OBITUARY : Sheikh Imam

Friday 09 June 1995 23:02

When the Egyptian folk singer Sheikh Imam Eissa walked on stage to give a concert at Friends' House, in Euston Road, London, in 1984, the 2,000 Middle Eastern exiles of many nationalities who made up the audience greeted him with the first verse of the newly restored Egyptian national anthem: "Bliady Bliady, luccy hobbie wafouadi" ("My heart belongs to my nation").

The several hundred, mainly left-wing, self-exiled Egyptians in the audience wept as the 67-year-old blind sheikh played his lute, singing "Good morning to the roses opening in the gardens of Egypt." They recalled their time as political prisoners 15 years before, witnessing the birth of a song written by the populist poet Ahmad Fuad Negm. "I was crying,'' Sheikh Imam told me later that night in the home of an Egyptian Communist whose grandfather was the head of Al-Azhar (the Muslim Church). "So many things have changed, and not for the better.''

Born to a peasant family in a small village 50 miles south of Cairo, Imam Eissa, who went blind at the age of three, was sent to study the Koran at the Ecclesiastic Association - a Muslim charity which taught the needy handicapped to make a living by reciting the Koran - thus acquiring the clerical title of "Sheikh".

When Imam Eissa was thrown out of the association for an "inappropriate liberal technique of reciting the Koran'', at the age of 15, he earned a modest living as a scripture reader at popular occasions like funerals, briss (circumcision) and weddings, in Gouriah. And just like a character in a novel by the Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz, the blind sheikh never moved out of the medieval quarter of Gouriah.

It was also in Gouriah in 1962 that he started two decades of professional partnership with Ahmad Fuad Negm. The pair's fiery lyrics went beyond Egypt's borders to help Arabs relieve the shame of the military defeat by Israel in 1967; yet none of Imam's songs was anti-Jewish at a time when the official Arab media were noticeably so. The pair toured Egypt's towns and villages and later Arab and European countries holding concerts - always free or for small donations - to promote justice and freedom for the poor, the oppressed classes and women.

The popularity of their progressive lyrics, in a country whose priestly class has been subordinate to the state for over 5,000 years, prompted the Muslim clerical establishment in 1969 to condemn the Sheikh whom they had trained to recite the holy book.

Jailed many times by the regimes of both Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat, the impoverished, ailing Sheikh Imam remained defiant, rejecting offers from official media and later from the rich Gulf Arab oil-sheikhs. He used his soud, an Arab lute, to develop the traditional music of the nation's greatest composer, Sheikh Sayyed Darweech, the composer of "Bliady".

The Imam-Negm songs of defiance attacked corruption, ridiculed Arab tyrants, and world leaders like Richard Nixon, and called for democracy, freedom and equality; yet they were romantic, gentle and mainly love songs where the beautiful woman, or the kind mother like "bahyia", or "Azza", symbolised Egypt.

Cairo radio's banning of his songs in 1968 for being too critical of Nasser's authoritarian rule brought out the genius in the singer-composer. He excelled as a folk singer in live popular concerts - sometimes four a day in the early 1970s - at the height of the workers' and students' movement calling for the restoration of democracy.

Recordings of his voice were distributed all over the Middle East and beyond, prompting the confiscation of his passport. But, following a successful Communist Party law-suit in the high court in 1982, Sheikh Imam was allowed to tour many Arab countries and Europe.

For all his world-wide fame - his music has been published in France and North America and he has been the subject of five books, in Arabic and French - Sheikh Imam's work forms an unofficial folk culture: the music played by urban taxi drivers, and the romantic stuff of nostalgic middle-aged intellectuals who still fight the onslaught of fundamentalism which Imam recently described as being darker than the dictatorship that threw him into jail.

But Sheikh Imam needed no "official" recognition: the crowds at his funeral called him the People's Singer, and sang his best-known song, "Egypt, Our Glowing Mother", which in the 1960s and 1970s was raised to the status of an "unofficial" national anthem.

Adel Darwish

Imam Eissa, singer: born Abuelnamouss, Egypt 2 July 1918; died Cairo 6 June 1995.

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