Has Kurdistan just given the world its newest national anthem?


Kurdish voters! Why can’t we have that inky finger in the UK?

Kurdistan – at least the bit of it in Iraq – has voted for independence. Go them!

Which means one of two things: either the Middle East is about to have its most earth-shattering moment since the creation of Israel, or the US will tell the Kurds to shut up and it’ll have to stay awkwardly part of Iraq for a few more years (here’s a good analysis explaining both possibilities).

But one thing’s certain whatever the outcome: Kurds will keep singing Ey Reqib – Oh, Enemy! – as if they already have a national anthem.

“Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on / They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time,” goes the song, written by the poet Dildar while in an Iranian jail in 1938 (he was locked up for campaigning for independence).

“Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living / They live and never shall we lower our flag.”

That clip’s a version by the singer Dashni Morad, which she posted on Facebook just before the vote with the note: “To all my Kurdish brothers and sisters, times may have changed, but our objective hasn’t. Do not lose sight of what is important here. Independence is within touching distance. Let us unite and make this happen, as those before us always dreamed.”

As an anthem, it certainly does the trick, which explains scenes like this after the vote – (weirdly filmed in Iran, I think):

When researching my book on anthems, I considered a chapter on Kurdistan – I liked the idea of looking at the power of national anthems in countries that didn’t exist – and did some initial research by visiting Bayan Rahman, the Kurdish government’s representative in the UK.

In our first meeting, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, she diplomatically told me Ey Reqib isn’t an independence song:

“It was written at a time when Kurds’ language wasn’t recognised, when people were trying to deny the existence of Kurds at all in Turkey.

“They were killing Kurds – genocides – but it was saying, ‘I’m the never-ending Kurd. You can try to kill me but we will get up again.’

“It was a song about survival. ‘I will exist.’ It’s really not about independence.”

A few months later I went to meet her a second time – ISIS were bearing down on Erbil and I was trying to get access to the Peshmerga’s front lines so I could see if they sang Ey Reqib in battle. And that time, for some reason, she was far more open about the role the song had played in both her life, and the wider independence movement.

Bayan’s father had been a senior member of the Peshmerga and went on to be a successful politician until he was killed by a suicide bomber in 2004.

Bayan smiled while telling me about him, and suddenly remembered a night in the ’70s when he woke her and her brother, dragged them outside where all the adults were partying, and made the two children sing, while recording it all on a tape player.

“You would think that at that age we would be singing nursery rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty or whatever. But we were singing Peshmerga songs.

“My father was a Peshmerga. We’d lived in the mountains and we had guns in the house and he’d come home with his Kalashnikov, and so we had grown up with all that, seeing them sing before they went off to battle. So he made us sing like them.

“He got my brother to sing one: ‘Mother dearest, don’t start crying. I’ve been killed, but I’m a martyr, I’m a hero, I’ll come back.’

“And then my brother and father were killed in 2004, and my mother used to play that tape [over and over].

“And, of course, all she did was cry.”

I asked Bayan if Ey Reqib meant more to her because of that loss:

“Yes, I definitely think of them and others who have been killed when I sing it, because they were killed because they believed in it.

“They believed in what that song says.”

That quote tells you everything about the strength of feeling in Kurdistan and the power of anthems.

Whether Kurdistan becomes independent or it has to stay part of Iraq, neither the anthem nor the desire is going anywhere.


Rest in peace: Qatar’s ‘angry generation’ anthem composer

Abdulaziz Nasser Al Obaidan

National anthem composers are dropping like flies, it’s sad to say.

On Friday, Abdulaziz Nasser Al Obaidan, the composer of Qatar’s, died of “a long illness” (I’ve been unable to find out what) age 64.

This is only weeks after Nepal’s anthem composer died.

I don’t really like Qatar’s anthem, if I’m being honest. Abdulaziz wrote in 1996 and perfunctory would be the word for it.

But many Qataris clearly feel differently. “Today we say goodbye to the one who nurtured us in the romance of one’s country,” tweeted one poetically.

To ensure I don’t give the impression he was an awful musician, head here and listen to his song Rapture, which I’m assuming is patriotic since the video features shots of the Qatari national bank (what better emblem for the country!).

But for a complete contrast, below is a song simply labelled “Abdulaziz, the angry generation musician”. Given there’s never any dissent in Qatar, I’m assuming that doesn’t mean he was running around annoying the country’s elite. But the video is of the Arab Spring, so you never know. It lives up to its angry billing, anyway.

Rest in peace.


A Yemeni composer’s house has just been blow up – and the country with it

A Yemeni fighter stolen stands before his flag from Reuters' Angus McDowall. Sorry, Angus!

A Yemeni fighter stands before his flag. Photo stolen from Reuters’ Angus McDowall

Yemen’s a mess, and a forgotten one at that given what’s happening in Syria.

On one side you’ve got the Houthis, Shias from the north, who now occupy the capital. On the other you’ve got forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who the Houthis forced out. They are – surprise, surprise – largely Sunni and largely from the south.

And then you’ve got al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacking both sides, and the Islamic State attacking even them. And the Saudis getting in with air strikes and… Yes, it’s a mess.

It has seemed, though, that all sides wanted to keep Yemen as a whole. Until, perhaps, now.

