Ghost in the machine

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By Christian Nielsen

As we spent so much of our life online, what happens to our virtual selves when we die? Do they disappear too, or do we become ghosts in the machine?

Tuesday 18 September 2012 / Updated 31 October 2014

Last year, a journalist colleague-cum-friend stopped answering e-mails. At first, I thought he was miffed because a few of the stories he had written came back with critical comments and the client was breathing down my neck to take him off the job.

I knew he was having some kind of difficulty at home and perhaps even financial problems, so I persevered for his sake. A couple of weeks later, I gave the green light for another batch of stories from him.

No response to the e-mail on the first day. This was  out of character for this guy because he usually picks up a new commission in a flash. Two, three, four days passed without word. I still thought he was smarting from the client’s rebuke so let it pass. But after two weeks or so something was clearly wrong.

First I tried to call him on his mobile. No answer. I tried his old number – his mother’s I believe. Again nothing. This was not the sort of guy to pass up work, I decided, and definitely not the type to sulk for weeks, so something was definitely going on.  It was time to start investigating.

I checked his website, Facebook and LinkedIn. Nothing unusual there – some relatively recent activity. I then did the only other thing I could think of to nip a nagging worry in the bud … Yep, I Googled his name + ‘obituary’. I know it sounds morbid, but if I haven’t communicated the circumstances well enough here, take my word for it that this search was not done flippantly.

Sure enough, the first or second hit was a note in a local newspaper that my colleague-friend of five years had passed away. No mention of how, only that the family expressed its gratitude to a certain hospice which may or may not suggest he had been ill for some time. And when I think about the declining standard of his work, it would make sense.

But the way this happened, or at least the way his ‘virtual’ community (me and perhaps other colleagues and employers) had to learn of his death is what concerns me the most about relationships online. Concern that we build up friendships or professional closeness over the years without any physical foundations or recourse, if that is the right way to express it.

I didn’t know his family, or even if he had one. I had an old landline when he first started working for me but that was superseded by email/LinkedIn and so on. So, once his mobile phone apparently expired or the battery ran out, that was it. His mother, wife, son, or whoever was close to him probably didn’t know his PIN to open it again and answer the worried calls.

What’s more, they probably didn’t know his passwords and access codes to the various social networking tools he used. When I say ‘probably’ I’m just trying to be careful because the guy passed away nearly a year ago and just last week I got a ‘recent activity’ notification from him on LinkedIn.

It’s especially creepy because I still don’t know 100% that he’s dead. Sure, all the evidence indicates it, but with just 0.01% doubt, when you get a nudge from someone online, it makes you wonder. So much so that I had to see what the recent activity was. It appeared to be someone he had invited to join his network had finally got round to accepting it X months later.

Of course this is possible. I opened a LinkedIn account some 10 years ago and conscientiously ignored any and all invitations for nine years, until the system got so insistent that it became easier to accept them all than go through the rigmarole of rejecting and worrying that I’d offended someone (yes, I’m not a digital native … these things worry us ‘physical world’ people).

Post-game plans?

It also makes me wonder if we are overlooking our responsibilities to family and friends (virtual and physical) by not having a … well … post-game plan in case we get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. At least when we owned CDs and other real physical assets it was pretty simple, with or without a will and last testament, your stuff usually just went to the nearest and dearest. But with ‘digital assets’ we’re not even sure we own them, let alone whether we have a plan for how to pass them down to our family or friends.

Take the recent Bruce Willis and Apple story, which may have been false but that’s beside the point because it highlighted the issue of intellectual property rights and digital assets like music downloads, and that we may be only buying listening rights during our tenure on this world. How does that encourage legal downloading and the sustainability of the music/entertainment industry?

Perhaps the smart, discrete, respectful thing to do is to prepare your exit plan from the virtual world as much as you are primed to do so for the physical world. For example, write down the main platforms you engage in and how your family or friend can access them to take possession of any so-called digital assets bequeathed.

Make sure the executor or trusted person has instructions or enough information to shut down the online accounts which otherwise, very disturbingly, live on as ghosts in the machine. And, of course, put all this information somewhere safe from prying eyes, but not so safe that it won’t be found if that bus does have your number on it.


What happens to your Facebook account when you die? (30 Oct 2014) This story echoes the need to “think ahead” about your digital last will and testimony and introduces a feature now available on Facebook, at least, allowing those left behind to ‘delete’ or ‘memorialise’ the account. Here is what The Guardian’s ‘AskJack’ blog has to say on these options:

“If you choose to delete the account, then all the comments, photos etc. will also be deleted, unless you take legal steps to preserve them. This is a privacy issue. Facebook says: “The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.

“If you choose memorialisation, Facebook changes a number of things: No one is allowed to log in to the account; You can’t change, add to or delete existing content, which includes adding or removing friends; Automated activities, such as daily quotes or horoscopes, are stopped; Memorialised accounts don’t appear in “public spaces” such as birthday reminders, People You May Know, or searches; Memorialised accounts can only be accessed by the user’s confirmed friends.”

Hope this little addition helps those faced with the unpleasant decisions on what to do with the ‘ghost in the machine’.

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The last word in music

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By Christian Nielsen

It was the last word in music, and turned words into music. The WORD, which defied the decline in print media with wit, edge and artistry, is no more.

Thursday 26 July 2012

A special edition of The Word dedicated to the “lost music” of Amy Winehouse.

I’m listening to My Darling Clementine’s spittoon-inspired 100,000 Words – just one of the usual 15 tunes that come free each month with the subscribers’ edition of The WORD magazine – and I can’t help but taste the bitter-sweet irony in this sad country song depicting loss and separation … how words just aren’t enough.  The song gives way to Cory Branan’s The Freefall.

“What you have in your hands is, very sadly, the final edition of The WORD,” laments the magazine’s editor Mark Ellen. “After nearly 10 years of publishing, it has eventually proved impossible for us to sustain the magazine,” he continues, blaming the wider economic climate, competition with free media and erosion of traditional advertising.

Shock was my first reaction when I read on the cover of The WORD August 2012 edition (issue 114) that it would be the final installment. Not car accident shock, but the feeling that something that should never happen just did. The magazine always struck me as an antidote to the steady decline in print media. When so many publishers were going web-first and looking at how to introduce pay walls, this cheeky, irreverent monthly dared to defy the trend, to stick a finger up at media pundits.

That this British magazine was also a breath of fresh air on the content side was pure bonus material. It called itself ‘More than a music magazine’ and never failed to deliver an eclectic mix of book, film and music reviews, features, as well as an endless supply of clever factoids, ‘best-worst’ comparisons, and various odd-spots and curios. And in every issue I’d look forward to pouring over the list of songs lovingly compiled into a veritable mixed tape from your brother’s cool friend – The WORD staffers.

Where traditional music magazines labour to cover the very latest, hottest, biggest … I always got the feeling that The WORD had the inside edge. Sure, the pedigree of its writers helped open doors to interviews with some of the biggest rock legends on the planet, like Bruce Springsteen and The Cure, but these features were never fawning dross, and as often as not shared the cover with lesser-known mortals of music. Deliberate or not, it showed respect for the industry as a whole, not pandering to the age of celebrity.

The magazine really was about words and their context. Clever turns of phrases, subtle wit, and perhaps a few too many inside jokes (for real music heads only) set it apart from other monthly magazines for people who still read. The writing itself was crafted and usually very well sub-edited. The layout over the years was busy enough but not too crowded.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, there is the general industry malaise and the economic climate, as Mark Ellen suggests, but as an observer of the media’s plight – I read about it in each National Union of Journalists’ newsletter – I can only speculate that there were also some wrong turns made. Other glossies seem to be holding on despite the generally poor conditions for print media. But a flick through any of these stayers and you’ll see full-page ads selling designer clothing or consumer electronics.

