According to the Los Angeles-based Al Jadid magazine (1), Imam Mohammad Ahmad Eissa was born to a poor family in the Egyptian village of Abu al-Numrus in 1918. He lost his sight in infancy. As a child of five he joined a recititation class, where he excelled; by 12 he had memorised the whole of the Qur’an. Later he went Cairo to learn Qur’anic recitation under the great authority of the time, Sayyid Al Ghouri.
In 1945 he met a great Egyptian musician, Sheikh Darwish al-Hariri, who taught him the fundamentals of music and the Andalusi-derived art of muwashshah song performance. That enabled him to sing and play music, while he continued to recite the Qur’an as a career. He listened to Sufi singing and fell in love with the ud. Within three years he began performing at weddings and birthdays, abandoning his traditional religious dress in favour of European dress and a tarboush. The changes affected the music he played; he began singing the songs of Muhammad Uthman, Abduh Hamouli and the legendary Sayyid Darwish, and later joined a religious chanting group led by the well-known religious broadcaster Abed al-Sami Bayoumi.
In 1962 Sheikh Imam met the poet Ahmed Fuad Negm, a turning point; they became an inseparable duo who developed a new popular, political form of song, hymns of justice for poor and working people. Imam’s location increased his concern for ordinary people: he lived in Hawsh Kadam, an overpopulated area in the Al Ghouria neighbourhood near Cairo.
The 1967 war and the impact of the Arab defeat brought the duo even closer, and prompted them to become active participants in radical politics and Arab nationalism. Their songs, an observer wrote, were a “light of hope in the darkness that was shed by the 1967 defeat and its aftermath”. Arab students and workers sang their revolutionary songs during strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations: “Misr Ya Bahia” (Pretty Egypt), “Shayid Kussurak” (Build your palaces), “Ghifara maat” (Che Guevara is dead), “al-Fellahin” (the peasants) and “Mur El Kalam” (Bitter talk). Imam composed the memorable “Rajiu al-Talmiza” (The students returned) during the 1972 student uprising. This led Imam and Negm straight to prison; in 1968 they were sentenced to three years, and there were further frequent detentions between 1972 and 1979. After President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the authorities arrested Imam on the grounds that he had distributed 50 cans of beer to the residents of Hawsh Kadam. It is said that while they were in prison, Imam would get close to Negm’s cell to hear him recite new lyrics and then return to his own cell to compose the music. They broke up in the mid-1980s. After 1993, when Negm attacked Sheikh Imam in his memoirs in the magazine Rose Al Yusuf, the rift became irreparable.
Though Imam’s records sold in thousands all over the Arab world, he made little money. His final days were difficult: he lived alone, visited occasionally by neighbours or friends. Few offered him help. After a long illness he died in 1995, aged 78. By Ed Emery.