Hello from Vienna International Airport where I am passing the time with my good friend Riesling, trying to drown out the sound of disgruntled babies by focusing on my trip to Egypt. I’ll be there for the next few weeks covering the historic presidential elections (and the inevitable fallout). Egypt certainly knows how to keep the drama alive, pitting two of the least likely candidates against each other — one, a member of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the other, a Muslim Brotherhood strongman. Already the folks I talk to and the people writing on Facebook and Twitter seem to be echoing the same sentiments: regardless of the outcome of this week’s vote, the revolution continues. But who, then, is voting? And how could a potential boycott skew the outcome?? Are Christians voting for Ahmed Shafiq, terrified of the prospects of electing a Islamist president? Are young, disenfranchised Muslim youth or theEgyptian expats in the Gulf helping to bolster Mohammed Morsi?? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I wrote the following article in this week’s Newsweek International, exploring the powerful influence of Warda Al-Jazairia and singers from her genre. If only Arab leaders could command such a regional following.
The Algerian Rose
Newsweek International (click here for original link)
By Vivian Salama
June 10, 2012
The release of the song “El Watan El Akhbar” (“The Great Nation”) seemed to capture the sentiments that were running wildly through the hearts of young people across the Arab world. Longtime rulers were falling victim to an outcry for liberation. The lyrics, by legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, read: “Nothing but the triumph of the Arab people, my country, my beloved. In Yemen, Damascus and Jeddah, you are sweet, oh victory … Between Marrakech and Bahrain, the same tune for a perfect unity. Oh you, whose soil is the makeup of my eye; my country, O fortress of freedom.”
The year was 1960. An air of emancipation was sweeping through Arab nations, as people sought to free themselves from colonialism and to embrace an era of nationalist resistance movements. Pan-Arabism was a concept championed by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and it seeped into the political discourse of countries across the region, urging Arabs to come together in the face of tyranny. “El Watan El Akhbar,” a collaboration by some of the Arab world’s most famous singers, including Algerian legend Warda Al-Jazairia and Egyptian heartthrob Abdel Halim Hafez, stirred the vehemence and imaginations of people from Morocco to Bahrain.
Decades later, Arabs are once again fighting tyranny—this time, from within. While leaders have become targets of discontent of their citizens, the legacies of many singers, like Warda, Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum, and Lebanon’s Fayrouz, with their gallant, patriotic lyrics, continue to inspire and unite the Arab people in a way many politicians tried—and failed—to do. And they will continue to do so even in death, as evidenced by the massive outpouring of grief at the death of Warda, the Algerian Rose, at the age of 72 on May 17 in Cairo.
Today, very little else links the highly contrasted Arab people beyond music and art, particularly that which touches upon three very basic sentiments: love, God, and nation. Even now, as several countries across the Middle East and North Africa usher in a new hodgepodge of leaders, nostalgia remains for the triumphant era of pan-Arab awakening. (more…)