Sheikh Imam: Voice of Dissent

A blind oud player from humble beginnings, Sheikh Imam’s destiny changed drastically when he met a dissident poet called Ahmed Fouad Negm, and they formed a duo. Together, they would go on start a new era in Egyptian popular music. Their songs would shake regimes, travel the world on cassette tapes, and transcend their own time to become part of the soundtrack to Egypt’s revolution decades later.

Today, the story of Sheikh Imam: the Egyptian singer who became an icon of dissent.

This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker, Heba El-Sherif, and Alex Atack, and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design, music, and mixing by Monzer El Hachem. Voice over by Eihab Seoudi, and translation help from Maha El Kady. Cover art by Ahmad Salhab.

The songs you heard on this episode were composed and performed by Sheikh Imam and written by Ahmed Fouad Negm and Zein Alabidin Fouad. Lyric translations were by Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla.

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Transcript

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Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.

 

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[STING]

 

DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout and this is Kerning Cultures: stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and all the spaces in between.

 

AMBIENT SOUND: a crowded living room, people chatting quietly

 

DANA BALLOUT: Back in the 1960s, the El Mougy household in downtown Cairo was famous for its parties. At least once a week, a crowd would cram into its living room.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: My grandmother’s living room would take, like squeezed together, maybe like 20 people. And people were quite comfortable sitting on the floor or outside the room or whatever. But the room itself, I think would take like 15, 20 people at most.

 

DANA BALLOUT: Sahar El Mougy was just a young girl then, but remembers how the room would begin to fill with poets and artists, and intellectuals…

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: Writers… people from the radio…

 

DANA BALLOUT: And then, after everybody had arrived, two figures would stand up from the crowd. One of them would pick up an oud, the other might pull out a poem he’d prepared. And together, they’d start to perform.

 

MUSIC: الشيخ امام – البحر بيضحك ليه

 

DANA BALLOUT: Their names were Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: I used to squeeze myself into those grownups and just listen. Imam had this kind of genius actually, and I’m usually very hesitant to use the word. But he had this smart handling of this kind of poetry.

 

DANA BALLOUT: She didn’t know it at the time, but what Sahar was watching, from the floor in that room full of grown ups, was the start of a new era in Egyptian popular music.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: They were very special times.

 

DANA BALLOUT: Over the next two decades, they became household names. People across the country would play their music. But the more popular they became, the more dangerous they were to the ruling party. Again and again, their songs would land them in prison.

In Egypt, under both the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat, freedom of expression was closely monitored, and any criticism of state affairs – even in songs – could be a punishable offence.

 

Both Negm and Imam were imprisoned by Gamal Abdel Nasser and then banned from leaving the country under the rule of Anwar Sadaat.

 

But to others, they were heroes. Two icons who put words to the disillusionment ordinary people in Egypt had been feeling for a long time.

 

AMBIENT SOUND: swelling cheer of a large crowd

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: I think that both of them together – this artistic experience, experiment – this thing tapped into the Egyptian psyche at the time that this psyche was very bruised. And it gave voice to this pain.

 

DANA BALLOUT: Today, the story of one of those men, Sheikh Imam: the Egyptian singer who became a symbol of dissent, and whose music became part of the Egyptian revolution’s soundtrack decades later. 

 

AMBIENT SOUND: Slowly fading out, along with the music

 

DANA BALLOUT: This is producer Nadeen Shaker. 

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Sheikh Imam was born Imam Ahmed Mohamed Eissa, in a small village outside of Cairo, in the year before the 1919 Egyptian revolution, while the country was still under British occupation.

 

When he was around 5 months old he lost his eyesight, and would never get it back. But he was always a keen student. By the time he was in his early teens, he was able to make money by reciting the Qur’an at public events. One time, a local Sheikh heard him performing and encouraged him to travel to Cairo to carry on his education.

 

ANDREW SIMON: Which ultimately proves to be very short-lived.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: This is historian Andrew Simon – he’s the author of a book called Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt.