The WORD’s advertising stable has been reared almost exclusively on music or music-related fare – record shops, concert promos, festivals, new releases, etc. – and often quarter-page nickel and dime stuff. Rarely did you see a serial advertiser or the high-priced advertorial packages, or those ads ‘facing content’ (articles coinciding with ad spots) which tend to sell for more.  This was great for readers who want genuine non-commercially tainted stories; not so great for the publishers.

I do recall a few issues back seeing a series of HMV advertorials, which must have brought in a few pennies, and I even wondered whether that was some kind of new move to drum up business, but then it didn’t continue – maybe too many complaints or it didn’t pan out financially. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see it was probably last-ditch chemo treatment for the cancer patient.

Oddly enough, perhaps one of the problems was not that The WORD wasn’t niche enough to survive in today’s tough media climate, but that it was too niche. With no insider knowledge of events, I can only surmise this was a topic of serious discussion over the years amongst the editorial board. Even the magazine’s strapline hints at small adjustments to become more niche, followed by an attempt to reel in a bigger readership, then an apparent reversal. ‘More than a music magazine’ became ‘Intelligent life on planet rock’ which in turn opened up to become ‘Entertainment for lively minds’ (ironically around the time of this new strapline it won Music Magazine of the Year). All this suggests the core survival instincts of old media players; using the skills they’ve honed over decades … all to no avail in this new digital époque.

The print world will no doubt be a more forlorn place without magazines like The WORD whose attention to detail and respect for words in all their form offer respite from (social) media pandering (or leading) to today’s attention-deficit audiences. What “lively minds” want, or indeed need, is grown-up content in grown-up formats. We had that. Now we don’t.

I for one will miss it, especially seeing Kate Mossman’s cheeky smile each month in the pick & mix!!

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The scientific handbook of love

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By Khaled Diab

For the perplexed this Valentine’s, The Chronikler offers this “scientific” guide to winning hearts and getting high on the “drug” of love.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

By some twist of fate, we arranged to go out this evening before we realised that it was Valentine’s Day. We found the coincidence unfortunate because we’ve always scoffed at this festival of naff consumerism and kitsch infatuation. People should strive to make love a year-round affair, despite the obvious risks involved – one scientist appears to have just classified love as a Class A drug.

“Intense passionate love uses the same system in the brain that gets activated when a person is addicted to drugs,” said Arthur Aron, the researcher behind the study in question. Of course, anyone who has been in love or has listened to rock music – the inimitable Alice Cooper even compared it to poison running through his veins – already knows this and does not need an expensive study to confirm it. In fact, “love addiction” is a recognised psychological condition.

Nevertheless, addicts will tell you that the highs of the love drug and its Rock’n’Roll are worth the potential downs and withdrawal symptoms. But for those perplexed who want to get hooked and start tripping out on love or infatuation, can science offer them any guidance? Well, according to numerous boffins who have tried to make a science out of the hitherto art of love and romance, it certainly can. So here is The Chroniklers “scientific” handbook of love, dating and courting.

As we are constantly told, first impressions count. Depressingly, according to one study, most people don’t even give each other the benefit of an exchange of words and form enduring impressions in a matter of milliseconds. Looked at romantically, though, it could be evidence of “love at first sight”.

If, like me, you are someone who needs time before people appreciate your finer points, what can you do to make the right first impression? Don’t despair, science is there with some suggestions.

If you want someone to find you attractive on the first encounter or date, a good scientifically sound strategy is to look them straight in the eyes and smile. Preferably, make sure your eyes are smiling, too. Also, if you’re a man, one study suggests that you should time your encounter not to coincide with your date’s period, because  women are apparently most responsive to corny chat-up lines at the most fertile period in their menstrual cycle, although the scientists do not provide any tips as to how to extract such a delicate piece of information.

Oh, and don’t forget to turn up the smile slowly to enable the onlooker to bask in your warmth – a “long-onset smile”, as it is known in the literature – while tilting your head slightly. While you’re doing this, cross your fingers that you don’t come across as a weirdo with neck ache. The supremely confident – or arrogant – should be warned that, even if their interlocutor reciprocates, this may not necessarily be a “come on”. One group of researchers has found that some women chat happily and flirt, even if they have absolutely no interest in the man – which is bound to make the bashful and proud even more tongue-tied.

So, how can you tell if someone finds you attractive?

Research suggests that people tend to choose partners who look like their opposite sex parents. To my mind, this is not only troublingly Oedipal, I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to anyone who looks like a family member.

More worryingly still, many seem to be drawn to partners who look like them – so much for “opposites attract”. In fact, there is even evidence that a surprising number of people are highly attracted to opposite sex images of themselves.

So, the self-centred among us can kill two birds with a single stone: increase their chances of finding a partner by seeking out someone who bears a resemblance to them and indulge their narcissistic impulses.

Of course, some people are fortunate enough to be widely regarded as attractive because they have the right facial and physical proportions. But old macho ideals are on the way out. In fact, most women, one study suggests, find a more “feminine” face alluring in men. This is good news for metrosexuals and might explain why many women are so drawn to the boyish good-looks of Johnny Depp. And for those who aren’t endowed with a baby face, it might be time to invest in that “guyliner” and “manscara”.

But you don’t have to be one of the beautiful people with a perfect figure to find romance or get laid. In fact, the best way to a man’s heart for women who do not fit the emaciated size zero is not through his stomach, but it is to make sure he doesn’t get enough food! Hunger, it seems, makes some men want to feast on their date. So, this Vqlentine, book a table at a nouvelle cuisine restaurant.

Besides, there are people out there, including good-looking ones, who prefer brains over beauty. The scientific evidence suggests that choosing intelligence is more common among women than men. Then again, other research points to the fact that there are plenty of women who go for looks.

A contradiction? Yes and no. Given the sheer diversity, complexity and individuality of human interactions, certain patterns are bound to hold true in certain circumstances, but the exceptions will at times outnumber the “rule”. So, the best strategy is to throw away the science books and embark on your own unique experiments in the laboratory of love.


This article is loosely based on an article published by Khaled Diab in The Guardian on 19 December 2008.

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Detained Egyptian musician vows: “I will not be silenced” about police brutality

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Mohammed Jamal, the lead singer of the popular Egyptian indie band Salalem, tells The Chronikler his story about a night of hell in police custody.

Sunday 12 February 2012


I thought it over carefully before deciding to write about this humiliating incident – an incident that has no rhyme or reason to it, but reflects the reality that the police force still needs to be completely cleansed of the corrupt Mubarak-era officers who still think they are free to hurt the dignity of anyone they simply don’t like. My friend and band mate Walkman and I were victims of these immoral cops.

We were heading home one night after our concert at the Cairo Jazz Club, where we had performed with the Canadian singer NEeMA, when we approached an ordinary police checkpoint. The police signalled for us to pull over and politely asked to see my driving licence and our identification cards – which we handed over, also politely. They then asked to search the car and search us and, out of politeness, we let them. After they were done and had not found anything illegal or suspicious on us, they allowed us to continue on our way, and we did.

Shortly after I drove off, I realised that I hadn’t taken back my ID card from the police officer who had searched us. Just to be certain, we searched the car first for the card, and when we couldn’t find it, we decided to return to retrieve it.

Back at the checkpoint, we tried to find the policemen who had searched the car (it was busy and there were a lot of cars being checked over). When I found the officer in question, he insisted that he had given it back to me and then asked me to park because I was blocking the traffic and that he would come and search the car with me for it. Meanwhile, Walkman had wandered off to ask other if they have seen my ID. As I was searching the car with the officer, Walkman innocently asked another policeman about my ID, which he somehow took personally as an accusation of theft and proceeded, with a gang of other coppersm to kick and punch Walkman. When I came to Walkman’s aid, the police turned mercilessly on me too.

Our attempts to arrest the blows flying at us were futile. After a long session of beatings, we were dragged to a waiting police car. They confiscated my car and our phones. On the way to the police station, a police officer handed me my ID and told me, “Here you go, your card”. When we reached the station, we were already in complete shock and awe from what had just happened to us – something we had never experienced before. They walked us to a room in which there was a miserable, low-ranking officer from the remnants of the former regime. No one touched us in the police station but they were very generous with the swearing and insults.

By this stage, we were already so depressed and humiliated that the names they were calling us had no affect. We were also accompanied by a large number of serious criminals, many of whom seemed to be friends with the cops and they all had a laugh together.

The officer then approached us and said, “Fuck the revolution that made you think you could mistreat police officers. Why the fuck am I being drained on the streets all day. Isn’t it for you? What a fucking revolution.” He then sent his colleague off to write a police report to “screw us” with. The other officer then opened a drawer and got out a big knife, a bar of hashish, and some paper and left. About an hour later, he came back with a closed envelope, the big knife and a written paper. We later learnt that they hqd fabricated a police report accusing us of possessing two grams of hashish, a big knife, and attacking a police officer while on duty.

We were eventually taken to a middle-ranking police officer who was very respectful. He apologised to us when he heard the story and knew we were respectable people but he all he managed to do was to order the guard to keep us apart from the serious criminals until we were transferred in the morning to the prosecutor’s office. He allowed us to use our phones and to ask our families to hire a lawyer. First thing I did was to tweet because I didn’t know who to call at 6am. Walkman called his brother and asked him to come with a lawyer to the prosecutor’s office.

Handcuffed, we were taken to the prosecutor’s office in a police van full of criminals and our sense of humiliation was growing but we remained silent, thinking silence was the smart thing to do.

All we wanted at this stage was for the investigation to pass so that we would be released, whereupon we could think about how to regain our rights. A decent lawyer came to our aid and the prosecutor was also very respectful. He tried to explain that what had happened was because we looked “weird” and that our attitude as musicians might have provoked the officer. Unfortunately, that’s the mindset many in the police force have. We were released on LE400 bail and now Walkman and I are charged with three quite serious crimes.

Even though I am facing these serious charges, I will not be silenced, and neither will Walkman, until this officer is sacked. I will not be silenced and this is why I wrote this note and decided to post these pictures because no one should go through this and be silenced. The cleaning up of the police force might be a lengthy and difficult process but it is not an impossible one.


This text was originally written in Arabic. Translated by Osama Diab,.

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Not so simply red

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By Christian Nielsen

The Simply Red lead singer’s admission that he slept with thousands of women shatters one longstanding ginger stereotype, but discrimination against redheads goes way back.

10 December 2010

“A red-headed man,” Simply Red’s lead singer Mick Hucknall told the Guardian last week, “is not generally considered to be a sexual icon.” But he admits to bedding severalwomen  a day during a three-year, well, purple patch between 1985 and 1987.

Married now with a young daughter, the 50-year-old singer is doing some soul searching, and perhaps a bit of guilt purging while he’s at it.  He regrets the philandering and admits to getting caught up in the pop-star lifestyle.

“When I had the fame, it went crazy,” he said. “I was living the dream and my only regret is that I hurt some really good girls.”

Hucknall describes his sexual adventures as an addiction, a surrogate for the love of his mother who abandoned him at a young age. But the story here is not the middle-aged fading pop singer who gets the girls – truck loads of them – but that the oft-maligned gingers of this world really are something special.

Hucknall’s revelation has inspired me to follow up a story idea I had about what it means to be a redhead. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is associated with fair skin, lighter eye colour and sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Cultural and societal reactions to the simple fact of having red hair range from ridicule to admiration.

Different is as different does

Delving a little deeper, I confirmed my suspicion that gingers really are super-human – though not in a red-cape kind of way. They apparently have different tolerance and sensitivity to pain than the rest of us mere mortals.

