Prince of Disillusionment

The blind subversive singer Sheikh Imam never sold out; he just faded away.

Sheikh Imam with singer Leila Nazmi

Saeed Okasha explains why the Sheikh's voice epitomized the cynicism of the '70s left

Following Sheikh Imam's death on 7 June 1995, journalist Zakariya Nil wrote in Al Ahram expressing his surprise at Imam's funeral, which was attended by a great number of Egypt's most prominent cultural figures. Nil asked with true credulity, "How can this man [Imam] be 'the people's artist,' as the obituary says, when most Egyptians don't know anything about him?"

The answer to his question is quite simple. "The people's artist" was not a title bestowed on him by any particular body, but was a title symbolic of the historic struggle between the opposition, specifically the left, and between the ruling regime as to who was more entitled to represent the people. The state media had given the title of "the people's artist" to Umm Kulthoum a few years before she died. The Egyptian left then turned around and gave Sheikh Imam the same title both in an attempt to offend the regime and as a reward for Imam, whose ironic, critical songs were a constant thorn in the regime's side from 1968-1982. As to why the vast majority of Egyptians did not feel any special grief at the passing of Sheikh Imam, this is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

Imam Eissa was born in 1918 in the village of Abu Al Namras in the Giza governorate. After losing his sight at the age of four, he was sent by his poor family to Cairo to learn Quranic recitation, according to the widespread assumption that the blind had no future except for reading the Quran at funerals.

As a child, Imam lived in the Hussein quarter where he was drawn in more by Sufi dhikrs than he was by his religious lessions and the harsh Azhar educational system. He turned to studying music and playing the lute. He was helped along when he moved in with famed musician Zakariya Ahmed, who composed the music for most of Umm Kulthoum's hits until he died in 1961. Imam Eissa, or "Sheikh Imam" as people called him, joined up with Ahmed's orchestra, working as part of his batana, the group of singers who, in the absence of recording equipment, memorized the melodies composed by Ahmed in order to remind him in the event that he forgot a phrase here and there. The batana was a necessary part of most artists' entourage, until the appearance of the tape recorder, especially since most great artists in Egypt did not know how to read or write musical notes.

Sheikh Imam did not last long with Zakariya Ahmed's batana. Umm Kulthoum complained to Ahmed that some of his compositions were leaking to the public before she had a chance to present them at her concerts. Searching for the culprit, he discovered that Sheikh Imam was presenting the songs to his admirers in the Hussein area, some of whom were also regular attendees of Umm Kulthoum's concerts and boasted of the fact that they had heard the diva's new songs before she sang them. Ahmed immediately kicked Sheikh Imam out of his batana, and the latter went back to singing at parties and other occasions for the lower classes.

Imam's story could have ended right here, as have the stories of thousands of others like him who scrape out a living singing praises of the Prophet Mohammed, traditional folk songs, or covers of the great singers and composers of the past. But at the age of almost 50, Sheikh Imam was headed for fame. It is ironic that the defeat of June 1967 and the despair and frustration that it brought to so many Egyptians was the magic moment in Sheikh Imam's life. Intellectuals woke up to hear a song criticizing the Egyptian army and jeering at the defeat:

Thank God we've come back empty-handed
How lovely the sight of our soldiers returning from the firing line

He didn't stop there, but proceeded to insult Abdel Nasser as well:

Thank God for the state of Egypt
Drowning in lies, the people confused
Slogans praising and bowing before even the traitor
God willing He'll destroy everything of Abdel Gabbar's

The state went looking for the poet and singer who would dare to accuse Abdel Nasser of treason and call him by the name "Abdel Gabbar" (servant of the Fearsome, as opposed to Abdel Nasser, servant of the Victorious) a name given to him in political jokes because of the violence and harshness shown to those who opposed or criticized him.

After the wounds inflicted by the defeat, Sheikh Imam and poet Ahmed Fuad Nigm were able to pierce the minds and hearts of most intellectuals of the period with their songs, sharply critical of the social and political situation. Writer and Nasserist Mohammed Awda, one of the witnesses to this experiment, describes it as such: "Nigm and Sheikh Imam were the 'wailing wall' that everyone turned to in Hawsh Qadam alley in Hussein." The simile is not without some truth. If the June war allowed Jews to enter Jerusalem and stand before the Wailing Wall for the first time since 1948, the results of the war in Egypt are what produced Sheikh Imam and Nigm, with their daring bravado and scathing honesty. And like the Jews who stand at the wall to express their regret for not keeping the commandments of Moses, Egyptian intellectuals stood after the defeat at the wall built by Nigm and Imam expressing their regret for having participated in building the Nasserist system that led the country to its state of defeat at the time.

In the beginning the Nasserist system thought it could coopt the singer and poet. Sheikh Imam was presented on The Voice of Egypt, although the program was never completed. He also presented several episodes of a state-sponsored anti-illiteracy program, but the program was stopped after officials in the broadcasting center discovered that the song he was using made fun of certain political figures. Along the same lines, Sheikh Imam sang at the Journalists' Syndicate at the invitation of well-known journalist Raga Al Naqqash. During this show he presented his famous song Guevara Mat, mourning the death of the famous revolutionary. Nevertheless, Imam and Nigm discovered that the state media was attempting to isolate them by convincing their fans that they only wanted an opportunity to sing on radio and television; if they got this opportunity, they would forget all about political songs. The two realized that their true opportunity to last and gain popularity was to stay as they were, even if it meant that they would only enjoy limited exposure among intellectuals and would remain captive to the amount of criticism found in their songs. The state had no choice but to arrest them, especially after they gained the loyalty of students, who started inviting them to sing at university parties which often ended in a demonstration against the regime.

