Of imagination, reality and the art of self presentation
Gamal Bekhit is of such nondescript appearance it is tempting to identify him as a mid-career accountant..
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Bekhit with Mahfouz; with Chahine; Mahfouz beyghanni ya leil/Ala da'et alb Zweil " ([Naguib] Mafouz sings to the rhythm of [Ahmed] Zweil's heart beat)
Nor does his idea of an "intellectual conversation" differ appreciably from that of the average Arab bank clerk. Dissident, artist, sage: all are images he is used to projecting, and he flaunts them with confidence and humour.
Never mind that he lacks originality or modesty: Bekhit happens to be one of the popular media's biggest investments in the 1990s. For one thing he was the vernacular poet of choice for Youssef Chahine's steepest descent into pop culture to date, Sukout Hansawwar, the film that popularised the present song writer's most famous contribution, Te'raf tetkallem baladi (Can you speak baladi) -- featuring the line, "Mahfouz beyghanni ya leil/Ala da'et alb Zweil " ([Naguib] Mafouz sings to the rhythm of [Ahmed] Zweil's heart beat), an oft- quoted example of the institutional media's nationally slanted, self-congratulatory brand of kitsch, powerfully performed by Latifa.
Nor is his orientation particularly unique: Bekhit provides yet another example of the tendency of Egyptian public figures to present themselves as oppositional egoists while in reality doing everything in their power not only to disappear into the crowd but to actively perpetuate the status quo; it is this attitude of difference, of fake alienation, that gives the game away.
Born in January, 1954, in Coptic Cairo, Bekhit remembers his childhood with fondness -- or so he would have you believe. Since the 19th century, he explains, the area where he grew up in Masr Al-Qadima has been the destination of immigrants from the village of Al-Sawam'a, his ancestral home in Sohag. Consequently his "genesis" incorporated "this remarkable combination of the atmosphere of the popular Cairo alleyway and the Upper Egyptian village," of which one of the strongest features -- in line with media focus on national unity -- was tolerance.
"The neighbourhood has the oldest church in Egypt, the Hanging Church; it also has the oldest mosque in Egypt, the Amr Ibn Al-'As Mosque; and they are within walking distance of each other. So you can imagine the significance of the setting," Bekhit recounts. "It was the genuine spirit of the Egyptian people woven into an integrated tapestry. As children, even as young adults, there was no such thing as Muslim or Christian. I remember that when one of us got ill -- and this is a very simple Muslim family we're talking about -- we would be taken to the monastery for treatment."
Even more significant than tolerance, however, was the July Revolution. Bekhit's was a large family: 12 brothers and sisters, of whom he was number five. His father and uncles -- "fruit sellers on the banks of the Nile" -- were illiterate Upper Egyptians who barely managed to support their families. "If not for the July Revolution," which provided free education for all within years of its outbreak, "I don't think we would have been fortunate enough to receive an education. And if not for the civilisation latent in all Egyptians," he adds "we would not have understood culture."
Bekhit remembers, as an example of the latter, the early ritual of reading his father Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's Al-Ahram column every Friday. "I could barely make out the words, but without knowing what they meant I could connect the letters and pronounce them. He understood everything...
"Our education was a holy mission; he always said the girls needed qualifications even more than the boys, who could always manage somehow. It would be more difficult for the girls to fend for themselves. Everyone was provided with reading material, a large stack of which my father bought every Friday and distributed according to age.
"And everyone went to university."
They were never abused, either. Although they were closer to their mother, their father being away at work most of the time, the children were constantly made aware of his presence. "She managed to make him present even in his absence. Everything was measured according to him. And there grew in our hearts a great respect for this man, not fear. The worst punishment for any one of us was that Baba would stop talking to him..."
The latent civilisation of Egyptians was the principal reason behind "my belonging to the July Revolution and my conviction in it is principles," Bekhit says. "We were the fruit of its endeavours."
Nor did the limited means of his family present a problem.
"No doubt there was suffering, but I never thought of myself as poor. Everyone in the neighbourhood was at the same level. There was neither television nor the American influence that later came to be called 'the revolution of ambitions', and all of society was talking about socialism and equality. Even when you had no money you never felt you were poor.
"Reading also made me feel that there were activities in life far more worthy of my time and attention than money seeking."
Education, by contrast, proved conceptually problematic.
"I was a good student until I handed myself over to reading. It started early, and I progressed very quickly from Mickey and Samir to Agatha Christie and then straight into Tawfik El-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz and El-Aqqad. I was an avid follower of Zaki Naguib Mahmoud's weekly article in Al- Ahram. And I was deeply influenced by Bairam Al-Tonsi's biography and poetry. I mention biography first because the poet's life became a model for my own.
"This image of the poet as a hero, a knight. He tells the truth even at the expense of 20 years of exile. He is with and of the people. A rebel and a truth-teller who conveys his message irrespective of personal or social considerations. That's who I wanted to be, the role I imagined for myself.
