ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The New York Times | November 7, 2012
Abdel-rahman Elabnoudy is one of the Arab world’s best-known vernacular poets
PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN
DAB‘IYA, EGYPT — Along a narrow, leafy road just past a small domed mosque is an electric pole with a handwritten sign showing the path to the country home of the poet Abdel-rahman Elabnoudy. The sign reads Aya and Nour, the names of his daughters.
Sequestered from the big city, Mr. Elabnoudy, a songwriter, dramatist, social critic and man of verse, lives in a whitewashed home on small plot of land planted with mangoes and date palms in a village in Ismailia Province, along the Suez Canal. A couple of decades ago, he tilled and sowed the earth, and designed a home modeled on the traditional architecture of Abnoud, the Upper Egyptian village of his birth.
“I am from a village where everyone sings, except the shop owners, who reap the output of the singing at the end of the day,” said Mr. Elabnoudy, 74, one of the Arab world’s best-known vernacular poets. “People work and sing, and with their earnings they would buy simple things like cigarettes and tea.”
Books and awards line the shelves of his sunny study and reception room. On one wall, below a black-and-white portrait of his father, Mahmoud Elabnoudy, is a photograph of a beaming Abdel-rahman embraced by his mother, Fatma Qandil.
“It was an exaggerated love,” he said of his mother. “She is present a lot in my poetry, but my father isn’t. She is my true educator.”
Mr. Elabnoudy’s father — a mosque imam, an Arabic teacher, a marriage registrar and a classical Arabic poet — was largely absent from his son’s upbringing. “His diligence and ambition made him forget this illiterate, ignorant woman in the village during the time I was growing up,” Mr. Elabnoudy said.
His mother, while she never knew how to unravel the written word, committed to memory a rich tapestry of folklore harmonizing Pharaonic, Coptic Christian and Islamic heritage that, he said, expressed “her feelings of life, friendship, God and humanity, the past and the present.”
As wheat, beans and barley were being gathered during harvest season, village poets sang folk songs accompanied by a stringed instrument known as the rababa and were paid in crops. It was in the fields of Abnoud that the young man’s enchantment with verse and the tales they revealed began.
Mr. Elabnoudy’s poetry intimately reflects the livelihood of the poor in Egypt’s marginalized south. “Writers often observe the peasant from the veranda, afraid to dirty their clothes,” he said. “My clothes were already dirty. I knew their lives. I was one of them.”
But the harsh realities of the countryside did not suit the flowery, occult verse of classical Arabic. When he recited classical Arabic poetry to peasants with whom he picked cotton as a boy, he felt a barrier go up. They were searching for the Abdel-rahman they knew, he remembers, but could not find him amid the cadences. He resolved to write poetry in their language about their lives.
Mr. Elabnoudy made his first trip to Cairo at age 19 at the invitation of a Coptic professor of French literature intrigued by the poetry of the countryside. It was Mr. Elabnoudy’s introduction to the capital’s literary scene. When he returned to enroll in Cairo University, his father insisted that he major in Arabic. Shunning the regimented atmosphere of the university, Mr. Elabnoudy skipped class to go to literary salons and poetry readings, where he befriended a community of writers and artists.
As his first semester drew to a close, Mr. Elabnoudy took the allowance his father had sent him and filled a crate with books purchased at the Azbakiya market. He shipped the container home and soon followed, returning to his Upper Egyptian roots. “Intellectuals are intoxicated with the city center,” he said. “But if they desire to change realities, they should go to the countryside.”
His book collection, which included gems of Russian realism by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev, formed the basis of a public library in the city of Qena, stirring new generations of writers from the south of Egypt.
Mr. Elabnoudy found work as a court clerk in Qena. With his longtime friend Amal Donqol, a classical Arabic poet who worked as an enforcer of court judgments, he arranged weekly poetry evenings at a cafe. “I soon realized that I was a burden to my job and the job was a burden on me,” Mr. Elabnoudy said.
