On December 3, 2013, Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm died. Five years later, on December 3, 2018, Elliott Colla posted a tribute-translation of his “Bayān Hāmm”:
As author-translator-scholar Colla explains:
When Negm performed it, he liked to mimic the public speaking style of Anwar Sadat and there was no mistaking who the butt of the joke was. It is replete with references to the trips Sadat made to Iran in 1976 to visit his friend, the Shah, and filled with the kinds of linguistic gaffes — overcorrections, grammatical infelicities and surprise leaps from register to register — for which Sadat was famous. I’ve tried to capture the brilliance of Negm’s language which captures all the “mistakes” of an incompetent (or stoned) public official.
Negm was arrested in the fall of 1977 for a performance of this poem he gave at Ain Shams University. He was initially charged in a civilian court with defamation and incitement. The defamation charges were quickly dropped since, to prove them, the aggrieved party — Sadat — would have had to come forward to show that he was the basis for the ridiculous figure of Shahhata al-Mi‘assal. Sadat declined to do this, depriving history of great theatre.
The eminent Egyptian historian, Salah ‘Isa (who passed away last year at about this same time), wrote the story of how Negm and five others were eventually convicted in a military court on charges of fomenting rebellion and insulting the President of the Republic. Before sentencing, however, Negm went into hiding. Negm remained a fugitive for more than three years before he was finally caught.
What Colla has translated is, as he says, “the poem that caused all that trouble.” Negm has been little-translated into English, perhaps because it is so tied to the Egyptian context. Most of those who have attempted to bring his work across languages are bloggers like Walaa Quisay, who translated Negm’s “What’s Wrong With Our President?” and “Who Are They And Who Are We?” Andeel also translated a few excerpts on Mada Masr’s obituary in 2013.
This poem opens, in Colla’s translation:
Your sweet ole radio station.
Coming to you from Cairo and Kurdifan
From every Arab country and Japan
From Venezuela and even Iran
And any country open to the rule
Of tourism à l’américaine.
Keep reading on Colla’s blog.
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