Research suggests that while people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain – something to do with lower levels of vitamin K – they are less sensitive to pain coming from multiple modalities, including “noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain”. It has also been found that people with red hair respond to anesthetic and analgesics differently.

[Can you picture a battery of redheads hooked up to the mains for a series of lab tests  followed by hits of morphine? No. Okay, just me then.]

The scientists put this unexpected relationship between hair colour and pain tolerance down to a genetic mutation in a hormone receptor that responds to melanocyte-stimulating hormone (the skin pigmentation hormone) and endorphins (pain-relieving hormone), and possibly others. This doesn’t mean redheads are mutants. We all have mutations (genetic or other) which give us our physical characteristics, like curly hair. [Mick Hucknall got the double-whammy mutation of red, curly hair.]

The number of talented ginger sportsmen and women belies the total number of redheads in the world – estimated at 1-2 % but as high as 6% in northern and western European populations. What separates the top 10 from the many others trying to make it in top-level sports is not necessarily raw talent. It boils down to mental strength and physical endurance or the ability to fight through pain and recover fast.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but the super-human pain tolerance trick could be useful in today’s physically demanding sports regimes [I’d be happy for the more scientific readers out there to blow this out of the water].

Fascination and prejudice

Red hair has had it’s good and bad times in history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was quite fashionable and regal to be a redhead. Many painters have depicted their red-headed women as alluring subjects in the vein of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s red ladies, which were so prevalent the term titian stuck for redheads.

But the redheaded were less favoured by history.  In the Middle Ages, red hair was thought to be a mark of what’s been described as beastly sexual desire and of unearthly beings. The Brothers Grimm speak of a savage red-haired man in Der Eisenhans, while other fables and stories attribute red and green eyes to be the mark of a witch, werewolf or vampire.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift paints the redhead in Hucknallesque terms: “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

Even today, you’ll hear a comment or aspersion almost every day in the media, with terms like ‘ginge’ and carrot-top aimed squarely at the hapless redhead. It’s like a long-running joke perhaps going all the way back to English resentment of the Celts (red hair is more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland) following centuries of independence battles. Again, this is all pure speculation.

It seems even with modern science on their side, the myths, lies and prejudices directed at redheads will not go away. Any wonder they’ve got such fiery tempers!

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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By Khaled Diab

If Barack Obama were a pop star, he would be a jazz musician or a rapper, not a Britney Spears. And to prove it, BaRock should release an election rap, UnPrezidented.

August 2008

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has suggested, in a campaign ad, that Barack Obama is a celebrity of the Britney Spears or Paris Hilton mould. Now that’s what I call Ludacris.

Not only do the two examples have little in common – one is a self-made pop sensation, the other is an heir-head airess whose name sounds like a branch of her family’s hotels – other than the fact that they are young women, Obama is too smart to be an underachieving rich girl and too cool to be a pop starlet. If Obama were a musician, he would probably be a jazz musician or possibly a rapper.

In fact, Obama should take up McCain’s invitation to sing and release a campaign rap song, since he is a self-confessed rap fan. For the single, he could give himself a typically rap-like nom de guerre. I reckon BaRock would work well because it intimates that Barack rocks, while, for the more classically inclined, it suggests a more timeless aspect.

His election single would be entitled UnPrezidented and would outline his electoral platform while taking digs at McCain. Here’s an excerpt I wrote:

My name’s BaRock

I’m UnPrezidented

I’m here to rock ’n’ shock the nation

Cuz de Repubs gave us a bad reputation

Well, I’m gonna set dat straight

’For it’s too late

Cuz the world can’t wait

Vote UnPrezidented

No, might don’t make right

We don’t want no mo’ fight

Me, I’m boff black’n’white

I’m UnPrezidented

Given how hollow McCain’s campaign is, perhaps he should retire from the presidential race and make way for Paris Hilton, the self-professed ‘moderate Republican’. In fact, the heiress has launched her own spoof presidential campaign in which she outlines a more sensible energy and environmental policy than the Republicans – which isn’t saying much.

