Zein al-Abidine Fouad: Resisting Regimes through Poetry
By: Kamel Jaber
Published Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Following decades of struggle, censorship, exile and war, the poet who made a personal enemy of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is still as dedicated as ever to eliminating all forms of oppression in his native Egypt.
Zein al-Abidine Fouad, otherwise known as the Poet of the Peasants, recently took to Facebook to commemorate a slain friend, the Nubian poet Zaki Murad, while paying homage to their shared values.
“September 5 is the day of the martyrs of Egyptian theater,” Fouad wrote. “The day of the martyrs of freedom of expression and creativity... We stand in defense of a constitution for all Egyptians, a constitution that protects the right to thought, belief, creativity, expression and all the rights of Egyptians.”
Fouad’s life has been characterized by struggle from the beginning. He was born on on 23 April 1942 – one day after his mother’s death.
“Her death was registered on April 22, and my birth was registered the next day,” he tells Al-Akhbar.
Fouad spent his early years in the Shubra area of Cairo but moved between Imbaba and Giza after his father’s death when he was just ten years old. He returned to Shubra to study at al-Ibrahimia High School in Garden City. He later studied engineering and philosophy at the University of Cairo, and upon graduating in 1973 he joined the army to serve out his compulsory military service.
From his early childhood, Fouad had a passion for reading and folk music. When he was ten years old, he was dazzled by the works of the prince of poets, Ahmed Shawqi. Fouad published his first poem in al-Risala magazine in Egypt in
“I started with a difficult rhyme. I wrote: ‘Do you ask what is wrong with me, do you ask about me, do you ask what I want? And you are the most beautiful wish?’ This poem was published in the same issue that published a poem by Salah Abdul Sabour who was a new poet at the time,” he says.
Eventually he started publishing his classical Arabic poems in al-Adib and al-Adab literary magazines in Lebanon, but his identity remained a mystery to the editors.
“When I was 20 years old,” Fouad recalls: “I met the critic Muhammad Fawzi who had published one of my earliest poems...when he realized that I was [the author], he said ‘had I known your age at the time, I would have sent you a bar of chocolate’.”
In the meantime, Fouad, who would become known for his populist themes, had turned to writing poetry in the colloquial Egyptian dialect following in the footsteps of such luminaries are Fouad Haddad and Salah Jahin.
“There were also political reasons that made me opt for the colloquial dialect,” he says.
Zein al-Abidine Fouad was supposed to publish his first collection of poetry, Egypt’s Face, in 1964. The book came before the censors at the same time that Sayyed Hijab published The Hunter and the Fairy and Mohammed al-Abnudi The Land and the Water. Fouad’s book was rejected by the censors. Over the next few years, he continued trying to publish the complete collection while poems from the collection appeared in newspapers and magazines, were broadcast on radio shows and recited at seminars. He was finally allowed to publish the book in 1972.
“We sold vouchers for the book before its publication,” Fouad says. “The price of a voucher was 15 piasters and the first edition completely sold out.” Meanwhile, the poet spent time behind bars because of his participation in the leadership of the student movement in 1968 and then again in 1972.
After the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Fouad, who fought as a soldier, published the poem The War is Still at the Beginning in al-Gomhuria newspaper, and it was later put to music by Sheikh Imam and Adli Fakhry. This led his commanding officer to organize a night of poetry reading for him along with Salah Abdul Sabour and Ahmed Abdul Moti Hijazi at the headquarters of the Socialist Union. Fouad was brought from the frontline to Cairo in a special car to perform for an assembly of powerful figures, including Jehan Sadat, wife of then president Anwar Sadat.
Things did not go as planned. When Fouad read out the lines “explode oh Egypt, explode with war to hell with the day, explode with war against hunger and oppression,” the first lady erupted in anger, screaming “there is no hunger in Egypt!” and stormed out of the hall.
And so, President Sadat personally banned Fouad’s poems from being published, and the Poet of the Peasants did not publish another book of poetry until 1978 when The Dream in Prison, written in Egyptian dialect, was published by Dar Ibn Khaldoun publishing house in Beirut.
The book was a collection of poems smuggled out from prison where Zein al-Abidine was incarcerated on charges of “writing poems that incite against the regime.” Every month, he was dragged to a court, which would ordered his release only to be countered by objections from the president.
When Sadat went to sign the Camp David Accords in 1979, arbitrary arrests of many regime opponents were carried out. It was a difficult time for Fouad, compounded by the loss of his wife. He wrote:
“On March 20, Sadat went to sign the Camp David Accords. My wife, Palestinian writer Bassima Mortada Halawa, travelled to the US for heart surgery. I had been banned from travelling. That morning, I was taken from my house with my late friend Mahmoud Hanafi, who had come over to bid my wife farewell. We were taken to the Kalaa Prison, infamous for the torture that took place there. I went on a hunger strike demanding my transfer to somewhere else. On March 30, we were transferred to Tora Prison. Before I ended my hunger strike, my late friend, attorney Abdullah al-Zoghbi, came to visit me. He wanted me to sign papers for the transfer of my wife’s body. She had passed away before the operation.”
In August 1981, a decree passed allowing the poet – author of Who Can Imprison Egypt for an Hour? – to travel. He left immediately to Jordan where a night of poetry reading was organized for him. Then he went to Damascus and finally to Lebanon where he arrived on the September 1.
He received in Lebanon a warm welcome and several poetry readings were organized in his honor. After five days, the phone rang at 5:00 am, Fouad says.
“It was Yasser Arafat on the line,” he remembers. “He asked to see me at once so I went. There I met Mahmoud Darwish, Mouin Bseiso and a large group of Palestinian writers living in Beirut.
Arafat asked me to stay in Beirut and when I asked him why, he handed me a copy of al-Ahram newspaper which had news about the arrest of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Fouad Sirajuddin, Pope Shenoda and about 1,500 other people. On the first page of the newspaper, I read my name with seven other Egyptian regime opponents who happened to be outside Egypt but who were supposed to be arrested too. So I decided to stay in Beirut.”
On 4 June 1982, Fouad, along with Saadi Youssef and Mamdouh Adwan organized a farewell event in Beirut before leaving for Egypt. That day, Israel conducted an aerial attack on the Lebanese capital and the next day, the invasion began. It was that day that the poet made his famous statement “What crazy person finds war then leaves it and runs away?” He stayed in Beirut and started publishing his poems in newspapers such as Safir, al-Nidaa and al-Hayat.
He went down to the street, to where the fighters were.
“Every day we would compose a new song for the resistance and broadcast it in over 50 places. It was a unique and rich experience, and the BBC did a report on it. Through that BBC report, my family found out that I was in Beirut. Afterwards, my friends in Paris published my best poetry collection Songs from Beirut in 1982.”
In 1960, the poet was introduced to Sheikh Imam Issa – who composed the music for and sang his poems. Fouad tells us: “He composed music for about 20 poems of mine that he chose. The only poem I wrote especially for Sheikh Imam to sing was Who Could Imprison Egypt for an Hour? Also known as The Lovers Gathered.”
Today, the poet is dedicated to following through on the revolution started in Tahrir Square.
“I am crazy because I never lost my faith in Egypt,” he says of himself. “I am always present in the street and in Tahrir Square at all the critical moments and all the protests. I cried the day I heard people singing The Lovers Gathered which became an anthem of the revolution.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.