Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Safynaz Kazem:

Born to be wild

Profile by Amira Howeidy

She has lived up to almost all expectations

Front Page

Eventful, laden with troubles, challenges, great expectations and disappointments, life has not been very kind to Safynaz Kazem. But deep inside, there's a "pilot light" that supplies her with inexhaustible joie de vivre. She is, after all and in her own words, "a moving theatre" -- though it is perhaps in the role of Hamlet that she finds herself most.

Impersonating others as a child and, at a later stage, "performing": Kazem's life is indeed a play. It began as a light-hearted comedy, then an element of the absurd began to seep in, eventually turning it into tragedy -- open-ended, though.

At 20 she was a full-time journalist at Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper. At 22, with her sister Fatma, she roamed Europe on their famous hitchhiking odyssey. In 1960, she went on her own to the US, where she lived for some six years. Upon her return to Egypt, she became one of Egypt's youngest and most famous critics. By 1971 she was banned from writing, then imprisoned 3 times and branded a communist, despite the head cover she donned in 1972.

The communists rejected her and the then growing Islamist movement viewed her with suspicion. She shocked everyone when she married a man who went out in his pajamas and slippers as a matter of course. Then she appeared in Iraq, only to flee again in '80 after supporting the Islamic Revolution in Iran. She refuses to succumb to anything or anyone. And lest anyone forgot and mistakenly think age has tamed her, Kazem reminds them relentlessly: most recently, she walked off one of Egypt's most highly watched live TV talk shows because the woman on the other side of the panel provoked her. "We're on air!" cried the helpless host, "I don't care" she snapped, "if we're on the moon."

But on the sunny December morning in her Abbasiya apartment, Kazem sits quietly on the sofa facing a trunk full of photos from the past and the present. Each one has a story. One black and white snap is of a laughing young woman in sunglasses, hair cropped short. "This one was taken by my sister, Fatma." She is carrying an enormous backpack and is surrounded by many more, one of which is clearly marked with the post-1952 Revolution Egyptian flag, with its two golden stars. "The bags were so heavy; this is how I developed my back problems," she says. And the flag? "Well, at the time we believed this would promote Egypt, that it was good for the country."

She picks up another picture. "This is my first marriage, which does not count." The bride is wearing a white wedding gown and the optimistic laugh is already in place. She continues to flip through the pile of photos: Kazem with her oldest friends and cell mates: Shahinda Maqlad and Wedad Metri; Kazem with her best friend, Sanaa El-Bissi, in 1957; Kazem with her mother in Mecca, wearing the white pilgrim's robes and veil. There's also Kazem in New York; with her second husband, Ahmed Fouad Negm, and her only daughter, Nawwara; in Palmyra, Syria, with late poet and playwright Naguib Surour; with late Lebanese writer and poet Mikhail Na'ima, in 1959; in Iraq with her students; with her Iraqi husband; in her Akhbar Al-Youm office; and Kazem, still a baby on her mother's lap.

She loves photos, and the study in her new flat is eloquent testimony to this passion. Every shelf and wall is laden with pictures. Her parents, her late brother Ibrahim, her uncle, her grandfather, her daughter Nawwara, and, many, many photos of Kazem. On the shelves to the right, two big pictures of a very pretty Kazem lean on stacks of books. The one that shows her long black hair was taken "when I was released from prison the first time and wanted to show off my hair, which had grown", while the other "is only half the photo; [my ex-husband Ahmed Fouad] Negm was standing next to me, but I cut him out. I really don't see why he has to be in my photo."

Kazem married and divorced three times. She was raised by a widowed mother, and has only one daughter. "I am an extension of my mother. The daughter-mother, mother-daughter relationship has always dominated me. When I was a child and used to hear people say 'the poor things, their father is dead,' I used to think, well, my mother was doing a very good job on her own," she laughs. "It's not that I hate men, but they're not a necessity."

Kazem barely mentions her first marriage, to a medical doctor. Her second and most famous one was to Ahmed Fouad Negm, the radical poet of the '70s (and inseparable companion of the blind Sheikh Imam, who put Negm's poetry to music, and sang it). Her third was to an Iraqi university professor.

Did she lead what one could count as a normal life? Her answer is straightforward. "It was all out of my desire to perform. I respect self-esteem as long as one knows how to exploit it the right way. You see, I don't regret anything I've done."



Nijm, Nawwara

Surur, Adwan
From top:
Kazem hitchhiking; in cap and gown in the Village in New York; with Negm and their daughter Nawwara; in Palmyra with playwright Naguib Surour and poet Mamdouh Adwan

Born in Alexandria on 17 August 1937, thus a Leo as she proudly states, Kazem was the youngest daughter of Mohammed Kazem's 6 children. Her father was a legal expert and a pioneer of the Arabic calligraphy. They moved to the Abbasiya district when she was a child.

