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February 16, 2017

Book Notes - Rachel Aspden "Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East"

Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Rachel Aspden's book Generation Revolution collects fascinating first-person accounts of regular people who participated in the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Generation Revolution is an excellent social history of Egypt's persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulties of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes"


In her own words, here is Rachel Aspden's Book Notes music playlist for her book Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East:



In Generation Revolution, I follow a group of young Egyptians through the stormy years before and after the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. Music is interwoven with their individual dreams and disappointments and with the fate of the country itself.

Egyptians love melody and rhythm, dancing and singing. Everywhere you go in Cairo, day or night, music follows you: from the Quranic recitation shopkeepers and taxi drivers play in the early morning to the distorted blare of shaabi music at a working-class street wedding, raucous mahraganat spilling from a teenage driver’s swerving tuk-tuk, and the nostalgic sounds of mid-20th-century stars such as Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez that conjure up a lost age of elegance and sophistication.

Over the period I write about, music is used as a political tool (protesters recycle old resistance songs and devise new ones; the state employs ageing stars to record its own propaganda theme tunes) and a religious football (moderate Muslims try to “clean up” secular pop music by giving it an Islamic twist; hardliners shun it altogether in favour of austere male-voice chants).

It was also central to my own experience of getting to know Egypt from the moment I arrived, confused and disoriented, aged 23. I lived in Cairo on and off for the next 12 years and very few of those moments were silent. Arabic music, with its quarter-tones and intricate rhythms, sounded discordant and alien to me at first, but I grew to love it as I did the country and the people. Here's a brief introduction to the sounds of the heart of the Arab world.

Boshrat Kheir - Hussein al-Jasmi

This infuriatingly, irresistibly catchy track, whose title means Good Omen, was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s unofficial campaign song in the presidential election of 2014. Compared to previous clunky, unfashionable pro-regime songs, it’s slick and glossily produced: the expensive video, showing cheerful dancing Egyptians from all corners of the country, is based on Pharrell Williams's Happy. It swept a nation that after more than two years of bloody upheaval was desperate for optimism -- I describe in Generation Revolution how you could hear it being played from cellphones everywhere you went. The bright future it promised, however, has yet to materialise.

Ana Aslan Gamed - Oka & Ortega

This is a swaggering, bad-mannered anthem of the mahraganat scene, which emerged from the underground around the time of the revolution. It’s the sound of Cairo’s working-class youth -- slangy, crass, witty and guaranteed to provoke horror in politer enclaves. You could translate the title as “I’m hardcore”, and the song narrates the misadventures of a young man on the mean streets of a rough area -- navigating dope smokers, suspicious neighbours and knife-wielding enemies in his quest for money and good times. Of course mahraganat soon became fashionable on the upper-class bohemian scene, and its biggest stars ended up doing TV adverts for soft drinks and dairy companies.

Irhal - Ramy Essam

Before the 2011 revolution, Essam was just another guitar-slinging student from Mansoura in the Nile delta. But during the protests against Hosni Mubarak, he took to a makeshift stage and came up with a song that encapsulated the spirit of Tahrir Square - Irhal (Leave!). Its protest chant-like lyrics (“We’re all united/ And we have one demand:/ Leave! Leave!”) with acoustic backing became an anthem of the “18 days” - the period in which young protesters occupied Tahrir, defending it against repeated attacks by the police, security services and hired thugs -- including, during the “Battle of the Camel”, armed men on horses and camels from the tourist stables at the Giza pyramids. Essam’s visibility did not endear him to the police – at a protest later in 2011, he was arrested, dragged to the Egyptian Museum nearby and tortured for four hours.

