Why you should care
Because good revolutionary art never dies.
Richard Nixon is standing behind a long cloth-covered table, raising a glass to the wife of President Anwar Sadat at the luxurious Qubba Palace in Cairo. The 37th U.S. commander in chief will be forced out of the presidency in two months, but for now, June 12, 1974, he’s on a peace-building mission. And while the Sadats fawn over him, alongside plenty of diplomats, most Egyptians are whistling a very different tune.
It went like this …
You’ve honored us Papa Nixon, oh Mr. Watergate
The sultans of “fava bean” and oil have hailed your value
They prepared for you, the widest road
From “Ras el Teen” to Mecca
So you reach Acre,
And then they would say you’ve done a holy pilgrimage
These are the opening (translated) words of a sarcastic Arabic poem penned by Egypt’s Ahmed Fouad Negm and put to music by legendary folk musician Imam Muhammad Issa, aka Blind Sheikh Imam. Born to a poor Egyptian family and blinded at a young age, Imam memorized the entire Quran by the time he was 12 and made a living reciting at public gatherings. He got a job as a singer for the Egyptian State Radio in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1962, when he met Negm, that his musical career really took off.
While the singer and poet would be imprisoned several more times, nothing could contain their influence. Not time; not even death.
In this tune about Nixon, Ali Shawki, film director at the Higher Institute of Cinema, says Negm and Imam reflected the country’s universal disgust at being defeated in the 1967 Arab–Israeli War and at what they saw as growing corruption and social injustice. They were taking aim at the American president and the Gulf Arabs, who were beginning to grow fat on their newly discovered oil wealth while the Egyptians descended further into poverty.
They invited you, as a holy god they asked you to come and eat some sweets and pastries,
And because you’re naïve, you thought that we are an easy prey.
You were sinking with your scandal, they gave you support
Come so I spit in your face, then curse your host.
Nixon probably knew nothing about the tune, which openly criticized the Watergate drama unfolding back in the United States, where he was under fire for trying to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Convention headquarters. Despite public scorn, Sadat warmly greeted his guest, plying him with “sweets and pastries” while leaving a sour taste in the mouths of many ordinary Egyptians fed up by their president’s coziness with Washington.
At the palace banquet, according to the Richard Nixon Foundation, the American president said the trip would lead to “a new era in our relations,” in which Americans and Egyptians would dedicate “their energies to solving the problems of peace and thereby developing the progress that both peoples want.” Little did Nixon know, this little ditty was becoming a rallying cry for Egyptians. In his book Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Andrew Hammond says the tune and backlash to Nixon’s visit would culminate three years later in “massive student protests” in Cairo.
Imam and Negm had been on the Egyptian government’s naughty list since 1967, when their musical partnership turned political. Once, in an interview with Shawki, Negm recalled walking with Imam in Cairo right after the Israeli war. They came upon the gate where the last Mamluk Sultan, Tuman Bay II, was hanged, and Negm told Shawki, “That day was very painful. We were lost, not just Imam and I, we were all lost as Egyptians.”
From that moment on, they confronted the state with scathing, trenchant lyrics, and their music was banned from state-run airwaves. But they recorded at hash parties and distributed their music underground throughout Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries on cassettes, says Shawki. “That started the political turmoil with the government,” he adds. With unveiled contempt, the pair openly criticized President Gamal Abdel Nasser, landing themselves in jail in 1969. Nasser famously said the two would stay in prison for as long as he lived, but he died just three months later. Incoming president Anwar Sadat subsequently released them and other detainees in 1971. And while the singer and poet would be imprisoned several more times under Sadat, nothing could contain their influence. Not time; not even death.
Sheikh Imam died in 1995, so he didn’t get to see how the Nixon song became a rallying cry on Tahrir Square in Cairo during the 2011 revolution that unseated Hosni Mubarak. But Negm, age 82 at the time, did. “The famous song of the duo Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam, ‘Sharaft ya Nixon Baba’ (Welcome Father Nixon), was heard in the square as protesters gathered at night and whiled away the long, cold hours by singing popular national songs,” according to the book American Studies Encounters the Middle East. Negm died two years later, in late 2013, having seen the power of art.
Their legacy is engraved on the collective Egyptian psyche, says Shawki. “Just the mention of either of their two names would inspire a revolutionary attitude.”