The Story of Sheikh Imam and Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm
By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Writer
The iconic revolutionary duo Blind Sheikh Imam and Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm transformed the music scene in Egypt by creating a new era of popular music. Music that frightened political regimes and outlasted its creators. Their message became an integral part of the Egyptian Revolution decades after its original recording. Fate brought these two together in 1968, where they began creating music that favored the lower poor working class. Much of their compositions criticized the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. The nature of their music would land them in prison many times, but even that did not stop their message. The iconic duo recorded one of their most famous songs “Nixon Baba”, from behind bars.
The Blind Oud Player
Born July 2nd, 1918, Imam Mohammad Ahmad Eissa, better known as the Blind Sheik Imam, would grow to be a famous Egyptian composer and singer. Imam was born into a poor family from the Egyptian village of Abul Numrus, Giza. This was a time before the 1919 Revolution and when Egypt was still under British Occupation.
Around the Age of 5 months, Imam lost his eyesight, after contracting a case of conjunctivitis. He would never see again, but this did not stop the astute student. By the age of 5 years old he had memorized the Qur’an, as a result, by his mid-teen years he was able to earn a living through Quranic recitals.
Eventually, he made his way to Cairo, where he took on a dervish lifestyle. Dervish relating to the Sufism, or a member of a Muslim religious order noted for devotional exercises. During his time in Cairo, he apprenticed under Sheikh Darwish el-Hareery. He was a prominent musical figure at the time, who taught Imam the basics of music and muwashshah singing. During his tutelage, Sheikh Imam became aware of another blind musician, one who played the Oud. This inspired him to pick it up, and the rest became history!
As time continued Sheikh Imam moved towards Egyptian colloquial folk music such as that of Sayed Darwish. By 1945, Sheikh had devoted his time entirely to music as an art form. Then in 1962, fate would place this man in the path of another great artist, el-Fagommi the Egyptian Poet.
The Dissident Poet el-Fagommi
El-Fagommi, or Ahmed Fouad Nagm, was born in 1929, in a village north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. He was one of 17 children in a peasant, or fellahin, family. Also this was a time that it was still the British-controlled Kingdom of Egypt. Ahmed had a difficult childhood and life as well, at 6 years old his father passed away. At which time he was placed in the care of his Uncle in Zigazag, before being put in an orphanage.
Throughout his adult life he worked as a shepherd, a manual laborer, a tailor, a postman, and a printer. None of those professions stuck to him, and his course in life shifted when he moved to Cairo. In in 1946 along with his brother, Ahmed became involved in the riots against British control and the Communist protests of 1951.
In 1959 Ahmed was arrested for forging documents and sentenced to three years in prison. During his stent in prison Ahmed found his calling, writing and poetry. His experience in prison developed his sympathy with the poor and lower class Egyptians, and so for that reason his contempt for the powerful elites controlling Egypt only grew larger. Upon his release from prison he came across the blind oud player, Sheikh Imam, in a Cairo café
30 year career and friendship
The two men formed a strong bond, and together they started composing and singing political songs. Giving life to the underrepresented lower class and impoverished people in Egypt. In 1967, Israeli forces launched an all out attack on Arab forces in the Sinai Desert. Not only the subsequent defeat of Egypt, but also Israel’s annexation of the Sinai Peninsula, resulted in a huge blow to Nasser’s Regime.
The people’s disillusionment with the war and Nasser’s rule began to grow. People sought ways to express and voice their dissent, and unquestionably music played a strong role in that expression. If Nasser’s regime was known for one thing, it would be censorship. Following the catastrophe during the 1967 War, the government began to crack down on dissidents and anyone who criticized Nasser or the Regime.
Trouble with the Regime, Life on the Run, and Prison Time
Imam’s song Alhamdulilah Khabatna, or Thank God, We Knocked Beneath Our Armpits, put the duo on Nasser’s radar. The lyrics were a blatant criticism of the way Nasser and the Egyptian Army handled the 1967 War. The lyrics below give you an idea of the
‘So what if we ran away from Aqaba or Sinai, did the defeat make us forget that we are free? / What does it matter if a people in their night of humiliation has lost their self? / Is it enough to tell them that we are the revolutionaries?’
Clearly it was an accusation of the Egyptian army going AWOL and deserting during the war. The lyrics signal that these “revolutionaries” where nothing more than cowards as they ran away and left the land for Israel to take. These are mighty bold accusations and as a result the pair were imprisoned, sentenced to 11 years. They were only freed after the death of Nasser for these charges.
The pair found themselves in and out of the prisons throughout their illustrious career. Fans knew that if they did not appear at a show, then most likely one or both had been imprisoned. However this did not stop their music! In fact, one poem written by Ahmed was smuggled out of prison to Sheikh Imam, who had it read aloud to him until he memorized it. Negm had the poem written on tobacco paper and rolled inside the foil of the cigarette pack. He rolled and squeezed it inside a tangerine. It was squeezed right in the middle, so it didn’t look odd as it left the facility. The song that was smuggled out of prison in a tangerine was called Etgamao el Oshaa’ or The Lovers Reunite found below!
The Impact of these Dissidents
These men and their music will be remembered for their revolutionary messages. Challenging the government in the name of the people, as the “voice of the people”, is no easy task. Although Sheikh Imam passed away in 1995, mostly alone; his music far surpassed him ringing loudly from Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. Ahmed Fouad Negm lived to see the legacy carry on, despite them parting ways over personal disputes.
The two went down in Egyptian History as Folk Hero’s, the “voice of the people”, and shaped a generation of thinkers. Their music told the world the truth behind the regimes’ censorship and perhaps that is one of the biggest reasons it was feared. The songs still hold relevance inside and outside of Egypt, wherever there is poor quality of life and an unequal “wealth inequality gap” exists.
Well folks, that is the story of Sheikh Imam and poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, and their fight with decades of inequality and media censorship. They laid the groundwork for the music scene we are seeing today in the Arab World, not only in Egypt! Truly an interesting story!
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