Ahmad Ismail Al-Sayyed: Art as a Weapon in Egyptian Revolution

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Al-Sayyed rarely appears on television, neither on talk shows nor in video clips. But the Tahrir revolutionaries got to know the Egyptian singer and songwriter very well. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammad Khawly

Published Friday, June 15, 2012

After years spent singing in political events and protests, Ahmad Ismail Al-Sayyed took his oud to Tahrir Square.

“Who’s he?” the young men asked about the man they gathered round in the first days at Tahrir Square. Nobody could answer. Ahmad Ismail al-Sayyed, cradling his oud, is not interested in publicity.

He rarely appears on television, neither on talk shows nor in video clips. But the Tahrir revolutionaries got to know the Egyptian singer and songwriter very well.

They soon learned his songs and tunes, repeating after him the words of the late poet, Najib Surour, heralding the revolution of four decades ago.

“People, you are the teachers, you have been patient, speak up/ Sing your songs about the pyramids, People, who tell it like it is/ Let time speak, about the victim and the accused/ God, citizens, God. Oh people whose religion is life/ Our people, we are marching, and the next generation will have to bear it most/ They will complete the journey, and take revenge/ A thousand after a thousand, line after line, each soul held on the shoulders, in sacrifice for you, my country.”

Sayyed had set the words to music as part of a collection of songs for a university theatre production. Since then, he has been singing “People, You Are the Teachers” at every political occasion.

But the song’s time came when he sang it in Tahrir Square, in the 18 days during which demonstrators brought down Hosni Mubarak, now sentenced to life imprisonment.

“I chose the difficult route, but it is definitely the true one,” says Sayyed about his life as an artist, which began three decades ago.

He believes that art is a weapon for resistance and struggle. We see him sing at workers’ protests, political conferences, political party events, and in universities.

Sayyed insists that the wave of songs being currently produced cannot be described as art. “Most of what we hear and see on satellite television distorts people’s taste in music and the essence and content of our culture,” he says.

He tells Al-Akhbar that “when songs lose their true meaning, they are outside art. They are simply a way of making a living, negatively influencing our heritage and future. We have waited for the revolution for so long, to rescue Egyptian art from the degradation it finds itself in, which upsets many Egyptians.”

Sayyed does not deny that, like all other artists, he used to dream of great fame. However, “I belong to a generation that did not find anyone to look after it, adopt it, or guide it. I searched for this art, I sought it, without waiting for anyone’s support.”

This is how he found his rightful place singing political and patriotic songs, making use of the rich legacy of Egyptian poets such as Salah Jaheen, Fouad Haddad, Ahmad Fouad Najm, and Jamal Bakhit.

He says “it is a different kind of singing,” it has commitment. This is what we find in his most famous song, with which he opens all his concerts. “There is no other song like it, one which can bring out such different emotions in different people,” he says.

Sayyed is known by many epithets: “the people’s artist,” the “singer of the Left,” “the singer of the Egyptian nationalist movement,” and the “the heir of Sheikh Imam.” One of his latest is the “Sayid Darwish of the 25 January Revolution.”

He adores Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kalthoum, and Abdel Halim Hafez, “particularly his revolutionary songs,” as well as Marcel Khalife and the patriotic songs of Fairouz. “I felt that I had to go down that road ... And I did,” he says.

Sayyed’s first steps coincided with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. “At the time, I took part in a large artistic and political demonstration, and since then I have never been parted from my oud, which I carry to all political gatherings.”

Ahmad Ismail al-Sayyed remained committed to political songs under a regime which preferred commercial art. This prevented him from being part of the circle of sponsorship.

He could not find a producer for his work, “which is why I have never released a single album. If a producer had taken the risk, he would have lost a lot and would have been shunned by many.”

In 2000, the director Khaled Youssef asked Sayyed to compose the songs for his film, Al-Asifa (The Storm). The success of their first project, and Youssef’s belief in Ismail’s talent, led them to work together again on Khiana Mashroua (Justified Betrayal, 2006), in which he also had an acting part.

The director and singer continued to work together producing the film Dokkan Shehata (Shehata’s Store, 2009), which revealed Sayyed’s many talents. In Kaf al-Qamar (The Palm of the Moon, 2011), he sang all of the film’s five songs.

Sayyed is not a stranger to Tahrir Square. He was with many other artists and intellectuals who fought side by side with the revolutionaries during those days. Many young people would wait for him to arrive, cradling his beloved instrument.

His appearance on stage ignited their passion and made them feel that victory was close. “For me, the revolution had an additional joy, because when I saw people marching towards the Square, I felt that I had not wasted my life,” he reminisces.

He began a new musical phase in Tahrir, setting many of the new poems [coming out of the protests] to music. Perhaps the most famous is “Hold your head up high, you are an Egyptian,” written by Jamal Bakhit and based on one of the revolution’s main slogans.

Sayyed did not leave Tahrir, “my life’s dream was coming true before my eyes.” With the downfall of Mubarak and the survival of fuloul (remnants of the regime), he worked with the Independent Culture Alliance to launch El-Fann Midan (Art Plaza), which toured the districts of Cairo.

Their aim was to bring art back to the people, singing in streets and squares for “simple folk.” With El-Fann Midan, Sayyed sang: “Depart, army of darkness/Let the Moon smile,” which is now one of the most popular slogans of the revolution.

He still remembers his music teacher at Al-Saidiyya secondary School in Giza fondly. “Mr. Muhammad Nadda is the one who made me love music and art,” he says.

This led the young man to join the Arabic Music Institute in Cairo. However, the opinions of some religious sheikhs, who believed singing to be “prohibited,” prevented him from completing his course.

“I left the Institute before I finished my degree. I was young and influenced by various opinions around me. I believed that singing led to damnation and that I would go to hell,” he explained.

He stopped singing for some time, but “it had a negative effect” on him.” He joined the Armed Forces and completed his military service. But he was bound to return to his oud, “which I could not bear to be separated from.”

Sayyed began to play and compose, educating himself, struggling, and challenging, until he became the troubadour of the revolution he had predicted for so many years.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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