Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Son of a widowed city

Son of a widowed city

A poetic essence

While adding to the general sadness and disillusionment on 25 January of all days, Sayed Hegab’s death has occasioned a celebration of his achievement across the Arab world. Most recently he was the subject of a scholarly book, Ibrahim Khattab’s 650-page Hunter of Stories. I first became aware of Hegab through children’s songs and TV shows as a child, when I met him at the house of his sister, who was a neighbour of my aunt’s. It was therefore a remarkable opportunity for me when I got to interview Hegab at his Maadi house in 2008. I remember his warm welcome, his reassuring smiles and his keenness on detail, answering each question with patience, modesty and passion. Over two hours, the conversation was punctuated by small recitations of his.


Since being revived by Mohamed Ali in the 19th century Alexandria has held a special position in the hearts and minds of all Egyptians. It has been our window on the West. It is where Al-Ahram newspaper was first born, home to national figures. It was where Mohamed Bayoumi established Egyptian cinema and Mahmoud Said founded Egypt’s modern plastic art. But after the departure of foreign communities from the city and the consolidation of the ideology of the 1952 Revolution across the cultural arena, Alexandria became the widow of the Middle East, losing most of its glamour. There have been recent attempts to revive the city but there is too much distance between Alexandrians and the huge cultural entity that is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a foreign building built on their land is how it is often described.

Sayed Hegab is considered by many to be the heir to the late, great ammiya poet Salah Jaheen, not least because they shared a matchless ability to attract audiences. Their poetry reaches out to all Egyptians.

Hegab is not only a poet and a song writer but an intellectual, actively participating in both cultural and political life. At his apartment in Maadi Al-Gadida he opens the door himself, wearing a white galabiya and smiling. Inside the apartment is meticulously tidy. Portraits, masks and antiques adorn every corner. He leads me to his book- shelved study where I take a seat on one of two sofas besides which lie a oud and qanoun.

“My wife plays the qanoun,” he explains, “and the oud I use in the workshops I hold with composers.”

“As a child,” he tells me, “I was surrounded by my father’s bookshelves. I read Al-Aghany by Al-Asfhani, Alf Laila wa Laila, and much more. At the age of seven I discovered the poet in me. When my father knew that I had started writing poetry, he was pleased and whispered to me ‘God granted you a gift, let’s thank Him for it’. He advised me to refine my talent by studying metrics and rhyme.”

Sayed Hegab was born on 23 September 1940 in the village of Matariya, Daqahliya. His father was a junior civil servant who had studied for some years at Al-Azhar. Many family members were fishermen, and Hegab’s early years were filled with stories of the sea, for Matariya had a thriving fishery industry at the time. In the 1950s there were around 30,000 fishermen.

“Life seemed an all-encompassing song. Every event had its own, there were songs for birthdays, songs when a baby first learned to walk, songs for wives waiting for their husbands to come back from the lake. I only realised how much I’d been influenced by these songs when I left the village to settle in Alexandria.”

Ya Abu Aly ya Sayyad, get me a fish, ya Sayyad, and you threw the net, ya Sayyad, a djinn appeared to me, ya Sayyad, half fish, half man... our conversation is punctuated by Hegab bursting into a traditional lyric before continuing.

“It was really magic realism, songs and legends encompassing daily life, yielding life from magic and vice versa. Life was exuberant, a world of fairytales, of tales about fabulous kinds of fish and other secrets of the water.”

At 14 Hegab wrote his first poem in formal Arabic, the subject Nabil Mansour, a child martyr killed in 1951 in the struggle against the British.

“A year later,” Hegab says, “I began to feel that every fisherman had maybe 10 poems in his head that need to be spoken. I decided to cross the wall that separated me from the real life of the fishermen and become involved in their rituals. It was then that ammiya started to creep into my poetry.”

For a time he wrote in both formal and vernacular Arabic. With the backing of Fawzi El-Anteel, he published his first poem in 1956, in Al-Resala Al-Gadida, edited by Youssef El-Sebaei. Subsequently, he moved from Alexandria to Cairo to study mine engineering, and in the capital realised that to find his niche as a poet he would have to make changes in his own poetic form. “In love with poetry, I decided to quit the Faculty of Engineering,” he sighs. “Three Songs for the Distant”, his last poem to be written in formal Arabic, appeared in Al-Shahr magazine, edited at the time by Saadeddin Wahba.

