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Graffiti Portraying Um Kalthoum With A Line That Reads "Art Is Not Haram" In Cairo 2013.
Graffiti Portraying Um Kalthoum With A Line That Reads "Art Is Not Haram" In Cairo 2013. - droits réservés

Sing no more: Arab music and the political imperative

This article was co-commissioned by Kunstenfestivaldesarts and The Funambulist. It was published in november-december 2021 in the 38th issue of The Funambulist “Music and the Revolution”. #AuxSons has translated it into French and published it as part of a media partnership agreement. 


This text by Maan Abu Taleb constitutes a reflection on the very topic of the 38th issue of The Funambulist: music and the revolution; music and politics. Are these two entities too eagerly associated? Using the example of Arab music, the 1932 Cairo Congress to standardize it on European terms, and the more recent genre embodied by Mahraganat, Maan Abu Taleb argues for a more subtle revolution within music itself.

I am often enthusiastically asked what contemporary Arabic music owes to the 2011 Arab revolutions. My response to this question has ruined several dinner parties and made for uncomfortable silences on panel discussions, after which what I say is usually brushed under a drab carpet of a discourse we all stand on too comfortably.

My answer to the question is: very little. Music in the Arab world today, in all its wonderful and strange forms, from Mahraganat to Palestinian rap to the phenomenon of pitched down Iraqi songs listened to by nihilistic youngsters driving at a speed of 170 kilometers per hour on the streets of Riyadh, all of that owes very little to the Arab revolutions of 2011.

Hysa & Halabessa - T3arif  (an exemple of Egyptian style Mahraganat)


It is true that there was a transformation that started around that time, and is still ongoing, but the instigator for it was arguably the advent of widely accessible broadband. Starting that moment, people across the Arab world could suddenly see, hear, and talk to each other. This also applied to artists who could now collaborate across borders, and more importantly, hear and see things that were not available to them, certainly not to those with average income or lower.

I am not challenging the legitimacy of the question regarding music and revolution. It is an important and compelling one, and Ma3azef, our online music magazine, did in fact come into existence directly because of the revolutions. What I challenge is the complacency with which the questions is posed, and the swift dismissal of anything but affirmation of its forgone conclusion. This is revealing with regards to the condition of both leftist politics and political art, and is damaging for two reasons: first, presuming that good art is necessarily revolutionary, in a purely discursive understanding of what the revolutionary is, relegates the capacity of revolutionary action to music venues and art galleries, and relieves us of the sacrifices and dangers that accompany true revolutionary action. Politics today is limited to discourse, all thought goes into what should and should not be said, while little thought goes into what is to be done.

Playlist issue de la chaîne youtube de Ma3azef


The second thing this relegation does is limit the possibility of the revolutionary in musical terms, and shifts it to that which is not necessarily musical. For example, the emergence of Mahraganat music, a genre of electronic dance music that exploded onto the Cairo street wedding scene in the early 2010s thanks to newly available and affordable software, was the most exciting development in Egyptian music since the late 1980s, but is rarely acknowledged as revolutionary. When Mahraganat artists are invited on primetime television shows in Egypt, it is not to be celebrated as artists. On the contrary, they are brought in to be berated and ridiculed in vulgar and non-apologetic classist terms. What is painful is that these artists, who are almost always from working class backgrounds, are so thoroughly indoctrinated by this brutal class system, that they end up apologizing to the very people who were abusing them minutes earlier.

I was reminded of this brutal dynamic as I pored over newspaper clippings from the early 1930s, as part of my research to write a play about the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arabic Music. In these clippings, it didn’t take me long to identify the forefather of our modern day crusaders of righteousness. It was Safar Ali, a well-connected grandson of a former mayor of Cairo, who studied music in France, and then returned to Egypt with grand ideas about music ought to be, and very little respect for locally trained musicians.

Delegates Of The 1932 Cairo Congress Of Arabic Music.
Delegates Of The 1932 Cairo Congress Of Arabic Music.