At 24, he departed once more for Cairo. Hopes of reconnecting with friends were dashed when he learned that the police had rounded them up for their communist allegiances and sent them to the remote desert prison in Kharga. The year was 1959. It was the beginning of Mr. Elabnoudy’s foray into political life.
He earned his living as a songwriter, and was soon writing lyrics for leading Arab singers of the day and reciting his poetry on the airwaves to listeners in Egypt and across the Arab world.
He joined the political and intellectual current of writers, novelists and poets that came to be known as the Sixties Generation. The journalist and author Salah Essa, who met Mr. Elabnoudy in 1962, credits him with renewing the language and themes of Egyptian song by “blending inherited folk songs, lullabies and the cries of street sellers.”
The colloquial poet and songwriter Gamal Bekheet added: “A new world was being shaped. The region was immersed in international political struggles. Politics imposed itself on colloquial poetry.”
Mr. Elabnoudy said: “The Sixties Generation grew up with the battles of the nation. We and the nation became one. I write about the nation like I write about my beloved or my daughter. It has become a part of me. Most of my poetry deals with the pains of the nation, its dreams and aspirations, its defeats and setbacks, its strivings and revolutions.”
The poet’s battle for expression was first waged with his father, who denounced his son’s colloquial poetry, going as far as to tear apart his first collection, published in 1964, called “The Land and the Children.”
“He saw it as a state resembling infidelity,” Mr. Elabnoudy said. “He considered the Arabic language to be holy because it is the basis of the Islamic faith. The holiness granted to the religion is granted to classical Arabic.”
Colloquial poets were censured as dismantling the foundations of classical poetry and were accused of linguistically detaching Egypt from the rest of the Arab world by emphasizing the vernacular. But, Mr. Elabnoudy said, it was colloquial poetry that spoke to the masses, serving a call for Arab unity in the struggle against imperialism.
President Gamal Abdel-Nasser embodied that dream of Arab nationalism, seizing on a nostalgic longing among Arabs for a mythic hero, a modern-day Saladin. Swept up by an ardent sense of patriotism, singers and writers embraced the Arab nationalist cause.
One devotee of Nasser’s vision was Salah Jaheen, a playwright, a cartoonist, an actor, a colloquial poet and a lyricist who wrote the words to the national anthem. As a courtroom employee in Qena, Mr. Elabnoudy sent his poetry to Mr. Jaheen, who featured it in a prominent literary magazine, introducing the young poet to a broad audience.
In Cairo, Mr. Elabnoudy befriended Mr. Jaheen and discovered the work of another colloquial poet, Fouad Haddad, who had spent years in jail for his political dissent and communist sympathies.
Mr. Elabnoudy and Mr. Jaheen also wrote songs for the singer, actor and heartthrob Abdel-Halim Hafez. Closely tied to Mr. Nasser’s pan-Arabism, Mr. Hafez sang in praise of the Aswan High Dam, which promised to modernize Egypt.
Mr. Elabnoudy went to the site of the dam project and lived with laborers from his village of Abnoud, watching as they blasted cliffs with dynamite, reshaping the land. The encounters produced one of Mr. Elabnoudy’s best-known collections, a volume of poetry that takes the form of letters exchanged between a dam laborer, Hiragy al-Qot, and his wife, Fatna Ahmed Abdel-Ghafar, back home in the hamlet of Jabalayat al-Far.
“Hiragy was a childhood friend. When we grew up, I learned and he worked,” Mr. Elabnoudy said. Mineral mines, new factories and the High Dam employed villagers who could not stay in Abnoud. “The village expels its residents. It cannot sustain more than a third of its children. So they work in the mines — the phosphate mines on the Red Sea and manganese mines in Sinai.”
“When they have saved enough money, those who are healthy travel toward Suez or Ismailia. They take a piece of land like this,” he said, referring to his own plot in Dab‘iya, “and make it green by washing and dissolving its salts and spending the rest of their lives here.”
