Soundtracking the Egyptian revolution
In Arabic class this week, our infamous textbook AlKitaab transitioned from one controversial and politicized topic to the next, the new lesson being about violent Arab revolutions and governments as opposed to the previous lesson on marriage traditions. One advantage of this stark shift in topics is that a lot of the content material was reminiscent of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and discussions of the chants used by protesters made me think of the music that arose as part of the movement. Despite not living in Egypt when the revolution broke out, this music connected me to my country, taking a distant cause and making it accessible to everyone.
“Yalmidan” (Oh Square) - Cairokee ft. Aida El-Ayoubi
“Oh Square, where were you long ago?”
This ode to Tahrir Square, where the protesters gathered in Cairo, captures the spirit of the revolution more than just about any other song in my opinion. The singers attribute their success to the Square, personifying it with all of the vigor and emotion behind the revolution. They tell it, “You have turned on the lights and collected around you a broken people. We are born anew,” crediting the Square with unifying the Egyptian masses and their struggles. What really stands out to me about this song is the fact that it isn’t looking at the revolution through rose-colored glasses. “Yalmidan” invokes the reality of life in pre-revolution Egypt, helping listeners understand the long-lasting desperation and essential nature of finally speaking out against the regime and the hope they gained as a result. They describe how “The sound of freedom gathers us, our lives now have meaning. There’s no going back, our voice is now heard, and to dream is no longer forbidden.” Additionally, the anxiety of where the revolution would take them and whether the momentum would pay off is not forgotten as Aida El-Ayoubi sings, “Sometimes I’m scared we will become a memory, we move away (from you) and the idea dies,” but she later reaffirms her faith in the movement, reassuring listeners that “Our idea is our strength.”
“We will protect our country, as will the children of our children, and we’ll restore the rights of the youth who died for it”
“Sout el Horeya” (The Sound of Freedom) - Cairokee
“I came down and said I’m not coming back
And I wrote with my blood in every street
We made ourselves heard by those who weren’t listening
And all the barriers were broken”
To me, this song always evokes an image of the whole country holding their heads up in the face of injustice and poverty, and working toward a common goal. This image is translated beautifully into the music video of different protesters singing the lyrics in the sea of demonstrators. One particular lyric calling out the regime’s selfishness by telling those in charge to stop using the word “I” embodies the community and connectivity of the protesters who were truly fighting for something bigger than themselves.
“In every street in my country
The sound of freedom is calling”
“Hor” (Free) - Black Theama
This song, while not explicitly referencing the revolution, is essentially a list compiled by my absolute favorite Egyptian band, Black Theama, of simple things they consider part of becoming free. While these things included being free to style their own clothes or choose what time they sleep, they also touched on more complex freedoms that we may take for granted, like being free to dream, pick their religion or love their country. They also mention freedom to live their childhood and hate their government, both rights that were robbed from them as conditions didn’t permit some kids to just be kids without the weight of the world on their shoulders, and criticizing this corruption was punishable by imprisonment. They explain the need to fight for these freedoms and not stand idly by while the government profits off of their impoverishment, saying clearly “I like to live a peaceful life, but if you force me to be violent, I will be violent because I’m free.” It is also important that they describe their desire to be peaceful but being forced to action as I think media tends to portray violence as the first resort for Arabs as opposed to a final one. Perhaps the main point Black Theama is trying to make is that freedom means not only being afforded the opportunity to make decisions, but also being given a platform to say what’s on their mind. This desire for independence and to be heard is best articulated when they say, “I won’t be part of a machine, I won’t be a human extra. On my own I want to be important, and important means I’m free.”
“Ezzay” (How?) - Mohamed Mounir
This song, also by a personal favorite, Mohamed Mounir, quickly became an anthem for the revolution. In it, Mounir asks Egypt, “How come I raise your head up high, but you push my head down, how come?” He goes on to describe how he is Egypt’s oldest street and biggest hope, pleading with the country, imploring why he was left vulnerable and abandoned when all he has ever done was hope for the country’s prosperity. This song explains the injustice brought about by a corrupt regime to the people who have lived their whole lives loving and working for the same country that is bringing them down.
“Irhal” (Leave) - Ramy Essam
One of the most powerful and unifying aspects of the revolution were the chants used by the protesters to call for Hosni Mubarak to step down. These chants were colloquial and accessible to the masses, making it all the more powerful as thousands of protesters united in shouts of defiance and anger against the regime. Aiding in this accessibility was Ramy Essam’s song “Irhal,” collecting many of the chants into one combined song that he often performed in Tahrir Square during the revolution. The chants used in this song are translated and listed below.
“All of us with one hand, and we asked for one thing. Leave, Leave, Leave, Leave.”
“Fall, fall Hosni Mubarak.”
“The people demand the overthrow of the regime.”
“He will leave, we won’t leave.”
Despite the obvious question of why our book teaches us about violence and regimes before teaching us to, say, order food at a restaurant or ask what day it is, I’m really happy to have had the chance to remember a time of such power and possibility, a time when my country banded together despite all differences for the hope of a better life. In 2011, I was a confused sixth grader unsure of exactly what nuances and politics were at play, but worried just the same for my family and my country. Listening to these songs made me feel connected to the struggle in a time where I felt simultaneously blessed to be in America and utterly devastated to be away from a changing Egypt. Looking at Egypt now makes me wonder why my people risked everything and whether it was even worth it, but closing my eyes and listening to the music of the revolution fills me with hope once again and reminds me of the beauty of believing in change.