I am reminded of the artistic outpouring of one angry Egyptian against a different regime, and wonder to what extent his sentiments still resonate.
Neguib Surur, famous poet, playwright, actor, and critic, was a notorious cynic unafraid to condemn the social forces he blamed for the cultural, economic, and political deterioration of his day.
Surur’s infamous poem, “Ommiyyat” (the polite title), employed extremely vulgar colloquial expressions to convey his utmost distaste for the media, politicians, intellectuals, the official cultural establishment, imperialists, and religious hypocrites.
In the poem, written between 1967 and 1971, Surur taps into a wellspring of anger and frustration and displays his creative talents by composing some of the most lyrical vitriol I have ever read.
The poem was officially banned, and Surur’s son was sentenced to jail when he posted “Ommiyyat” on his website in 2001.
However, recordings of Surur reciting the explicit poem can now be found online, along with the Arabic text.
Surur is part of a rich history of poetic revolt in Egypt, prominent both during the eighteen days in 2011 and the ongoing struggles for civil freedoms.
Today, Egypt is under the unofficial aegis of a different general, Defense Minister Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi (who Sarah Carr describes as “a cross between a pinup star and Batman, fighter of the dark forces.”)
An intense patriotism and somewhat amnesiac outpouring of love for the armed forces propelled the nationalist song “Teslam Al-Ayadi” to astronomic popularity. Since June 30, comparisons have been drawn between the young General Sisi and former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But Sisi is not Nasser, and Egypt today is not Nasser’s Egypt. There does, however, exist a similar climate of dashed hopes about a revolution still threatened by an entrenched security establishment, and frustrations with a society that supports its downfall.
In the words of one admirer, Surur “could not be bought, co-opted, corrupted, or bribed. If this is madness then Egypt is the sanest country in the world
The following is an excerpt from one of the very few works by Surur translated into English, “Drink Delirium” (Translation by Mona Anis and Nur Elmesseiri):
Before the deluge,
There will be anger.
And we will be among the drowned.
But we will take the devil with us down
To the deepest depth:
Our end will be his…
But slowly… What will be said
Of us when they look back on it all?
What will be said
Of us after the deluge,
After the coming drowning, after the coming anger,
What will be said of us poets and writers?
Were we men in truth,
Or mere shadows?
Fear of the sword,
Made of us something unspeakable —
Except in the vulgar tongue.
What will be said?
Will it be said we chose silence for fear of death?
The letter, with an edge like a sword
Can turn against its speaker.