A Riche chapter of Egyptian history

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By Khaled Diab

For a century, Café Riche was a microcosm of Cairo’s bewildering contradictions, and a “refuge from the pain of loneliness”  for intellectuals. 

Image: AUC Press

Image: AUC Press

Tuesday 10 June 2015

With the recent death of Café Riche’s proprietor, Magdy Abdel-Malak, downtown Cairo’s most famous intellectual salon has shut its doors once again – this time, possibly permanently. By so doing, it has gone from a place where significant chapters of Egypt’s modern political, intellectual, cultural and social history were written to become an iconic footnote in the country’s tumultuous modern history.

Though its dated glass-and-wood exterior is unremarkable to the 21st-century passer-by in the city of a thousand minarets and a café on every corner, Riche was at the throbbing heart of Egypt’s intellectual and political life for the greater part of the 20th century.

Riche dates back to what many Egyptians regard as Cairo’s belle époque. Built in 1908 on the grounds of a former royal palace, it started life as a modest coffee shop for the inner city’s wealthy and well-heeled European and elite Egyptian residents.

It gained its name when a Frenchman briefly took over the café’s proprietorship. Just as Khedive Ismail had intended his new European-style capital to be a “Paris on the Nile” – almost bankrupting Egypt in the process – Café Riche was modelled on its Parisian namesake.

Open from 1785 to 1915, the French Café Riche was frequented by some of Paris’s literary and intellectual giants, including legendary writers Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola, of “J’accuse” fame.

Cairo’s Café Riche became a similar cultural and intellectual magnet when it was taken over by Greek-Egyptian Michelle Nicola Bolitez, who was a lover and patron of the arts. He set up a theatre there that soon become one of the most well-known performance spaces in town.

The Cairo in which Riche established its glory was a dizzying city of bewildering contrasts and contradictions. It was a grand European metropolis just down the river from the ancient native city. At once an inclusive multicultural melting pot, it largely excluded the local population who were forced to live by a separate set of laws. An elitist playground for pashas and the nobility, its streets teemed with high-born and minority socialist and nationalist revolutionaries, including a number who barely spoke Arabic. The city was also a space where the shoots of liberal democracy were kept from blossoming by the combined might of the palace and the British.

Café Riche was, in many ways, a microcosm of these different realities. While well-to-do customers enjoyed the singing skills of the likes of then-pro-royalist new talent Um Kalthoum  – who later became the legendary “Star of the Orient” – anti-British agitators printed pamphlets for the 1919 revolution in the café’s basement.

And its involvement in political intrigues did not end there. In 1919, a young medical student sat patiently in wait of prime minister Youssef  Wahba, who was a Riche regular, and as his car approached the young radical attempted but failed to assassinate him.

Back then, revolutionaries clashing with the British sometimes sought shelter inside Riche, which became a regular target of police raids. Nearly a century later, a different generation of revolutionaries, this time revolting against a native tyrant, also found refuge from the teargas-infused utopia of Tahrir Square.

It is reputed that Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his fellow Free Officers partly planned the 1952 revolution in Riche – though other downtown political cafes also claim that honour.

At first, the army’s coup gave a shot in the arm to Egypt’s native leftist and liberal intellectuals, revolutionaries and writers, including Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who held his literary court there for many years.

But these artists and intellectuals soon discovered that Egypt’s management had changed but its intolerance of free thought and dissent had not. Though remembered for his persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser was no more tolerant of secularists who disagreed with him, and his political prisons overflowed with communists, non-Nasserist leftists and old-school Wafdist liberals.

Riche, like downtown Cairo, entered a period of long decline. Anwar al-Sadat, in his bid to neutralise Nasserist influence, cracked down hard on leftists and embraced the Islamists (a decision which was to cost him and Egypt dearly).

This deprived the café of a significant portion of its clientele and those that remained drew in on themselves, disillusioned that their high hopes for Egypt had fallen so low, as the state turned on them and a growing current in society turned away from them. With nowhere left to gather, secular youth either went underground or fell into the cynical arms of apathy, while others rushed into the comforting embrace of Islamist certitude.

This led to a period of intellectual and political navel-gazing in which Riche became the “whole world”, in the words of poet Naguib Sorour, for the dwindling ranks of its oft-hard-drinking punters, for whom Sorour drafted a tongue-in-cheek Protocols of the Wise Men of Riche.

Naguib Mahfouz’s introspective 1983 novel The Day the Leader was Killed is partly set in Café Riche – which is described as a “refuge from the pain of loneliness” – and explores, through the allegory of numerous narrative, the theme of where Egypt’s post-independence experiment went wrong.

Hosni Mubarak’s tenure drove the last nail into the esteemed establishment’s coffin. In 1990, Café Riche closed under mysterious circumstances and was seriously damaged by the 1992 earthquake.

At the birth of the new millennium, I attended its reopening a decade later, during an art festival designed to revive downtown’s downtrodden cultural scene. Colloquial poet of the working class Ahmed Fouad Negm, who seriously lost his way in his final years, was, as his name suggests, the star of the evening. The man who once expressed unbridled contempt for what he viewed as Riche’s fat-cat intellectuals was its guest of honour.

As if to show he still possessed his famed irreverence, he read from his poem ‘Long live the people of my country’ in which he ridiculed what he perceived as the empty rhetoric and detachment from reality of the Richesque, their impotence, and the ease and smugness with which they formulated glib solutions to the country’s woes.

Like Negm himself, the nouveau Riche was a poor imitation, even a parody of its former self. With its framed portraits of the lates and greats who frequented the establishment, it was like walking into a museum or a hall of fame and no longer a buzzing intellectual factory of the future.

At the time, I wondered in an article whether Riche would be able to resurrect its spirit and not just its ghost. Though it still managed to pull in some of the biggest names in Egypt’s intellectual scene, many found it had lost its touch and was far too elitist for Egypt’s more egalitarian young radicals.

Despite its rich history, or because of it, Riche managed to pull in far more tourists than members of the young and re-energised intelligentsia, apart from briefly during the revolution.

Unfortunate as it is in terms of Egypt’ cultural heritage, Riche’s closure will have only a marginal impact on downtown’s cultural scene. The young and creative have returned in droves in recent years, intent on reviving and reinventing Cairo’s heart. They have carved out their own alternative spaces, including art-houses, street art and even old-style tea houses and shisha joints which attract not just radical young men but rebellious young women.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 26 May 2015.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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Just say moo

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By Osama Diab

Animal rights activists are calling for global vegetarianism, but the Middle East is not ready to sacrifice its meat-eating lifestyle.

9 November 2010

As you sit down at the iftar table, you sneak a glance at the chicken, bulti and mouza (beef shank) fattah on your family’s plates. And then you load your dish up with koshari, tomato and cucumber salad, and as a special treat, meatless mahshi (stuffed vegetables).

Hard to imagine? The idea of choosing to follow a vegetarian diet isn’t new to the Western world, but in the Middle East, the notion is still novel. The American animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to change that. PETA has recently become active in the region, but the organisation — which works to stop the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific experiments — is facing an uphill battle.

However, that hasn’t stopped PETA from trying to promote vegetarianism in the region through several characteristically quirky initiatives.

In Amman in July, a Jordanian PETA activist wearing a green ankle-length gown covered in lettuce was arrested for trying to conduct what police said was an “unauthorised” one-woman demonstration; she was carrying a sign urging “Let vegetarianism grow on you” in Arabic. At least the police had a sense of humour about the incident: according a 25 July AFP report, the woman was escorted to a restaurant to change her outfit before heading to the police station.

July was a busy month for PETA. Here at home, PETA recruited two women in tight white t-shirts, black mini-skirts and red leggings to dump a large mound of red chili peppers on one of Mohandiseen’s main streets and wave placards with “Spice up your life, go vegetarian.” As Daily News Egypt reported on 18 July, the move backfired: people rushed to collect as many free peppers as they could, with two women even coming to blows over the coveted chilis, which sell for as high as LE 10 per kilogram on the local market.

“Of course, I will not stop eating meat, however expensive it may be,” restaurant owner Mohamed Hassan told the Daily News Egypt. “But now I have a whole lot of peppers, which should last me at least three days.”

Suffice it to say that the Middle East isn’t exactly fertile ground for promoting a lifestyle free of animal products.

A Western lecture
Due to a long history of Western imperialism and foreign intervention in the region, many Egyptians are sensitive to and sceptical about anything that seems to be handed down from on high by the West, especially the United States. There must be some hidden agenda behind it, the argument goes.

