Captain Ghazali: We will sharpen bones and from them build our cannons
Captain Ghazali. Photo by Nariman Khafagy

Mohamed Ahmed Ghazali, known in Suez as “Captain Ghazali,” passed away this April at the age of 88. Many believe he had a role in leading the armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of Sinai from 1967, but like Sheikh Hafez Salama, head of the Islamic Guidance Association, Ghazali never carried a weapon or led combat. Both men contributed by filling popular consciousness with the idea of resistance, through music and religious preaching respectively.

Ghazali was born in 1928 to an Upper Egyptian family from Abnud in the Qena governorate. His father was a carpenter employed by the Suez Canal Company. More interested in gymnastics, wrestling, drawing and Arabic calligraphy when young, Ghazali didn’t show a passion for music or singing until 1967, when he learned to play the simsimiyya (a traditional plucked lyre popular in Egypt’s canal cities) and decided to start resisting the occupation of Sinai through music.

Historically, Suez was segregated along clear class divisions. The foreigners — Greek, Italian, French, British and Indian — who worked mainly in the shipping companies, the Suez Canal Company and trade, lived in the city’s affluent Suez District, which included Port Tawfiq. Locals called it “the other side,” pointing at the social and economic privileges of the urban bourgeoisie in contrast with neighborhoods such as Salmaneya near the old port, where Ghazali was raised. Since the 1920s, Suez was famous for sports clubs built by foreign communities, and the youth of Suez had the chance to practice all kind of sports.

Suez was predominately a city of workers, so Ghazali joined the industrial school to study drawing and calligraphy. Due to the heavy presence of the British forces and camps in the city after the Second World War, the people of Suez were then at the center of the national struggle against the British occupation. They also witnessed many major regional and national events directly, such as the 1948 Palestine war and the abrogation of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1951. During the events of 1951, the popular district of Kafr Ahmed Abdo near the British camps rose up in a wave of armed resistance in which dozens of citizens gave their lives, and as a result the British forces razed the area and displaced its people. Many young people in Suez closely followed these events, and were involved in different ways.

Suez became bigger and more urbanized with the July 23 revolution in 1952, industrial expansion and a growing working class. Due to its working-class demography, its oil, fishing and shipping companies and its government employees, it was no ordinary city for Nasser. The government inaugurated the first “popular university” in Suez, planting the seed of what later became the “cultural palaces,” the Culture Ministry’s countrywide arts venues. The Socialist Union also opened Egypt’s second Institute for Socialist Studies in Suez, hosting lectures on socialist theory, Arab socialism and the Charter of National Action. Many political youth groups emerged from these programs, which were saturated with the era’s nationalist and populist spirit and engaged in nationalist cultural and political work.

After Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 war, the military retreated from Sinai to Suez. As Ghazali often pointed out, the Nasser government lost control over internal affairs in Suez. This allowed him and others to combine the political groups that grew under the umbrella of Nasserism with the spontaneity of local people to establish organized public action. They welcomed the returning soldiers, who were sick and wounded from the long walk back through the Sinai desert. By the time the first Israeli forces were settling on the canal’s eastern bank – facing the port and Port Tawfiq in particular – the resistance had already brought over the returning fighters and the wounded in fishing boats, given them primary care and prepared them to return to their families.

These organizational structures that emerged, independently from the government, gave the youth groups extensive leadership experience that was enhanced by their popular defense and professional military training. This led to the birth of the first group of resistance fighters, among whom Ghazali was the oldest and most experienced. When the state noticed these independent armed groups, who aimed to protect buildings, it scaled down their military training. Ghazali and others developed the idea of forming music troupes in Suez based around the simsimiyya. He began writing and improvising poetry in colloquial Arabic, and his capacity as a poet developed and flourished. His poems’ power came from his ability to depict the moment and the fact that they came directly from the battlefield.

The first music troupe to emerge was called Al-Bataniyya (The Blanket), as they used to sit on a blanket across from Ghazali’s shop, which was also his office and atelier. Then Ghazali convinced a trench to host his band – a sand-covered pit of bricks and stones with ventilation and electricity. In collaboration with the Armed Forces’ Department of Morale Affairs, the band was renamed Awlad al-Ard (Children of the Land) and its focus became raising soldiers’ morale. “In a military meeting we attended we sang some of our songs,” Ghazali is quoted as saying in Ahmed al-Shafei’s Arabic-language book Mahmoud Taha, Gazelle of the Resistance: Heroic Stories from the Arab Sinai Organization. “Everyone was impressed and the chief commanders asked us to visit all the military camps across the front, from Hurghada to Port Said.” So for a while, Awlad al-Ard’s activities consisted of such visits.