As Mr. Elabnoudy was gaining notice for his poetry, his father decided to make amends with his son. His mother prepared the visit to Cairo in October 1966, and for the first time father and son sat down for a candid heart-to-heart conversation. What followed was like a scene from a movie, Mr. Elabnoudy said. “It was on that night, before we got up to go to sleep, that state security officers came and arrested me.”
At that moment of fright and disbelief, Mr. Elabnoudy’s father broke down, expressing his true feelings for his son as security officers dragged him away and confiscated his papers, including the only manuscript of the letters of a dam worker. One early morning in 1969, Hiragy al-Qot came to mind and for three straight days Mr. Elabnoudy sharpened his pencils and sat down to rewrite the letters.
He was arrested along with other poets, novelists and journalists for belonging to the clandestine group Communist Unity. “We were in a semi-cell organization,” Mr. Elabnoudy said. “We were against the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and its might and cruelty.”
He was first sent to an interrogation prison within the walls of Saladin’s 12th-century citadel. Later he was dispatched to the Tora prison compound, where the ousted former president, Hosni Mubarak, is now being held.
What secured Mr. Elabnoudy’s release was an invitation by Mr. Nasser to Jean-Paul Sartre to visit Egypt. When the French philosopher received word that writers were detained by the regime, he turned down the welcome. Through an intermediary, the Egyptian leader promised that the writers would be freed by the time Sartre departed.
In Abnoud, after his release, Mr. Elabnoudy got a call from Mr. Hafez, who wanted him to come to Cairo and to write nationalist songs for him to sing as Egypt teetered on the brink of war.
Mr. Elabnoudy declined. “I said, ‘I have not inhaled a breath of fresh air outside of prison. What do you want from me? A country jails Abdel-rahman Elabnoudy and wants to win in a war? No, I won’t come!”’
Mr. Hafez persuaded him to change his mind, and Mr. Elabnoudy wrote the lyrics to all the songs sung by Mr. Hafez during the war. Mr. Hafez’s inspiring voice was the highlight of wartime radio broadcasts, punctuated by armed forces communiqués of fantastic and imagined victories against the Israelis.
After Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 Six-Day War, Mr. Elabnoudy traveled to Suez, on the front lines of what would become known as the War of Attrition. For the next three and a half years he lived in a rustic house he had built, writing the poetry of a witness. Braving salvos that converted structures into rubble, he often came frighteningly close to death.
In the following years, Mr. Nasser’s land reform policies and expansion of health care and education in the countryside made him popular among the peasantry. “He treated them like human beings for the first time in their lives,” said Mr. Elabnoudy, who found it difficult to speak unfavorably of Mr. Nasser in their company.
Mr. Elabnoudy wrote the songs and the dialogue for the landmark 1969 film “Touch of Fear,” which tells the story of a tyrannical village chief and his demise. The film narrowly passed the censorship authorities and was screened only after Mr. Nasser had seen it and given his approval. The film lasted 10 days in movie theaters and was not broadcast on television during Mr. Nasser’s rule. “People rediscovered the film later,” Mr. Elabnoudy said.
Its theme — a mass uprising against tyranny ignited by a senseless death — was what unfolded four decades later to topple a system of authoritarianism established by the military coup-turned-revolution of Nasser and the Free Officers in 1952. Mr. Elabnoudy’s only poem in homage to a leader was written to Nasser 40 years after his death in 1970 and weeks before the 2011 revolution, praising his incorruptibility.
Mr. Elabnoudy’s ascendancy has endured through six decades. His poem “The Square,” summoning the demise of “the nation of old men,” captured the dreams and hopes of a nation during the height of the 18-day revolution. “A ruler should never think he understands Egypt,” he said.
The poet predicts that there will be a follow-up revolution in 8 to 12 years, once the revolutionary forces have coalesced into a dominant political party that can impose the will of the masses. The biggest mistake of the revolutionaries is to be divided, he said, and they will remain divided until they suffer from the humility of realizing that there cannot be a thousand leaders.
For Mr. Elabnoudy, poetry and politics are tightly linked. “It is our fate in a country like ours,” he said.