Poet, playwright, actor, critic … during his short lifetime Naguib Surur courted adulation and notoriety in equal measure. His work was meant to shock - and it did, though many thought all the more highly of him because of it.
Born in June 1932, he graduated from the Egyptian Institute of Acting in 1956 then travelled to Russia to take a doctorate in drama. Returning in to Egypt 1964, he made his debut as a director at the Pocket Theatre with Chekov's Cherry Orchard. He taught at the Academy of Theatrical Arts until the mid-1970s when bouts of depression began to take their toll. He died on 24 October 1978, at the age of 46.
Accounts of his life reveal a wild, troubled soul who embarrassed friends as well as enemies and was regarded by some as simply mad. But, as Mahmoud el-Lozy noted in al-Ahram Weekly, he would never compromise his art in order to please the authorities: "He could not be bought, co-opted, corrupted, or bribed. If this is madness then Egypt is the sanest country in the world."
His most famous poem is Kuss Ummiyyat (see below) - an outpouring of rage written in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though never formally published in Egypt, it was widely circulated and still has the power to make waves, even today.
Rebel with a cause
An appraisal of Surur's life and work by Mahmoud el-Lozy (al-Ahram Weekly, 22 October, 1998).
Works by Naguib Surur
Below is a list of Naguib Surur's main works, with links to the Arabic text where available. Very little has been translated. Two translations on the internet are:
al-Trajediyya al-Insaniyya (The Human Tragedy) - Arabic text
Luzum ma Yalzam (The Necessity of What is Necessary), 1964 - Arabic text
Kuss Ummiyyat, 1969-74 - Arabic text
Brotokolat Hukama' Riche (Protocols of the Elders of the Café Riche), 1974 - Arabic text
Ruba'iyat (Quatrains), 1974
al-Toufan al-Thani (The Second Deluge), 1977
Faris Akhir Zaman (A Knight of our Age), 1977
Shagarat al-Zaytoun (Olive Tree), 1958
Yassin wa Bahia (Yassin and Bahia), 1965
Ah Ya Layl Ya Amar (Oh Night, Oh Moon), 1966
Ya Bahia wa Khabirini (Tell me, Bahia), 1967
Allo Ya Masr (Hello Egypt), 1968
al-Kalimat al-Mutaqat'a (The Crossword Puzzle), 1969
al-Biraq al-Abyad (The White Banner), 1969
al-Hukm qabl al-Mudawla (Sentence Before Deliberations), 1970
al-Zubab al-Azraq (Blue Flies), 1971
Malik al-Shahatin (King of Beggars), adaptation of Brecht's Three Penny Opera, 1971
Ulu li Ain al-Shams (Tell the Eye of the Sun), 1973
Menein Agib Nas (Where Do I Go to Find People), 1974
al-Nigma Umm Dayl (The Comet), 1974
Afkar Gunouniya fi Daftar Hamlet (Mad Thoughts in Hamlet's Notepad), 1977
Rihla fi Thulathiyat Naguib Mahfouz (A Journey into Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy), 1960
Hiwar fil-Masrah (A Dialogue about Theatre), 1969
Humoum fil-Adab wal-Fann (On Literature and Art), 1971
Taht Aba'it Abil-Alaa' (Under the Mantle of Abu Alaa),
Hakadha Qala Goha (Thus Spake Goha), 1978
Kuss Ummiyyat (referred to in polite circles by its shortened title, "al-Ummiyyat") is a dark satire of more than 6,000 words, written in colloquial Arabic.
Mahmoud el-Lozy describes it as a direct and forceful stream of abuse, invective and lyricism that seems to come straight from the subconscious:
"Surur challenges, ridicules and denounces all aspects of official culture and its representatives, and reminds us of everything that official culture forgets, ignores, or falsifies. The list of institutions, individuals and subjects he targets is almost endless …
"In the midst of torrents of abuse and subversive and obscene inversions of popular and folk sayings and songs there are also some of the most lyrical passages ever to be found in modern Egyptian poetry."
Tapes of Surur reciting the poem were circulated but it has never been formally published in Egypt. In 2000, the poet’s son, Shohdy - who was then 38 - posted Kuss Ummiyyat on his website, wadada.net (since deleted).
About a year later, the Egyptian authorities noticed it and Shohdy, who was employed in Cairo as webmaster of al-Ahram weekly, was arrested in November 2001 on obscenity charges. Although the poem was on a website hosted in the United States, not Egypt, Shohdy was sentenced to a year in jail but fled to Russia while his case - which had been treated as a matter of national security under Egypt’s emergency law - was awaiting an appeal.
An archived copy of the poem is still available in Arabic.
A selection of articles about Shohdy’s arrest can be found below:
Son awaits trial for tribute to father
Index on Censorship, 30 January 2001
Sins of the father
Cairo Times, 29 November, 2001
Amira Howeidy, al-Ahram Weekly, 29 November, 2001
Control without bounds?
Khaled Dawoud, al-Ahram Weekly, 4 July, 2002
Father's Poem, Son's Conviction
Sergey Kuznetsov, Wired News, 5 August, 2002
Phantoms of liberty
Hani Shukrallah, al-Ahram Weekly, 29 August, 2002
Appeal hearing next week for journalist sentenced to prison for putting poem on website
Reporters Without Borders, 11 October, 2002
Amira Howeidy, al-Ahram Weekly, 17 October, 2002
Hossam el-Hamalawy, Cairo Times, 17 October, 2002
Son of Naguib Surur forced into exile after posting poetry on web
Poetry International Web, 21 October, 2002
Dad's 'immoral' poem exiles son
Sergey Kuznetsov, Wired News 21 October, 2002