News & Politics

Listening to Music in Mubarak's Egypt

The author remembers her teenage years in Cairo. Featuring corruption, bad metal and laser shows.

I’m squashed along the back seat of a taxi with four other friends some evening around 2008. Typically, its an old car from the ‘70s, upholstery peeling off the seats, the window handle fallen off, a crackly radio blearing out either an Arabic music station – Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram etc – or Koranic verse on tape depending on the driver. It costs about the equivalent of two English pounds to reach the intended destination. This is a club on the edge of the Nile. We’re all obviously under 21, but no one much cares for I.D. (made buying alcohol and cigarettes surprisingly easy considering this is essentially a conservative Muslim country), and we’d been going there since the age of about 15. Everyone would sit around on low tables and beanbags, everyone would smoke (shisha, cigarettes, both), some people would drink. The music they played was your standard Middle-Eastern pop. As with any chart music, some of it was good, some of it less so.

When Egypt exploded a few weeks back one of my friends I’d been at school with, and who is now studying at Oxford, called me up. After telling me about her panic over seeing a tank driving outside her apartment building on Al Jazeera, calling her mother and hearing gunshots in the background, she informed me that this place we used to occasionally spend our weekend evenings had been burnt down in the riots. “They burnt it down! Isn’t that weird?” she says from her Oxford dorm, “I know the whole thing is weird, and that relatively it's not that weird compared to what else is happening. But it’s still weird right?” We shrug and get back to counting off the people we know over there that we have and haven’t heard from.

“He’s not going to step down,” says my dad over the phone. Yesterday, late afternoon, and it has just been announced that Mubarak is to speak on National television that night. Expectations of him leaving are high. The CIA reckon he’s off. I’m sat in a flat in Fulham with my mother and sister, speaking to my dad who is still over in Cairo. Things are tense over there. There’s a lot of expectation. General consensus seems to be that this is it. Which makes my dad’s opinion that he’s going nowhere a little surprising. “Really? You think so? But why would he be giving a speech otherwise? I doesn’t make sense in any way unless he has actually going to leave.” I reply. My dad laughs. “They don’t care. Making sense? They don’t think like that.” He’s right, as it turns out. From what I can tell from people I know over there, tempers and tensions seemed to have spiraled right up again. The massive distance between public opinion (from all sectors of society, all backgrounds, ages) and the government, is something that has always been apparent. It’s interesting that people aren’t taking oppression and corruption as simply the norm you have to work within. I didn’t properly comprehend how normalized it had become until I’d moved away and started talking about it to people elsewhere in the world.

As far as music of the sort this website is concerned with, Cairo was pretty void of it. Or at least I never came across it. It’s a population of nearly 17 million. London feels almost cosy in comparison. I never stumbled across any particularly exciting ‘scene’, so consequently finding out about new music was an internet-based activity. As far as buying music, there was a small corner shop near my school that sold bootleg tapes and CDs of whatever made the billboard charts, so Ciara, Cassie, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and all.

Censorship was something you took for a given. Everyone knew the national press was pressurized. Both my parents used to work as journalists, and there were constant stories and rumours about phone tappings, emails going missing, people ‘disappearing’. I don’t think it was too prevalent in terms of music. Somewhere I still have a copy of Kelis’ album ‘Milkshake’ where the Nas rap on In Public has been cut out. I never heard stories of local bands having any trouble in terms of their lyrical content or anything. Mohammed Mounir, one of Egyptian music’s big sellers, can have a pretty political/social edge on occasions.

It’s Thursday night (in Egypt the weekend is Friday and Saturday) some time around 2006. Again, I’m squashed in the back of a car, this time belonging to a friend. He’s driving pretty fast down the motorway out of the city and towards the surrounding area of the Giza pyramids. Between mouthfuls of beer, one of the other guys in the car tells him to slow down a bit.

“It’s OK man. They turn off the speed cameras after dark.”

“Didn’t you get stopped last weekend?”

“Yeah. But he was just a policeman trying to make some extra money. I told him my dad knew the Minister, slipped him a 50 and he let me go. No problem.” He states simply, in that blend between Arabic and English most conversations take place in. Bribery and corruption. As much a part of the background noise of living in Cairo as beeping car horns and Arabic radio.

Eventually we pull off the motorway and start to wind down a badly tarmaced road alongside a canal. We turn into a dirt road lined with palm trees, with a donkey walking around a water wheel on the corner. It’s unusually quiet and traffic-free for the city. This all changes as we reach the point where the road opens out into what has been turned into a makeshift car park. It’s busy, filled with young people dressed in black t-shirts and jeans leaning against cars drinking beer and local vodka. There’s a small hut towards the back where the drug dealers are doing business.

We park, get out, and make our way towards a gap in a large hedgerow. We pay, are glared at a bit by the plainclothes policeman at the entrance (no one asked why they were there. They just were), are handed a few flyers, and are allowed into the gig. Metal music is strangely popular in Cairo. Anything from the more underground stuff, to its more commercial strands – bands like Evanescence – being constantly on the radio. The concerts I ended up being dragged to would take place borderline illegally (rule of law is kind of relative. It’s often unclear what’s actually illegal and what is just not allowed) in places tucked away from the general public. There was one that was held in the grounds of a sporting club next door to the childrens’ playground. Mostly they took place in the gardens of people’s villas on the outskirts of Cairo.

We go in, sit ourselves down on the edge of an empty swimming pool and half watch the local bands playing bad cover versions of Lamb Of God and the like. I never liked metal. I don’t think many of the people who came to these things did. It was just something to do. The crowd and the bands are all under the age of 25. Everyone, from the crowd, to the sound guy, to the people on stage, to the plainclothes policeman dotted around, is smoking. One guy puts his arm around his girlfriend. One of the plainclothes lot comes over and tells him to stop. It's strange considering everyone knows he’s happy to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the backs of cars just outside in exchange for a few pounds. It never happened when I was there, but these gatherings would occasionally be shut down. You’d hear rumours of young people being arrested on the grounds of wearing Metallica t-shirts, articles in the national press getting flustered over these so-called ‘devil-worshippers’. They probably just liked Metallica.

The Sound and Light Show takes place most evenings at the Giza pyramids. They do a laser display with neon lights and some overly dramatic Shakespearian actor voice narration talking about the sphinx and Tutankhamun. I once went when we had some relatives from the UK visiting. Spent the first ten minutes giggling at said narration, got bored, switched on my iPod and watched the rest of the show to the soundtrack of The Rapture’s first album (it was that time of the decade). On the way out, we passed a troop of musicians in Egyptian traditional dress playing bagpipes. No idea what they were doing there. Odd things like that were always cropping up. We all piled into the family car parked outside the Pizza Hut over the road from the Pyramids, someone switched on the radio. ‘You are listening to 104.2 Nile FM!’ it chimed.

Read this piece in its entirety atDummy.

Tamara El Essawi is an editor at Dummy, a London-based website and record label.
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