 

ANDREW SIMON: [Laughing] So Imam is expelled from his Islamic Institute because he is caught by a fellow student who reports him to his instructors for listening to Quranic recitation over the radio at a cafe. The institute’s administrators viewed the radio as this gateway to unbelief, and immorality, irrespective of what was being broadcast on the radio.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: When Imam was expelled he was made homeless, and ended up living in a working class neighbourhood of Cairo, spending his nights sleeping in mosques. For a while he made a meagre living performing at religious festivals and weddings, or reciting the Qur’an at private homes for special occasions.

 

And it was at one of these performances that he met a well known music teacher called Sheikh Darwish El Hariri, who took Imam under his wing as a student – and started giving him formal music lessons.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And then during the course of these lessons, one of the things that happens is that Imam hears this other individual playing the oud. And he learns that the other guy playing the oud is also blind. And so this is something that shocked him, that a blind person could actually play that instrument. And so he decides to take it up.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: This is Sheikh Imam talking to the journalist Safinaz Kazem in 1975.

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Sheikh Imam speaking in Arabic about how he picked up the oud

 

ANDREW SIMON: So by 1945 then, Imam ends up committing himself to his art on a full-time basis. Flash forward a number of years, 1962 arrives. And that’s when he crosses paths with Ahmed Fouad Negm…

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Sheikh Imam speaking in Arabic about that first meeting

 

ANDREW SIMON: … A poet who was known for writing in colloquial, Egyptian Arabic. And then those two go on to form a very dynamic duo.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: In 1962, Sahar’s Dad, who had been hosting those mini concerts in the family living room – had a kind of premonition. He knew Negm and Imam separately – Imam lived in his neighbourhood and he’d met Negm by chance at his office, and he was instantly impressed by both of them. 

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: He told me, he just had this urge – the first time he met Negm – he had this urge to bring him together with Imam, not knowing what’s going to happen, for sure! But he said that Imam had a great talent and voice and so on. And he needed maybe to work at something that’s quite different from the track he was walking. Negm, on the other hand, was like an orphan, literally and metaphorically. He had this thing that the two really could do something together. What’s this something? Nobody knew, not even Negm, not Imam. Once they got together, things were moving really fast.

 

MUSIC: Imam and Negm’s first song

 

NADEEN SHAKER: The two men formed a strong bond, and together they started composing and singing political songs… They even moved into the same apartment together in Cairo and dedicated everything to their music. And then, in 1967…

 

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: Israeli forces launched an all out attack on Arab forces in the Sinai Desert.

 

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: In the Sinai desert, in the wake of Egypt’s catastrophic deretreat feat, lay Nasser’s wrecked tanks. The desert tank graveyard will bear evidence of the sheer futility of Nasser’s… 

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Egypt’s defeat in the six day war – and Israel’s annexation of the Sinai Peninsula – were a huge blow to Nasser’s regime. But it also helped open society a bit. As people became more disillusioned with the war and Nasser’s rule, they started to come together to find alternative ways to voice their dissent. Music was one example of that.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And one of the reasons that they become popular is because of the challenge that they posed to the stories that were being told by Egypt’s ruling regimes, whether it came to the 1967 war, of not acknowledging the vast disparities between the wealthy and the poor in Egypt. And so Negm and Imam together end up undermining the stories that are being told by the state. And that’s why they gain traction. And that’s why they become icons, especially among the Egyptian left.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: When thousands of students and workers filled the streets in 1968, protesting Nasser’s repressive regime and his response to the ‘67 defeat, Sheikh Imam’s songs were at the centre of the protests.

 

Nasser had begun cracking down on dissidents more than ever. And you didn’t have to be political, that included anyone. But as government mistrust spread – anyone who opposed him was silenced.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: One other factor is that the two of them belong to a very low economic segment of society. It’s not, ‘I am an academic and I’m here in order to teach you something’. It’s not, ‘I am a high brow intellectual telling you about what freedom is’. And hence people identified. Middle class identified, poor people identified, and they could see in them something very different.

