Egypt's top satirical poet dies at 84

Dec 03, 2013, 6:45 AM EST
FILE - In this Sunday, May 21, 2006 file photo, renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm returns the greetings of a neighbor, outside his home in Cairo, Egypt.
(AP Photo/Mohamed Al-Sehety, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's best known satirical poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm, has died. He was 84.

Negm died in the early hours of Tuesday, said his close friend and publisher Mohammed Hashem, director and owner of Merit publishing.

Known as the "poet of the people," Negm's use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic endeared him to his countrymen who saw in his verse an unvarnished reflection of how they felt about milestones in their nation's history like the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Negm shot to fame in the 1970s when his poetry was sung by blind musician Sheik Imam Issa. The duo, who mostly performed in popular coffee houses and to university students, inspired generations of youth aspiring for change.

Negm was a firm supporter of the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. A self-proclaimed secularist, Negm was a harsh critic of Islamists. His poetry communicated both a love for his country and scathing criticism of its ills.

"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.

He had little formal education. Over the course of his life he took jobs as a house servant and a postal worker. He was jailed for his political views under the rule of former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

"I am not a humble person and I am not stupid; I know I am a poet that has affected this nation," he once told an interviewer.

Negm's appearance and lifestyle matched the bluntness and the nature of his verse, immersed in the language of the poor. He wore a galabiya, a flowing Egyptian robe, at all times. His last home was a small apartment in a government housing project given to him by authorities when he lost his humble home in a 1992 earthquake.

He has often boasted that his fame did not tempt him to be seduced by offers of money or perks. "No one can co-opt or seduce him, because I want nothing — I have all I want here," he said while at a room at the roof of his shoddily built apartment block.

He is the father of prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, an iconic figure of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. He has two other daughters in addition to Nawara, Zeinab and Afaf.

"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 three daughters. "That is the belief I defended and happily paid a price for."

His funeral will be held at the historic Imam Hussein mosque in the medieval section of the Egyptian capital.