Listen Up

Can pop music make the Arab world love us?

Imagine it were possible to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. (I like to think this is the kind of speculative, optimistic sentence tossed around all the time at the State Department.) You would want to target an audience of middle-class and working-class men between the ages of 18 to 30—the demographic most likely to attack Americans and American property. To that end, the State Department recently announced that it is exporting an anthology of American writers, in the hopes that this will persuade Arabs that the American experience is more varied, and less evil, than the state-controlled Arab media say it is.

Regardless of whether you buy into this kind of cultural marketing, it’s clear that the State Department chose the wrong medium. American book publishers can tell you that American men between 18 and 30 don’t read a lot of books. The Arab street reads even fewer—just one book, mostly: the Quran. The United States should have followed the lead of Arab governments, which know that music is the region’s most powerful form of expression. That’s why they use it for propaganda—and also why they ban so much of it.

The classic example of this is Umm Kulthoum, the voice of Egypt, the diva of the Arab world. In 1975, her funeral, legend has it, drew an even larger crowd than Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s in 1970. Nasser’s rise to power coincided with a golden age of Egyptian music, and in Umm Kulthoum he found a willing participant in his campaign to promote the image of a charismatic nation on the rise. She recorded several nationalistic songs, like “Watani Habibi Watani el Akbar” (“My Beloved Nation, the Greatest Nation”) (scroll to the bottom of the page, and listen to the second clip), which are still widely known in Egypt—as are a host of singer Abdel Halim Hafez’s patriotic numbers, like “Ya Gamal, Ya Habib El Malayeen” (“Gamal, Beloved of Millions”) and “Ehna El Shaaab” (“We Are the People”).

Of course, few Arab leaders have enjoyed as loyal a supporting chorus as Nasser did. Many have had to check the efforts of musicians not in sympathy with their policies. Sayyid Darwish is more or less the founder of the engaged, or oppositional—the sense is like the French intellectuals’ sense of “engagé”—school of Arab music. His “Quom Ya Masry” (“O Egyptian Arise”) is one of the earliest examples of music used to wage cultural war against an unpopular government; it served as one of the forces driving the 1919 revolution. The song was banned at the time, but today every Egyptian knows it by heart. Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese musician, is the contemporary leader of the engaged school. His albums are officially unavailable in Egypt; many of his songs are powerful and subtle odes on the Palestinian issue, which the government fears will further flame resentment against Israel. Khalife’s very beautiful “Ana Yussef Ya Abi” (“Oh Father, I Am Joseph”), from a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, takes the biblical—and Quranic—story of Joseph’s treatment at the hands of his brothers as a metaphor for Palestinian suffering.

Shaaban Abdel Rahim
Rahim: reprehensible … but rockin’

Curiously, while the Egyptian censors banned Khalife’s quiet songs of protest, they more or less ignored Egyptian singer’s Shaaban Abdel Rahim’s recent hit, “Bakrah Israel” (“I Hate Israel”). The censors probably aren’t making any genuine aesthetic discrimination here; they tend to distinguish simply between what’s merely embarrassing and what is truly threatening to the Egyptian government. Hence Rahim’s latest song, in praise of Osama Bin Laden (with its catchy chorus, “Bin Bin Bin Bin Bin Bin Laden”), was removed from the airwaves. After all, Bin Laden and other hard-core Islamists haven’t targeted only America but also Arab regimes that cooperate with America. Evidently, the Mubarak regime acted so quickly and forcefully that Rahim, a commercially and politically savvy buffoon, denies that he ever made any song about Bin Laden. This has got to constitute one of the more compelling chapters in the psycho-biography of the Arab street. It’s a testament to the power of a police state that the song now remains only in the memory of the masses—but the fact that it remains suggests that the memory of the masses may be yet more powerful. This only makes the goal of reaching the Arab world’s frustrated unemployed (and underemployed) young men all the more important.

Unfortunately, this is where the State Department miscalculated again. The people most likely to read a book about America are the Arab world’s well-educated professional and intellectual elite, who—unlike the underclasses—already have extensive experience of America and the rest of the West. Not only are they the least likely to change their minds, they’re the ones, like members of the Arab media, who have been most active in fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. What the State Department ought to have done to reach those underemployed young men, then, is call Miles Copeland, a music producer who specializes in world music (like that of Cheb Mami, a French-Algerian singer, and the Egyptian singer Hakim). Copeland became interested in Arab culture while he and his brother Stewart, the former drummer for the Police, were growing up in the Middle East, where their father worked for the CIA. Maybe Copeland can start turning out Arab-American fusion hits for another federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and its latest initiative, Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language news and entertainment station with frequencies throughout the Middle East.

In any case, the State Department needs to recognize that Arab culture is predominantly an aural one. This is largely due to the Quran itself, which institutionalized the sovereignty of the spoken word. From the outset, God’s word to the Arabs came to its audience—including the Prophet Muhammad—primarily as a heard text, not a written one. Arab Muslims still mostly experience the Quran that way and listen to it all day long, in taxis, coffee shops, stores. Quranic reciters are something like pop stars. (One of the major figures from the heyday of the Egyptian school of recitation, Sheikh Abdel Baset, can be heard here.) Long before the Quran, classical poetry in Arabic issued from an oral tradition; it wasn’t written down until well after the text of the Quran was established. The Arabic language itself, its rich vocabulary, argues for the overwhelming pleasure of sound in a culture that was not very visually interesting. There are, I believe, nine different words for “desert” in classical Arabic—which reminds you that 1,500 years ago most Arabs were looking at desert most of the time. Even today, as one Egyptian pointed out to me, Arab cityscapes are all of a piece. In Cairo, the sands and sun have worn art-deco apartment buildings down to the same dulled gold as the pyramids. So, she said, we stay at home and listen to the music of singers like Umm Kulthoum, marveling at her perfect diction, piecing out the phrasing, the repetitions, the variations. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, then, should go through CD players, cassette decks, and radios, not libraries.