God save our ears!

At the end of August, you might have seen the below clip of a Libyan military band butchering God Save the Queen when playing it for British foreign secretary/buffoon Boris Johnson:

It is very funny.

But I did feel slightly sorry for the Libyans when that clip emerged as few people pointed out that they’re far from alone in butchering anthems, even in the Middle East. So, please, let me jog your memories of the wonders of the Egyptian military band – and especially the time they played Russia’s national anthem to Vladimir Putin:

A-hahahahahahahaha!

The Paralympics – more anthems than the Olympics (including some words on Trinidad and Tobago’s)

Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby. Always an amazing sport to watch

Ouch! Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby

If you watched the Paralympics, you might have noticed something. No, not that wheelchair rugby is an incredibly violent sport. But that the countries that won gold are hugely different to the Olympics winners.

Some 63 countries took that medal, four more than at the Olympics, and 17 of those didn’t win one gold a month ago, and that includes such giants (in population terms) as India, Egypt and Nigeria. What does that mean? Well, it probably says a lot about the lack of money in the Paralympics meaning there’s a more equal playing field, but, in the context of this national anthem-obsessed blog, it means only one thing: that people got to hear 17 anthems for the first time this year!

Many of those anthems I’ve written about on here or in my book. They range from greats like Algeria’s (the only anthem to mention machine guns) to the controversial like Iraq’s, the much loved like Malaysia’s, to the plain naughty like Mexico’s (the only anthem written out of lust).

But there were a few that I haven’t written about, of which one sticks out: Trinidad and Tobago’s.

What’s interesting about Forged From the Love of Liberty that makes it worth choosing? Musically? Nothing. And lyrically? Nothing either!

But there are two reasons it’s interesting. Firstly, it was originally written as the anthem of the West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, and was an attempt to almost create one country in the Caribbean. Its author Patrick Castagne made his song vague enough to appeal to everyone, with lines about all the islands “side by side…our hearts joined across the sea.” But when the federation collapsed he didn’t decide to just let it disappear to history, he tweaked it to make it work for Trinidad and Tobago instead. He was somehow awarded $5,000 for those three minutes of work.

It’s the only anthem I know of that’s been rewritten in that way (Russia’s used to the be the anthem of the Soviet Union, but I think this is more dramatic).

The second thing that’s interesting is Patrick himself. Patrick wasn’t just an anthem writer. He also wrote calypsos, including this great tune, Ice Man for someone called Lord Melody.

I wonder if Akeem Stewart – the Trinidadian Paralympian who won gold in the javelin at the Paralympics and silver in the discus – would have preferred to have heard some calypso on the podium instead of his anthem. If you know him, please ask.

Memories of a revolution that failed: the fifth anniversary of Tahrir Square

Tahrir protests

The Tahrir Square protests in 2011 with Egypt’s flag. Samia Jaheen is in there somewhere!

A year ago, I was in Egypt doing research for my book on the stories behind national anthems. While there, I met Samia Jaheen – one of the main revolutionaries who filled Tahrir Square in 2011 to call for the resignation of the country’s then military ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

It was one of the most emotional interviews I did in all my research.

Since today’s the fifth anniversary of the start of those protests, I thought I’d put up the section of my book about Samia. Please read it to the end.

 

Samia Jaheen, bulgingly pregnant, is propped up on a sofa in her Cairo flat. She’s the daughter of Salah Jaheen, one of Egypt’s greatest ever songwriters, and she’s been chatting animatedly for the past half-hour about Egypt’s anthems past and present. But for the last few moments she’s drifted into melancholy, staring into the middle distance like I’m no longer there, as if she’s picturing somewhere else entirely. ‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘I can get lost thinking about it – remembering that there was a moment when we were just sitting in Tahrir, not afraid of what would happen, just singing, chanting. How happy everyone was. It feels like it was another lifetime.’