Manar Ammar, a local PETA volunteer and animal rights activist, disagrees that a vegetarian lifestyle is too foreign a concept to catch on here. Ammar is a vegan, meaning she does not eat any meat, eggs, dairy and any food prepared or processed with any type of animal product. In support of this philosophy, she cites Surat al-Anaam (Livestock), verse 38 from the Qur’an: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.”

“Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] said ‘Do not make your stomachs become the graveyard of animals’ long before PETA ever existed,” she adds.

She argues that the notion that vegetarianism is a form of cultural imperialism is wrong. “However, the true cultural imperialism is adopting factory farming from the West and applying it here,” she says.

Even without a hidden agenda, PETA’s push for vegetarianism seems culturally clueless in countries where the charitable distribution of meat is an integral part of Islam and common social customs.

Muslims believe that after Prophet Abraham proved his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Ismail, God stayed the prophet’s hand and sent a sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead. On Eid el-Adha, every Muslim able to afford it sacrifices an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s devotion to God, and distributes the meat among family members and the poor. The nation’s poor already follow a vegetarian diet based on fuul and taamiya out of necessity, and for many this is the one time of year when they get meat.

While distributing molokheyya and mahshi might be equally appreciated, the religious symbolism of the holiday would be seriously watered down.

Distributing meat is not just a religious duty, but a sign of social status, wealth and generosity. As such, an ‘ordehi‘ (meatless) meal has a negative connotation for many of us, and is considered a gift of lesser quality. It is hard to imagine that celebrations, such as births, weddings and Ramadan iftars without meat or even our beloved Sham al-Neseem holiday without fish and eggs.

Egypt flirted briefly with vegetarianism as a public policy, but had to abandon the effort. In the 1970s, with the price of meat skyrocketing, the government attempted to promote a vegetarian diet for economic reasons. The campaign tried to convince people that plant-based food, such as protein-rich fuul, was a healthier option than our four-footed brethren.

In response, satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote one of his most famous poems, Il Fuul wil Lahma (The beans and the meat), with tongue-in-cheek verses announcing that the writer would rather die eating meat than live eating beans.

It’s a sentiment many of us seem to share. “I can’t imagine Egyptians giving up meat,” says Abdulrahman Sherif, a businessman. “Rich Egyptians just can’t live without meat, while poor Egyptians can’t live without at least looking forward to it.”

Saving the world with veggies

Activists like Ammar are hopeful that this climate can change if people understand the economic, health and environmental repercussions of eating meat.

“Poor people will not be giving up meat for animals rights but rather for human rights, for their own right to be fed all year round instead of one day each year,” the PETA volunteer says. She claims that to produce one kilo of meat, 16 kilos of feed are required. “Now imagine if all that land is used to grow vegetables, grains and fruits instead of feed, every one will be fed.”

While reallocating resources away from meat production may yield more food, it ignores the fact that there is already enough food to begin with. On the Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes there is “enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life”. According to the WFP, “the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment,” along with recent financial hardship that have hit families in recent years.

Ammar believes that Islam glorifies humbleness, compassion and looking after one’s health more than it promotes meat. “The Prophet (PBUH) was a semi vegetarian according to many trusted sources. He ate meat rarely and even washed up after eating camel meat. Islam calls for sustainable ways of living in harmony with the planet and its creatures. Throughout the Qur’an, the miracle of creation and animal diversity is very obvious and repeated.”

While vegetarianism (at least by choice) is currently practised by a handful of the nation’s educated elite who might perceive it as the cool thing to do, Ammar is confident that when people are educated about the lifestyle, they will adopt it as a way of healthier living that can save the environment and spread compassion.

It is possible that people will adopt a more healthy and environmentally friendly life when they are educated about it. But there are many other things this nation needs to learn first, such as skills to support themselves and their families. One-third of the country’s population is illiterate and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. Many unprivileged Egyptians struggle to put food on the table – any food, and they have more pressing issues than to watch what they eat.

That said, the way in which meat is produced remains a significant problem and one that should be addressed. A 2006 United Nations study titled Livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options states that “[Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.”

Air pollution, water shortages, climate change and land degradation are all issues of critical concerns to us as a nation, and they have more complex causes than just simply global meat production. Some sort of action is certainly needed, but convincing people one by one to give up meat may not be the quickest or most effective way to solve these problems.

