Folk Themes in the Works of Najīb Surūr
Najīb Muḥammad Surūr1 was born in 1932 in the village of >Axṭāb (in the Governorate of Daqahliyya in Lower Egypt) where his father was a tax collector. A poem of his2 is cast in the words of a man recalling how as a child he was filled with pride when his father was summoned to appear before the village headman, but was shattered when he saw the representative of authority take off his shoe and use it to beat the man standing defenceless before him. If this is meant to record an experience of the poet’s, the incident must have been magnified in his imagination for it is difficult to believe that the father would have been so mistreated if he was a state official. The poem, however, is indicative of Surūr’s lifelong resentment of authority, which was to cost him dearly.
After completing his primary and secondary education in provincial schools, he enrolled in Cairo University, but during a summer vacation back home he is said to have led a number of students in raiding and vandalising the home of a local Pasha, and to have been severely flogged by the Pasha’s henchmen in revenge.3
He also tells us in his verse that at the university he studied law–‘the law of the jungle/recited by a gang’–but that he abandoned the course in his last year ‘believe me, not because I feared the examination/but that I feared out there a den of serpents/ preying on doves.’4 He enrolled instead in the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts and obtained its diploma in 1956. In 1958, he was sent on a scholarship to Moscow to further his study of the theatre, and even when other Egyptian students left because of a change in Egypt’s political alignment, he stayed on, married a Russian lady and contributed to the Arabic programmes of Soviet television. He became an ardent admirer of the Stanislavski method, but again he left without a degree, implying that it was his professors who were untrue to the master’s teaching.5 And he had to spend a lonely year in Budapest before he was allowed to return to Cairo.
He had his greatest successes in the late 1960s when the Egyptian theatre was particularly active and socialist realism was in vogue;6 but–contending that the revolution had been betrayed–he was soon out of sorts both with colleagues in the profession and with political authorities. The 1970s saw him sink into alcoholism and mental as well as physical illness, and–except for a spell of teaching in the Institute for Theatrical Arts between 1975 and 1976–he was reduced to penury, and he is said to have dramatised his predicament by going out barefoot to beg in the street. He died on 23 October 1978.
At his best, Najīb Surūr was a fluent poet in both classical and colloquial Arabic,