Take me back to Cairo - Karim Shukry

This kitschy 60s confection of western and eastern music, English and Arabic lyrics presses every Orientalist button going -- and manages to be totally charming while doing it. It evokes what for most Egyptians was always an illusion: the multicultural, cosmopolitan city of the mid 20th century where wealthy couples sipped cocktails on Nile-side terraces and watched bellydancers at elegant cabarets. Karim Shukry (real name Jean Zaloum) was among the Francophone elite who emigrated as Egypt became ever more monocultural -- in his case to Montreal. His love song to the city he left behind has become a theme tune for generations of nostalgic Egyptian expats.

Oum Kalthoum - Alf Leila w leila

The ultimate diva of the age when Egypt led the Arab world. Though she died in 1975 (when four million people attended her funeral procession), she is still revered by all Egyptians and her image, complete with trademark beehive hairdo and cat’s-eye sunglasses, can be seen everywhere. Her stately music, which blends classical Arabic elements with more modern orchestral and guitar parts, became the soundtrack for an era from the 1940s to the 1970s -- the building of the modern nation. To hear it now pouring from a streetside teahouse where the last few customers are lingering or from the radio in a battered taxi late at night is, for Egyptians, instant nostalgia.

Rango - Ahlan Be el Talat Asyad

These musicians come from Egypt’s Sudanese community, established by slaves brought to work the cotton fields and serve in the army in the 1820s. They play songs from the zar -- a healing trance ceremony with African roots that in Egypt has taken on Islamic overtones. In this song, they greet the “three spirits”: Yawra Bey, a westernised dandy in a frock coat, the Red Djinn, lord of the spirits, and Lady Racosha, a mischievous child spirit. These days zar is dying out, attacked by Islamic fundamentalists and edged out by commercial pop, but in a male-dominated society it provides a rare space for women to come together, dance, sing and share their problems.

Metallica - One

In the depressing, stagnant years of the late 1990s, western metal music became a way for Egypt’s urban teenagers to express their rage and frustration in a language their parents couldn’t understand. I describe Amr, one of the characters, sitting in his bedroom in Alexandria blasting out Metallica to the bemusement of his bureaucrat father. Unfortunately, the metal fans fell foul of one of the regime’s periodic witch-hunts, in which some unpopular minority or other would be scapegoated to distract the public from economic stagnation at home and dubious policies abroad (in particular, the Mubarak regime’s close ties and corrupt oil and gas deals with Israel). In 1997 80 middle-class teenagers were seized from their beds in dawn raids as tabloids screamed that they were devil worshippers in league with Zionists. The public prosecutor later released them, commenting that though they may not be actually in league with Satan, they were trying to “follow him by having sex, drugs and other evil things”.

Nancy Ajram - Ah w nos

Pure bubblegum pop: artificial, saccharine and totally irresistible. This was a massive hit in Egypt (and across the rest of the Arab world) in the mid-2000s, the era of the president’s neoliberalising son Gamal Mubarak, the spread of the internet, and the lures of globalisation. Though Nancy Ajram is actually Lebanese, in this video she is dressed as an Egyptian country girl temptress, teasingly hanging up washing, scrubbing pots and wrangling chickens in a robe that’s always on the verge of falling off. It was on heavy rotation on the huge TV screens in the coffeeshops where Egyptians meet after work for years.

Meen el ma2soud - Asfalt & Zap Tharwat

After the revolution by a new breed of “clean” production houses that avoided the scantily clad excesses of female stars like Nancy Ajram. Some were funded by Gulf investors with religious motives, and some had an overtly religious message; others were simply rooted in “Egyptian values”. This is a moody, slick anti-western protest song by a rapper who became a hero for young girls (and their male peers). “Who is the target - me, my religion, or my country?” he asks, describing the plight of Gaza, Iraq, Kashmir and Afghanistan and the need for the Muslim world to rise up against American hegemony. These sentiments are far from welcome in Sisi’s Egypt -- especially as he attempts to ingratiate himself with President Trump -- but they’re a window on the true feelings of young Egyptians.


Rachel Aspden and Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East links:

excerpt from the book

Guardian review
Kirkus Reviews review
London Evening Standard review
New York Times review

World Policy interview with the author


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