Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current IssuePrevious IssueBack Issues

Farewell to arms

By Youssef Rakha


Who would have thought that Ahmed Fouad Negm, the "poet of the people" -- whose playful, sarcastic and openly oppositional Colloquial Arabic poems and song lyrics, as much as his famous collaboration with the late composer and singer Sheikh Imam Issa, particularly during the Sadat era, made him the very symbol of the leftist struggle throughout the Arab World -- would choose to celebrate his 70th birthday in one of the World Trade Centre's ultra-modern Renaissance cinemas, and in the presence of the invincible Naguib Sawiris, the businessman who, by virtue of his current role in the Egyptian economy, has come to be seen as the instantly recognisable emblem of a new, Western-style and increasingly prevalent capitalism?

In recent years, many have commented that the insurgent intellectual and artistic energy of the late1960s, when Negm first made his name, has been absorbed into the fabric of the establishment, especially since many members of the left-leaning 1960s generation of writers and artists, including such ardent dissidents as late poet Amal Donqol, were officially acknowledged and canonised. In fact Negm had acquired celebrity status long before he began his eighth decade, and his image had not changed -- the warmth, generosity and humility of welad el-balad (residents of urban popular districts), the hoarse voice of an incorrigible chain-smoker, and Negm's trademark white galabeya, had all accompanied him to high-brow and popular venues alike. So when he first met Sawiris during the last Cairo Book Fair, it is only safe to assume that it wasn't the prospect of mutual business that moved Negm, but Sawiris's open avowal of being an eager Negm and Imam fan, while he was an engineering student in the 1970s. It was the resulting friendship they struck up that led to this unexpected event.

But the fact that it was sponsored by Sawiris did not render the celebration any less oppositional, although the predominant tone was far more relaxed than it used to be. Negm's fans have, of course, changed. Few members of the 1960s and 1970s old guard in fact showed up, while numerous well-established celebrities -- film stars, comedians, composers, singers -- along with students and aspiring intellectuals eager to discover the Negm-Imam legacy, filled the hall. But the actual substance of the evening went far beyond mere "entertainment". The screen showed footage of historical events from the 1960s and 1970s (popular responses to the 1967 defeat, Nasser's funeral, etc.), alternating with scenes from a documentary about Negm on which director Magdi Ahmed Ali is currently working. Live performances began with a new song written by Negm and composed by Iraqi musician Kawkab Hamza, beautifully delivered by the newly emerging Moroccan singing sensation, Asmaa' Mounawar. Well-known celebrities who contributed songs and poetry readings to the evening included singer Aza Balbaa', as well as actors Mahmoud El-Guindi, Mahmoud Hemeida, Ahmed Abdel-Aziz and Fardous Abdel-Hamid, composer Ammar El-Sherie'i and the charming Negm himself.