The Soundtrack of the Revolution

By Sophia Azeb
Egyptians once led the Arab world in terms of literature, music and film, but Hosni Mubarak’s regime significantly hampered the will and pride of the people in their own culture. This sense of disempowerment had ultimately been exemplified by the relative lack of active struggle against Mubarak–something Nawal el Saadawi mentions here.

Since January 25th, however, Egyptians–once referred to as apathetic by outside observers now awed by the revolution–are utilizing culture, primarily music and dance, to sustain their revolution and inspire one another to stay strong.

A few days ago, I heard Abdel Halim Hafez’s “El Watan el Akbar” (The Greatest Nation) piped through the speakers in Meydan Tahrir while watching Al Jazeera. Abdel Halim, commonly referred to as “The Son of the Revolution,” is adored by Egyptians of all ages. This song, a celebration of Nasser’s Egypt and anthem of pan-Arab independence, opens with the main chorus: “My country, my beloved/ The greatest nation/Its triumphs fills its existence/ Each day its glories grow/ My nation grows and is liberated.”

Egyptian-born singer Dalida’s, “Halwa Ya Baladi” (My Beautiful Country) inspired an impromptu dance in Meydan Tahrir, the sort of which have become a lifeline to Egyptians like me, who are watching the revolution with great pride, hope and anxiety from outside Egypt. It is no longer a song I associate only with the victories of the Egyptian national football team, previously the only occasions in which Egyptians felt able to take pride in their nation.

Still, with all the patriotic anthems produced by the immortal and beloved artists of Nasser-era Egypt, anti-Mubarak protest chants have inspired the everyday people on the streets of Egypt to make their own music. One such song has gone viral (this video provides an English translation) – I’ve heard it sung at solidarity rallies in both New York City and Toronto since the revolution began.

A young boy, inspired by the Hosni’s gone mad! songs, beautifully shares his own version with a crowd in Meydan Tahrir. Any fan of the classic Egyptian singers and actors– Um Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Omar Sharif and the like – is likely to laugh or cry (or both) at this child’s heartfelt imitation of 1950’s-era Egyptian ‘gestures of love’.  He is also clearly familiar with the old political comedies from the 1970’s that my generation grew up with. Likewise, the sheer joy of the audience following this woman’s protest song is delightful.

Of course, the song most important, most inspiring, and most trasured by Egyptians in Egypt and around the world in this moment? Our national anthem.

* Sophia Azeb is a graduate student and instructor in African & African American Studies at SUNY-Buffalo. You can follow her on Twitter.

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