The period from 1975-81 was the height of the Imam-Nigm phenomenon, the same period in which the left rose against President Sadat for his perceived weakness and inability to convince Egyptians that he could treat the causes of the 1967 defeat. Student demonstrations at that time centered around belligerent slogans and the necessity of pursuing the war with Israel. Nigm wrote poetry accusing Sadat, government officials, and the media of being "traitors," who merely justified their cowardice and weakness by talking about peace and diplomatic initiatives and by convincing the people that it was possible to liberate the Sinai without another war. Sheikh Imam put music to songs like Build Your Castles and O Palestinian Girl, memorized by university students, who would repeat them at their parties and demonstrations. Director Youssef Chahine commissioned Imam to compose the theme song, Bahiya, for his 1967 war film Al Asfour (The Sparrow). Yet most of the works of the singer-poet duo after the October 1973 war were more concerned with social and political criticism, socialist sloganeering, the war of liberation, and the rejection of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Popular songs of the period included Sharaft Ya Nixon Baba (Pleased to Meet You Papa Nixon), which made fun of Richard Nixon's visit to Egypt in 1974 and raised doubts about its goals and its results. Along the same lines was Val�rie Giscard D'Estaing, which similarly poked fun at the French president, who visited Egypt in 1975, and at Sadat, as he tried to convince Egyptians that aligning with the West would solve all of Egypt's economic woes:

Valerie Giscard D'Estaing
Along with his madam
Will catch the wolf by its tail
And feed all the hungry
The poor will eat sweet potatoes
And walk around haughty and proud
Rather than having "shalata"
They'll name their kids Jean
All of this thanks to our friend
The romantic D'Estaing

Despite the incessant bitter attacks on the West and on all the symbols in the world of politics and art who tried to promote the advantages of a friendship with Europe and the US, artist Azza Balbaa, who married Nigm in 1975 and later sang with Sheikh Imam, says that the Imam and Nigm were not completely convinced by the slogans raised by the Left. "But they felt a kind of gratitude to the left because it embraced their whole experiment," she says. "Imam and Nigm knew the extent of the cultured left's hatred of Umm Kulthoum, and they made light of her in front of leftist bigwigs and their revolutionary audience. But they used to tell me in private not to believe [what they said], and that I should learn from this great artist and her style!"

The poet Mohammed Al Baghdadi, who was a student at the height of Nigm and Imam's popularity, says, "The singer and poet didn't really perform their songs with bravado except when they were attended by the stars of bourgeois society, who thought they were the leaders of the left." At that time, some cinema stars and wealthy people sympathetic to the left used to attend the concerts of Imam and Nigm. Azza Balbaa herself was from a prominent family, but she chose to leave the comforts of her bourgeoise existence to sing with Sheikh Imam, even marrying Nigm, who was from a modest peasant background and was her elder by more than 20 years. Balbaa remembers her experience saying, "When I split with Ahmed Fuad Nigm in 1982, I looked behind me at all the years of fervor that led me and many other young people like me to pin their hopes on principles that soon just fell away, because they were not true principles... I still don't know why my breakup with Nigm romantically came at the same time that I stopped singing with Imam."

Balbaa was not the only one who felt that the experiment of Imam and Nigm ended in 1982; but others have also expressed the same opinion. It was in 1982 that the Islamist movement took center stage, pushing the left out of its leadership position with the student movement. The university throughout the 1980s was colored by the slogans of Islamists, which had no consideration for the experiment of Nigm and Imam, despite the fact that they were both opposition movements standing against the state.

Around this time, Sheikh Imam began accepting invitations from abroad to stage concerts, visiting other Arab countries in the company of Nigm. But while they were on tour, a number of personal disagreements brewed up between them. Algerian journalist Khalid Bin Qiffa once explained how demoralizing this could be for their fans: "The songs of Sheikh Imam to Algerian intellectuals were not merely songs to air out/spread the revolution, but were [personal] expressions of their composers, considered to be fallout from the revolutionary volcano. So Algerian intellectuals were saddened by the disagreements between the two, and young people could not accept that one of them might be right; rather they took their split as evidence of the failure of revolutionary song."

Ironically, the greater Imam's fame abroad, the more, it seemed, his popularity dwindled at home. Sheikh Imam went platinum in France with an album that topped one million copies in &?YEAR, but his listeners in Egypt remained limited to students and intellectuals. Even among this crowd, his songs slowly lost their luster. Students of the 1980s and 1990s turned to the Lebanese musician Marcel Khalifa, who was more sophisticated in terms of composition, arrangement, and the instrumentation. In contrast, Sheikh Imam continued to present his works accompanied only by the lute and percussion.

A few years before Sheikh Imam's death, there were other signs of the end. He produced no work during the Gulf crisis, while Nigm presented anti-war satire in state and independent theaters. The enmity between the two became unbearably harsh, with each one badmouthing the other to the press and revealing personal secrets that they had shared with one another in the good old days. Sheikh Imam's death was almost a cathartic experience for his fans--a chance for them to finally make the emotional break with their failed crusades. As the Lebanese critic Khalid Ibn Abdullah wrote mourning Sheikh Imam, "It was if we were waiting for him to die, we the seventies generation, so that we could meet again. So let us bid farewell to our dreams, our hopes, and our ideas."

Volume 4, Issue 15
15 - 21 June 2000

Photographs from AL AKHBAR ARCHIVES

Cairo Times