"I was a happy child, although I was orphaned at six." She didn't feel deprived, though, because her mother did such "a good job." "She taught us it was vulgar to take pocket money or lunch with us to school, since they served lunch there. And when I saw my colleagues show off their pocket money or take out sandwiches I used to feel sorry for them." And it was by pretending to be someone else that she filled the gaps in her life. Her sister Fatma, who was two years older, was her role model "because she was daring" and also had a strong relationship with her father. "I used to pretend I was her and wrote poems about how strong my relationship with my father was. Of course this was my imagination and this relationship between me and him never existed."

In 1954, she was among the first students in Egypt to study in the newly established department of journalism at Cairo University. Although her siblings followed scientific tracks, Kazem thought of herself as either a radio announcer, or a woman of letters. Mustafa and Ali Amin, who owned Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper, recruited Kazem when she was still in her first year at university. For the following two years, she was trained in the archive department. She was appointed officially in 1957 and very quickly her stories began to appear in Akhbar Al-Youm's various publications. Moussa Sabri, who was editor-in-chief of Al-Gil, a sister publication, admired Kazem's style and journalistic skill. "I went to Akhbar Al-Youm because I loved the Amin brothers very much," she says. "I never saw anyone encourage us as much as they did. And they didn't encourage anyone as much as they did me. It was Mustafa Amin who really supported me, while Moussa Sabri took care of me."

It was clear to Kazem from the very beginning that she wasn't a news desk reporter. She did news reporting, but never liked it or did it well. "I felt more strongly inclined to stories of a literary nature, so I did profiles. We had no tape recorders back then and I never took notes. I used to meet my source, talk, then write." Everyone loved the result. And during her university years, Kazem was the Faculty of Art's poet. She still writes poetry to this day.

After her hitchhiking tour through Europe and Lebanon, which she recounted in a successful series of articles titled 'The most daring journalistic trip of 1959', Kazem returned to find that Sabri had been replaced by Anis Mansour. They didn't get along well. She applied to graduate school in the US. But Kazem had other reasons for travelling. "I had conducted a poll and asked if we had a theatre critic. The answer was no. So I thought, I'll go get Egypt a theatre critic." She pauses and laughs, "that's how we used to think back then, and we took it very seriously."

She fell in love with the theatre and New York. At New York University she learnt that studying theatre had nothing to do with reading plays, as opposed to "actually watching the play." It took her two years to finish her MA, working to pay fees and rent. "Sometime I used to live only on coffee with milk because I didn't always have enough money. But I was happy that I was buying books and reading them." She loved her New York apartment, and adored Manhattan. She still loves the memories, but now sarcastically describes her past "infatuation with all that was American". "I was westernized, and we thought that was nationalist, that it was good for Egypt to be as American or as French as possible."

In New York, she met dozens of future politicians and diplomats: Osama El-Baz, today President Mubarak's political adviser; Abdel-Raouf El-Reedy, Egypt's former ambassador to the US; former Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmi. Most importantly, she read an English translation of the Muslim theorist, Sayed Qutb. The experience was overwhelming. "From him, I learned how to understand my religion and civilisation on my own."

She obtained her MA in drama in 1966 and returned to Egypt, where she was offered a job at Dar Al-Hilal. Kazem promptly returned to writing. "I thought that after I got my MA, I'd be appointed to the Theatre Institute, but they never offered, so I thought, who cares? My articles will be my lectures."

So for five years, Kazem, in a new incarnation as a theatre critic, published her fiery articles in Al-Mussawar magazine with the support of El-Hilal chairman Ahmed Bahaaedein. Armed with what she had learned and her own creative approach to art, Kazem did battle with the traditional views so strongly protected by other critics. She attacked the most unexpected icons, even criticizing leading singers such as Abdel-Halim Hafez and Shadia. She hailed creative directors such as Naguib Surour and Karam Mutawi', who directed the most famous political plays of the '60s.

This lasted till August 1971. "I discovered that during those five years, many [colleagues] would have liked nothing better than to see me stop writing," she says. Their wish came true when Ahmed Bahaaeddin was replaced by Youssef El-Siba'i as head of Dar Al-Hilal. El-Siba'i's first act as editor-in-chief was to forbid her from writing. Kazem recounts this significant moment in detail in the introduction to her book, From the File of '60s Theatre, describing his "cruel, blue, cold eyes, like a treacherous bullet" with not a little relish. "He told me he would work to stamp out my name, that he would rub my nose in the mud." Although this is probably the hundredth time she has told the story, Kazem's humorous mood quickly changes. Her tone is bitter and angry. The fact that she doesn't know what prompted El-Siba'i doesn't really help either. "To this day, people ask me why. And all I have is my guesses. I really and honestly don't know. I say, maybe because I criticised everything he loved and never mentioned his plays..." her voice trails off into silence.