With celebrity culture the way it is, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that McCain will recruit her as his running mate. If he does, then Obama may be forced to look to the entertainment world for his vice-presidential candidate to even the odds. Fortunately, he won’t be short of A-list progressives: George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins or Bruce Springsteen.

Come to think of it. If Obama doesn’t make it to the White House or once his term in office is up, he could always cash in on his fame and become a performing artist. We’ve had Ronald Reagan as president, why not have some reverse fertilisation?

This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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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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Getting in your face – it’s a sensitive issue

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By Ray O’Reilly

Do you breed people like Nick Cave, or do they grow organically? Some adults and children are just more in tune with their surroundings.

10 December 2009

Let’s face it, some people are crap at reading body language. They get in your face, keep asking uncomfortable questions, and basically ignore your subtle, probably subconscious efforts to shut them down. Do they learn to be ignorant of these signals or is it something more hardwired?

My suspicion is you learn some of the basics in childhood – you know when dad is bloody furious and your mum is exhausted answering your questions – but the really refined observations seem to be the reserve of a few more sensitive souls.

I have two boys who are under five years old. Both are bright kids and both are building a good understanding of their surroundings – even basics like road sense are related here. But one of the boys seems more attuned to people, more aware of their so-called micro-gestures. The other, although younger, shows less of this sort of intuitiveness exhibited by his brother at the same age, or he’s more focused on the content of the information he takes in than the delivery man.

I’ll give you an example of the elder’s insights. A while back I was reading The WORD magazine which ran a feature on Nick Cave. The article included a large face shot of the Bad Seeds front man. To an adult who can read the text and understand the context – the main point is Cave has just published his second book called The death of Bunny Munro which is quite typically dark – the shot does appear menacing. But to children, it’s a man with no history – they don’t know about his reportedly drug-fuelled, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle or his deeper poetic nature – it’s just a picture.

So what does the picture say to a child?

Looking over my shoulder while I was reading the story, my boy says to me: “Why is he angry?”

I didn’t answer straight away – because we were supposed to be having ‘quiet time’ – but in the meantime he corrected himself (this is a true story) and added: “I mean, why is he thinking so much about things?”

Jesus, what a cracker! He was bang on. At first, the photo gives an angryish aura (the heavy furrows in Cave’s brow dominate), but on closer inspection, and with the use of shadowy light, it means to explore the more pensive aspects of his nature. He is looking leftward but facing more or less front on. His eyebrows are curving only slightly downward, he has a don’t-mess-with-me moustache but it’s neat enough to say that I’m not really that wild. His bright blue eyes are more fiery than fury.

The caption to the picture (something my son could not read) says, “Cave ponders the male condition –‘a half-dead blob somewhere between a human and an ape’.” There you have it.

I told my son that he was right, that Mr Cave has a lot on his mind, that he is a creative person who needs to think about things more than most. I said he probably isn’t angry but is trying to find answers to some questions people keep asking him. My son nodded, and accepted this explanation. It’s important not to disabuse children when their instincts dish up new insights. The same goes when he asks “what were you and mummy just arguing about”. In this case, though, I do tend to embellish, because I don’t like the truth myself.

So, my gut feeling is, like you get people who have ‘super-sensitive’ noses that smell a fart 50m away, others are super-sensitive face readers,  the  people watchers of the world, the pure ‘paralinguists’ on the planet.

Super-sensitive adults probably learn to conceal their observations out of necessity, because it makes others uncomfortable, and maybe it’s easier not to see some things just to cope with the human condition. But in the case of kids, they’re not likely to be that conscious yet, so giving expression to what they are seeing is just a learning process. And some are clearly better at it than others.  I’ll be watching theses developments in my own two boys most keenly, especially as I’ve promised my electric guitar to the eldest if he learns to play properly.

Mmm, now it’s time for me to ponder after finishing Caves new book…  Do I really want something like that in my life?

You betcha.  Better too sensitive and creative than being pig ignorant and getting in people’s face without even knowing it!

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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