This changed after the state’s decision to evict the canal cities after Israel began targeting their civilians, particularly Suez. The eviction didn’t just affect life in Suez, but also impacted the cities with camps where displaced families were placed. In some cases a family was scattered across the country. Nasser’s government accommodated the wave of migrants by opening the new cities that were built in the 1960s as part of the public housing project. Cairo’s Nasr City and locations in Tanta, Alexandria, Beni Suef and other governorates accommodated higher-rank government employees and business owners, and those who the government prioritized for relocation to alternative workplaces or other branches of their current employer. Not so for the bambutiyya (fishermen) and those working on ships and in offshore services — some were relocated to factory spaces and schools or, worse, to rural units in which several families had to share adjacent rooms with a very limited number of toilets and showers, and sometimes no clean water or electricity. They were also confronted with very different traditions and customs, and sometimes faced with hostility due to the pressure their arrival put on government facilities and schools.

Because the government was aware of the dietary habits – based around eating fried fish – of people from the canal cities, despite the food shortage across Egypt the migrants received sugar and large amounts of oil, in addition to blankets, powdered milk and so on. They didn’t get much, but they were still envied by the locals and this sometimes resulted in tensions: “You made cheese more expensive!” locals shouted at their new neighbors, and: “O migrants your year is crap, you left and came here broke.”

So Awlad al-Ard began moving around the rehousing units singing their patriotic songs to elevate migrants’ morale and help unify the home front. Their most famous song from that time is Fat al-Kitir (Much Time has Passed), which was later sang by the famous Fadia Kamel.

Much time has passed my country, only a while left,

And the bones of our brothers we will gather, we will gather,

We will sharpen, we will sharpen,

And from them build our cannons … And defend

And bring back victory to Egypt.

At the peak of the War of Attrition and the daily bombardment of Suez, the state adopted a policy of distraction to take people’s minds off the impact of defeat through the production of comedies and light songs. Awlad al-Ard shamed and criticized this tactic. This song is an attempt to shame Niazi Mostafa’s silly comedy Al-Ataba Gazaz (The Threshold is Glass, 1969):

You who have a threshold made of glass, and stairway of nylon

The child in my country grew old, and oppression took over —

Young lady, why are you so skinny, and you haven’t yet seen the world?

She said: the Jews bombed my home, and the flesh of my brothers is piled up.

They also responded to two Abdel Halim Hafez songs, Sawah (The Traveler) and Gana al-Hawa (Love Has Come our Way):

No! I won’t sing …

Not to the moon nor the trees nor the flowers in the field.

And I am not a traveler

And I won’t ask for love,

If an inch of my country is still occupied.

Soon the band started to criticize state bureaucracy and the new class that was formed from the corruption of the public sector and brokerage. Before the vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, Ghazali was inspired by children’s folk songs:

Abouh ya Abouh, the blood of our country is spilled.

You who owns the cow …

You who plants the tree that bear fruits,

you gave them the fruits …

Yet they aren’t grateful,

they still sold us out to the infidels.

Nasser’s death, in September 1970, prompted the real rupture between Ghazali’s Awlad al-Ard and the state. Anwar Sadat’s “corrective revolution” on May 15, 1971, purged the Nasserist wing from the government, a wing that Ghazali admired for continuing Nasser’s legacy. Sadat’s diplomatic attempts to end Israel’s occupation and university students’ growing anger pushed Ghazali to join the student movement with songs inciting against the regime and calling for war. Halanga Balanga mocks Sadat’s government and its slogans regarding the war and “the state of science and faith”:

We opened our hearts, and our hands.

Let’s walk fast, and start to build … our coming … years.

O hope come by, O songs sing and make …

the slogan of the next journey,

Science and faith and thousands of tales.

Let’s jump around and when he whistles we shall clap,

though the end of his whistling is crap.

It turns out we are stupid and he is a fool.

Due to his critical songs, Ghazali was arrested on March 7, 1973, and exiled from Suez to Kafr al-Sary, a village in Banha, where he lived under house arrest. The band’s trench was raided and its members dispersed. But after the October 1973 war and the restoration of Sinai, people returned to the canal zone and Ghazali ran for local council. Along with Hassan al-Aishi, Ahmad al-Askari and other political figures who criticized neglect and corruption in Suez, he was elected. On one occasion, when someone questioned Ghazali’s financial integrity, he raised his torn shoe against all those who defend corruption. It is no surprise that after the January 1977 uprisings, or so-called bread riots, Ghazali’s name was included on the list of instigators behind the Suez uprising.

Translated by Mariam Aboughazi

Anwar Fath al-Bab 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism