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Music for martyrs: AUC highlights songs of 1919 revolution

A hundred years after Egypt’s 1919 revolution led to the country's formal independence from Britain, the American University in Cairo paid homage to the artistic legacy of the revolution with the songs of Sayed Darwish.

The audience at the American University in Cairo’s newly dedicated Tahrir Cultural Center moved from passive listening to meditative, reflective swaying as Nesma Mahgoub sang the aggrieved melody “This Is What Has Come To Be,” its words urging the powerless to join for a different future for Egypt. The song is one of the best known of the more than 100 “taqtuqas” composed by Sayed Darwish (1892-1923), music that functioned as the collective soundtrack for the 1919 revolution, whose centennial is celebrated this year.

Taqtuqa is a genre of light music accompanied by politics-infused lyrics sang in colloquial Egyptian. Alaa-Eldin Adris, associate dean for research, innovation and creativity at the American University in Cairo (AUC), headed an interdisciplinary team that compiled and organized the most influential songs of the genre written amid the 1919 revolution.

“By 1919, with the advent of the phonograph, popular song and music were no longer localized to specific areas or groups,” Adris told Al-Monitor. “Powerful lyrics in colloquial Egyptian sung to lively music inspired feelings of nationalism and shared welfare among Egyptians.”

In contemporary republican Egypt, March 9 is officially observed as Martyrs Day, which honors Abdul Munim Riad, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s chief of staff who died in 1969 in an Israeli mortar attack in the Suez Canal zone. This year, AUC also chose that day for a tribute to Darwish — the father of the popular Egyptian music and who is thought to have died a “rock star” death, likely from a cocaine overdose, at the age of 31 — and share its newly digitized musical archive of revolutionary music from 1919.

In 2011, young demonstrators resurrected songs by Darwish, filling Tahrir Square with his stirring revolutionary melodies. “Darwish was the voice of the revolution and its magical communications tool,” Adris said. “We couldn’t let this milestone pass by, without at least recognizing such work.”

Egyptian humor and ingenuity in the face of colonial oppression are on full display in “Oh Zaghoul Dates,” which was performed at the cultural center by AUC’s Ferqa, an ensemble of student singers and instrumentalists, together with Eskenderella, the band founded by the renowned oud player and composer Hazem Shaheen and known for its contemporary reworking of Darwish’s oeuvre during the 2011 protests.

Darwish composed the “fruit seller's call” praising Sa’ad Zaghoul after the Wafd Party leader was exiled for advocating for independence. British authorities prohibited publications from printing the revolutionary hero’s name and demonstrators from chanting it. Radical lyricists found a subversive work around with the line, “Oh Zaghoul dates [a red date which is a popular fruit all around Egypt and the Middle East], you are so great in every valley, I call out your name.” Thus with a wink, the songwriter praises and sends best wishes to the revolution's leader, who spent nearly two years exiled on Malta and the Seychelles.

Wael El Mahallawy, director of AUC's newly established Institute of Music Technology and the maestro of the tribute concert, told Al-Monitor, “I worked with Dr. Alaa-Eldin to collect as many songs as we could because musical art is the main reflection of every nation, and this is how we encourage the public to know more about what Egyptians were facing 100 years ago.”

Mahallawy explained how the research team used the university’s archive of lyrics and old phonograph recordings to re-create scores not set down at the time of their original performance, “We put so much care into capturing the quality, the flavor and the spirit of the music of that era."

The Tahrir Cultural Center performance was preceded by a seminar on the legacy of 1919 to mine insights from a direct descendant of a revolutionary leader - Sania Sharawi, novelist and granddaughter of the feminist and women’s rights activist Huda Sharawi a contemporary activist - Mohamed Abou El-Ghar and an official cultural curator - Mostafa el Feki, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

El Feki stressed the pluralistic ideology of the leaders and artists who spearheaded the drive for independence. “The revolution of 1919 was very secular,” Feki told the audience. “Christians were able to win many seats in the 1924 elections. Minority participation is a signifier of a democratic era with equal opportunity for everyone regardless of religion.”

The 1919 vision of a liberal democratic order is perhaps exemplified by the anthem “Rise, Egyptian,” which urges the nation toward a unity that embraces diversity:

Love your neighbor before you love the day.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, you say?

We’re of the same blood all the way.

El Feki further explained, “Some authors of the 1923 constitution tried to [set] quotas [for] Christians, but the Coptic leadership themselves were against it, as they wanted to be treated as Egyptians, nothing more or less.” 

Representational set asides again became a controversial issue in Egypt after amendments were submitted to parliament last month calling for reserving 25% of legislative seats for women and executive authority to select representatives for youth, Copts and persons with disabilities.

What is the legacy of the 1919 revolution today? This was the question looming over the memorial concert held just a few steps from the focal point of Egypt’s now-aborted 2011 uprising.

“At first I did not know the real meaning behind songs like ‘The Artisans,’” said Haydy Helmy, an AUC undergraduate. “I thought the song was just about a beautiful woman, but I now understand it was about their hard life and difficult economic conditions. It is sad that after one hundred years we still have many of the same problems.”

Mahmoud Saber contributed to this report.