On June 6 the great Egyptian musician and singer Sheikh Imam died at the age of 78, after a long illness. Sheikh Imam's final days were difficult. He lived alone, visited occasionally by either his neighbors or friends. Blind since childhood, few offered assistance to the Sheikh Imam, who nevertheless perhaps saw far more than those blessed with the power of sight. By all accounts, Sheikh Imam is a major pillar of the Arabic political song which motivated thousands of workers and intellectuals rebellious against decadent times and ambitious for better tomorrow.
Sheikh Imam was born to a poor family on June 2, 1918, in a rural Egyptian village, "Abu al-Numrus." He lost his sight at the age of 5 months, after having contacted conjunctivitis. At the age of 5, he joined Al Kuttab [Reciters] where he excelled all his mates. By the age of 12 he completed the memorization of the Koran, and then left for Cairo to learn Al-Tajweed [Recitation] at the hands of Sayed Al Ghouri, an authority on recitation at the time.
In 1945, Sheikh Imam met with a great Egyptian musician, Sheikh Darwish El Hariri by whom he was taught the fundamentals of music and Al Muwashahaat [Terza Rimas], a factor that enabled him to practice singing, playing music as a hobby while making the recitation of the Koran his career. Meanwhile, he used to visit Sufi male councils to listen and at times participate in singing. It was then when he fell in love with the Oud [the lute], mastering its keys and purchasing a lute of his own. Within a three-year period, Sheikh Imam was ready to perform at weddings and birthday events. Sheikh Imam underwent important changes in his life, especially when he was convinced of abandoning his traditional religious uniforms and talked into wearing European dress and Tarboush [Fez]. These changes were not confined to appearance but reached the type of music he played. Following the recitation of the Koran and performances in private events, Sheikh Imam started to diversify his music by singing Muhammad Uthman, Abduh Hamouli and the legendary Sayid Darwish, and later joined a religious chanters group, led by the well known religious broadcaster Abed Al Sami Bayoumi.
His concerns with the plight of ordinary people can be traced to the place in which he lived, "Hawsh Kadam," an overpopulated area in the El Ghouria neighborhood near Cairo. As a young man, Sheikh Imam became acquainted with an important artist, Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, whom he befriended for more than 30 years. He also knew the late musician-- also blind--Sayid Mikawi, whom Sheikh Imam gave lessons in Oud playing.
His attempts at song writing was not quite successful, but when Sheikh Imam met the poet Ahmad Fouad Najem in 1962, the two formed a duo where it became difficult to refer to one without the other. Working patiently and under difficult conditions, Sheikh Imam and Ahmad Fouad Najem developed the popular political song which advocates the interests of the poor and working peoples, or in other words, gave birth to an avant-guard "hymn to justice." The 1967 War and the impact of Arab defeat brought the duo "Imam-Najem" even closer, whereby they moved from reacting to social and political events into being active participants. Their songs, as one observer writes, were a "light of hope in the darkness that was shed by the 1967 defeat and its aftermath." That is why their revolutionary songs Misr Ya Bahia [Pretty Egypt] , Shayid Kussurak [Build Your Palaces], Ghifara [Che Ghivara], El Fallahin [the Peasants] and Mur El Kalam [Bitter Talk] were the leitmotivs of Arab students and workers during their strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations. Many remember Imam's song Rajiu al Talmiza [The Students Returned], which he composed during the student uprising in 1972.
Their activism led the Imam-Najem pair straight to prison in 1968, where they served three years. They were also frequent quests at Egypt's state prisons during between 1972 and 1979. In the wake of President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, the authorities arrested Sheikh Imam on the grounds that he distributed 50 beer cans to the residents of "Hawsh Kadam," his home town. In 1984, the Egyptian government lifted the restrictions on his freedom and the ban on his travel abroad.
There are reports that when the duo were in prison, Sheikh Imam used to get closer to Najem's cell to recite the latter's new lyrics and then return to his cell to compose the music.
Despite their longstanding personal and professional relationship, Sheikh Imam and Ahmad Fouad Najem parted in the mid 1980's, with the rift proving irreparable by 1993. This came about when Najem attacked Sheikh Imam personally in his memoirs published in the Egyptian magazine Rose Al Yusif.
Reflecting on his artistic and cultural legacy, Lebanese critic and poet Paul Shaoul writes, "Sheikh Imam's critical power--sometimes bordering on defamation--and his bitter cynicism, were neither part of the status quo nor a submission to it, or a means to anesthetize the consciousness of people, distract their attention, and afflict them with the plagues of surrender and depression; instead, they were confrontation with governments using the logic of explaining away the policies of repression, deception."
The music of Sheikh Imam was marked by a form of totality that made his political song travel beyond the geographical location of its origin. It addressed issues other than those of Egypt and the conflicts peculiar of that setting; Sheikh Imam's music appealed to non-Arab and Arab symbols like the Palestinian question.
Sheikh Imam gave a lot but received almost nothing in return, although his records were sold by the thousands all over the Arab world. Even his friends failed to give him the recognition that he rightly deserves. "Perhaps death is more merciful than the life he spent behind bars or lonely and bed-ridden in his last days," commented a Lebanese writer. "But Sheikh Imam's music will survive, played again in Arab times more shining and promising, and that will be the best celebration of his music and art."
The Legacy of Sheikh Imam Appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1995)
Reprinted with permission
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