 

MUSIC: Sheikh Imam – Alhamdulillah Khabatna

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: So – translated into English: “Thank God, we knocked beneath our armpits, how lovely that our officers have come back from the line of fire. 

 

NADEEN SHAKER: This is Elliott Colla, professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University who’s co-authoring a book on Ahmed Fouad Negm.

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: Oh, people of Egypt protected by thieves. The fava beans are plentiful. And the land is flourishing.”

NADEEN SHAKER: You’ll hear his translations throughout the episode. We asked him to talk us through Imam’s song Alhamulilah Khabatna, or Thank God, We Knocked Beneath Our Armpits.

ELLIOTT COLLA: It begins in this kind of simple way, but already in that first couple of lines, you hear, they’re making fun of the fact that the Egyptian army has been beaten and that the officers who ruled this country have just been defeated, right? 

 

MUSIC: Sheikh Imam – Alhamdulillah Khabatna

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: But the real barbs of the song happened later, towards the end of the song where he says, ‘So what if we ran away from Aqaba?’ So in other words, they’re accusing the Egyptian army of desertion, right?

 

‘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?’ Now in this song, they’re coming right out and saying – ‘these people who claimed to be revolutionaries in 1952 have lost the war, and are cowards.’

 

MUSIC: Music becomes muffled, more sinister, and the pitch shifts down

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: This poem landed those two in deep, deep trouble with the regime. This is, the first time they stepped over the line. And, this is part of the reason why they became first invited and then banned from state radio.

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic] 

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): So this is when they started to become very famous. Along with this fame, earlier recordings were leaked.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: This is Zein El Abideen Fouad, a well-known Egyptian poet who often collaborated with Imam. Zein spoke to us in Arabic and we had an actor voice his lines in English. 

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): The security apparatus took those songs to Nasser. And he must’ve said something like, ‘how can he write this?’ especially “Thank God, we knocked beneath our armpits.” Some of the lyrics could easily be understood as a reference to Nasser himself.


ELLIOTT COLLA: This is where they start to name their enemy. And once you name your enemy, that’s when you become political. It doesn’t name Nasser by name, however, it does refer to somebody as Abdel Jabbar and the last line – and if you’ve heard the song, you know who this Abdel Jabbar, it could just be a name, but it also could be a very clear reference just to a tyrant of some kind, right?

 

NADEEN SHAKER: But even if the government didn’t like what they were doing, the people did. As their name started to get out, more and more people started hearing about their performances and cramming into living rooms and cafes to hear them play. But at the end of the day, these spaces would probably only take up 50 people at a time. Zein told us that Imam’s first public concert was at Cairo University, in October 1968.  

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic] 

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): I remember the exact date. I took him to an auditorium with 5,000 people! When I introduced him to the crowd, they didn’t clap, because they had never heard of him before. But after the first song, there was a huge round of applause. 

 

Imam sang at both Cairo and Ain Shams Universities in the span of two weeks. Afterwards, Ragaa` Al-Naqqash endorsed Imam and Negm. He invited them to sing at the Journalists’ Syndicate, and then he hosted a radio program called ‘Composed by Sheikh Imam’, and it aired for a month. This was in 1969. Soon after it aired, they were arrested. But this was not in response to the programme per se.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Zein says it was because they had started to become more famous. In a way, these songs were an exercise in truth-telling. It was around then that their music became a lot more critical of the state, and, according to Zein, somebody reported them to the authorities – that a few of their songs were anti-military. 

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): One of them was ‘Thank God We Knocked Beneath Our Armpits’ and then there was that other song about [Heikal], and The Lady’s Dog. They were arrested and weren’t released until after Nasser’s death.

