Traditions of Tahrir

by Ted Swedenburg | published January 25, 2012 - 1:13pm

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a quite interesting program last Wednesday (as of now, it is still available for listening), in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising that toppled Mubarak. It featured Reem Kelani, a noted Palestinian singer based in London.

Kelani was in Cairo in early 2011 to research the music of Sayyid Darwish, an early twentieth-century Egyptian composer who is credited both with modernizing the country’s music and with writing some of the country’s most beloved songs, which are closely associated with Egypt’s 1919 revolution. Kelani’s trip coincided with the uprising, so she spent time at Tahrir, and then returned again for a visit in November 2011.

Her account is an important corrective to all the hype in the Western media about the leading role of hip-hop in the Egyptian uprising, for it shows how important the music of Sayyid Darwish was for the demonstrators at Tahrir. Kelani, as well as several of the artists she interviews, assert that in Tahrir, the songs of Darwish “found their rightful place in the revolution.” The poet Zayn al-‘Abidin Fu’ad asserts that Darwish’s songs, in both 1919 and again in 2011, helped both to create a patriotic atmosphere and to assert the need for national unity. The key slogan of the January 25 movement, he states, was “Raise your head up high, you’re an Egyptian” (Irfa‘ ra’sak faw’, anta Masri), which was taken from Darwish’s famous song, “Oum ya Masri” (Rise Up, O Egyptian).

Khaled Abu Naga, director of Microphone, the celebrated 2010 documentary about the underground art scene in Alexandria, notes that the youth of that city, where Darwish was born and began his career, returned to Darwish during the uprising. In this context Reem notes that the revolutionaries embraced, for instance, Darwish’s famed anthem of the 1919 revolt, “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi” (My Country, My Country, My Country), which, she observes, Egypt’s President Sadat attempted to neutralize when, in the wake of Camp David, he made it the country’s national anthem in 1979, replacing a more militaristic anthem. Demonstrators sang this love song to the nation enthusiastically at Tahrir, attempting to reclaim it from the authoritarian regime.

We also hear the strains of “Salma Ya Salama” (Welcome Back to Safety), another renowned Darwish song, being sung in Tahrir. This tune celebrated the return of Egyptian laborers recruited (usually by coercion) to assist in the war effort in World War I. The workers numbered about 1 million. The song was an immediate hit and has remained popular ever since. It has been recorded by many artists, most famously in 1997 by Dalida, the Egyptian-born French music star.

Kelani in no way tries to marginalize the more “modern” features of the Tahrir music scene in favor of the traditional; she cites, for instance, the Egyptian rock singer Ramy Essam and his famous song of the uprising, “Irhal” (Go Away). Microphone, Abu Naga’s film, is all about rappers and skateboarders and graffiti artists in Alexandria. The point, rather, is how deeply rooted contemporary Egyptians and their art are in their national tradition, and about drawing connections between today’s music and that of the past. One of the artists Kelani interviews, Samia Jaheen, is a member of the Alexandrian music group Eskenderella, which performs its own compositions as well as contemporary renderings of works by artists like the revolutionary singer Sheikh Imam and Sayyid Darwish. And Darwish himself, it should be underscored, was thoroughly modern. One of the secrets of his success, as Ziad Fahmy notes in his book, Ordinary Egyptians, was that he composed in a style that was “catchy and short and perfectly suited the needs of the record companies.”

One wishes that Kelani’s piece had put more emphasis on the cosmopolitan atmosphere out of which Darwish emerged in Alexandria. Poet Zayn al-‘Abidin Fu’ad calls attention, correctly, to the fact that Darwish sang “Ana al-Masri, Karim al-Unsurayn,” or I am Egyptian, Noble in Origins. The "origins" are dual, Muslim and Copt, and so Darwish was calling for national unity between Copts and Muslims. The song "Oum Ya Masri," referred to above, however, called for national unity between Copts and Muslims and Jews. The original lyrics include these lines: “What’s the difference -- Christian, Muslim or Jew” (quoted in Fahmy). “Jew,” Fahmy informs us, has been deleted in a recent print edition of Darwish’s lyrics in favor of “soldiers.” (In Arabic, yahud was deleted for the rhyming gunud.) It is also rarely recalled, these days, that one of Darwish’s colleagues was the Jewish-Egyptian composer Da’ud Husni, who undertook to complete the operetta “Huda” after Darwish died. (And please note: For the most part, Darwish composed the music of the songs he is noted for; the lyrics were written by professional lyricists.)

Reem Kelani is no dogmatic “traditionalist” either. Her album, Sprinting Gazelle, is both deeply rooted in “folk” musics of various regions of Palestine and, at the same time, put to very contemporary arrangements. And check out her jazz vocal performance with jazz artist Guy Barker, on BBC’s World Café. Kelani promises to release a double CD dedicated to the music of Sayyid Darwish soon. If Western media, both mainstream and progressive, would devote just a fraction of the attention to Reem Kelani that they pay to Palestinian rap, both she, and Palestinian music, would be much better, and broadly, appreciated. (And ditto for Egyptian music.)

Note: this post was corrected on February 9, 2012.