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A Literary Revolution: The Egyptian Poets who Brought Colloquial Arabic Poetry to Life

February 29, 2020
Egyptian poets Salah Jahin, Abdelrahman El Abnoudy and Ahmed Fouad Negm (left to right).

The Arabic language is poetic in nature, with a beauty that is intricately intertwined between each and every letter and syllables that are rich in melody. Arabic poetry was in fact the earliest form of Arabic literature. 

Classical Arabic poetry dates back to the 6th century. It has served as a beautifully descriptive retelling of our history, offering poignant social and cultural revelations and eloquently expressing universal emotions through an Arab and North African lens.

It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries however, that colloquial Arabic was used in forming poetry. This modern form of poetry rose to popularity at the same time as Egypt’s nationalist movement and served more of a social and, oftentimes, political purpose. 

Before delving into the intricacies of modern Arabic poetry and the reasons behind its prevalence and significance in Egyptian history, it is noteworthy to point out a few of the pioneers who led this revolutionary literary movement. 

Ahmed Fouad Negm

Ahmed Fouad Negm alongside Sheikh Imam on oud.

Widely known for his outspoken opinions on state affairs and his patriotic literary work, the late Ahmed Fouad Negm was a revolutionary Egyptian poet who was considered ‘the poet of the people’ or rather, ‘the voice of the people’. 

He came from a family of fellahin (farmers) and grew up conducting menial work, and was later imprisoned for three years. It wasn’t until after his imprisonment that he started writing and won his first writing competition. 

His poetry heavily revolved around the criticism of government and authority, and although he was opposed by many, he also found a strong following by those who both admired his work as well as his views. 

Negm was also known for his closely knit partnership with the renowned singer and composer Sheikh Imam. 

Salah Jahin 

Salah Jahin

The mastermind behind the beloved Egyptian puppet operetta El Leila el Kebira (The Great Night), Salah Jahin was a man of many talents, particularly known for his colloquial poetry—he was also a lyricist, playwright and cartoonist. 

Jahin, along with fellow poet Fouad Haddad, played a great role in the development of Egyptian vernacular literature. Although he wrote a number of well-known plays and songs, it is perhaps his patriotic songs and poetry that are most noteworthy. 

He was an adamant supporter of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Following Egypt’s 1967 defeat in the six-day war and Nasser’s death, Jahin fell into a deep depression. 

Abdelrahman El Abnoudi

Abdelrahman El Abnoudi

Abdelrahman El Abnoudi was another one of the leading Egyptian poets who chose to write in colloquial Arabic. He was known as Al Khal (The Uncle) to many, and his work was greatly influenced by his upbringing in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Qena. 

Such as the case with many poets at the time, El Abdnoudi’s work played a vital role in the revolutionary musical movement following the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy. Many notable singers, such as Abdel Halim Hafez and Magda El Roumi, would go on to sing El Abnoudi’s poetic words. 

The late poet also had strong political views which he did not hesitate to voice through his work. 

Fouad Haddad

Fouad Haddad

Known by many as ‘the father of poets’, Fouad Haddad played a large role in the development of Egyptian colloquial poetry. 

His poetry and his way with words were highly regarded by both the general public and fellow poets alike. He was also greatly known for his collaboration with Egyptian singer and composer Sayed Mekawy in bringing the famous Ramadan-associated radio broadcast of El Messaharti (the person who wakes people up for the morning meal in Ramadan) to life. 

Later in his life Haddad had joined the Egyptian Communist Party, and he was also a political prisoner between 1953 to 1956. 

Naguib Sorour

Naguib Sorour

Naguib Sorour was another vital figure in the development of revolutionary colloquial Arabic poetry. In addition to being a poet, he was also a playwright, actor and critic. 

Sorour was heavily opinionated and, much like his fellow poets at the time, his work mainly revolved around political, authoritative and societal criticism. 

Sorour’s poetry was more explicit than most, and is therefore not widely circulated in the country. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001, when the late poet’s son had published one of Sorour’s never-before-seen poems in which the title itself consists of a cuss towards the country, resulting in it having been met with much controversy. 

Sayed Hegab

Sayed Hegab

The legendary Sayed Hegab was most famously known for his writing of Ramadan’s Fawazeer (Riddles). In addition to this, he wrote a number of other well-known television series and songs. 

Hegab was regarded as one of the pioneers of colloquial Egyptian poetry and his work reflected both his upbringing and political views. 

He was experimental is his writing, and chose to veer off the typical and rather explore his own ways of expression. As is the case with his fellow poetry pioneers, Hegab’s work was widely admired by the general public in the sense that he provided some sort of a voice for them. 

Their Universal Tie

All of these legendary poets seem to have a number of things in common, universal aspects that tie both them and their work together—ultimately leaving an undeniably important mark in Egyptian literary history. 

The main reason as to why these poets chose to venture into colloquial poetry rather than classical poetry had to do with creating work ‘for the people’, meaning that their worlds needed to be accessible, understandable and relatable to all. This of course, had an underlying political and social statement. 

Most of these poets actually came from rural, lower and middle class households, and so not only did their upbringing affect their views and way of life, but they also understood the importance of creating something that everyone can appreciate and giving a voice to the people. 

This is precisely why this group of revolutionary poets used their talent with putting words together in voicing their political stances and opinions. In this way, they managed to turn poetry from a mere form of expression to a powerful political tool. Thanks to these poets, the famous phrase of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ rings very true. 

Comments (2)

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