It’s 28 February 2015, the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s most recent revolution – the day the Arab Spring succeeded here, when protestors in Tahrir Square brought down Hosni Mubarak, the general who’d ruled the country since Anwar Sadat’s death in 1981. It was on that day that Egypt’s anthem ‘Bilady, Bilady’ was sung in celebration louder than ever before, including by Samia who was one of the most vocal figures there (there were dozens of ‘songs of the revolution’, but everyone agrees the anthem was in the top handful). But, as Samia says, that day now seems like very long ago. During the last four years, Egypt has experienced government under the Muslim Brotherhood, a military coup, the election of the man who ran that coup (Abdel Fattah al-Sisi), and then a severe crackdown on all opposition, including multiple death sentences (Samia, who now works as a human rights activist, says she’s been threatened with prison many times, her father’s name the only reason she hasn’t been locked up).

Cairo today doesn’t exactly feel like a place of celebration as it was back then. The huge teardrop-shaped Tahrir Square is now surrounded by coils of barbed wire, ready to be pulled across the roads if needed; tanks sit outside the Egyptian Museum on its northern side, ready to roll into action, almost daring tourists to try to take a photo of them; while newspapers are filled with warnings about extremists and the ‘foreign forces’ behind them (that explains why people think I’m a spy). You only have to be in this city for a few moments to realise everything the Arab Spring hoped to achieve has failed.

It’s because of that fact that Samia drops into a reverie whenever I ask her about Tahrir – even when I just ask if she sang ‘Bilady, Bilady’ while protesting there. ‘Of course we sang it then. Every day. Many times,’ she says. ‘And when we sang it, it actually meant something, for the first time I think. I used to sing it all the time in school and it never meant anything, but singing it then when people were sacrificing their lives for the country – getting killed by the police – it felt different.’

‘Didn’t you feel like you were singing the anthem of the very government you were protesting against?’ I ask.

‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘But we were singing it to re-own it – to say “This is our country; not yours.” We didn’t sing it the gentle way they sing it. We sang it like “BILADY, BILADY, BILADY”.’ She shouts every word at me. ‘We were taking it to a different place. Sometimes it felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest when I heard everyone sing it, or my father’s songs. But that’s all another time now; that’s the sad part.’

I ask how she feels about the anthem today. ‘When it comes on the radio, we turn it off. Not just the anthem; all the songs we sang at Tahrir. We don’t want to listen to them. That’s how bad things have got.’ She takes a deep breath as if to steady herself. ‘This is not my country any more and this is not my anthem. Maybe you’ve caught me on a bad day, but I don’t feel romantic about it now. I’m too hurt to feel that way.’

Samia Jaheen / Samia Jahin

Samia Jaheen – yes, I should have taken one without her smiling!

Samia knows that the majority of people don’t feel as she does – about the country, or the anthem – even those who have every right to share her views. Earlier this morning, I’d got talking with the young owner of a washing machine shop, his gigantic beard and the deep prayer bruise on his forehead indicating he was a devout Muslim. He would have once been the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood’s target audience. ‘Things have changed since 2011,’ he said. ‘We’ – he pointed at his beard – ‘are looked on differently now. We’re not to be trusted. But whatever happens, I’ll love my country. I can’t stop doing so. You want me to give you reasons, like ‘one, two, three, four, five’? I can’t explain it like that. I’ll always love Sayed Darwish’s songs too,’ he added. ‘His music was about the normal people like me.’

A photo of grafitti put up in Tahrir Square during the protests and showing some of the protestors killed

A photo of grafitti put up in Tahrir Square during the protests and featuring Sheik Emad, who was murdered and who Samia knew. She has this in her living room

I tell Samia about this man, but she just says that for her things have become ‘too personal’ to think like him. I ask how many of her friends were killed during the revolution. She stares off into the middle distance again. ‘These weren’t close friends,’ she says, ‘just people I got to know, that I respected.’ She takes another deep breath.

‘There’s Mena, Ahmed . . .’ a slight smile comes across her face as if she’s just recalled something funny one of them did, ‘. . . Karika, Ali . . .’ I look down and suddenly realise she’s counting each person off on her fingers. ‘… Sheik Emad – that’s his picture over there, they graffitied him on to one of the walls around the Square . . .’ I can’t look away from her hands. ‘. . . Mohammed, the son of a friend of mine . . .’

