Confessions of a would-be Egyptian revolutionary

 
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By Khaled Diab

Returning to Egypt for the first time since the revolution, an expat desktop rebel discovers the inspirational, the troubling and the simply bizarre.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“The next president of Egypt will be the Mahdi,” Dr Omar, who claimed to be a paediatrician who had treated injured protesters on Tahrir Square, told me. In his hand, he held up a petition calling on the government to dig up, at a precise location in a poor Cairo suburb, the Ark of the Covenant because, he claimed, it contained the Mahdi’s identity.

At first, I simply assumed that the good doctor and his not-so-merry crew, who stood on the tented central island of Tahrir Square, were using the sharp wit and humour that have been part and parcel of the revolution to mock the anti-democratic tendencies of the military junta still running the show. But after a little extra probing, it dawned on me that they were deadly serious and they expected the messianic Mahdi to return and reclaim his earthly throne by becoming president of medium-sized Egypt, rather than, say, the United States or China.

Endorsing the Mahdi. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This was not quite what I had been expecting to hear on my first visit to Tahrir Square since the Egyptian revolution began in January 2011. Although when I last departed Egypt, a few short weeks before the now-legendary uprising, I was feeling pretty sick of home, and all its corruption and cronyism, with my wife and I speculating about what kind of a second homeland awaited our son. Less than a month later, I began to feel homesick. Even though I’m not into patriotism and I regard nationalism to be safe only in small doses, nonetheless, in addition to the humanist admiration for the underdog, the revolution awoke in my a certain amount of national pride and I longed to be with the protesters rewriting their history.

But I was in the wrong place at the right time, and the best I could manage was the whole-hearted support of the sympathetic spectator. Of course, I could have followed the example of some expatriated friends who, in their haste to return, almost parachuted into Tahrir. But at the time, I was temporarily on my own holding the baby, and then came our move to Jerusalem and… and… and… perhaps I simply wasn’t really a hands-on revolutionary.

May be I also felt a certain unworthiness. Sure, in my journalism I had for years harshly criticised all that I saw wrong with the Egyptian regime and society and dreamed – or wishfully fantasised, as some alleged – of a free and democratic Egypt of social and economic justice for all.

But these newspaper columns, though they could have come crashing down around my ears during one of my regular visits, also supported the ivory tower which afforded me, the expat Egyptian with a foreign passport who was working mostly for foreign outlets, relative protection. So, while I had spilt rivers of ink pontificating, intellectualising and agonising, millions of Egyptians were actually demanding their freedom, dignity and hope, and paying for it with their blood, sweat, tears and fears.

This emotional baggage could perhaps explain why I entered a futile debate with these Mahdist maniacs on the messianic margin, and even got threatened with violence by a couple of them in the process, rather than just walking away scratching my head. Then again, sometimes my mouth is just bigger and my tongue sharper than the weights and pullies that are meant to keep them under control.

Moreover, Tahrir had finally, thanks to the combined will, determination and courage of millions of protesters, lived up to the promise of its name, liberty, freedom. And so if Tahrirites were to endorse the presidential aspirations of anyone, it should be a candidate with some democratic credentials, not an unelected spiritual leader whose rule, benign or not, would be tantamount to a divine dictatorship.

Of course, the unprecedented display of people power deposing the country’s anointed pharaoh-in-chief and the unpresidented prospect of Egyptians actually choosing their own leader may have been too much for some to absorb, and a “miracle” like this is bound to awaken millennialist ideas in the quackier reaches of society.

Even in more “sensible” and “rational” quarters, some worrying signs of antidemocratic tendencies could be seen, such as the pro-stability Egyptians I came across who express support for the Vladimir Putin of Egyptian politics, the mysterious and shady Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right-hand man and Egypt’s chief of military intelligence, as the country’s next president because they think he’s a “real man” who can restore order to the country and, with his vast insider knowledge, manage its transition.

