x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 September 2017

A song to start something: the Arab Spring's greatest hits

The protest songs of the Arab Spring started like a whisper, but the music turned up the volume of the people's aspirations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya.

The protest songs of the Arab Spring started like a whisper, but the music turned up the volume of the people's aspirations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya.
The protest songs of the Arab Spring started like a whisper, but the music turned up the volume of the people's aspirations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya.

The sound of the revolution starts ominously, a long, dreadful note rising before the lyrics begin. "Today I speak fearlessly on behalf of the people / crushed by the weight of injustice / Mr President / Your people are dead / People eat garbage / Look at what is happening in your own country!"

This is Rayees Le Bled (President of the Country), a Tunisian rap song released underground in December 2010, in the days after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at his working conditions. Rayees Le Bled seethes with disappointment, with anger, with frustration, with all the emotions, but directs all of those emotions at Zine El Abidine Ben Ali himself, who is addressed and interrogated throughout the song.

Rayees Le Bled was released into a world that is now almost unimaginable, just as the revolutionary world of today was unimaginable then. El General, the singer, was arrested and interrogated for his music in the dungeons of Ben Ali. When asked why he was singing such songs, he replied, "I'm only telling the truth."

Telling the truth was - and remains - a revolutionary act, but protest songs could not aspire to bring about revolution. El General's song was an outcry, a cri de coeur about the frustration, the corruption, the stagnation he saw all around him. Yet the crucial part is that the song and its singer did not expect much to change. The song planted the seeds, but no one could have foreseen what would come after.

As the protests took hold across Tunisia, the song took on a different meaning. It became a way of channelling and articulating the feelings of all those people taking to the streets for a different life. Rayees El Bled became an anthem for the people, a song Tunisians could hear that spoke of change, with the hope but not the expectation of action.

That's the power of music. It speaks to something deep and raw inside people, reminding them of what might be. It also reminds them of who they are, of who they could be. The most amazing thing about the songs of the Arab revolutions is how diverse they are, how often the vernacular is different, the slang is different, the music is different. Yet what links them - especially the later protest songs, after Ben Ali was toppled - is how similar the sentiments are. They are direct and decisive, full of expectation. They demand action. In this regard, the archetypal protest song is Irhal (Leave), by the Egyptian singer-songwriter Ramy Essam.

Essam's song was formed in and by the experience of the long sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when protesters set up a mini-village, refusing to leave until the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Essam's song is made up of some of the slogans protesters chanted against Mubarak, set to music.

The spare, direct lyrics ("We are not leaving / He will leave / As one / We demand one thing / Leave, leave, leave") were played repeatedly to crowds in Tahrir Square.

Irhal is a very different protest song from El General's. The fear barrier has been broken, the expectation of change is now there. The crowds in Tahrir Square who sang back Essam's lyrics to him were singing a song written for audience participation. Essam's song was meant to be sung in squares and to crowds, for its words to be heard by those in power, to embody the aspirations and the hopes of the audience.

There is an expectation to the lyrics: Ben Ali had fallen and the Egyptians sincerely hoped Mubarak would too, but there is no inevitability. The people who sang it in Tahrir Square did so in the full knowledge that, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe a week or a month later, they might be pulled into a dungeon and tortured for their words. The Mubarak regime had too many friends, too much at stake for it to fall. Against the might of iron, how can songs stand?

Precisely that happened in Tahrir Square. By the simple act of gathering, of singing about the person of the leader, the protesters in Tahrir Square had branded themselves revolutionaries, threats to the regime. When, on February 2, days into the uprising, supporters of the regime rode into the square on horseback, they brandished batons and bullets and Molotov cocktails, and badly injured many people, including Essam.

This was the usual face of the Egyptian regime for so long, responding to a non-violent threat with mayhem and indiscriminate violence. Yet the protesters did not go home. The day after, they rebuilt their camps in Tahrir Square, many bloodied and bruised, bandages everywhere, people stretched out recovering from their injuries. Essam himself returned to the stage, his head bandaged, still singing to the people of Egypt.

The sight of so many people still singing, beaten but alive, still calling on Mubarak to go, even after so much violence must have sent a shiver of fear throughout the regime. By continuing to sing, the protesters said the spell of fear, the spell that had held so many autocracies together, had been lifted.

The singers are part of the people now, their conversation no longer mediated by the regime. Instead, they speak directly to each other. In Benghazi II, the Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit, speaks directly to the people following the Benghazi uprising, calming fears of a civil war: "Between the people who love Libya there is no difference / And after we will show love from east to west."

Listening to the revolution songs now, with some regimes overthrown, some teetering and some fighting back, the world that El General sung to seems inconceivable. Against the might of millions of people, how could these regimes stand? Yet, back then, they seemed permanent, immovable.

In Mutassimeen (The Protestors), a Yemeni protest song now being sung from Aden to Sanaa, the singers address President Ali Abdullah Saleh directly: "There is no power in the world that can stand against the Yemeni people / Are you sane or insane? / There are 20 million of us!"

Such words carry immense power when sung in crowds, thousands of people gathered together. They clarify the power of the moment, showing the crowds how much power they wield in numbers.

The power of the songs is also amplified by being sung in Arabic and set to the musical styles of the individual Arab countries. When singers in Tahrir Square sang songs to Essam's guitar, they did so against the backdrop of an Egyptian drum called a daf, popular in Egyptian music.

In Syria, the protest song Ya Irhal Ya Bashar (It's Time to Leave, Bashar) is framed as a dabke, a musical and dancing style popular across the Levant. It elicits call-and-response lines from the audience.

Another Syrian protest song, called Mundaseen (Infiltrators), a reference to the word used by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to describe the protesters, uses a very familiar musical background of swirling strings heard in many popular Syrian songs, with new lyrics.

The same applies to another Yemeni protest song, also called Irhal, where the words are sung accompanied by traditional Yemeni wind instruments, creating a very traditional sound that is familiar to most of its audience - but with radical words.

This style of music invokes deep collective memories. It reminds its audience that the protesters are of the people, that they are fighting for their own heritage. It reminds them of the power and grandeur of Arabic music, that the heritage of their past is what they are calling for in the present.

That's the beauty of the protest songs. Like the protests themselves, they are organic and unique to the countries, with the music coming out of the traditions of each Arab nation.

The language of the songs also holds immense power. Even rap music, one of the most popular types of music around the world, is sung in Arabic, sung in the dialect of the country. Rap has a particular flavour in the Arab world, where poetry is so important, and some of the songs have a poetry-infused feeling.

The power of speaking in Arabic, especially dialect Arabic rather than the refined language of literature, has a popular hold. It galvanises people and removes the barrier between speaker and listener. When El General asks Ben Ali, "I see the police hitting veiled women / Would you accept that they do this to your daughter?", he is attacking two taboos, talking about the family of the president and speaking to him in such direct dialect. The protest songs are speaking for the people, and they are speaking like the people.

Suddenly, people heard their grievances expressed in public in the way they were expressing them in private. Unlike the flowery, nuanced language of opposition politics - with its careful caveats, its obligatory praise and its elliptical critiques - the music of the revolution was direct and uncompromising. It made what had been private a public matter, and suddenly - as in Tunisia in the past, and in Syria and Yemen in the present - what was unsayable in private was chanted in public squares. The songs had broken the spell of fear. In public squares across Tunisia, across Egypt, across Libya, across Yemen and Syria, people were singing their songs of revolution and rebellion. Once it was in the air, the people were no longer silent and the fear that held the country together vanished, to be felt only in the citadels of power.

falyafai@thenational.ae