"And eventually I developed this notion of the poet who did not need an official qualification. I failed the thanaweya amma on purpose. I felt the education I needed was simply spending time with people and observing society, and I could read all the books in the public libraries while I started collecting my own modest library, and benefit from what the revolution provided in the way of refined and affordable culture. I was growing up and rebelling. What did I need a university qualification for as a poet?"
He knew he was a poet when Fouad Haddad published one of his pieces in Sabah Al-Kheir, appended with "a student at the Fustat Secondary School". Haddad had established a special department in the magazine in which he introduced vernacular poets, presenting talented new voices to the public, and on his appearance in it Bekhit was confirmed in his life course.
"I first became aware of myself as a poet when I wrote a 13-line poem as a first-year preparatory school student, each of whose lines began with a letter from the name of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. I read it to my mother, and she said two things in response, without which I don't think I would have become a poet. She asked whether I had copied the poem from a newspaper or magazine, which made me aware that it was good enough to be published. And rather than discouraging me from something that could undermine studying, she said, 'Every time you write something, come and read it to me,' freeing me to pursue writing further. It was at that moment, I think, that I became a poet.
"I started off writing in both ammiya and fushha, but the more occasions I had for reading my poetry -- competitions, school trips, seminars -- the more I realised that ammiya was better received. This is a social and political choice too. Since my poetry is about simple people, whether I am addressing them or talking about them, it makes sense to be writing in the language they understand.
"At primary school I always said I wanted to be an airforce pilot -- so much so that they bought me the outfit and photographed me in it. Now I knew what I really wanted to be: a poet. In retrospect the two dreams don't seem as disparate as they once did: I wanted to fly, I just hadn't discovered how."
Three years after he first failed the exam, Bekhit was finally persuaded of the importance of enrolling at university when his mother broke into tears. "And I have since discovered that the society which produced El-Aqqad and Bairam Al-Tonsi had changed, making the university degree a necessary condition for introducing a new poetic talent."
His mind was already set on the journalism department of Cairo University's Faculty of Mass Communications -- and on Sabah El- Kheir as a professional destination. "It was the magazine that embraced the vernacular poetry tradition, it had been edited by Salah Jahin, and it introduced so many towering names: Fouad Qa'oud, Naguib Sorour, Abdel-Rehim Mansour, among many others. For me it was the dream magazine."
Bekhit's university years (1975-79) were a politically charged period in which he witnessed or participated in the student movement and the popular intifada of 18 and 19 January (1977). After one year of active involvement, however, he realised that "the poet leads and is never led; he has a strategic rather than a tactical approach; and he is forever to the left of any charter, however much he might believe in it at one time."
As a journalist in Sabah El-Kheir Bekhit practised an eclectic range of disciplines, from interviews with dignitaries to social reportage, quickly making a name for himself. At the same time he had made friends with composer Ahmed El- Haggar, who unexpectedly set one of his poems to music. The resulting collaboration gave rise to Ali El-Haggar's album Al-Ahlam (Dreams); among many others Bekhit collaborated with the latter following the Gulf War on Lemmi Al-Shaml (Gather Your Children), and in the mean time worked with, among other singers, Mohamed Mounir; and wrote the songs for numerous television and stage dramas.
After writing songs for filmmaker Adel Awad's Crystal, Bekhit found himself at the centre of the cinematic world, working with Chahine in Al- Akhar (The Other).
Three years with the Emirates newspaper Al- Khalij yielded invaluable experience in a daily publication and an encounter with the Emirates engineer now working at the Arab League who eventually became his wife (Bekhit has two small children). "It was like a mini Arab League in the newspaper, so rich and varied and stimulating was the atmosphere, the pay rates were very high and there was an ongoing process of discovery. People thought I was crazy but I had to come back. I was like a fish taken out of the water."
At present Bekhit presides over a Sabah Al- Kheir department very like the one in which Haddad introduced him, he writes a regular column for Al-Kawakib and is collaborating with filmmaker Khaled Youssef on two film scripts. Four of his poetry collections are appearing next month in a single volume (published by Dar Al-Khayyal). And he is writing the songs for a new television drama with Medhat Saleh and Dalal Abdel-Razeq, Bayya' Al-Mawawil (Ballad Seller). He has worked with celebrated composers like Ammar El- Shere'i and received many honours and awards. Loyal to Nasser's legacy, his principal regret, he says, is that "the initial success of the revolution was later hampered and not developed."
As the intellectual conversation comes to an end, it is evident that Bekhit remains more aware of his class background than his historical situation; the claims he makes on poetry and the figure of the poet suggest a capacity for self-questioning that might not be as perspicacious as it seems. Does his accommodating loquaciousness mask a knack for upward mobility? Reading his work or listening to the songs he wrote or assessing his contribution to cultural life, it becomes evident that sentimental pandering is the activity to which his considerable intelligence has been subordinated.