Vegetarians are confident that what they’re preaching will certainly lead to results. Given the cultural climate and PETA’s oddball attempts thus far to change hearts and minds, however, don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, pass the shawerma.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved

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The tunes of change

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By Osama Diab

For a new generation of young Egyptian artists, music is not just about love.

24 February 2010

A couple of years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find songs in Egypt that weren’t packaged pop ballads preoccupied with the beauty of a lover’s eyelashes or how much she blushes when she’s shy. The only challenges to the status quo were a few bands singing English cover songs.

“All the underground bands were singing in English and the mainstream Egyptian pop music all had Western beats,” says Sherbini Ahmed, founder and lead vocalist of the underground band Nagham Masry (Egyptian Tunes). “Anyone who wanted to say something meaningful and not do pop music had to do it in English.”

Now, bands like Nagham Masry are feeding a resurgent underground music scene. Their goal? To break out of the grip of major studios and stir up the country’s established musical order with songs in their own language that tackle thorny social and political issues. From the rock band Massar Egbari to the nation’s sole female rapper Princess Emmanuelle, the underground acts are all expanding on a single riff: that Egyptian music doesn’t always have to be about love.

Seeds of the underground movement

Even though the underground scene is only now starting to revive its former popularity, its seeds were sown at the beginning of the twentieth century with the music of Sayed Darwish.

Darwish, whom many consider the father of popular Arabic music, was a singer of the working class. He was the first to sing in ammiyya (colloquial Arabic) with fast beats and slang, singing about nationalism and mocking aristocrats. He started a music revolution that is still alive today. Darwish’s style and language were considered uncomfortably crude by conservative elites, but the message and the music lived longer than his critics. Today, he is considered one of Egypt’s greatest musicians and composers, despite his untimely death at age 31.

A few decades later, a new musical phenomenon took up Darwish’s torch, the famous rebellious duo Ahmed Foad Negm and Sheikh Imam. Their goal was more political than artistic and they continued Darwish’s tradition of writing songs for the working class.

The duo’s songs inspired university students after the 1967 military defeat and were often chanted during demonstrations. However, success came at a price. The duo’s widespread popularity as a symbol of resistance put them behind bars at various points during the 1960s and 1970s.

Negm passed this legacy on to a new generation when he met Sherbini Ahmed. They talked about the declining state of music in Egypt. At the time, Ahmed was composing short radio and TV advertisements, but Negm’s guidance motivated him to put some of Negm’s poems to music. In early 2000, Nagham Masry was formed. With the help of the band and those that followed, the long-neglected underground scene was on the rise.

Faces of the underground scene

Composing music to Negm’s poems was the stepping-stone to forming Nagham Masry. “Back then, Negm gave me special attention and introduced me to kinds of music I had never been exposed to before,” says Ahmed. “What happened in the last 10 years is a state of rebelling against conventionality, whether it was in the press, cinema or music. It was a rebellion against the way music was done back then.”

Ayman Massoud, a keyboardist for the band Massar Egbari, takes a similar view on his band’s motivation. He says that their goal is to rebel against the conventional rules of society. Massoud describes Egyptian rock as a fusion between classic rock and oriental music. Romance and love are part of our life, not all of it, according to Massoud, so love should be just one facet of the music we create, instead of dominating it.

Massar Egbari has performed in Europe at the Malta Arts Festival, the Barisa Rock Festival in Istanbul and the biennale of young artists from Europe and the Mediterranean in Bari, Italy. The name of the band means Compulsory Direction. Massoud explains exactly what the band had in mind with the title.

“If someone wants to become a drummer, their parents will tell them to finish college first and then they can do whatever they want. But after they finish college, society will force them to find a job and practice their hobby on the side,” he says. “After that, they will become too drained from their jobs and gradually forget about their old dream.”

In the band’s view, society creates a compulsory direction for us from birth, with a precise image of what it means to be proper and successful. “I don’t have to wear a suit to be respectable,” he says.

The band Salalem was formed in 2004 and first performed before a live audience in 2005. Their name translates as Stairs, in homage to the staircase where the three founding members used to play at university.

According to the band’s lead singer, Mohammed Jamal, also known by his friends and band mates as Jimy, Salalem doesn’t think music should be depressing, but, instead, should aim to tackle society’s problems in a way that brings a smile to the listener.

“We have a song called “Sonya.” Sonya is not a girl; it’s a metaphor for nepotism or wasta,” Jimy explains. “We depict wasta as a very attractive girl that everyone chases, and people think when they catch her all their problems will be solved.” The song is mixed with tunes from Egypt’s national anthem, Bilady, Bilady (My Homeland).