Last week, the Houthis shelled the home of 73-year-old Ayoob Tarish, the oud-playing nattily-moustached composer of Yemen’s national anthem. He luckily wasn’t in.

It’s a symbolic act if ever there was one – blowing up the home of the man who Yemenis think of when singing, “My heartbeat shall remain Yemenite, no foreigner shall ever rule over Yemen.” Here’s his anthem:

Tarish’s music is loved by people on both sides, according to Al Arabiya, which also claims Tarish has tried to stay neutral in the conflict. The Houthis were singing his anthem at rallies after taking the capital in February and some of their leaders have since tried to co-opt him for photo ops.

Maybe his music is just too associated with the old regime that they felt it needed to be silenced – him with it.

Or perhaps this marks the point the Houthis stop focusing on the country as a whole and just decide to take part of it; the moment we go back to there being a North and South Yemen as there was until the early ’90s.

Yet more countries, yet more songs, yet, probably, more strife.

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 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!

The anthem behind the Mia Khalifa controversy

This is a picture of porn star Mia Khalifa with a dog:

Pron star Mia Khalifa and a puppy in a car

And this is a picture of her arm featuring the chorus of Lebanon’s national anthem (“All of Us! For our country, our flag and glory”):

Mia Khalifa's national anthem tattoo

If you’ve been reading the news over the past fortnight, chances are you’ll have come across Mia and the storm she’s caused in Lebanon after becoming the number 1 ranked actress on Pornhub. That tattoo hasn’t helped calm things down.

I’d say getting your anthem inked on your arm is probably the most patriotic thing you can do. But Mia’s parents appear to disagree not even touching on it in this statement about her career choice: “We disassociate ourselves from her actions which do not reflect her family beliefs, her upbringing or her true Lebanese roots. We hope that she comes back to her senses as her image does not honour her family or her homeland.”

There’s numerous articles you can read about this furore – here’s one featuring lots of Lebanese academics – but what none of them have done is actually tell anyone what the Lebanese anthem sounds like, or even asked if it’s worth getting tattooed on your body. So in the spirit of public service, here it is!

Yes, it’s not the best, is it? Too much stop and starting – a bit like I imagine there is on a porn shoot.

But that chorus: if you’re patriotic, can you actually get better? I mean, it covers everything you need in 10 words.

As a random aside, did you know the Lebanese army has a website featuring the 31 (!) anthems it plays on a regular basis? No? Neither did I until about five minutes ago. But it’s thoroughly worth a visit. There’s even an Anthem of Armoured Vehicles. Literally amazing.

Iraqi soccer star Ahmed Yasin talking about everything but national anthems

Iraqi footballer Ahmed Yasin

He plays for one of Sweden’s top football clubs, has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo and carries the sporting hopes of 33 million people on his shoulders. In a few months, if all goes to plan, the Baghdad-born winger will help Iraq qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Here’s a Q&A with Ahmed Yasin I did for Gulf Airways’ inflight magazine, Gulf Life. No, it has nothing to do with national anthems, the usual remit of this blog. But I get a lot of people coming here looking for Ahmed since he spoke to me about the Iraqi anthem, so thought I should post it. Feel free to read the rest of the magazine if you’re on a flight in the Middle East during February!

How does it feel being Iraq’s football ambassador?
“It’s scary sometimes. I’m only 21, but kids are always asking me questions like, ‘How can I play better?’ or ‘How can I be like you?’ But it’s proof I’m doing a good job. The message I have for them is always, ‘Believe in your dreams and train hard, because you never know when a professional club will be watching you play’.”

When did you start playing?
“My whole family loves football and I have three brothers who played in Sweden, so they pushed and encouraged me to follow them. Really, it’s what I always wanted to do. I’ve had football in my head and nothing else since I was seven.”

How did you get your nickname, the Iraqi Ronaldo?
“I think it’s because the Iraqi team has never had a real dribbler before, someone who likes to run at players. So when the fans saw me, it reminded them of him and his style of play. Of course it’s nice to hear, but professionally you always have to be yourself.”

What’s been your career highlight so far?
“The first time I played for Iraq was huge. When I put the shirt on, I knew that my friends, family and everyone in Iraq was watching. The biggest match of my life so far was a World Cup qualifying game against Japan. I’d never played in front of 60,000 people before. Every time Japan attacked, I wanted to put my hands over my ears – it was so loud – but it didn’t stop us playing well.”

Will Iraqi football become more known soon?
“Of course, we’re definitely improving – many other players in the national team could play in Europe. They’re fast, strong and good with both feet, and many new players will come through because so many kids now play. They just need better pitches.”

You’re still young, but have already played for the Iraqi national team 18 times. What’s your ambition?
“I want to be a top player. Not just in Sweden, but in a league like the one in Spain. I also want to get Iraq to the World Cup, hopefully this time or to Russia in 2018. Of course, I dream of scoring the winning goal in the final. I think I’m a bit too young to say I want to be captain, but someday I hope so.”

You’ve become nearly as famous for your hairstyle as your skills on the pitch. Would you ever consider being a model like the real Ronaldo?
“It’s funny, a lot of people are always pushing me to do that, and David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović do it, so, hey, why not?”

Follow Yasin on Facebook or Twitter.