 

ANDREW SIMON: I mean, they were arrested and imprisoned several times throughout their lives. I mean, they were frequent flyers when it came to Egypt’s prison, and they were well-known entities from the perspective of the security apparatus.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Sahar told us she remembers this from when she was a child watching those performances in her family home. Sometimes Negm and Imam just… wouldn’t show up.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: By 9 or 10, I do know everything. And I do know that Negm is not around now because he is in prison and it’s only Imam who is here. Or the two are not there because both of them are in prison. So there was those periods of disappearance where I would – I don’t need to question, I would already know where they are.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: But putting them in prison didn’t do anything to squash their message. Behind bars, writing became a ritual – and they still found ways to get their songs out.

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic]

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): When we were arrested, Negm and I, without Sheikh Imam, I wrote ‘The Lovers Reunite’. And I am a fast writer. I wrote the poem and it was smuggled out of prison in a tangerine. The poem was written on tobacco paper and rolled inside the foil of the cigarette pack. It was rolled and squeezed inside the tangerine. It was squeezed right in the middle, so it didn’t look odd. Nobody could tell there was something inside it.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Once it reached Sheikh Imam outside of prison, and because he was blind, somebody read the words to him several times until he remembered them. The song that was smuggled out of prison in a tangerine was called [Etgamao el Oshaa’] or The Lovers Reunite.

MUSIC: The Lovers Reunite – Sheikh Imam and Zein Alabidin Fouad

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: This is one of the most important songs in Sheikh Imam’s repertoire. And the song goes this: 

‘The Lovers reunite in the Citadel prison, they gathered together at Bab El Khalk jail.

The sun is a little song rising from the cells. Egypt is a song streaming from throats. 

The lovers meet up in the cell, no matter how long they’re imprisoned, no matter the oppression, no matter how immortal the jailers, who could ever hold Egypt in a cell?’

That’s the refrain of this poem. And I think that’s why this poem to this day still resonates.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: At this particular moment in world history, where third world countries were raging. There was movement, there were those big dreams of independence. That was the decolonisation period, struggle, all the socialists’ dreams of equality and justice.

 

MUSIC: Jevara Mat – Sheikh Imam

NADEEN SHAKER: They came out with Guevara Mat – or Guevara’s Dead – right after the Bolivian revolutionary leader Che Guevara died in 1967, a loss that resonated deeply in the region.

 

ELLIOTT COLLA: ‘Guevara died, Guevara’s dead, on the radio that’s what they said.

 

On the street that’s all the news, and in the mosques and in the pews.

 

In the alleys, bars and cafes, Geuvara’s dead, that’s what they said.

 

While the hearsay extends its chatty thread.’

If you remember the song it begins with sort of this marshal beat. Kind of dum, dum, dum, dum. And as the song progresses, that beat changes, it becomes in fact, the beat of zars – sort of popular exorcisms – and it actually speeds up.

 

So as we get to the end and here’s – the music, the entire time is sort of supporting the slow shift from the fact that Guevara is dead to this other message, that is not obvious. It’s not obvious that when Guevara’s dead that what you need to do is get up and take his place and carry on the struggle. 

 

But in essence, that’s what Negm’s words say, but it’s Sheikh Imam’s song and the melody, and the way the rhythm changes to become by the end sort of a frantic, urgent sort of call to action. So the song ends:

 

 ‘So my dear slaves, here is the lesson. Guevara’s cry is always the same and your choices are but one.

 

There’s nothing for you to do, but to declaim, prepare for war or be done.’

 

MUSIC: Jevara Mat – Sheikh Imam

NADEEN SHAKER: In the early 1970s, their music was gaining popularity among university students, becoming a soundtrack to the student movement happening at the time.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: They would share in the demonstrations, and even if they were not there, their songs where sung by university students on strike during this period, because this was also the period of the peace treaty with Israel. And hence, university students were very angry. So they were there, physically and non-physically.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: But one of their biggest hits was yet to come… that’s after the break.

