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They might not know Bob Dylan, but Arab rebels feel his music

Bob Dylan's influence on Arab Spring protests goes beyond songs like The Times They Are A-Changin' and Blowin' in the Wind.
The times they are a changin'. We all know that by know. But the question that's recently been freewheelin' inside my head is how much that scruffy old troubadour from Hibbing, Minnesota, has had to do with the times that are a changin' … right here, right now. In the Arab world at least, the answer seems to be precious little.

OK, I've lost count of the number of "Times are a-changing in the Middle East!" headlines that litter the internet, or blog posts that display the lyrics of the song as a kind of pretty poetic picture to complement coverage of the uprisings, or clumsily thrown together video montages of protests in Egypt and Tunisia with that famous sandpaper voice grating "Come gather round people, etc" on the soundtrack. And, granted, if you read the lyrics they do seem uncannily apt, especially the lines that go "And don't speak too soon / For the wheel's still in spin / And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'".

But how many protesters down on the tear-gassed streets of the Arab world have ever heard of Bob Dylan? Ten per cent? Less? More? The barriers and boundaries seem multiple. The protesters are mainly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties, the post-MTV Facebook and Twitter generation. Dylan has just turned 70 and probably still thinks of Facebook as a tome full of grey gawky mugshots of his high school muckers and sweethearts. The protesters speak Arabic in all its myriad local variants. Dylan sings in nasal North American with images culled from Ginsberg, Whitman and Rimbaud. They're angry about Israel. He's sung a song called Neighbourhood Bully that is a strangely nuanced apologia for Israel. What's more, he's off to perform in Tel Aviv this summer. They're Arabs. He's a Jew. They sing in quarter tones. He sings the pentatonic country blues.

Yet my eye was recently drawn to a photo of two young boys demonstrating in Benghazi. One is holding the rebel flag of old Libya aloft, the other a handwritten sheet featuring a snippet of Blowin' in the Wind. I was intrigued.

And when I questioned some old friends from Morocco and Syria, it seems that Dylan was high on the playlist of many a curious closet-hippy music fan in the Arab world of the 1960s and '70s, despite the fact that records released by CBS were banned in much of the Middle East because of that company's affiliations with the state of Israel. Of course you probably had to be fairly well educated and middle class to take an interest. My friend from Rabat well remembers sitting around a turntable with his posse trying to decipher Dylan's abstruse lyrics for hours on end. Enlightened English teachers from Casablanca to Doha would also use Dylan lyrics to muster enthusiasm for the language of Shakespeare among their bored teenage students. The zeitgeist was radical and rebellious in the Arab world back then, just as it was in Europe or North America, and Dylan seemed to sing the zeitgeist to perfection, even if you didn't understand a word that poured through his nose.

Surprisingly, I've learnt that Dylan himself returned the general compliment. In an interview he did for Playboy magazine in 1978 he declared that he was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music. "Such as?" asked the interviewer. "Om Kalthoum," came the reply. "Who is that?" "She was a great Egyptian singer," Dylan explained. "I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem … she's dead now but not forgotten. She's great. She really is. Really great."

If you google Bob Dylan and the Muslim World, the region seems to be liberally endowed with its own Dylans. There are the Bob Dylans of Morocco (Salim Halali, Badia El Idrissi and Larbi Batma), the Bob Dylans of Algeria (Baaziz, Ait Menguellet and Souad Massi - sex change required), the Bob Dylan of Libya (Massaoud Abu Asir), the Bob Dylans of Egypt (Sheik Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm, Ramy Essam), the Bob Dylan of Mali (Mamadou Coulibaly), the Bob Dylan of Senegal (Ismaël Lô) and the king of them all, the Bob Dylan of Lebanon and the Arab World (Marcel Khalife).

Of course, this is all arrant western-centric nonsense that tells you more about European and US attempts to understand the Muslim world rather than vice versa. No doubt Marcel Khalife prefers to think of Bob Dylan as the Marcel Khalife of America. And of course there's the irony that Dylan himself has been trying to escape the protest-singer-spokesman-of-a-generation straitjacket all his adult life. How galling it must be to have failed so miserably and instead see that his name has become a kind of generic term - like Stetson, Biro or boycott - for the very thing he's tried so desperately to run away from.

Maybe I'm barking up the wrong "Bob" anyway. If there's any outsider who's radicalised the Arab world and the entire African continent, surely it's Bob Marley. At least, in his case, you can dance while your head is being filled with noble thoughts of freedom and revolt. Then again, I've often heard Ibrahim Ag Alhabib from Tinariwen, the Touareg rebel guitar-poets from the southern Sahara whom I used to manage, reel off his list of western influences: Bob Marley (of course!), Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Dire Straits, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Boney M (I kid you not!) and "Bob Diellun." This from a man who doesn't understand a word of English.

By all accounts, he was already listening to Dylan in the 1980s, during those now-legendary years in Libyan military training camps, where the Touareg rebel movement was preparing to fight for independence from Mali and Niger. The image of a bunch of Touareg men in combat fatigues, sitting around drinking bitter Touareg tea while Don't Think Twice It's Alright fizzed out of a tinny ghetto-blaster gives my imagination a good massage.

A few years ago I was in Paris with Ibrahim and the rest of the band. We were idly YouTube surfing, and I called up a video of Dylan singing Blowin' in the Wind, one of those old grainy black and white TV clips, with a youthful Bob looking all serene with his tousled hair and puppy fat cheeks. Abdallah "Catastrophe", one of the other Tinariwen guitarists, was already a huge fan of the song. The band listened, rapt. I tried to explain that the poetry of the words is very important. "You can hear that," Ibrahim said. "It's obvious." Then he asked what it all meant. I tried to translate to French, our common tongue: La réponse, mon ami, souffle dans le vent … My efforts were clumsy, but Ibrahim was fascinated. He listened with the same kind of uncomprehending awe that I feel when I listen to Nass El Ghiwane, Marcel Khalife or indeed, Tinariwen.

That's the point surely. When you listen to the rawest and most naked Dylan, there's a power in the music that transcends words. It's the solitary defiance, the unadorned honesty that retains that capacity to thrill, even 40 years later; the vision of a man picking up his guitar and singing his mind, without frills or make-up, because there's nothing else left for him to do, nowhere else for him to go. And that's what's so inspiring about some of the music that has come out of the Arab Spring. Gone, for the moment at least, are the Tamer Hosnys, the Amr Diabs and the whole keening, preening Rotana-dominated Arab hit machine. Instead you have men and women, out in the streets, picking up guitars, and for once, telling it like it is. Singers like Ramy Essam, Massaoud Abu Asir or Hany Adel, Amir Eid and the whole crew behind Sout al Horeya, whose YouTube hit rate has bust through the 1.5 million mark.

That spirit won't last. The spirit of the '60s that Dylan, despite himself, helped to foment, didn't last either. But it did exist, for a brief time, and it gets reborn, for a brief time, in places where few people have heard or care about Dylan himself. One man and his guitar … or oud. That's all it takes.

Andy Morgan is an author and freelance journalist based in Bristol, England, with an interest in the music of North Africa and the Arab world.

Updated: May 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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