CAIRO (AP) — Ahmed Fouad Negm, who died Tuesday at the age of 84, was Egypt's poet of revolution, inspiring protesters from the 1970s through the current wave of uprisings with sharply political verses excoriating the country's leaders in the rich slang of colloquial Arabic.
Silver-haired, with a face creased by age and a lifetime of smoking, Negm — always seen wearing the traditional galabeya robes of the poor — tapped into the sentiments of Egypt's impoverished population, marginalized by the ruling elite.
Key to his poetry was his use of the Egyptian dialect, which is shunned by many elite poets, but which Negm exulted in, playing with puns, obscenities and rhyming slang that came straight from Cairo's slums or from its long-neglected rural areas.
Negm died at his home in Cairo, said his close friend and publisher Mohammed Hashem, director and owner of Merit publishing. "Today, we lost a peerless poet who only concerned himself with what's good for Egypt," Hashem said. "He remained a champion of just causes until the last minute."
Known as the "poet of the people," Negm shot to fame in the 1970s and the 1980s when his poetry was sung by blind musician Sheik Imam Issa who played the oud, a lute-like Arabic instrument. Their songs blasted presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat over the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war, then what they saw as a surrender with the 1979 peace treaty.
The duo mostly performed in popular coffee houses and for university students, and their songs became the soundtrack for leftist student protests against Sadat. "Negm will be immortalized by the poetry he composed that was sung by Sheik Imam," prominent liberal politician Mohammed Aboul-Ghar said at his funeral, held at the ancient Imam Hussein mosque in the medieval quarter of Cairo.
Negm saw a revival in popularity during the later years of the 29-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, whom he skewered with his harshest verses over corruption, heavy-handed police tactics and broken promises of reform. That made him a star of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, and a new generation of protest singers put his verses to music and performed them in Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, birthplace of that revolt.
"See how compassionate his heart is? He is true and his conscience is clear. He starves you so you'll lose some weight," went one poem against Mubarak. An avowed secularist, Negm then turned on Mubarak's elected successor, President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and supported his ouster in a July, popularly backed coup.
Islamists returned the hatred. "Thank God for the blessing that is his death," said an anonymous posting on an Islamist website on Tuesday. Negm was jailed for a total of 18 years for his political views under Nasser and Sadat — though never under Muabrak.
"A judge once told me that my poetry was crude," Negm once recalled. "I asked him: 'Is it more crude than what is happening in Egypt?' The judge laughed." His poetry and language shocked officialdom and the elite, until his later years after the 2011 uprising made him more accepted by the mainstream. One of the country's top businessmen and arguably its richest person, Naguib Saweris, is a vocal fan.
Negm had been scheduled to travel to Amsterdam later this month to receive the Prince Claus Award, one of the Netherlands' top cultural prizes. "Negm is both an icon and a folk hero, renowned in literary circles for the quality, lyricism and beauty of his work, from love songs to radical satires that take the complex, highly nuanced vernacular Arabic to unprecedented poetic levels," according to the citation of the prize, awarded by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund.
Negm's appearance and lifestyle matched the bluntness and nature of his verse, immersed in the language of the poor. He died in a small apartment in a government housing project given to him by authorities when he lost his previous home in a 1992 earthquake.
He had little formal education. Over the course of his life he took jobs as a house servant and a postal worker. "Poverty is my choice. My whole family is poor, so why should I be different?" he said. "I live with people, eat what they eat and am surrounded by the same pollution and garbage."
"We are a society that only cares about the hungry when they are voters and only cares about the naked when they are women," he once said, suggesting that people care more about "morality" than ensuring everyone can afford clothes.
Negm, who was married six times, is survived by three daughters, including prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, an iconic figure of the 2011 revolution. "You may not find in the life of your father something to brag about, but you will certainly not find anything that you will be ashamed of," he wrote in the dedication of a book of his verses to his daughters.