Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi: an Upper Egyptian Odyssey
celebrates the 70th birthday of poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, reviewing his journey to fame and talking to him about his life and career
If the poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi gives you an appointment for an interview in a public place, you are well advised to think twice. The likelihood of holding his attention for more than few minutes, much as you both might try, is almost next to none. Such an interview, however, is a good opportunity to get first-hand experience of El-Abnoudi's popularity and of his immediately recognisable public persona.
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at his farm in the village of Dab'iya, near Ismailiya, after returning earlier this year from a long journey where he received treatment in France
In streets and gathering places across Egypt El-Abnoudi is regularly greeted by huge crowds, people asking for a photograph with him, or enquiring about his opinions on topics as diverse as his latest work and the deteriorating living conditions of the poor. Often, El-Abnoudi will be solicited for his help in voicing people's complaints to the powers that be, or in solving problems like finding a job for an unemployed son, or in arranging a bed in a hospital for someone who cannot afford private treatment.
The popularity El-Abnoudi enjoys among ordinary people in Egypt -- as well as in the Arab countries -- is unique for a poet in a society that generally does not take too much notice of men of letters. Somehow, El-Abnoudi has managed to transcend the confines of his profession and become a kind of envoy of the poor, especially for upper Egyptians, to those who occupy positions of power, be they governors, ministers, or the president of the republic himself. Even the president knows El-Abnoudi and enquires after his health when he is ill. In 2001, El-Abnoudi received the State Merit Award for poetry from the president, becoming the first poet writing in Egyptian colloquial Arabic to receive the award.
This kind of popularity, a cross between that of movie stars and football players and that of the politicians and parliamentarians who are expected to deal with the problems of their constituents, is something of which El-Abnoudi is very proud.
"I have elevated the status of poetry and poets among the poor and among the fellaheen who wear galabiyyas," he says. "In the past, they used to think a poet was a poor wanderer telling folk tales to the accompaniment of his rababh. I grew up as a poor peasant myself, tending sheep, drawing water, fishing in the Nile and tilling the land, while all the time listening to the songs people chant while working. I know how to give voice to their sorrows and their joys in a way that goes straight to their hearts."
BORN IN THE UPPER EGYPTIAN VILLAGE of Abnoud in the province of Qena in 1938, El-Abnoudi was 70 earlier this year. However, instead of celebrating the occasion with his many friends and fans in Egypt, he was obliged to spend his birthday at the American Hospital in Paris, where he received long and painful treatment to control what has become a debilitating state of chronic lung disease. His wife Nehal and their two daughters Nur and Aiya nevertheless flew to Paris to be with him on the occasion, and he received hundreds of visits from the many fans he has in the Arab community living in France.
"I have to learn to live with this disease," El-Abnoudi says. "It's not going to go away. It's the result of years of smoking 4 to 5 packets of cigarettes a day. What reckless things we did when we were young! Now I am told I cannot live in Cairo for any length of time because of the pollution. I have to spend most of my time in the countryside, a sort of forced retreat."
We met early in the summer this year after El-Abnoudi had returned from France and was convalescing at his farm in the village of Dab'iya near Ismailiya in the Suez Canal Zone. We had agreed to meet there for a long interview to mark his 70th birthday before he left Egypt once again, this time to go to Germany for treatment to his spine.
However, it took rather a long time to find El-Abnoudi's farm, and since I had to leave before dark we agreed to meet again when El-Abnoudi was in Cairo. As a result, what had started out as a single interview with the poet at his farm turned into a series of encounters spread out over three separate sessions, the last two taking place in September, when El-Abnoudi came to Cairo to perform the traditional epic Sirat Bani Hilal for a week at the Beit el-Sihmi in Islamic Cairo, and November, when he was back again, this time to record the Sira for Egyptian television.
The 30 years El-Abnoudi spent collecting and raising awareness of this epic poem, a work that has been recited for centuries during moulids and at popular cafes and other gathering places all year round before the advent of radio and TV, is another source of great pride to him.
