? We have collectively cheapened the value of life through our misdeeds. But even if we did not, wouldn’t we all die? The poem says it all that life and death are the cycle we all shall experience. We trudge towards death, whether by quake, tsunami or revolution, each day brings us ever close to our graves. Yet we trudge on. I hope it made for thought.