Samir Abdelbaki: 44 Years in Tahrir Square

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Radwan Adam

Published Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Samir Abdelbaki's own revolution was born out of the womb of the people, and inside the bosom of the unknown. It was to be a revolution of the workers and the peasants – the common people – and was foretold long ago:

“Egypt is being carried to hell in a hand basket
The Left is busy clearing up its children's mess
Arrogance has made the Right's thinking infirm
Those who flew on the wings of their imagination
Have had to come crashing to the ground
The question on the lips of many is driving them mad:
Wither my country, and what will become of me?”

Nothing, save his love for the people of Egypt, has managed to keep the sprightly 70-year-old fired-up about personally handing out copies of his magazine, The Many-headed Puppet (Shamrookh al Aragoz), to young men and women sitting in cafes in Central Cairo.

“Go and reclaim your birthright
Egypt is no sacred mother
Egypt is yours for the taking
Hold your head high, for you own Egypt
Your silence drove her away
Now the martyrs have given her back to you
No borders will hold you two back”

Although his body of work is varied, Abdelbaki remains committed to his first true love and the primary art form of the imagination: poetry. Drawing on the work of great poets, some of whom were his contemporaries – people like Abdullah Nadeem, Yacoub Sanou', Ramzi Nazeem, Bayram al Tunisi and Fouad Haddad – Abdelbaki became a force in his own right, particularly when it comes to political poetry. His body of work includes six published anthologies of poetry and 75 issues of his independent publication, which, over the years, has published hundreds of political quatrains and longer poems (complete Arabic qasidas).

In 1956, a 17-year-old Abdelbaki witnessed the tripartite aggression of Britain, France, and Israel against his homeland. His first poem was published in this period in a student newspaper, and even then he was using his pen to raise morale of the masses fighting off imperial aggression. During that time, Abdelbaki also took part in a number of plays to entertain those displaced from Port Said, the scene of much of the fighting.

During the famous 1977 bread riots in Egypt, Abdelbaki was jailed, along with other artists and writers. He was ready for it, however, having spent five years behind bars (1959–1964) during Nasser's reign for contributing to the Voice of the Peasants, an organ of the Communist Party.

During his first stint in prison, Abdelbaki was shuttled between the Mansoura Citadel (Qalaa) and Wahat detention centers:

 


I read an entire life's worth of books on theater, literature and philosophy, and history and Islamic thinking. There was a man detained with us named Hajj Wahbe, who had the entire contents of a complete library moved around with him to Mansoura Prison. We managed to produce our own newsletter.

 

While Mansoura gave him the chance to contribute to another magazine along the lines of his student journalism days, it was in Wahat that he had the opportunity to further develop his work:

 

“Over there, we put on plays like The Barber of Baghdad and A Doll's House and Brecht's Marriage of the Petit Bourgeois.”

 

Abdelbaki looks back with humor and fondness at the memory of those days, saying that he “was more poet than politician”. Before being locked up, he had refused to join any Communist-backed grouping: “I had friends in all of them; I didn't want to lose friends because of their internecine fighting”. He did, however, join the 8 January Coalition which brought a number of Egyptian Marxists together under one umbrella in 1958. He resigned from what became the Leftist Bloc, another broad-based alliance, in 1991, in protest at what he describes as the “opportunism of the authoritarian Left”. His pessimism does not seem to have faded away with the years, not even after the most recent revolution, which, in his words “has been seized by the soldiers and the opportunists." Abdelbaki poses a lot of difficult questions for the Egyptian Left:

 

“What kind of Left are we talking about? What remains of the old Left? Whatever happened to the fundamentals of the class struggle? Do you see any Leninist organizations here? What connection do the Marxists have to the masses? What role are they playing in people's awareness? They have completely abandoned dialectics.”

 

Abdelbaki graduated from the Agricultural College in 1966 as a Leftist idealist, and was a leader in the protests against the court sentences passed against military pilots in 1968. He fought against imperialism through his poetry and children's books. His stage works appeared in the Egyptian Samir, the Syrian Osama, and Beirut's Samer theaters. He also worked on his own stage productions through helping to form theater troupes such as The Central Troupe for the Theater of Weddings, and the Drama Group, which put on a famous production of For the Love of Egypt. It was on this production that drove the late Egyptian intellectual Louis Awad to write: “Preserve this work; we might need it should the struggle come to life again”. Later that same year, in 1974, he was invited by the Lebanese Communist Party to stage the play in Beirut, for the Golden Jubilee of the Party’s founding. “I got a chance to travel throughout the entire territory of Lebanon, and they even put the play's songs on an audio cassette." In 1981 He moved to Syria to write and work for Osama. From there he began to write a daily column on life under the 1982 Israeli bombardment of Beirut for the newspaper An Nidaa (The Call), seeing this as a wider Arab effort to combat Israeli aggression culturally. The fruits of this labor can be found in two of his poetry anthologies: Poetry Under Shelling and Verses of Lebanese Sadness. Of that time he says simply “Those were darks days in Lebanon."

With the same fervor of an unpublished young poet, Abdelbaki continues to work tirelessly to put the finishing touches on his upcoming novel, In the Days of Prison Cells, expected to appear on shelves in the coming weeks. “It's going to be about the prisoners I met in Mansoura: on the camaraderie behind bars and the gangsters I met there”. This will be the third of Abdelbaki's novels, following They Shall Not Fear and The Testimony of the Stones. At the same time, he is working on another poetry anthology, Forty-Four Years of Tahrir Square, which has poems in both the literary and vernacular forms of Arabic:

“On the pavement of Tahrir
Its pain and hardship both I saw
I ran around it countless times
Never looking out for myself
Never over-stepping on others.”

 


Dates

1939 — Born in the village of Meet Salseel, in the Egyptian Delta.
1959 — Thrown in jail by the Nasserist regime for Communist activity.
1973 — Forms the Drama Group theater troupe, which put on For the Love of Egypt.
1982 — Publishes his anthology, Verses of Lebanese Sadness.
2011 — Preparing for his third novel, In the Days of Prison Cells.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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