July 1961 is indelibly engraved in Hegab’s memory for it was the month in which Salah Jaheen introduced his ammiya poetry to the readers of Sabah Al-Kheir in a column titled “A new valued poet”.

A keen participant in literary assemblies in both Alexandria and Cairo, Hegab witnessed the birth of many new poetic voices, including Abdel-Alim El-Abani and Abdel-Moneim El-Ansari. “It was at one of these gatherings,” he recalls, “that I met a young poet from Upper Egypt, who recited a poem called Magnoun.” The poet in question was, of course Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi.

“When I commented on his poem he knew I shared a similar spirit. It was El-Abnoudi who introduced me to Fouad Qaoud and it was through Qaoud that I met Salah Jaheen one evening at the late musician Suleiman Gamil’s home. Jaheen and Gamil were busy in a setting of Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi’s masterpiece The Death of Lomomba. I watched them in awe and when they were done Jaheen asked me to recite a poem of my own. I did and he showed no reaction, asking me to recite another, then another, and then he stopped me and took me into his arms saying to Qaoud, ‘Now, we have become much stronger’. Jaheen also promoted poetry written by El-Abnoudi and that, in short, is how the ammiya poetry movement made its start.”

Though his friendship with El-Abnoudi came to an end in 1971 -- Hegab didn’t disclose the reasons for their sudden falling out -- it had no effect on the movement overall.

For Hegab Alexandria is not just a city, it is the real cultural capital of Egypt and in many ways his muse. “My first encounter with Alexandria could be described as love at first sight. I was 16 when I came from the small fishing village to the great sea port. Alexandria seemed matchless. It was a real entrepôt, hosting many foreign communities, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, who had their own cultural gatherings and newspapers.”

He remembers the Elite Café, “exuberant with cultural and musical activities”.

“And there was Al-Ramly bookshop in Al-Raml Square, the main source for Salah Jaheen and Salah Abdel-Sabour’s early collections of poems.”

Though Hegab stayed in Alexandria for only two years before moving to Cairo the city was, he says, “my gate to knowledge and culture”.

“Since being revived by Mohamed Ali in the 19th century Alexandria has held a special position in the hearts and minds of all Egyptians. It has been our window on the West. It is where Al-Ahram newspaper was first born, home to national figures such as Abdallah El-Nadim, Sayed Darwish, Salama Hegazi and Bairum El-Tunsi. It was where Mohamed Bayoumi established Egyptian cinema and Mahmoud Said founded Egypt’s modern plastic art. But after the departure of foreign communities from the city and the consolidation of the ideology of the 1952 Revolution across the cultural arena, Alexandria became the widow of the Middle East, losing most of its glamour. There have been recent attempts to revive the city but there is too much distance between Alexandrians and the huge cultural entity that is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a foreign building built on their land is how it is often described.”

Is there a clear demarcation between ammiya poetry and popular poetry? And could Hegab be described as a popular poet, though he belongs to the middle class?

“Folkloric poetry is created by a group of poets living in a certain region,” he replies, “and is in constant flux from generation to generation. In this sense we are not popular poets, but then neither were El-Tunsi or Ibn Arous. They made their own versions of popular poetry.”

Though raised in a family of political activists, members of the Wafd Party and followers of Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa Kamel, Hegab’s rebellious spirit drove him to join the Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time had a record of armed struggle in Port Said and in Palestine.

“As an ambitious teenager who aspired to freedom I joined Ashbal Al-Duaa, the young preachers’ section of the group. Though the experience was brief, I learned much from the library kept in the group’s premises. I was overwhelmed by many Islamic topics, and was most impressed by a writer called Al-Bahy Al-Kholy who wrote on economy and Islamic socialism, raising new arguments and ideas in my head at an early age.”

Hegab’s rebelliousness remains intact: “Egypt has not yet produced its own national culture,” he says. “Though Egypt boasts an abundance of intellectuals, our cultural references are not the same. National cultures have been established throughout the world via the interface between modernising trends and popular cultures. Yet Arab societies have proven resistant to this kind of marriage of the two and as a consequence we still have an obvious division. There is popular culture and then there is the culture of the elite. Both are professed by Egyptians, and they never converge.”