"I was raised by my mother to love singing and folk tales. Every year I would eagerly await the moulid of Sidi Abdel-Rehim in Qena, an event which used to last for 15 days. I would sit mesmerised at the feet of storytellers reciting the adventures of the Banu Hilal."
"Years later in Cairo I began to be worried that this epic would disappear as a result of the spread of television and other forms of mass entertainment. I decided to work with the remaining great storytellers of the adventures of Banu Hilal, such as Jabir Abu-Hussein and Haj Dawi, to record all their stories to ensure that the Sira did not disappear when they died."
The Sirat Bani Hilal tells the adventures of the Bedouin tribe the Banu Hilal and its migration from Arabia in the second half of the 10th century, first to Egypt and then to Tunisia by order of the then Egyptian rulers. The Tunisian ruler at the time, Ibn Badis, had declared his independence from the Fatimid dynasty that then ruled Egypt, and the Banu Hilal were sent to bring him into line. In his famous Muqaddima, the mediaeval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun says that the Hilali tribes fell on Tunisia like "swarms of locusts."
"You may have noticed that I don't call the story of the Banu Hilal 'Sira,'" El-Abnoudi says. "Instead, I call it an epic. It's an epic in every sense of the word, since it embodies the conscience of the Arab people and their dreams of a leader who will unite them and lead them through their many heroic battles for survival."
El-Abnoudi started to collect and record the Sira from 1967 onwards. "I used the first professional tape recorder I owned, a present from the singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, to record the epic wherever it was recited, first in Upper Egypt, then in the Nile Delta, compiling and comparing the different versions. Much later, I was sent other versions of the story from sub-Saharan Africa, especially from Chad, Sudan and Nigeria. Then I decided to go to Tunisia in search of the story, and I used to stay there for half a year at a time, comparing the differences between the epic as told in the Mashriq (Egypt, Syria and Lebanon) and in Maghreb countries such as Tunisia."
Beginning in the late 1970s El-Abnoudi started to publish his research on the Banu Hilal epic. Perhaps surprisingly, his first published work was in French: La Geste hilalienne (1978), which, originally written in Arabic, was translated by the Tunisian researcher Tahir Qaiqa with whom El-Abnoudi collaborated while in Tunisia. Five volumes of the epic then appeared in Arabic between 1988 and 1991. In 2002, these five volumes were collected into one large volume of some 800 pages, and in 2003 and 2004 two equally long volumes appeared as volumes II and III of the epic.
"I know that I am a good poet," El-Abnoudi says. "But there will be better Egyptian poets than me in the future. What I shall always be remembered for is for having saved this brilliant epic from being lost to future generations." To crown this achievement, something which has taken El-Abnoudi much of his lifetime, he has worked with the Egyptian ministry of culture to set up a museum and research institute for the Banu Hilal epic in his native village of Abnoud. It is also here that El-Abnoudi intends to deposit his papers and recordings.
INDEED, ABNOUD IS NOW almost a household name across the Arab world thanks to El-Abnoudi's decision to adopt the surname El-Abnoudi, that is, the one who comes from Abnoud. The name on his birth certificate, on the other hand, is Abdel-Rahman Mahmoud Ahmed Abdel-Wahab, El-Abnoudi's father, Mahmoud Abdel-Wahab, having graduated from Al-Azhar and risen within the ranks of the local clerks to become a Madhoun Shar'i [magistrate] in charge of conducting marriages according to the Sharia.
El-Abnoudi himself, however, resisted being sent to Al-Azhar, having early on decided he wanted to be a poet not a Sheikh. While still at high school in Qena in the 1950s his literary talents became apparent, and he was encouraged by his teachers to pursue literary interests. When he graduated from high school, he went to Cairo to attend Cairo University's Faculty of Arts, but his meagre financial resources soon compelled him to return to Qena. He then worked as a clerk for the ministry of justice, recording the minutes of court proceedings.