Given his background and education, Ali was an obvious candidate when Fuad I announced plans to host the First Cairo Congress of Arabic music, to take place in 1932. The idea, as suggested to the king by Tunis-based orientalist and musicologist Baron d’Erlanger, was to bring the brightest musical minds in the world to Cairo for a few weeks, to decide on how best to tackle the problem of this unruly but precious Eastern music. This agenda quickly transformed into an attempt to lay the foundations for a new Arab music, one that is elevated, classy, and worthy of representing Egypt to the great nations of the world, even if it meant chipping at the very foundations of this music. There were earnest suggestions to abandon microtones, standardize scales, and do away with certain maqams for good. Regardless of what such an undertaking would do to the music, one wonders how such measures would have been enforced in the first place. This discourse thrived despite the fact that Egypt at the time was in the midst of one of its brightest and most fruitful musical eras. Innovation was thriving thanks to the efforts of people like Mohammad El Qasabji, who was not deemed worthy of an invitation to attend the Congress.

Zikrayati - de Mohamed el-Qasabgi - interprété par Ziryab Trio


While most discussion of the Congress focuses on the committees it comprised, the fraught discussions on quarter tones and scales and the modified piano, and even as a tragic missed opportunity, I find the legacy of the congress in this now prevalent idea that Egyptian music needs to represent the country in a way that the elite see fit. In other words, in a way that benefits them. This means that music in Egypt should satisfy the ears of those untrained in its vernacular, unaccustomed to its quirks and subtleties. More so, it demands of the local population to abruptly alter their palettes to fit that of other nations, a futile undertaking, but one that renders innovation obsolete.


The other profoundly detrimental effect of the imposition of politics on art is that it favors irony over subtlety, and cleverness over profundity. When songs are supposed to be an act of protest, subtlety becomes cowardice. Instead of inviting us to think, to ponder, to lose ourselves in the sublimity of great art, it is now meant to give us simple answers, or better still, reinforce what we already believe in.

One of the disturbing effects of this in Arab cultural criticism today is the outright nonexistence of subtlety as a critical value. There is no equivalent of the word in modern literary Arabic. In music, film, literature, and theatre reviews, since subtlety as a value is unnamed, it is not considered, and therefore cannot be applied in critique. Subtlety today flies over the heads of critics of Arab art, and increasingly on the pages of leftists cultural publications around the world. Instead, what is valued are non-ambiguous statements in capital letters, statements we’ve heard many times before. There is no room for new forms, and therefore no new ideas can emerge. Being progressive is no longer an evolving process of thinking and rethinking, but a standstill. More worryingly, when complexity and subtlety are detected, they are disregarded as a sign of moral bankruptcy, a case of the artist being too calculating and cowardly to make a stand, and meet others at the aforementioned standstill. This is not to say that subtlety needs to be present in all works of art. Mahraganat music is anything but subtle. But when subtlety is no longer appreciated, no longer recognized, no longer named, something very disturbing is happening.

This was not always the case. Discussing this with my friend Fadi El Abdallah, he pointed out that in the heyday of the Abbasid empire, subtlety was recognized and celebrated.
It was referred to by connoisseurs of poetry as إخفاء الصنعة بالصنعة (the concealment of craft by craft). One can read and relive the works of Ibn Arabi, Al Mutanabbi, as well as pre-islamic poets, and continue to discover new meanings in them, because they did not shout answers at you, instead, they delved into crises of being, of faith, of mourning and impending death. One can easily detect Heideggerian motifs in the works of pre-islamic poets who lived their lives thrown into the vastness of brutal deserts, haunted by death from all sides.

Saoud Massi - Al-Khaylu Wa-l-Laylu - (based on a poem by Al Mutanabbi)


Fortunately, subtlety is making a comeback, even if it cannot yet be named. You won’t find it in the work of self proclaimed revolutionary artists, but you will find it in the work of young artists who do not subscribe to today’s prevalent discourses, because it has nothing to do with their lived experience of the day-to-day, much of which happens on the internet. Art happens in life while the discourse of political art remains locked up in its carpeted room, deafening everyone inside it with its slogans. The musicians making revolutionary music today, revolutionary in artistic terms, usually find this discourse either amusing or annoying, and I am yet to meet one that takes it seriously. You would be stretching your interpretative abilities very thin in order to find a sentiment that aligns with leftists revolutionary politics in rap or Mahraganat or Bedouin Sheilat. Art, as is life, is more complex than Critical Theory today is willing to allow, and these artists do represent a profoundly different worldview in a vernacular that reflects a different set of values, anxieties, and aspirations.


