Young people were the most creative in composing lyrics in vernacular Egyptian Arabic. The chants articulated our unity in wanting to bring down the regime: “Egypt, our mother/ Here are your sons/ Here are your daughters/ For you, they have suffered/ For you, they are willing to die!” and “What does Mubarak want?/ He wants us to kiss his shoes/ No, Mubarak, we shall never surrender/ Tomorrow, we shall stamp you with our shoes!”
Many of the chants used were specifically “Egyptian” and alluded to internationally famous symbols, such as pharaohs (the despot rulers of Ancient Egypt). But there were also subtler chants, drawn from Egypt’s rich heritage. An outstanding example was the use of the slogan “Batil!” (null, false, void and untrue), which was derived from the Egyptian movie Shay’a min al-Khuf (Fear), made by well-known director Hussein Kamal in 1969, in which the population of an entire village live in fear of a despotic bandit leader. When he kidnaps a young woman and forces her into a false marriage, the villagers march to his palace, torch it and save her. As they do this they chant “Batil!” (in this case a void marriage contract). Our chants in Tahrir were “Hosni Mubarak – batil!” and “ND Party – batil!”
On one occasion a group of youths brought in a laptop and a huge sound system to play the songs of Shaykh Imam. The blind, lute-playing singer and poet Ahmad Fuad Nigm have been iconic radical political singers since the 1960s, leading to a ban on their music in Egypt. In the pre-YouTube age, people could only get smuggled copies of their CDs from Beirut or Paris. One night we sat in Tahrir Square loudly and defiantly singing Shaykh Imam’s song “Rise Egypt and Become Strong”. What a moment of great joy that was!
Another iconic song, “Bismillah”, which was very popular after the 1973 war with Israel, was sung loudly almost every day in the square, reminding the listeners of the collective ability of the nation to achieve victory.
The revolution also has its own songs. A perfect example was composed by the young Mustafa Said, who sang it in Tahrir Square. The lyrics were written by the well-known poet Tamim Barghouti, who recited the poem for the first time on 28 January, “the Friday of rage”: “Be patient Egypt, the light of day is about to emerge; the light of our day is pleasant, but the coward’s day will never rise again.” Barghouti’s poem was especially colourful and again makes reference to Egyptian heritage. He compares Mubarak to a pharaoh, and declares him an uninvited guest and the result of black magic. For both of these calamities Egyptian popular culture has a remedy. In Egyptian folklore, people break a clay water jug after an uninvited guest has finally left, so that they may never return. We spotted a man holding a huge clay water jug with the word “Go!” inscribed on it, presumably for the day when Mubarak leaves for good.
There is a special Egyptian ceremony, “zar”, to reverse the effects of black magic. In such a ceremony the participants wear colourful clothes, use high-pitch drum beats, chant loudly and dance in a large circle or in rows. The protesters held a zar ceremony to dismiss Mubarak from power. Did it work?
The protesters turned everything into artistic tools: their bodies, their faces, their jackets, the ground, flags, placards and banners. The revolution has provided a great space for new artistic abilities to emerge, so the number of posters and placards multiplied on the square. One group of artists displayed new cartoon posters and drawings of Mubarak, with a sign that read “League of the Revolution’s Artists”.
The Egyptian Revolution still faces huge challenges and dangers from the Mubarak camp. Some of those brave singers whose songs filled the air in Tahrir Square during the revolution, such as Ramy Essam, are now being detained and tortured by the military police. Only a deeper and more organised culture of protests, strikes and sit-ins in factories, universities, government workplaces and elsewhere can protect against counterrevolution.
In 1924 Leon Trotsky wrote in his book Literature and Revolution, “The development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.” Indeed, the 25 January revolution in Egypt has been the highest test of the cultural and artistic creativity of the Egyptians, who have carved – through this culture – a new historic epoch and a new reality.
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