“We couldn’t have been this outspoken 10 years ago because we would’ve been easily noticed. But now with all these bands, newspapers and satellite channels, we feel safer tackling certain issues,” says Jimy.

Eskenderella, a portmanteau of Eskendereyya (Alexandria in colloquial Egyptian) and Cinderella, was formed in 2005 by a group of Alexandrian musicians led by oud (lute) player Hazem Shahin. The band got its start performing the political and social songs of Sheikh Imam and Sayed Darwish. Eventually, they sang their own songs and composed music for the poems of Fouad Hadad, his grandson Ahmed Haddad and Naguib Shehab El Deen.

A female voice

The burgeoning underground scene is largely dominated by men, but at least one female voice is making herself heard, with others looking to follow suit. Emmanuelle Amira, whose stage name is Princess Emmanuelle, says she is the first and only female rapper in Egypt.

“Females didn’t embrace the art of rapping in Egypt until maybe four years ago… and I am still the only girl on the scene in Egypt,” says Amira. “There are motivated girls that have begun to write rap lyrics but have not yet developed it for the stage or screens of Egypt.”

Amira is of Egyptian, British and Lebanese origin and has released two independent albums in 2001 and 2004. “Life and its experiences in many different ways, obvious and subtle, are what inspire me to write,” she confesses.

The rapper thinks that hip-hop has been an Egyptian staple since the days of the Pharaohs, even though it was not identified or developed as “hip-hop or rap until these present days.”

Amira raps about peace, unity and love, balanced by lyrics about war, pain and the differences that people use to justify hating each other.

“All different religions and ways of life actually do express the same peaceful, humble and loving philosophy, so the music is really an expression of oneness in the midst of an alienated society,” says Amira.

Amira thinks that the pop music scene in Egypt is interesting, but not socially conscious. Underground acts in genres such as jazz, reggae, hip-hop and rap need to be supported and promoted much more than they are now.

She does enjoy listening to mainstream Egyptian singers, such as Mohammad Mounir, Elissa, Asala and Amr Diab, but sees a need for authenticity in today’s music.

“I think they are great at what they do. However, when such big stars try to imitate someone else’s image in the West or in hip-hop, for example, I don’t think that’s very cool at all. They should all stick to their essence, which is why we Egyptians love their original music and style.”

Artists’ haven

The surge of new underground talent has a lot to do with the creation of artistic havens that promote underground artists and give them a place to perform. The biggest and most influential is the Sawy Culture Wheel, also known as Saqyet al-Sawy or el-Saqya. The performance space, located in Zamalek, opened in 2003 under the guidance of Mohamed al-Sawy, who named it in honour of his father Abdel-Moniem al-Sawy. The name Saqya comes from the title of one of the elder al-Sawy’s bestselling novels.

Its mission is to place culture at the top of the country’s priorities in order to achieve national goals, says Mohamed al-Sawy.

“I can describe the goal of the Saqya in just one word: enlightenment,” he says. “To make people see, because our big problem is that Egyptian society lives in gloom and people are used to seeing what is offered to them and thinking it is everything.”

Salalem was one of the bands that benefited from al-Saqya. Jimy says that al-Saqya caused a boom in the underground music industry. “No other place offers what Saqya offers. They give you the sound, the lights and provide you with sound and light engineers. They also do the fliers, tickets and posters and you pay nothing in advance. They just take their share of the revenues afterwards,” he says. “We want people to see more, and be able to evaluate for themselves, and I’m totally opposed to the idea that as a nation we are not mature enough to evaluate. I’d rather have people evaluate wrong than be slaves who are told what’s good for them by others.”

Massoud of Massar Egbari says that 10 years ago there were no independent stages like al-Saqya to perform on if they had decided to start a band at that time.

“Saqya was established at the right time, when the internet made people more aware of what’s going on and that there were alternative ways of doing things. People were more ready to accept change,” says al-Sawy.

“I think we made the word culture friendlier. People used to think of culture as dull, and people were not comfortable with formal Arabic terms and thought of it as unfashionable,” says al-Sawy.

“Saqya is very important for us,” says Ahmed. “Saqya, along with Townhouse and smaller places like Makan, have made a huge difference. I hope we’ll see the day when there’s something like Saqya on every street in Egypt.”