Even a top newspaper editor who had spent his entire career opposing Mubarak surprised me by expressing his view that it was time to curb the revolution and work towards stability, otherwise the country would go to the dogs. He said former Arab League chief and one-time foreign minister Amr Moussa was his choice for president. And Moussa’s age and ties with the former regime did not seem to bother him. “If Moussa proves incompetent or unworthy, we can always change him at the next elections. The days of lifetime tenure are over,” the editor argued. When I quizzed him about what he thought of the revolutionary youth making all these sacrifices and so far getting nothing in return, his response was pretty cold and unsympathetic. He blamed the revolutionaries’ refusal to end the revolution and “play politics” for their own demise.

Though I was aware that the elation of the early days of the revolution had been replaced by caution and concern, it was disappointing to arrive in what had once been dubbed the Republic of Tahrir by elated protesters to find time had transformed the beautiful utopian state in the centre of the city back into an ugly, traffic-choked and crowded plaza. Perhaps this dread, as well as the desire to soak in any changes which may have occurred, was part of the reason why I had decided to walk the few miles from my family home to Tahrir, stopping off at some old haunts, including an old cappuccino bar which seemed to be caught in the same time warp I had left it in.

Fallen symbol of the past, the NDP building near Tahrir. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

On the way, I encountered some colourful characters, including a man with a toilet brush moustache and sunglasses who claimed to have worked for the former disgraced culture minister Farouq Hosni and believed that, with the right leadership, Egypt could become the richest country in the world, with “85 million billionaires”. So, watch out America, the pharaohs are coming!

On the central island on the Nile known as el-Gezira, as I walked alongside all the plush floating restaurants and past a gathering point for dozens of manual labourers in traditional galabiyas, I caught sight of the first visible topographical change: the burnt-out, grey concrete hulk of the headquarters of the defunct National Democratic Party, one of the symbol’s of the Mubarak regime’s hegemony and the presumed launching pad for his son, Gamal‘s presidential ambitions.

Yes, Tahrir isn’t what it used to be, friends told me. Constant pestering by the authorities and anti-revolutionary forces, friends explained, had driven the vast majority of real revolutionaries away from Tahrir, except when “millioniya” Friday demonstrations were planned.

But signs of the spirit of the revolution and the new, defiant Egypt were all around. In a city whose crumbling walls had once been mostly bare, the colourful explosion of revolutionary street art and graffiti all around were a sight for sore eyes. One wall just off Tahrir Square had a striking image which merged the faces of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the country’s current de facto leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein el-Tantawi in a single sinister head.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Revolutionary police? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In a bid to control and limit demonstrations, the military junta had constructed makeshift walls all over the town centre. In a show of peaceful disobedience mixed with civic duty, urban artists had transformed these ugly barriers into attractive murals featuring common streets scenes or even the street on the other side of the wall.

A few blocks from Tahrir, young protesters determined to bring down the junta had set up camp and prepared to dig in for the long haul. On the way to their demonstration, I passed the bizarre sight of police officers, hated for being the shield behind which the regime hid and the fist with which it crushed dissent, protesting outside the Ministry of the Interior, calling for the overhaul of the police force and the weeding out of corruption, complaining about their working conditions and telling the interior minister that “The revolution means freedom”. One of the demonstrators insisted that the police was unfairly smeared and that there are officers who are patriotic and support the aspirations of the people.

A block away, the Ultras, football fans turned revolutionaries, would beg to differ, as one banner which read “All cops are bastards”, succinctly put it. Like young activists throughout the revolution, the Ultras not only flouted the easy assumptions about the apathy and selfishness of their generation, but also about the pettiness and fickleness of football fans. In fact, with football being one of the few mass activities people were comfortably allowed to rally around, the Ultras managed to employ the nationwide networks of supporters, the almost tribal loyalty of fans, and years of experience in pitched battles with the police, all of whom were bastards according to one banner I read, to devastating effect during the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak.

Despite the sombre air evoked by the banners and posters commemorating the 78 fans who died in pitched battles during a recent match in a massacre which the Ultras allege was orchestrated by the regime to punish them for their revolutionary activities, the vibe at the protest was upbeat, rebellious and festive.

Songs of rage. Ultras sing about the Port Said massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Isolated circles of singing converged into a coordinated chorus when one of the biggest voices of the revolution, Ramy Essam, arrived, guitar in hand, to sing some of his own cheeky, sarcastic and defiant songs, as well as the Ultras’ own thundering lyrics of rebellion. They sang about the treachery in Port Said, mercilessly mocked a would-be presidential candidate connected to the old regime, sarcastically apologised to the police for the disruption caused by the revolution, and advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.”

Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional. Some of the women in hijab figuratively let their hair down, singing enthusiastically and gyrating their hips vigorously. And standing on the sidelines were a few women in the full face veil known as niqab, singing discreetly along.

The revolution has brought women out in force on the streets, including my own courageous sister who lives the struggle with every pore of her being, where they have stood – and fallen – shoulder to shoulder with men. And this despite the traditional protectiveness of the Egyptian family towards its female members and the additional risks being a woman carry, including the notorious “virginity tests” to which some female activists were subjected last year.

Despite proving themselves the match of men in terms of courage and dedication, women have experienced something of a backlash from conservative circles in society, who seem more willing to accept the right of women to fall as comrades than to stand as equals.

Although most women I know did not expect their status to change overnight and realised that their struggle for full equality would take years to reach fruition, the dominance of Islamist parties in Egypt’s first parliament after the revolution, especially the unexpectedly strong showing of the ultra-conservative Salafi parties, has many secular and reformist women spooked.

“Salafists want to reduce the age of marriage and to segregate women and men in the workplace. This gives you some idea of their priorities,” noted Gihan, a feminist who will soon be publishing a book about the women of the revolution. Seated in an outdoor restaurant located on a tranquil island on the Nile which seemed a million miles away from the nearest revolution, Gihan admitted that she was troubled by what kind of future might await her teenage daughter, though she expected and hoped that the revolution would still manage to deliver improvements for women in the longer term.

A promising sign is the extra confidence, even swagger, with which many women now seem to be carrying themselves. Even young women in the hijab, who used to be the coyest group when I was at university in the 1990s, now are out in force late into the night, dance in mixed groups at concerts, as I witnessed at a concert by the satirical fusion folk band Salalem, and some even walk arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

Hoda, Gihan’s academic friend who was sitting across the table, tried to find a silver lining. She noted that despite all the bad press Salafists received, their women had achieved a partial sexual liberation of sorts. “They are well-read in Islamic jurisprudence and take seriously the rights to sexual gratification and foreplay it guarantees them, and many of them demand divorce if their man doesn’t satisfy them,” she noted.

This led me to reflect on how Egyptian society, in a desperate bid to avoid “decadent” Western ways has revived a number of old-fashioned “decadent” Islamic ways to enable couples to have sex or to live together, such as Zawaj Misyar, which is a no-strings-attached “marriage” entered to allow a couple to engage in sexual relations. But such convoluted attempts to cover sexual freedom up in an Islamic veil, not to mention the traditional approach of turning a blind eye, often lead to dishonesty and hypocrisy in social relations.

But it is not just women that are worried by the Islamists who, like politics itself, have become the talk of the town. Christians and secularists are nervous too. I was sitting with a group of the two in a downtown watering hole appropriately named Houriya (Liberation) which was part traditional teahouse and part boisterous bar fully visible to passersby.

As we choked on the smoke of a hundred fuming political conversations in the tightly packed bar without ventilation, I wondered what the Islamists made of such public displays of boozy merrymaking. As we joked about the ubiquitous campaign of the popular Salafist presidential hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail and speculated about what kind of future the Islamists might have in store for us as they battled with the secularists and military junta to dominate the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, a solitary drinker at the next table who appeared to be drowning his sorrows, joined our conversation.

Introducing himself as Andrew, he told us how he had been working for a moderately Islamic satellite TV channel aimed at young people which had recently been taken over by Salafists. On the day of the takeover announcement, they promptly gave him his marching orders because, his boss told him in private conversation, Andrew’s religion did not match the channel’s new orientation.

“I don’t understand how my religion affects my role as a director,” he complained, as he fiddled with his purple-rimmed glasses. “Youssef Chahine made some of the best films about Islamic themes, including the victories of Saladin over the Crusaders, and he was Christian.”

While we agreed with this principle and that he should pursue a case of unfair dismissal, one of my friends pointed out that if he had stayed on he may have been forced to make programmes with which he would have been uncomfortable.