The rejection of nuance and subtlety, of political difference, limits the ability of the political left to engage with internet culture, memes, and online communities. They are looked at with suspicion and condescension. The role of technology in revolutionary possibilities is continuously rejected, dismissed as positivism or tech essentialism. Once again, seeking refuge in labels that give the impression of an understanding of the world, rather than admitting a brutal reduction of it.

As a result, seismic moments are conveniently ignored. One only has to compare the achievements of the Occupy Wall Street, a valid and legitimate movement, but eventually futile, to the stunning victory afflicted on wall-street in the Gamestop saga. The actions of the r/wallstreets bets community does much to restore one’s faith in humanity, and the power of self organizing communities. Here is a horde of anonymous young people, many with very limited financial resources, who found a fault in the system and decided to punish the bankers for it. The internet today is the great leveller we’ve been waiting for. It is a more complex and rich place than we could possibly comprehend, and trying to box it in labels that belong to early days of the Cold War is a refusal to engage a potent revolutionary tool gifted to us by a benevolent new god.

This is a complex new world, a world with many shades and colors, and today is a time of questioning, comprehension and looking for clues. This is not to say that protest music has no artistic merit, or serves no function. There should and always will be great protest music. What I challenge is the requisite of all music to adhere to discursive politics.

There are many reasons why the affliction of political art is more pronounced in the Arab world than anywhere else, and that is the fact that we, Arabs who grew up in the Arab world, and to some extent Arabs who grew up in the diaspora, are afflicted with a trauma of injustice. For Palestinians, and Arabs who relate to our tragedy, the weight of this injustice is soul crushing. An Egyptian woman has most definitely been afflicted by the trauma of injustice, if not directly then through the horror stories of other women both in public and in her immediate surroundings. Syrians, Lebanese, Tunisians, Algerians. The trauma of injustice is everywhere in the Arab world, and it eats greedily at our collective souls.

But we must not allow this trauma to take from us the ability to recognize the sublime, the ability to make and enjoy beauty and wonder. I’m not saying we should suppress our rage and act as Enlglishmen, I am merely calling for the tempering of this rage, sharpening its focus a little, maybe even energising it by opening ourselves to possibilities inherent in great art. These possibilities might not make our daily lives better in a tangible way, they might not necessarily bring forth our redemption as a people, but they do give us richer lives, and that is something worth having. It is something worth passing on to our children.



This text has been co-commissioned by Kunstenfestivaldesarts as collaboration with The Funambulist in the frame of the forthcoming project Politics of Music (May 13-15, 2022 in Brussels). Politics of Music is a discursive and artistic program, composed of performances, talks and workshops, on the use of music as a tool of conquest and resistance, and as a way to transmit knowledge. Maan Abu Taleb’s staged reading of The Congress will be presented as part of the program. #AuxSons has translated it into French and published it as part of a media partnership agreement with The Funambulist.

The Funambulist hopes to provide a useful platform where activist/academic/practitioner voices can meet and build solidarities across geographical scales. Through articles, interviews, artworks, and design projects, The Funambulist is assembling an ongoing archive for anticolonial, antiracist, queer, and feminist struggles. The print and online magazine is published every two months and operates in parallel with an open-access podcast and a blog. 



Maan Abu Taleb

Abutaleb Maan 672x800 C
Maan Abu Taleb

Maan Abu Taleb is a novelist, essayist and cultural editor. His debut novel, All the Battles, was released to critical and popular praise in 2016 and appeared in an accomplished English translation the following year. He is the editor and co-founder of the influential music magazine Ma3azef.

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