 

MIDROLL

 

NADEEN SHAKER: In 1974, US president Richard Nixon touched down in Cairo on a state visit with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And so if Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor is really promoting, essentially state socialism and looking towards the Soviet Union, with Sadat we see this pivot to the US and to open market economics and capitalism.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Nixon was about to land in Egypt – the first by a US head of state in decades. At home, he was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and his impeachment hearings were well underway. 

 

AMBIENT SOUND: Trumpet procession, cameras clicking, people jostling. 

 

NADEEN SHAKER: When Nixon stepped out onto the tarmac at Cairo International Airport, he was greeted by a huge crowd: there was a military procession… a gaggle of media people, dignitaries, and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.

 

ANDREW SIMON: Sadat ends up escorting Nixon to this jet black Cadillac. They then join this 200 vehicle caravan that is moving very slowly from the airport to Qubba palace in downtown Cairo.

 

AMBIENT SOUND: People cheering, chatting excitedly. 

 

ANDREW SIMON: This was not a silent affair. And so you have Egyptians chanting things like ‘we believe in Nixon, welcome to a man of peace’ in Arabic. There are other chants that are sounding off in English. People saying, ‘Long live Sadat’, ‘Long live Nixon’.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Eventually the pair arrived at Qubba palace, stayed the night and the next day, got on a train heading to Alexandria.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And so it stops at several stations, more Egyptians are there lining the tracks. Some of them release these flocks of doves, others greet Nixon with flowers. And then we have more chants and more public address systems. Just another spectacular moment.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: But away from the crowds and the loudspeakers and the billboards, Negm and Imam were at work.

 

AMBIENT SOUND: Cheering and chatting fade away

 

ANDREW SIMON: I just imagine them sitting in a cafe, hearing about all of this commotion and festivities surrounding Nixon’s visit, and then penning this poem and setting it to song and offering this completely different narrative of his welcome.

 

MUSIC: Nixon Baba – Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Foud Negm

 

ELLIOT COLLA: ‘Thank you for gracing us with your presence, Daddy Nixon, Mr. Watergate man.

 

They threw you quite a show, those sultans of fava beans and oil.

 

They rolled out the red carpet from Alexandria to Mecca. And from there you stopped in Akka.

 

And they said you were performing the hajj.

 

It’s one big carnival everywhere you look. Saints, help us.’ 

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: What? What?! Yanni. This kind of poetry, which draws a story, which draws an image, which makes fun of the American president at the time, who was coming to Egypt for an official visit. I mean, they were crazy. They were totally nuts, in a great way.

 

ELLIOT COLLA: The real cut or point of this poem is not just making fun of Nixon.. It’s more making fun of the Egyptians who bend over backwards to host him. It’s them that the song is skewering and skewering them for being obsequious. The poem ends this invective or this satire by saying this:

 

‘Listen to my words and hold on to them, in case you don’t last much longer.

 

I won’t say welcome, make yourself a moron or tell you to come or not.

 

They say that Egyptian meat, where it goes, it goes bad.

 

And that on account of all the koshari and favas and greasy weevils, it’s a never ending circus.’

 

ANDREW SIMON: A couple of months after Nixon’s welcome, and Nixon Baba begins to circulate, Negm, Imam – they were all arrested. And the reason from the Egyptian government that was given for arresting them was smoking hashish. That they were doing drugs and that’s the reason that they were being arrested. But something that comes to light in terms of this text is that everyone knew that wasn’t the reason why they were arrested. They were arrested for their lampooning of the Egyptian government.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: But in prison or not –  their music continued to grow as part of the counterculture, especially under Sadat. It was a time when musicians became famous through TV or radio broadcast – but these were state controlled, and there was no way they were going to play Negm and Imam’s protest music.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: I mean, there was this very clear decision on the part of the decision makers not to include this kind of work in the mainstream media.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Not that they would’ve wanted their music to air on state radio anyway…

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Sheikh Imam talking in Arabic about he didn’t want to be on the radio in the first place because he didn’t want to take part in the farce.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: So the answer? Cassette tapes – some of which were recorded in Sahar’s family home.