“I don’t care about compensation, I just want to make sure that what happened to me does not happen to others,” Andrew said a few nights later, when he turned up at the same bar while an atheist friend and I were talking religion. Informing us that he had spoken to a lawyer, he expressed his determination to stay in Egypt, at a time when thousands of other Christians were fleeing due to all the uncertainty and their vulnerable position.

Talking to Andrew, like other conversations with Christian friends, was making me gloomy. Egypt at its best, and the Egypt I am fond of, is a place of pluralism where one’s religion only matters in one’s place of worship. Naturally, I have long been aware, with the spread of inequality and Wahhabi-inspired conservatism, that Egyptians who think like this have become a rapidly dwindling group, as reflected by a spate of recent attacks on churches, including one just weeks before the revolution, on New Year’s Eve, the day I had last departed the country, feeling down.

But I had hoped that the show of national unity following this horrific bombing, during which Muslims formed human shields around churches, and the spirit of equality and solidarity the revolution awoke would help Egypt turn a new leaf. But we have still not reached this new chapter of full tolerance.

Another minority which prior to the revolution almost dared not speak its name and still has an uncertain and vulnerable future in Egypt are atheists and other non-believers. In fact, so deafening was the silence of most that some readers of my column in The Guardian believed that I was the only one. Some decades ago, atheism was an accepted position, even if ordinary Egyptians frowned upon it, as can be gleaned by the number of writers and intellectuals who openly expressed atheistic and/or anti-religious views, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. However, in recent years, an unholy alliance between intolerant Islamists and a discredited regime desperate to garner some legitimacy as a protector of Islam led to a number of high-profile cases against freethinkers, mostly liberal believers, for allegedly “insulting” or “disparaging” Islam or religion which effectively silenced the vast majority of sceptics and non-believers in the public sphere.

But the trend that started over the past few years of sceptics defying such intimidation to voice their views has accelerated since the revolution, and the number of people who I have come across who openly express their lack of belief has grown significantly – and we even sat in cafes speaking irreverently and in no hushed tones about our views of religion and God. However, their future freedom of expression hangs in the balance.

But this dichotomy between Islamists and secularists is a false one and a convenient sideshow to enable the powers that be to continue to exercise control, insist some activists. Hossam, a prominent human rights activist, told me over his bubbling shisa with its sweet-smelling smoke, that the real division we need to consider is between democratic and anti-democratic forces.

There are Islamists who believe in freedom of belief and expression and gender equality, he pointed out, while there are secularists who are religious bigots and misogynists. I got a taste of this on Tahrir Square when an Islamist stood up for my freedom of belief by telling a youngster who was angry at my criticism of religion that I was free to express what opinions I wanted, even atheistic ones.

For Hossam, the true battle lines for the coming period lay in establishing the rule of law, protecting vulnerable groups and minorities, making the military and intelligence services fully transparent and accountable, and achieving greater social and economic justice. And he is confident that these are battles which can be won, as reflected by the growing political literacy of ordinary people too often dismissed as novices who are taking the fate of their workplaces into their own hands and even campaigning for their local environments, a pursuit once seen as “elitist”.

Others see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the shadowy junta managing Egypt’s revolutionary transition, as the greatest immediate threat facing the country, because though the Mubarak regime may have lost its head, in more ways than one, its body is still largely intact, armed and dangerous.

The road to democracy in Egypt is a long and perilous one, and the road to revolutionising Egypt’s social and economic system to make them fairer and more equitable is yet longer still. The way ahead is filled with uncertainty and pitfalls that can potentially derail the aspirations awoken by Egypt’s young revolutionaries, but the genie of freedom, dignity and equality is out of the bottle and there is no way that any power can banish it. Though they may fight, delay and procrastinate, they cannot avoid the inevitable, that Egypt’s people will one day be free.

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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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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.

Members:

Sherbini: Vocals

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

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

Salalem

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.

Members:
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:
www.myspace.com/salalem
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.

Members:
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:
www.myspace.com/massaregbari
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:

http://www.myspace.com/empress1princessemmanuelle

www.myspace.com/princessemmanuellempress1

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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