It was not until El-Abnoudi had completed his military service in 1961 that he decided to resign from his clerical job and try his luck again in the capital. Arriving back in Cairo in 1962, he sought the help of Salah Jahin, a multi-talented poet, painter and actor who, together with Fouad Hadad, had pioneered the writing of poetry in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Jahin had been one of the first poets to break with the Zajal [doggerel] tradition that had earlier governed poetry in the vernacular, using it instead as a vehicle for serious literary themes.
When El-Abnoudi first met Jahin the latter was already an established literary figure, his cartoons appearing daily in Al-Ahram and his lyrics being sung by the most famous singers of the time, including Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez. Jahin immediately recognised El-Abnoudi's talent and encouraged him and Sayed Hegab -- another gifted young poet -- by publishing their work in Sabah El-Kheir, the magazine he edited, and founding a publishing house that would specialise in publishing colloquial poetry. As a result, El-Abnoudi's first collection of poetry, Land and Children, was published in 1964, Hegab's first collection, A Fisherman and a Mermaid, appearing the following year.
By the mid-1960s El-Abnoudi had become famous for the lyrics he had written for singers like Mohamed Rushdi, Shadia and Abdel-Halim Hafez, and he had also become aware of the pioneering role he could play in bringing such songs closer to the culture of ordinary Egyptians. For the first time, it was possible to hear songs on the radio that drew inspiration from the folktales of the poor.
Yet, unlike Jahin, El-Abnoudi never collected his song lyrics in his poetry collections. Asked about his reasons for this decision, he says that "a song belongs to the singer and the composer rather than to the person who wrote the lyrics. Besides, I know very well the difference between a poem that is really worthy of its name and what one writes in between writing such poems."
"There are poems and poems. Some poems possess you, such that you feel that they are writing themselves through you, that they are the author and not you, while there are others that are written as responses to some particular event. Those are the kind of poems over which one has full mastery. They are poems written to supply our daily needs and not for posterity. However, I can't just sit idly by waiting for the poems written for posterity to come. I would be waiting for years, and even many of those poems are written in response to immediate situations. Those poems are the reason for my great popularity and closeness to the hearts of the people."
El-Abnoudi explains to me that one example of what he means by "poems that contribute to my fame without necessarily being my best" is the long poem Letters of Hiragi el-Qot, a Construction Worker on the High Dam, to his Wife Fatna Ahmed Abdel-Ghafar of Jabliyat el-Far, which take the form of correspondence between an Upper Egyptian working on the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and his wife who has stayed in the village to look after the children.
Published in book form in 1969, the poem was later serialised daily on Egyptian radio for a year, where it was eagerly awaited by millions. As if to underline the poem's continuing popularity, in the mid 1990s I found myself in the Egyptian Mediterranean coastal town of Marsa Matrouh when El-Abnoudi was giving a poetry reading at an open-air theatre. The thousands of construction workers that flocked to the theatre to see the poet read were an impressive phenomenon, especially as the audience almost forced El-Abnoudi to continue reciting from The Letters of Hiragi el-Qot until the early hours of the morning.
AS FOR POEMS he considers among his best, El-Abnoudi mentions the poem "Writing" from his 1999 collection Ordinary Sorrows, which, he says, is an example of a poem that seems to have been written through him. "In this poem I found myself writing an obituary of my mother months before she died," he comments. "In 1991, I was in Ismaliya, and I found myself sitting at the kitchen table writing this poem in a single session as if it had been dictated to me."
At the beginning of the poem, which is dedicated to the memory of El-Abnoudi's mother Fatma Kandil, the poet says that he is pining for a kind of "magic writing" that would be capable of transforming the universe, conversing with the seas and making the clouds talk. However, immediately after the opening lines, as if acknowledging the impossibility of this wish, he writes, "As I grew old /, I learned not to feel sad, / not to feel happy, not to regret. / And, sensing my death to come, / not to worry, / as such a sense brings me closer to myself, / and stops the writing."
