By Sarah Carr:
The turmoil of the past year has produced its own mawkish soundtrack, a genre of music rather grandiosely called “operettas” that has been the go-to format for lionizing the state. As initially exemplified by the Nasser era “El Watan El Akbar” (The Great Homeland), the operetta has travelled onwards past the corruption of that once lofty ideal towards the glorification of the individual-as-the-state, as seen with the 90’s era ode to Hosni Mubarak “Ekhtarnah” (We Chose Him).
These operettas follow a set formula, and nowadays usually feature Z-list singers/people nobody has ever heard of with a smattering of more famous faces. Usually quickly cobbled together to address a particular moment in time, it gives the impression that, aside from the time constraints, perhaps the producers were working with a limited budget, like a beef burger made out of 40% meat and 60% textured vegetable protein.
The most famous and high pedigree operetta of recent times was “Teslam El Ayyady” (Bless the Hands), a paean to the armed forces. Its video featured pop singers triumphantly warbling in a recording studio interspersed with stock footage of Egyptian army manoeuvres. (Then) Field Marshall (now President) Abdel Fattah El Sisi was the star of this show, and the song was released at the height of Sisi mania in July 2013, shortly after the removal of then President Mohamed Morsi by the army following mass popular demonstrations against him.
Teslam El Ayyady was the money shot of its era, a lurid joy explosion. Its insistent, catchy refrain assaulted Egyptians everywhere they went, spreading the good news that the country had been saved even as Egypt descended into an ever-worsening cycle of violence and bombings. Its function, like all nationalist songs, was to rally under the flag, unify and glorify, while ensuring that inconvenient nuances of truth and reality got drowned out in the fanfare, a sort of jolly historical revisionism. Because music is made to transport us, after all, and perhaps nothing does this more effectively than a woman in pink lipstick screeching about soldiers set against images of heavy artillery.
Teslam El Ayyady has given birth to a thousand mutant children, all much of a muchness and bound together by the common theme of short-changing on the truth, barrel thumping and enthusiasm about all things military. All these songs are characterised by a certain amount of fantasy and wishful thinking – in keeping with the times – as well as a presentation of the Egyptian people as a monolithic, homogenous bloc confronting a threat from a dangerous alien being that has insidiously wormed its way into the fabric of Egyptian society.
Veteran pop songstress Angham’s “Mesh Men Baladna” (Not from our Country) puts this most bluntly with its refrain, “Not from our country/he who sells security/not of our children/he who buys from the devil”. Egypt is a nation obsessed with, and terrified of, the other. As a friend puts it, “Egyptians have a unique view of individuality: it’s fine as long as we all do it together”.
In this Egypt that allows no difference, minorities – by which is meant anyone who doesn’t conform to accepted norms be they cultural, religious or otherwise – are constantly having to negotiate and justify their position within wider Egyptian society. This becomes fascinating when the minorities themselves adopt the language of the mainstream.
Have a look at this song, “Benwa3dak” (We Promise You), which appeared on a Facebook page called “A Million Brave Christians”.
The song is described on the page as “splendid…the first song from the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt dedicated to Egypt and the Egyptian army”. Adopting the operetta formula, it features the usual singing heads interspersed with horrid images of violence. The heads appear in front of a giant map of Egypt. Next to them are two cardboard cutouts of a church steeple next to a mosque dome with a cross plastered on one and the obligatory crescent on the other (Christian imagery meanwhile is largely entirely absent from mainstream Egyptian culture other than in state propaganda videos informing Egyptians that they are united and indivisible in the fantasy world discussed above, whether they like it or not).
In between the cardboard cutouts is a familiar trope in Egyptian propaganda: Egypt as a woman. This video adopts the traditional imagery of a young woman with flowing dark hair in a dress (during the Morsi era cartoonists put her in a hegab). In this case the woman’s dress is made out of the Egyptian flag, which the woman/Egypt is sadly repairing while her eye sheds a tear. She also pricks her fingers, drawing blood and in the process driving home the message in case you missed it: Egypt is in pain.
“Finally you have come back to us after an absence,” the lyrics say. “Once again we feel that you are a loving mother, when before you were a stepmother,” they continue. Nothing unusual so far, but then the next line says “That’s why Egypt, if they try to set fire to you, they won’t burn the churches, we will sacrifice ourselves for you”.
Here then is a Christian Egypt symbolised by the church. The lyrics go on to lament those that have lost their lives, “on the border or in a protest…or innocent people whose blood flowed in front of a church, martyred during a wedding or a religious celebration”.
But it is the plaintive next line of the song that reflects a latent misalignment with the status quo. “Be very kind to all your children, don’t treat them differently. Muslim or Christian, any religion, it doesn’t make any difference.” It is at this point that what started out as a celebration, and whose title promises us citizens making pledges to the state, momentarily turns into something very different: a thinly-veiled entreaty stuffed into the nationalist mix.
“Look after all the people, whether in a mosque or a monastery. Al-Azhar or the [Coptic Orthodox] cathedral, there’s not much of a difference”, the song continues. Perhaps the “loving mother” isn’t so loving after all, if an appeal like this has to be sent. While not exactly subversive, “We Promise You” is a manipulation of the Sisi-era operetta format that points a timid finger at the state even as it glorifies it.