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Sheikh Imam recording from a live performance. Laughing, chatting from the audience, Imam tuning his oud

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: Those cassettes were recorded during these informal gatherings and you would find in them, people laughing and commenting and cheering and repeating. And they are the chorus and they work as chorus as well. So it’s all improvised. You would have children crying and a woman across the street calling her son. It was all there!

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic]

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): The recordings started at those gatherings, using huge Nagra recorders, and later through cassette tapes when they became a trend.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And so in terms of the circulation of their music, this is all taking place on noncommercial cassette tapes. Tapes that are being created, copied, pirated, circulated by individuals. And so one of the things that, Imam said in this interview that I stumbled upon is when he was asked about mass media, he said, ‘the masses are my media.’ In terms of people relaying his songs, recording them, passing them along. In the case of Imam, piracy was encouraged. It is how his cassettes were copied and were circulated.

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic]

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): [Laughing] People exchanged cassettes like… they knew that if a tape was confiscated, its owner could be jailed for a month or so. So they were handled carefully. You could also easily hide them, so this meant the cassettes lived longer.

 

ANDREW SIMON: And one thing here, as well as due to the size of cassettes – the fact that they’re highly mobile – people also travelled with them outside of Egypt. And so you have people recording Imam or pirating these cassettes, and then taking these cassettes to London, to Paris, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Gulf, and then people pirating the cassettes there.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: Of course, of course. Why wouldn’t their tapes go to Maghreb and Algeria and Syria and have an audience? Why wouldn’t it? It’s the same wound, the same brokenness, the same aspirations for freedom and for justice, equality.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Despite the ban from performing freely or on mainstream media, their cassettes made it to cities all over the region, and they became popular among the Arab diaspora, especially in Paris. By 1984, when Sadat was no longer in power, Imam and Negm were finally able to travel. They performed in theatres in Tunisia, Algeria, Syria and France.

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Raucus live performance by Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm. Imam commands the audience while they enthusiastically clap along.

 

ANDREW SIMON: So in terms of this world tour, really in the Middle East, and also outside of it, Imam ends up performing in theatres with quite large boisterous audiences that would sing along with him. And then he also performed in people’s living rooms and houses much like he did in Egypt. And there’s also grainy home videos of those informal concerts as well. And in the case of one concert in Algeria, I came across this Algerian journalist saying, ‘Oh yes, people are well aware of Imam’s songs because they encountered them on cassette tapes, even before he actually arrived here.’

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Even today, Sheikh Imam has a massive following, especially in Tunisia, where there is a cultural space called Masar, where they teach Sheikh Imam’s songs.

Everyone we spoke to said that Imam and Negm’s partnership came to an end sometime around the mid-1980s. By then, Imam was well into his sixties. But nobody knew exactly why they split up.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: Actually, I don’t know much about this time. Yaani, what is it exactly that happened? And I don’t think that any of them came out and spoke clearly about their disagreement.

 

ANDREW SIMON: Negm and Imam have not a falling out, but there is some tension between them around the time of that world tour, in terms of their commitment to their work and questions of celebrity and fame. And those are things that I’ve seen only alluded to in sources, not really discussed at any length. And so it’s not something I could speak on, but it’s something that some people acknowledge that their relationship became a bit more complex.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: In the summer of 1995, a small article was printed in the back pages of Al Ahram newspaper, noting that Sheikh Imam has passed away. It was short and – perhaps intentionally – unremarkable.

 

ANDREW SIMON: So it notes Imam’s age. It says that he was suffering from diabetes, that he became famous after the 1967 war, that he performed a number of critical songs – is how the paper refers to it – with Negm, and that he once received an award from an international association.

 

And so people reading this – Imam’s compatriots, his friends, his fans – were so outraged, they felt this obituary was so irreverent and insulting that they actually ended up submitting a second obituary to Al Ahram which is printed in the paper the following day. So that’s where we see Imam referred to as the artist of the people. We see the names of 170 individuals cascade down the page, signatories on that obituary, people that Imam had an impact on.