The impact of El-Siba'i's decision was thunderous. Kazem, who was widely viewed as a leftist, went on pilgrimage with her mother in 1972. She returned wearing the head cover at a time when almost no one else wore it. The next thing she did was to marry the least prospective groom imaginable: Ahmed Fouad Negm. "The first time I met him was on 1 August 1972. We got married on 24 August. It wasn't a love story or anything," she says in a matter-of-fact way.

Why did she do it? She argues that the nationalist in her pushed her to save and preserve "this value" for "Egypt." "He went to prison for us and no one did anything for him... and when he proposed he said he needed someone to take care of him... So I donated myself to Negm." On their wedding night, Kazem and Negm scrubbed the floor of his tiny flat until it shone. She banned alcohol and drugs.

No one approved, not even Negm's "communist" group. They rejected the idea that a "bourgeois woman" could take their poet away. Kazem's mother, too, strongly opposed the very idea. Kazem's intellectual friends couldn't understand how she could marry this eccentric, unemployed maverick who had never been to a proper school. "My decision was a creative act in which I utilised all my skills. I believed that Negm was the best poet of his age. Whether this was right or wrong, I strongly believed it."

Kazem and Negm were arrested in 1973. She was pregnant at the time. She was accused of being a founding member of the Workers' Communist Party, "of which I knew nothing," she exclaims. In 1975, when her daughter was barely a year old, she was arrested again. This time, she was accused of forming the New Communist Party, recruiting two veteran left-wing activists: Shahinda Maqlad and Salah Eissa. "I didn't even know the party existed," she says, adding with a chuckle, "but they made me the leader".

Kazem's prison experience was both poignant and rich. She was distraught when baby Nawwara was taken away. Moreover, she was placed in solitary confinement -- the worst punishment a prisoner could face. "Although I shouted and yelled in protest, deep inside this pilot light was operating and I was happy. I was happy because I like to be on my own. I had my own bucket." She has many amusing stories to tell of her life behind bars, the most amusing of which involves the plays she directed and in which she acted in the long prison corridor.

Once she was out, though, Kazem took steps to ensure the experience would not be repeated. "I realised this wouldn't be the last time. I had a daughter and I didn't want her to suffer, so I decided to leave the country." On September 1975, Kazem flew to Iraq to work at Al-Mustansiriya University, where she taught drama in the English Department.

"My first year in Iraq was like a Greek tragedy. You know when the chorus enters and cries 'the King is dead' or 'the army has been defeated'? Well, this was happening to me. I found people telling me 'your mother has cancer', 'your husband is seeing another woman', 'you've been fired'. Now what did I do? I laughed, I actually found this very funny." Kazem likes to tell herself: 'I have two legs. I can walk.' She didn't give in.

She returned, to find her mother dead and her husband married to another woman. "I was ready to forgive him for our daughter's sake, and because I wanted to pursue what I had begun, but he was hesitant. So I took the decision and asked for divorce."

She returned to Iraq and 10 months later married her "Iraqi husband". But the Iranian revolution erupted in '79 and she gave it her full support, sending Khomeini a telegram of congratulations. Moreover, she was leading anti-Camp David protests. Saddam Hussein took over and "life in Iraq became intolerable. He was against the Iranian revolution, the Shi'ites... Many human rights abuses and killings were taking place." Kazem fled to Cairo, believing she would be arrested at the airport.

She wasn't. A year later, however, in September 1981, she was detained and only released following Sadat's assassination.

Until 1983, Kazem kept mum. Eventually, she returned to Al-Mussawar, after its editor-in-chief, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, lifted the ban on her articles.

She has written a number of books, the most popular of which is Romantikkiyat' (Romantic Writings, 1970) which includes part of her diary and the letters she wrote during her New York years. Talabib Al-Kitaba (Writing by the Scruff of the Neck, 1997) was received enthusiastically by critics. But it is her two books on the theatre, Min Malaff Masrah Al-Sittiniyat and Masrah Al-Masrahiyin (The Theatre of Theatre People) that stand out as two of the very best works written on the Egyptian theatre.

Since her retirement from Al-Mussawar in 1997, Kazem has been writing in the monthly magazine Al-Hilal. She is also involved in Al-Hilal's monthly book series, beside writing for various other publications in Egypt and the Arab world. "I love what I'm doing and I hope God keeps it that way," she says with a sigh of satisfaction.

Can she live in peace? More importantly, does she want to? Kazem is at peace with herself. Those who think she's mad, confused, irrational, emotional, aggressive, a feminist because she doesn't like to be called 'Madame' and a Marxist-turned Islamist, don't really count. "I'm a Muslim, always was. Islam sums it all up."

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