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Death of a hegemon: Mid-century Egyptian music in Beirut

At the northeast end of Beirut’s Corniche, there’s a prominent statue of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. As you cross the street to reach the seaside, it towers over you as a reminder of different times and different politics.

This Nasser statue is emblematic of a very troubled relationship with Egypt’s Arab nationalist project and its cultural legacy. While Nasser did not exactly invent Arab nationalism — that can be traced to the efforts and writings of Levantine writers as early as the 1860s — his post-independence vision of a united Arab front against the colonial and imperial powers sparked and inspired the hopes and aspirations of millions around the Arab-speaking world.

Lebanon was no exception. The Nasser project did not solely focus on fostering political ties with emerging Arab nations, but constructed an elaborate propaganda machine that effectively produced hyperbolic discourse and cultural production to indoctrinate Arabic speakers into the Nasserist ideology.

Nothing could be more revealing on the nature of this relationship and how it is being reproduced than the theater performance, the Hishik Bishik Show, staged and produced by Metro Al Madina in Beirut. The show, now in its second year and billed as a cabaret (“From the weddings and the cabarets of Egypt in the early 1900s: 10 artists, musicians, singers, actors and dancers take us back to that golden age”), has toured far and wide, and secured a full house almost every night I was in Beirut last week. In fact, when I attended the place was fully booked, and I had to sit on the steps of the side aisle for the duration of the performance.

Hishik Bishik.jpg

Hishik Bishik

The term “hishik bishik” is an Egyptian expression (probably a corruption of a Turkish loanword) to denote cabaret-like performance, especially one perceived to be licentious or obscene. And Hishik Bishik takes its cue from the term in the way it stages two hours of reenacted performances of popular Egyptian songs in Egyptian films, ranging from Umm Kalthoum’s Gouly wala Takhbeesh ya Zein from Salama (1944) to Shadia’s Ya Hasan Ya Khouly al-Geniena, from Leilat al-Hanna (Night of Joy, 1951) to Hind Rostom’s Habibi ya Re2a from Atrafat Zog (Confessions of a Husband, 1964), all the way to Leila Nazmi’s revival of Egyptian folk in 1970s.

The reenactments don’t follow chronology, or indeed any logical order: The progression seems to fluctuate depending on mood and musical similarity.

What I found extraordinary and bewildering was how enthusiastically the audience received the music and performance (they knew the songs almost word for word) when the show is not just a simple reenactment. It is a pastiche, a cynical reinterpretation that makes fun of the originals and makes fun of itself making fun of the original. The performers use exaggeration, slapstick moves and all kind of insinuations, both obscene and absurd.

I felt as if Hishik Bishik and the audience reactions were a manifestation of a sinister fascination for a past that refuses to let go. A past that is holding all of us, Egyptians and Lebanese as well as other Arabs, hostage to grandiose post-colonial fantasies that failed spectacularly.

Perhaps this constant reference to the past is most impeccably manifested in the reenactment of Nazmi’s songs in Hishik Bishik. The performance did not stop at copying her singing style and her voice, but went as far as reimagining and restaging Egyptian “traditional” dress and Egyptian dance moves. Even the comments fired back at the audience were in the Egyptian dialect.

Nazmi, who graduated from the High Institute of Music in 1968, worked on collecting popular songs as part of her dissertation on Egyptian folk music during the early 1970s. She then released an album containing part of these songs, which used a lot of popular idioms and expressions. The album was a success, and even out-sold Umm Kalthoum at some point. The songs did not play on Arab nationalism in particular, but on the exaltation of “folk music,” the music of the people. A fetishization of national identity was clear throughout.  

Decades later, Lebanese singer Marwa would hijack Nazmi’s music to remix and rearrange it in a racier fashion (much to Nazmi’s shock and dismay). Marwa’s suggestive singing and choreography reflected a change in how that music was perceived and understood in a post-Arab nationalism world. It is a different kind of fetishization, one symptomatic of an obsession with this Egyptian national identity: Rather than showcase it or popularize it, as Nazmi was trying to do, the idea was to not take it so seriously, and maybe even make fun of it. This was a trend that other Lebanese singers would follow, such as Haifa Wahbe for example, with Ragab from the album Baddy Aish (I Want to Live, 2005), produced by Rotana.

A far cry from the Egyptomania of Nasser’s time, this trivialization of Nasserist ideals and the Arab vanguard is at the heart of these reenactments and re-appropriations. It seems that ripping them apart or making them sound silly or sexual breaks their spell. But some may argue that the phenomenon also reveals declining taste and a less discerning audience.

In the meantime, I was constantly surprised by Beirut’s soundscape — you are never far from Umm Kalthoum or Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who appear to be playing in almost every coffee house in Hamra. And many of the restaurants or cafes I went to had Nasser’s portrait displayed in apparent reverence. Many Leftists I spoke to there couldn’t seem to finish a sentence without invoking Nasserist Arab nationalist rhetoric in all its colorful idioms.

Hishik Bishik is positioned exactly at the intersection between these two realities — one that is enchanted and still lost in the world of Nasser’s project, regurgitating its ideals and dictums endlessly, and another that is wearier, and sarcastically reenacts Nasserist cultural productions in a kitschy, self-conscious manner. 

As an Egyptian, I couldn’t be more critical of what Nasser did in selling the illusion of one Arab homeland for a proud and prosperous people. Proud and prosperous does not come through corrupt, tyrannical governments. Yet at the same time, I was perplexed by this audacious re-appropriation. What do you do with a brilliant legacy and a dismal present? How do other Arabs deal with the death of a hegemon?

Our current nationalist euphoria of Egypt as “the leader” and Egypt as “the heart of the Arab world,” combined with the fact that Egypt’s present is extraordinarily precarious — after all, it’s a country that has been on the verge of a bankruptcy a few times in the past four years — and dependent on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s generosity and political interests, forces us to rethink that status and reexamine the Nasserist legacy. Not that we should undermine the part of it that was brilliant and ambitious, but reconcile it with our present reality.

The problematic relationship with the Nasserist project in Lebanon and its representation through the performance of pastiche offers a poignant insight into what persists and why. And it highlights the need to move beyond our fetishizations and obsessions. If we can’t be serious about them, at least we can have a laugh.

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