This kind of inner struggle between aspiration and the words that actually get set down on paper, between dreams and reality, is something that has always been at the core of El-Abnoudi's work, to the extent that his detractors in Egyptian intellectual circles have sometimes accused him of wanting to have his cake and eat it: of wanting, in other words, to be at once the voice of revolution and a favoured writer of the regime.
In response to such accusations El-Abnoudi comments that "all political regimes try to co-opt writers that are capable of reaching the masses. Salah Jahin, for example, was very useful to the Nasser regime as he was able to reach ordinary people in a way that the politicians could never aspire to do."
In the mid-1970s the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat declared himself a great admirer of El-Abnoudi's writing and gave instructions that Egypt's radio and TV stations should broadcast the poet's work. However, when Sadat made his famous visit to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in 1977, inaugurating his peace initiative with Israel, El-Abnoudi attacked him vehemently in a number of popular poems collected in his book The Forbidden and the Legitimate, which was first published in Beirut in 1979 and later reprinted in Egypt following Sadat's assassination in 1981.
"Sadat tried to co-opt me, but he failed," El-Abnoudi says. "I don't believe in redundant sacrifices, but when there is a sacrifice to be made for the sake of principles I am the first to make it. If you had been living in Egypt on the eve of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, you would have felt a stranger to your own people and to all that you believed in. It was the enthusiasm with which many people in Egypt greeted Sadat's initiative that made me write my poem 'No Doubt One is Mad,' in which I restated what was obvious to me but apparently was not obvious to many of the people around me: that this move on the part of Sadat was capitulation not peace."
Another way of understanding El-Abnoudi's periodic political loud interventions -- he is presently leading a campaign against corruption in the country, this month giving a long interview to the Egyptian daily Masry El-Youm in which he denounces what he describes as the "policies of pauperization" pursued by the country's ruling party -- is to compare him with another great Egyptian writer, the late short- story writer Youssef Idris.
Of the latter El-Abnoudi once wrote that "we used to accuse him of being an opportunist when he bowed down to the dictates of power, but then he would surprise us by being an unrestrained revolutionary. We thought he was only playing with fire, but then we saw him consumed by fire before our eyes. He was like the fires in the villages that rage without any apparent logic, and then die out, equally illogically. When the time comes for 'seasons of a loud voice,' I find myself yearning for this master of 'gipsy uprisings'."
Some months after your 70th birthday, a belated happy birthday to you, dear Abdel-Rahman, and, as the Arabic saying has it, "may your voice always ring loud" and true.
Ebb and Tide
I shall say it bluntly:
I am afraid of dying before I see
And qualities change.
Before I see
Those at the back
The front seats, and smiling.
Afraid of dying, and the thought dying with me
Of the victory of everything I loved.
Afraid that everything I hated will never be
Extracted from the poem 'Ebb and Tide' collected in Ordinary Sorrows.
Good evening to you sunset
As we both depart,
Determined to go far
Like two palms shrunken with cold, like winter roses.
It's not an easy thing for the sun
To discover, as it departs,
that nothing remains of the day.
[only faces glimmering and fading:
hard to tell whether they are rising or falling]
Leaving behind some threads,
Trampled in the dust
By khamseen riddles.
Was gulped down,
Concentrating a whole world
And swallowed when the opportunity came.
Now it's the fear of the sunset
That makes writing run away.
And the beginnings of aspiration
Lies frustration and
The will to confront,
And the inability to write.
All boats leave
As the story of the sea is tumultuous.
Anyone wanting an easier journey
Shouldn't count every wave,
Shouldn't forget to smile
When groans temporarily fade
As the harbour collects the wounded at dusk.
If only I could believe there was a boat
Before the fog descends.
Perhaps I could regain
And be prepared for writing.
Extracted from the poem 'Writing' collected in Ordinary Sorrows.