 

And something that strikes me, especially in this case, is this writing and rewriting that was just so essential to Imam’s life and his work, and we see it playing out even in his death when it comes to these two texts in Al Ahram. And so that’s where his story – where his life – wraps up.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: Sahar had kept her cassettes from Negm and Imam’s glory days. But she rarely listened to them.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: It brings me back to my own history, my own childhood, my parents who are no longer there, Imam and Negm who are not. I mean, very, very heavy and painful. However, in 2011, when there was a rebirth for Negm and Imam I could tune in and I could sing without pain.

 

ARCHIVAL RECORDING: A large crowd of people singing Sheikh Imam’s songs in Tahrir Square.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: In 2011, during the Egyptian revolution, their music was revived. Lines from Negm’s poems were chanted as slogans, and Sheikh Imam’s songs were covered by musicians and sung by thousands in Tahrir Square.

 

SAHAR EL MOUGY: They were reborn to generations that didn’t know about them, and with the collective voice in the squares, I was shaken – completely shaken – but not in a painful way. It was joy that I knew they would go on living.

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN: [Speaking in Arabic]

 

ZEIN ALABIDIN (VOICE OVER): When young people were singing on January 28, in 2011, they sang three songs for Sheikh Imam. I remember very well. It was the 30th of January, we set up the stage. At least 250,000 people were singing along in Tahrir Square. That was a totally different feeling.

 

Truthful, honest writing will live forever. This has happened so many times throughout history all over the world. He played his role. He knew very well that an artist should take a stand based on what he believes in. He composed the music and sang with so much passion; you can feel it and see it when you listen to the recordings. He believed in what he did, regardless of the consequences, whether that was a deep admiration for his work, or if he was labelled an enemy of the regime.


SAHAR EL MOUGY: I think what they are offering us is what, something similar to what they offered back in the 1960s and 70s. This period, as Egyptians, we didn’t have freedoms. We didn’t have equality. We didn’t have everything – just like today. I mean, there isn’t much of a difference actually. And despite that, despite the gloomy big picture, and despite sometimes not having dinner on the table, they made it. They wrote and they sung, people listened, and it was there. And hence, it’s about those broken moments. It’s about our brokenness and our ability from the heart of brokenness, at least not to act — sometimes you’re even incapable of acting — but at least to believe that something could come out of this. And should come out of this. That no matter how dire the circumstances are, no matter how tied up we all are, something will come up. An opening will take place. A change will happen, because this is the law of life. Life constantly brings about changes. 

 

MUSIC: The Words’ Eyes – Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker, Heba El-Sherif and Alex Atack, and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design and mixing by Monzer El Hachem. Voice over by Eihab Seoudi, and translation help from Maha El Kady. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar.

 

The songs you heard on this episode were composed and performed by Sheikh Imam, and written by Ahmed Fouad Negm, Naguib Sorour and Zein Alabidin Fouad. Translations by Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla.

 

NADEEN SHAKER: A special thanks to Zein Alabidin Fouad, Sahar El Mougy, Elliott Colla and Andrew Simon for speaking to us for this episode. Andrew’s book is called Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt.

 

DANA BALLOUT: And this is our last episode for the season. We’re going to be taking a break for the next few months while we put our next round of stories together. But stay tuned to the feed, because in the meantime we’ll be dropping bonus episodes and cute little stories – including a special collaboration that we’re really excited about, and that’s coming in June.

 

We’re also running a listener survey about this last season – because honestly we really want to hear what you thought. We want to hear what you’d like more of, what you’d like less of. It’ll only take a few minutes – and it would really help us come back bigger and better next season. We’ll put a link to it in the episode description.

 

Thank you so much for listening to all of our episodes, or listening to some, or listening to just this one. We appreciate you with all our hearts, and we hope to see you soon. Take care.

 

[STING]

Songs you heard in this episode