Sayid Darwish: Voice of the People

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An Egyptian flag flies on a statue in Tahrir Square in Cairo on 21 December 2011. (Photo: AFP - Filippo Monteforte)

By: Serene Assir

Published Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Long after his death, and nearly one year into the uprising, composer and performer Sayid Darwish remains the main source of inspiration behind the musical spirit of Egypt’s revolution.

After a bloody five-day crackdown by the army and Central Security Forces on protesters in downtown Cairo, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Friday December 23.

Many sang the Egyptian national anthem, Beladi, Beladi (My Country, My Country). The song was originally written by revolutionary composer Sayid Darwish (1892-1923).

In so doing, they reaffirmed their love of Egypt at a time when opposition to the SCAF was being labelled in the official media as unpatriotic and even destructive.

Putting street sound to music

Born in 1892, he sang of love, the everyday, politics, poverty and the mundane. Revolutionary, anti-imperial, popular and patriotic at the same time, Darwish’s songs transmitted, with strong doses of subtlety and humor, the essence of Egypt’s social spirit. For this reason, when Egyptians rose against its rulers in 2011, decades on from Darwish’s death, his songs were more relevant than ever.

Though Darwish died young at 31, he was a prolific composer. He came from a poor Alexandrian family, and worked menial jobs that put him in direct contact with the country's disaffected throughout his short life. As such, he never suffered from the false distance that has so frequently burdened well-meaning middle or upper-class revolutionary artists. His voice came directly from the people he sang about.

No doubt, the significance of his era had a direct impact on the resonance of his music. Darwish was witness to the decay of the Ottoman empire, giving way to the reshaping of Egyptian national identity.

Deeply linked to this was Darwish’s support through music for the revolution against British imperialism. “Ya Balah Zaghlouli”, for instance, was a veiled snipe at empire at a time when any public mention of Egyptian nationalist leader, and would-be Wafd Party founder, Saad Zaghloul was forbidden by the British.

"Written about a female street vendor selling a type of date called zaghlouli, the song did not only break the wall of censorship imposed by the British," explains UK-based Palestinian singer and Darwish-lover Reem Kelani.

"He broke taboos with subtlety and humor. Darwish was revolutionary through his invocation of symbols that had direct relevance on the street,” said Kelani. “‘Ya Balah Zaghlouli’ became hugely popular at the time."

Even the rawness of Darwish’s voice was part of his appeal. With no pretense at perfection, his poorly recorded tracks moved scores of musicians, including Lebanese diva Fairouz, to offer reinterpretations of his compositions.

Fairouz, one of the region’s most emblematic artists, sang Darwish songs such as “Al-Helwa Di”. The song, now a part of popular culture and every Arab child’s repertoire, tells the story of a beautiful young girl who wakes up early in the morning to bake.

“Al-Helwa Di” then tells of the economic woes that burden the workers, as they prepare to start their day. In a line rich in revolutionary color, the song reminds the wealthy that “the poor man also has a God,” and that he too has rights.

Taking back the national anthem

An intrinsic part of the revolution against the system that Mubarak represented was the act of reclaiming Egyptian national identity as a popular identity.

As in any number of acts of resistance against power, the reaffirmation of popular sovereignty involved taking back national symbols, such as the flag and the national anthem. Part of “Beladi, Beladi”'s resonance came from the fact its lyrics were based on a speech by anti-British, Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel.

“For years, people who opposed Mubarak barely paid any attention to the national anthem whenever it came on national TV or the radio, because it had been drained of all meaning,” said youth activist and Civil Front for the Recovery of Egypt movement member Mohammed al-Hamidi.

"But after the people rose up, it was as though the song recovered its meaning," he added. Al-Hamidi went on to say that he believed that after Mubarak's ouster, the anthem has had much more of a presence in ongoing street rallies than it has on national TV.

Other Darwish songs have also been sung in rallies across the country through the past year. Key among them was Qum Ya Masri (Rise Up, oh Egyptian!), written in 1919. It was during that same year that a revolution against British rule began. Three years later, Egypt became independent.

Children of Darwish: finding Egypt’s new voice

So significant was Darwish's legacy that it would be hard to find a progressive Arab artist who has not been inspired by him. Songwriter and street performer Fadi Farid, aged 31, said he was following in Darwish’s path, spending as much time as he could living on the streets.

By now, Farid has become a mainstay of sit-ins in downtown Cairo. “Since the start of the revolution, I have been in a constant growth process,” said oud player, composer and singer Farid. "The street is my home now."

Throughout the three-week-long sit-in starting November 25 at the gates of the Egyptian Cabinet building, Farid played music at impromptu gatherings for fellow activists. Among his renditions were protest songs inflected with blues and Nubian influences, featuring a heavy use of Egyptian street slang.

One Farid song told of a donkey whose owner never thought he would be kicked off the animal's back, in a direct reference to the people and their ruler. Like Darwish, the young composer mixed song with spoken word, using street language a non-Egyptian Arab would struggle to understand.

But Darwish was not Farid’s and other revolutionary musicians' only influence. Composer Sheikh Imam also had a strong impact on popular culture as of the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote songs such as “Ya Masr Umi Wa Shiddi al-Hel”, which translates roughly into “Oh Egypt, Rise Up and Get Moving.”

Imam worked closely with poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. Their work was political and criticized the authorities. They were arrested and imprisoned several times, in punishment for their free expression.

But Darwish’s work may be seen as even more rooted in the everyday narrative of Egyptians’ lives than Imam’s. He sang of Egypt but also of love and the mundane. Because of that multidimensional connection with the reality of Egyptians from all walks of life, and not just with political idealists, Darwish's work remained relevant decades on from his death.

To Aya Hemeida of Eskenderella band, musicians in 2011 had yet to reach Darwish’s level of engagement with the millions who caused Mubarak to fall.

“We have a long way to go before we are able to give voice to the people who actually rebelled against oppression. We, the cultural and political activists, may have gained prominence. But it was not us who paid the price. It was the poor who went down into the playing field, while we just cheered on,” said 23-year-old Hemeida.

Ten-member band Eskenderella’s key influences were Darwish and poet Fouad Haddad. The band was present on the streets whenever it mattered, both during the January 25 revolution and later protests against SCAF violence.

Eskenderella ignited crowds through Darwish songs such as “Qum Ya Masri” and original tracks such as “Rageen” (We Will Return), which promises that “the light will come for sure.”

To Hemeida, the road to real freedom has only just begun. “What we’ve witnessed so far is the beginning,” she said, explaining that most people in the country have not found adequate expression in political music by bands such as hers.

“The explosion of energy has yet to come,” Hemeida added. "It is still locked under the surface. For sure, much has changed. But until art becomes a true mirror for the people,” as was the case with Darwish’s music, “we will never be able to say that the revolution is complete.”

Belady, Belady (My Homeland, My Homeland): Excerpts of Egypt’s national anthem

My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.
My homeland, my homeland, my homeland,
My love and my heart are for thee.

Egypt! Oh mother of all lands,
My hope and my ambition,
How can one count
The Nile’s blessings for humanity?

Qum Ya Masri (Rise Up, oh Egyptian)

Rise up, oh Egyptian, Egypt always calls on you,
Lead me to victory, victory is your debt and duty,
After my happiness was wasted before your eyes
And the pride of my glory was lost from your hands,
Look at your grandparents
In their grave day and night
Your steadfastness makes their redemption possible.


What a beautiful article. It takes me back to to the nineties when I attended a concert if Sheikh Imam in Ansar-South Lebanon. RIP Sheikh Imam

Thank you for such a brilliant article.
It is a reminder of how great Egypt is.

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