Egyptian poet Helmi Salem, one of the nation’s leading “’70s poets,” died this past Saturday, following a long battle with lung cancer. He was 61:
Salem was born in June of 1951 in Al Rahib, Menoufiya. He studied journalism at Cairo University — graduating in 1974 and also publishing his first major collection, My Beloved is Planted in the Soil’s Blood, in 1974.
Salem published at least 18 poetry collections and won the State Excellence Prize in 2006, later rescinded because of his controversial “The Balcony of Laila Mourad.” However, this was not his last state-sponsored award: Salem’s 2011 collection Raise Your Head High won The Best Colloquial Poetry Collection Award at the 2012 Cairo International Book Fair.
Despite numerous collections and accolades, the poet was probably best known for his constroversial 2007 poem “The Balcony of Laila Mourad,” which was condemned by Al Azhar and seized in 2008, a year that also saw the seizure of Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel Metro and Nawal Saadawi’s play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.
Salem’s poem appeared in Ibdaa magazine, and led to the withdrawal of the magazine’s publication license in 2009. Salem also faced a hesba case to strip him of his state excellence award.
The Egyptian Court of Administrative Justice, which shut down the magazine, argued that the poem was “offensive to the divine being.” Upon shutting down the magazine in April 2009, the court said — according to BBC — “Freedom of press… should be used responsibly and not touch on the basic foundations of Egyptian society, and family, religion and morals.”
The court that rescinded Salem’s award held that “The sin that he [Salem] committed … against God and against society, challenging its traditions and religious beliefs should fail the sum total of his work, rendering him ineligible for any state honor or prize.” (Translation: Ursula Lindsay.)
The offensive section:
“ليس من حل أمامي.. سوى أن أستدعي الله والأنبياء.. ليشاركوني في حراسة الجثة.. فقد تخونني شهوتي أو يخذلني النقص.. الرب ليس شرطيا حتي يمسك الجناة من قفاهم.. إنما هو قروي يزغط البط ويحبس ضرع البقرة بأصابعه صائحا: وافر هذا اللبن.. الجناة أحرار لأنهم امتحاننا الذي يضعه الرب آخر كل فصل قبل أن يؤلف سورة البقرة.. الرب ليس عسكري مرور.. إن هو إلا طائر.. وعلى كل واحد منا تجهيز العنق.. لماذا تعتبين عليه رفرفرته فوق الرؤوس.. هل تريدين منه أن يمشي بعصاه في شارع زكريا أحمد.. ينظم السير ويعذب المرسيدس”.
Rasha Saad translated the most controversial bit as:
“God is not a policeman, grabbing perpetrators by their necks
“He is a simple villager, feeding the duck, checking the cow’s udder with his fingers, crying: There is plenty of milk.’
Ursula translated it as:
“The Lord isn’t a policeman/who catches criminals by the scruff of their necks/the Lord is a villager who feeds the ducks/who probes cows’ udders with his fingers, calling out:/Plenty of milk…”
And later, it goes something along the lines of:
God is not a traffic cop
He is a bird
And it falls to us to prepare the neck.
Why blame him for flying overhead?
Do you want him to walk with a stick down Zakareya Ahmed Road,
Regulating traffic and stopping the Mercedes?”
In an interview with al-Arabiya at the time of Ibdaa’s closure, according to Saad, “Salem defended his poem, saying his aim was not to insult God, but to criticize the “dependency and passivity of Muslims.”
“Whoever imagines another meaning has bad intentions,” he said.
At a gathering to celebrate the legacy of poet Amal Dunqul in July of 2011, Salem read from Dunqul’s “Abu Nawwas Papers.” This was relevant, Salem said, to the aspirations of January 25. But it was also relevant to Salem’s case:
Ask not if the Qur’an is created or eternal
Ask if the sultan is a thief or a demigod
I don’t believe that Salem’s work has ever been translated into English.
Only days ago Helmi Salem was reading a new poem, “Miracle of Breathing,” in a gathering at the leftist Tagammu Party, insisting on leaving hospital despite his severe condition of lung cancer and liver failure, saying, “Poetry heals better than one thousand chemotherapy sessions,” refusing to be a selfish thief, “dying in my comfortable bed in hospital while others died in the Egyptian squares.” Keep reading.