Egypt’s musical nationalism, and a little George Orwell

Nationalism in Egypt is nothing new. But its current resurgence in the country’s cultural output would certainly cause concern for George Orwell, had he been alive today.

“Nationalism,” wrote Orwell, “is one of the worst enemies of peace.” This was in the years leading up to World War II, when nationalism in Europe was setting the stage for Hitler’s Nazism in Germany, Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, and Stalin’s brutal brand of communism in the Soviet Union.

Orwell defined nationalism as the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty than to advance its interests. Patriotism, he argued, is instead a feeling of devotion for a country and culture’s way of life. Its nature is rooted in defense, both military and cultural, while nationalism is inseparable from desire for power.

State-sponsored media and cultural production have often acted as vehicles for transforming patriotism into ferocious nationalism, which manages to resurface whenever the country finds itself in political crisis. This is quite evident in Egypt’s recent music history.

The most recent example of musical nationalism is the caricature-like display of military propaganda in Mustafa Kamel’s music video “Tislam al-Ayady” (Bless Your Hands), which was released last month.

The eight-minute song features Kamel and other pop stars such as Hakim, Ghada Ragab, Khaled Aggag, and Hesham Abbas. It is something of a musical tragedy in its lackluster production, but comically calls itself an operetta.

The song’s bland production quality, brazen lyrics, and stolen melody have caused growing alarm in the local music community, especially since Kamel is head of the Musicians Syndicate. Many are wondering if its ripped-off melodies and blatant nationalism indicate the syndicate’s new direction under Kamel.

For Egyptian composer and conductor Ahmed al-Hennewy, it is an absurd musical production.

“Firstly, it is very alarming that people are even calling ‘Tislam al-Ayady’ an operetta because it most certainly is not, and this shows an utter lack of cultural education,” Hennewy says.

“An operetta is usually a romantic comic opera that includes song and dance from start to finish. It has a story line, character arcs and so on, like Sayed Darwish’s ‘Al-Ashra al-Tayeba’ (The Ten of Diamonds), ‘Scheherazade’, or ‘Al-Barouka’ (The Wig),” he adds.

“Tislam al-Ayady” is nothing of the sort. It’s a repetitive song with a melody taken from Sherifa Fadel’s Ramadan anthem, “Wallah Lissa Badry Ya Shahr al-Siyam” (Don’t Leave Already, Oh Month of Fasting).

Political cartoonist and Mada contributor Andeel describes how Kamel simply swapped the main chorus of Fadel’s song, “Tamm al-badr badry” (The moon is full too soon), for “Tislam al-ayady/Tislam ya gaysh bilady” (Bless your hands/Army of my country).

But for Mohamed Ashraf, a Cairo-based taxi driver, “‘Tislam al-Ayady’ is an important song that reminds people of the importance of Egypt’s military during the ongoing polarization of the country.”

“This song shows that Egypt is still the mother of the world, and that we love and support our military,” Ashraf says. “It is important to create songs like this now to unite the people, bring about security, and to put fear into our enemies.”

Nationalistic tunes are not uncommon in Egypt’s modern music history.

Since the 1952 military-led revolution, the state has continually used film, music, and other forms of artistic expression to push forward nationalistic ideologies unabashedly laced with a grand narrative about the Egyptian military.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, much of the musical output teetered on a blurry line between politically conscious masterpiece and beautifully orchestrated propaganda.

Take, for example, some of Abdel Halim Hafez’s post-1967 hits, such as “Your Son Calls You a Hero,” “Never Mind, Mr. President,” and “I Swear.” Each song promotes a sense of inclusion, a concoction of both nationalism and patriotism. Throughout his career, Hafez sang and popularized around 56 nationalistic songs, many of which continue to resurface today.

Om Kalthoum also publically associated herself with late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab regime. Following the 1967 defeat, she embarked on a four-year concert tour across the Arab world to raise money to rebuild the Egyptian military.

Nasser also asked Hafez, the late conductor Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the Algerian-born Cairo-based Warda, and a handful of other regional stars to collaborate and create another long-form, propagandistic ditty: “Al-Watan al-Akbar” (The Greater Nation), an Arab nationalist song aimed at instilling unity and keeping up regional morale.

Fast forward a few decades, and the theatrical song “Ihktarnah” (We Chose Him) is a painful memory for most Egyptians living during Hosni Mubarak’s seemingly endless 30-year rule.

Composed by the late Ammar al-Sherie, “Ihktarnah” features singers Hoda Ammar, Nadia Mustafa, Latifa, and others parading around the stage in a disorienting display of theatrics and retro absurdity, as the chorus chants, “Ihktarnah, Ihktarnah” (We chose him, we chose him). The song hit pop culture in the late 1980s and reverberated its way through the early 1990s, seemingly making a comeback anytime Mubarak neared the referendums that determined his “re-election.”

The tone of “Ikhtarnah” is less militant compared to its predecessors. It relies more on an infectious melody and mind-numbing chorus. “Tislam al-Ayady” and “Al-Watan al-Akbar” also use a great deal of repetition, but they are more deeply infected by military associations both in timbre and visuals.

“Al-Watan al-Akbar” opens up with a factory line of drummer boys pounding away as if to prepare the troops for war, while a chorus of men begins to sing in chant-like unison while marching across the stage. Hafez appears in the background with his voice of nectar and angelic face, like a deus ex machina swooping in to save the beaten land.

“Tislam al-Ayady” has the same sort of epic-hero feel to it, but it inarguably has less artistry than its predecessors. Instead of theatrics, its military-pop music video is a montage of wildly juxtaposed scenes. The video switches back and forth from Egypt’s Armed Forces jumping through hoops and scaling walls to the country’s seasoned pop stars brazenly singing “bless your hands” as they dance around a recording studio draped in Egyptian flags.

“The clip and the music are extremely tacky,” says musician Omar Foda. “You can tell there wasn’t much effort put into the production or writing of the song. The idea here is just to bring out a bunch of famous musicians that the people can relate to, sing about how awesome the military is, and show their many great training skills and techniques. If this isn’t propaganda, I don’t know what is.”

Another example of blatant, almost shocking nationalistic propaganda released last year is “Message from the Egyptian Children to the Whole World.” A three-minute music video produced by Amr Mustafa and composed by Tamer Hussein, it portrays a school of children dressed in military garb, saluting the Egyptian flag while posing with semi-automatic guns and ducking under speeding SUVs. Although the song is annoyingly catchy, something about scenes of kids with guns is utterly disturbing.

For Foda, such productions are more than a bit concerning. “Nationalism spreads fear and hatred between people. It creates an enemy that people can unite against, and the results are usually negative,” he says.

Looking at the histories of Nazism, Trotskyism, Zionism, and Communism, nationalism seems like a possible precursor to gruesome bottomless pits of religious or military fascism. If we look again at Orwell’s definitions of nationalism versus patriotism – an inclusive love for a country’s culture and way of life – the latter might make for a better song and dance in both music production and society at large.

Maha ElNabawi 

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