Yesterday, towering Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm — who died at the beginning of this month at the age of 84 — was honored as the principal winner at the Prince Claus Award ceremony in Amsterdam:
Negm was to have received the award from Prince Constantijn, but instead Egyptian writer Mona Anis received it on his behalf. Video from the ceremony was streamed live online.
At the ceremony, it was announced that, for the few months before his death, Anis and Negm had been working on the “first serious translation” of Negm’s poetry into English, I Say My Words Out Loud, which is available online, published by the Prince Claus Fund.
Before reading a statement from Negm’s daughter Nawara Negm, an obviously moved Anis said that, “It is indeed a very sad moment for me, to be standing where Ahmed Fouad Negm should be standing.”
In the statement from Nawara Negm, Nawara said that her father’s death had not yet sunk in, and that, “Even now, I feel that my father is playing a practical joke on us.”
“Being the restless person he was, my father hated sitting down,” Negm’s statement said. She said that he arrived in this world on his feet, and “He also departed from it standing firmly on his own two feet.”
Anis read from Negm’s 1978 poem “The Prison Ward” in Arabic, the poem organizers said Negm had wanted to read during the ceremony. Here, the first stanza from Anis’s English translation:
Prison ward, listen in:
I’ve shaken the dice many times,
And gambled with everything on the big prize and lost,
And bitter though prison is,
I’ve never once wanted to repent.
having bid the night guards good evening,
every single one of them,
And the shingi*,
I say we’re wicked inmates all,
though the storeroom clerk
has given us different uniforms.
My first words are for the Prophet;
my second, for Job;
the third are for my estrangement;
the fourth, for my destiny;
My fifth, I will say that he who oppresses others
Will himself be defeated one day
After Anis’s presentation, there was a short video about Negm’s life, directed by Ahmed Manawishi. In it, Salah Hassan called Negm a “giant” and said that “no ordinary language can convey his impact.”
Anis’s short collection of Negm’s work includes both Negm’s poetry and essays about him by Hala Halim and Marilyn Booth. There is another collection of Negm’s work in progress, by Arabic literature professor Kamal AbdelMalek, a book on Negm’s life and work in which, according to AbdelMalek, “there will be an appendix of a fair selection of his poems and prose writing in translation.”
Translating Negm is a difficult thing: Not only are his poems thick with Egyptian context, they also rely heavily on rhythm, sound, and rhyme. It would be ideal, for instance, if the PDF of the translation included an audio element. But in her translation, Anis does an admirable job in this difficult territory, often recreating rhythm, making English-language versions that also want to be read aloud. From “Mother Egypt”:
Let our words be preceded by our greetings to all who are listening,
Little sparrow chirping rhymed words full of meaning
About a dark land, a moon,
A river, a boat and a shore,
And fellow travellers on a hard journey
In the tribute AbdelMalek wrote after Negm’s death, he wrote that “Ahmad Fuad Nigm lived by his own principles. He was a fearless poet who spoke truth to power. And the truth he spoke was delivered with an impressive combination of force and beauty.”
Read the new collection:
I Say My Words Out Loud, poetry by Ahmed Fouad Negm, trans. Mona Anis
*Turkish military ranks given to the guards, meaning first, second and third.