The list goes on.

How not to write a travel book

1) Don’t try and go to war zones!

If you didn’t know already, I’m writing a book about national anthems, which involves travelling to countries to learn their stories. When I first came up with this bizarre idea, I planned a chapter on Iraq because it was getting a multi-lingual anthem aimed at bringing the country together.

That was back in 2013 when the country was relatively peaceful. Yes, I perhaps should have seen what was coming. Iraq still hasn’t got the anthem.

2) Don’t swap a war zone for Iran!

After a chapter on Iraq was ruled out, I applied for an Iranian visa. I’m still waiting. Dear Iranian government, I promise I’m not a spy. Unless that’s what a spy would say in which case… I am one, right?

3) Er…

Actually there isn’t a three because I recently came up with a solution. This weekend, I’ll be heading to Egypt to research their anthems. I probably should have planned to go there all along because Egypt is the Middle East’s anthem factory – its musicians being responsible for the anthems of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia among others.

The stories behind Egypt’s own anthems are fascinating too. I can’t write them on this blog unfortunately, but here for your listening pleasure is the anthem the country adopted in the ’50s. It’s called “Oh my weapon, it’s been a long time” and is sung by Umm Kulthum, the great diva of Egyptian music (she doesn’t come in until 1:12).

If you don’t speak Arabic, it includes lines like this: “The people are mountains, seas, a volcano of anger ready to erupt, an earthquake that will cleanse the earth to make their enemies graves.” Yes, it was directed at Israel!

I’ll try to write something about my trip when I’m back but I may not have time. Here’s another tip for any aspiring travel writers: don’t leave things to the last bloody minute!

Update: A few hours after posting this, I got a phone call from Iran saying I can have a visa, which is somewhat amazing given they’ve refused the BBC one for about six months. The magic of the Internet, perhaps. God knows what this means for the book!

How to spot a radical Islamist, according to Egypt’s government

image

The situation in Egypt appears to be getting more absurd by the day. Last week, the country’s interim, military-selected government passed a law making it illegal to insult the country’s anthem or flag. Doing so’s punishable by a six-month prison sentence.

The move followed reports that ultra-conservative Salafis were refusing to stand for the anthem for religious reasons. It’s probably worth pointing out that the Salafist al-Nour Party supported the deposed Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

It’s slightly unclear what use the law is unless police start turning up outside mosques and playing the anthem, but I’m guessing the military’s pleased!

Incidentally, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t stand for national anthems either. There are 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Egypt. WATCH OUT GUYS!

The people want five pounds phone credit!

Image

There’s been a great series of articles on the Quietus recently about Cairo’s ‘electro chaabi’ music scene.

If you’ve got any interest in discovering new music, you should go there now and read all six parts (start with this one). They’re the sort of articles that make you want to immediately get on a plane to Cairo, jump in a taxi to one of the city’s rougher neighbourhoods, and then try and find a street party with 25 rappers and kids twirling flares.

The New York Times also did a piece on the scene last month if you prefer your journalism from bigger name sources.

As much as I like spreading the love, the reason to mention the articles here is because of what’s apparently the scene’s biggest tune – The people want five pounds phone credit – and what that song starts with: the Egyptian national anthem.

The anthem’s played on a rubbish keyboard for about ten seconds until there’s the sound of a window being smashed and the Arabic pop comes flying in, obliterating even the memory of the military march.

You could listen to that intro over and over again, and walk away convinced you’d found the sound of the Arab spring from a couple of years ago.

But having read interviews with the main musicians, they seem like the least political people in Cairo – kids who just want to be making music for mobile phone ads – so I’m guessing they did it just because it sounds bloody good.

It’s odd that when you hear music from “troubled” places, you always assume it’s political, as if kids aren’t making tunes for the same reasons they do in Europe: boredom, fun and a desire to get laid!

(By the way, the picture at the top is from the wedding of one of electro chaabi’s stars and was taken by Ester Meerman, a Dutch journalist in Cairo. You can find her great work here)