“During the Egyptian renaissance, this same problem faced the followers of Refaa El-Tahtawi. When Mohamed Othman Galal, the pioneer translator, translated “La Fontaine” in Al-Aoyoun Al-yawaqez fi El-Hekam wal Mawa’ez, he used very simple language, half of it ammiya and the other half simple formal Arabic. Even as classical a poet as Ahmed Shawqi benefited greatly from the popular culture of his time, which is evident in the simple language he used in his first play Al-Set Hoda and in the poetry he wrote for teenagers. This striving after a literary language understandable by the majority continued till the first half of the 20th century but then faltered. Poets divided into two trends, those whose poems belong to the dictionary, such as Hafez Ibrahim, and those whose poems belong to the mainstream, such as Shawqi.”

“The Egyptian poetic movement, as led by Salah Abdel-Sabour and Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi, initially opted for Shawqi’s way and tried to encode a language close to everyday life. Later, though, they decided to embrace elitism, and even boasted that their poems could be understood only by a few.”

“The first two poets to really succeed in marrying modern thought and popular culture are our masters, Salah Jaheen and Fouad Qaoud. They produced that kind of intellectual poetry that appeals to both intellectuals and the man in the street. I would go so far as to say that Jaheen’s poetry is the best approximation we have of a modern national culture.”

Hegab sees himself very much following the path first trod by Jaheen, “connecting the spirit of our age and a national popular culture.”

“National European cultures, especially in Germany, Russia and France, were a result of this marriage between folklore and modernity. Sadly we Arabs have failed in formulating a coherent cultural identity, preserving instead a multi-faceted cultural reference, Islamic, Coptic, Marxist or reactionary Salafi. And our default mode has not only hindered the progress of our national cultural project but impeded the construction of modern states across the Arab world. The Egyptian middle class has not yet come close to establishing a free democratic state.”

That this should be so Hegab attributes to the “very static nature of Egypt’s middle classes”.

“They made many concessions to feudal and foreign powers, hindering any possibility of revolution. The 1919 Revolution, for example, resulted in an alliance of capitalist and feudal powers which held sway until the 1952 Revolution, which in turn drove Egypt towards centralised state capitalism. The historical struggle of the middle class has yet to bear fruit and while the developed world is embracing a post-national era, a period of globalisation, Egypt, and the Middle East generally, has yet to accomplish its national revolution.”

But then how does Hegab account for the increased use of ammiya in contemporary Egyptian literature, especially among younger writers?

Hegab dislikes the word ammiya, preferring the term Egyptian Modern Arabic, and believes that there should not be a conflict between ammiya and formal Arabic in the first place.

“Language is a human activity which matures as humanity matures. Those poets who do not keep to the wavelength of their people will vanish. The infusion of ammiya is not a new phenomenon. We witnessed it in the 1960s with prominent novelists such as Badr Nashaat, who produced many novellas in ammiya. And just as Britain and Italy, along with many other European countries, decided to replace Latin with their vernacular, so too do Arabs need to agree upon an easy language and disregard formal Arabic, which surely hinders our development.”

Formal Arabic is not “our mother tongue”, Hegab declares. “It is just a language we were taught at school. Our mother tongue is the language we are taught at home. We need to liberate ourselves from worshipping this idol. We need to regard the Arabic language as a thing created and developed by people and not imposed by the divine.”

Though as a student Hegab embraced Marxism, he has avoided political activism since the 1970s. “What remains of my activism is a humanistic vision that transcends religions and nationalities,” he says. Yet on a side table in his study a portrait of Hassan Nasrallah suggests that he is far from being apolitical.


Son of a widowed city

“I view Hizbullah as the most modern political wave. Nasrallah emerged at a time of great depression, reawakening a sense of freedom and pride among Arabs. He has the capacity to lead the whole Arab nation towards a better future.”

While a new collection of poems is due from Dar Al-Shorouk in a matter of weeks, Hegab’s work has coloured many Ramadan nights for television viewers through his songs for the drama series Adda An-Nahar (The day has passed), and shortly after Ramadan ends his musical play, Aly and his Follower Offa, will open at Al-Salam Theatre.

Yet apart from his Ramadan television work, Hegab insists there is little to stimulate his poetic imagination. “The market is terrible nowadays, full of half talented singers with whom I cannot cooperate. However, I am hopeful that the coming years will bring some new blood. There are some encouraging signs, including a number of bands performing at Saqiyat Al-Sawy.”

Hegab, whose popularity transcends national borders, views himself as “a professional reader and an amateur poet”.

“I do not write poetry unless it attacks me,” he says, “though I dedicate all my time and senses to it. But I wait for it to come as a dear visitor.”

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