Signs of change?

This new generation of independent artists firmly believes in the power of music to foster change in society. Nagham Masry’s Sherbini Ahmed thinks music can definitely lead to social change.

“The two things that shape Egyptian people’s minds, in my opinion, are jokes and music,” says Ahmed. “We are a singing nation: vegetable vendors sing out their selling lines, Qur’an recitation in Egypt is different and more melodic. Even when we were a Coptic country, our religious rituals all had music involved.”

The power of music can be a double-edged sword in his opinion, depending on the kind of music people listen to. “I blame the state of chaos on our streets and people’s short tempers on music. I think it’s because the new trend of shaabi music is making them very aggressive.”

Massoud also believes that music can lead to change in society. “People in Egypt think that religion is the only thing that causes change, but I also think music can have a major role to play.”

Jimy thinks that we can achieve a lot through music. “Music has a huge impact on people. Look at pop stars like Tamer Hosny. Look at the impact he had on young people,” he says. “People dress like him and know his songs by heart. So the same can be applied to social singing if it becomes as popular.”

Amira thinks that music and poetry has always caused change in society and has been at the forefront of that mission since early African and Arabian civilisations when the drummers and poets got together to express resistance, love or pain as a community.

She sums up the areas in which she believes music can cause change: “People’s mentality needs to open up more in our society. They need to be more [accepting of] differences like class, cultural and religious backgrounds, and the higher up in society need to give back more to their communities. Also, women should have more power to voice their opinion freely.”

“I feel that society has opened up a lot to new, emerging contemporary ideas and music, but is still not totally embracing, promoting or supporting these ideas enough,” says Amira.

Nagham Masry

An accidental meeting in 1999 between Ousso and Sherbini brought Nagham Masry to life. Following a first prize award at their very first show at the Citadel, they decided to get serious about their original songs and set lists, and were soon playing regularly at the Cairo Opera House. Their music combines the Western side (drums, guitar, and keyboards) and the Eastern side (oud and qanun) together.


Sherbini: Vocals

Ousso: Guitar
Amr Khairy: Drums
Bico: Bass
Budds: Keyboard
Hany Bedair: Percussion
Shady Sharaf: Oud
Sherif Kamel: Qanun
Official website:

Upcoming events: Keep your ears and eyes open for their upcoming concert in March at the Cairo Opera House.


The band started in 2004 when Mohamed Ali, Osama Saad and Amr Gioushy decided to combine their musical talents together to make music that’s different, catchy and at the same time new and meaningful in Arabic.

Mohamed Ali (Walkman): Guitar, Vocals
Osama Saad (Ozmo): Guitar, Backing Vocals
Amr Sayed (Solo): Solo Guitar
Mohammed Jamal (Jimy): Lead Vocals
Ezz Shahwan (El General): Bass and Lead Guitars
Hany Bedeir: Percussion
Sherif Nabil: Drums
You can listen to them at:
Upcoming events: After Eight every Friday.

Massar Egbari

Through the members’ different musical backgrounds, the band presents alternative Egyptian music; mixing rock, jazz and blues with Oriental music. In 2007, Massar Egbari started its international musical career as it participated in two international festivals: Malta Arts Festival in Valletta, Malta and Barisa Rock Festival in Istanbul, Turkey. Since then, they’ve participated in biennales in Italy and Macedonia, as well as at the Festival Adriatico Mediterraneo in Ancona, Italy in 2009.

Hani El Dakkak: Guitar and lead vocalist
Ayman Massoud: Keyboard
Ahmed Hafez: Bass guitar
Tamer Attallah: Drums
Mahmoud Siam: Guitar
You can listen to them at:
Upcoming events: Massar Egbari is invited to participate at the Sauti Za Busara Music Festival in Zanziber, Tanzania this month. The festival is considered one of the most important music festivals in East Africa.

Emmanuelle Amira (Princess Emannuelle)

Princess Emmanuelle a.k.a. EmpresS *1 is a British-Egyptian (Upper Egypt)-Lebanese rapper who has won international recognition for her two independent albums, Born Into a Drowning World (2001/2) and Rise Above da Waters (2004/5), in addition to TV and radio exposure, mainly in the UK. She is known as the “Conscious Rap-Poetess.”

You can listen to her at:

This feature first appeared in the February 2010 edition of Egypt Today.  Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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