I stand amongst the crowd looking up at the stage. It’s 2017, yet, I hear the crackling sounds of an old record seemingly jumpstarting itself to release the voice of beloved Oum Kalthoum.
I find myself lost, continually jumping from place to place, hoping to encounter somewhere in which I can obtain refuge. Music provides me with a refuge that conversely offers complications, pains, and aspirations.
It is not by our hands that we make our misfortune
I sit in front of my computer, ushering it to play me the music I require. The music I desire. The music that offers me an identity. One that tells me who I am through its language, tone, and style. The reverberations of strings transcending both time and place allowing for a development of an identity. However is the music, and my identity that comes with it, fragile? Non-existent? Simply just air?
I am living between heaven and hell
I am laying in bed listening to Oum Kalthoum. The buoyant flows of the strings and the steady beats of the tabla lull me to a sleep; a sleep not of scenic Arabian nights with flying carpets, but a sleep of fear and anxiety for a Middle East that has been manipulated, twisted and turned, flipped on its head. Chlorine gas, falling statues, government intervention, international intervention. Where do I look? Where do I find comfort?
In Oum Kalthoum’s voice I find comfort. Comfort in the images of Pan-Arabism and Arab socialism in a united front against Western manipulation. A united front in which Oum Kalthoum is its cultural head.
Yet in her coalescing voice – the voice that unites the Arab world – resounds a tinge of pain. What is it? Disappointment? Detachment? Fame?
Your eyes returned me to the days that had gone by
They taught me to regret the past and its wounds
That which I experienced before my eyes saw you
What is the wasted life to me?
Yet love for who? Her country?
Nevertheless, her song continues churning ceaselessly by the fuel of passion. No time for questions.
Relaxing their beat and slowing their strings, the instruments supporting Kalthoum almost anticipate her voice, quieting themselves in the hopes of catching a sound of her song, her pain, her identity.
To the beloved country take me
And the separation
On the tails of her flowing dress follows a cultural renaissance that has supposedly reached a halt with the coming age of “savagery.” Cries of war and claims of terrorism have subsumed any representation of Middle Eastern cultural expression within the dominant Western narrative, leaving those inhabiting the Middle East to affirm and assert their identity with only whitewashed, stereotypical trails of culture and identity breaking through the dominant discourse.
On the Nile River
Appropriation is the only effective method for Arab and Muslim culture to enter into the dominant Western world media. I find my identity at the intersection of these fluctuating forces. Jay Z’s appropriative sampling of the legendary Egyptian song Khosara Khosara in his song Big Pimpin’ (1999) provides for an awkward collision between contemporary American music and Egyptian rhythm, which I confide in. These appropriations provided a harmful and reductive Western lens into my culture that (unfortunately) played an influential role in my upbringing. Offering me a diminished vision and idea of my heritage, the use of Egyptian and Arab music in Western pop culture subtracts its value and significance by carelessly depicting the Arab world as a society in which its only acknowledgeable features are camels and the Pyramids.
I have a paramour in Egypt
It seems as though we all have a paramour in Egypt. Western Orientalist fantasies of Egyptian society provide Westerners with an imagined culture that is simple, exotic, and not threatening. Yet they fear and intimidate those who withhold and support this culture. Agitators of this imperialist vision, choose to acknowledge the Middle East’s cultural products, but ignore its creators.
At the expense of a diverse or remotely accurate depiction of the Middle East, Western cultural production subjects Arabs and those in the Middle East to two representations: a magical, seemingly harmless and religionless Aladdin type; or a threatening, violent, extremist terrorist. Creators are either depicted as innocuous and naive characters, or are ignored as their complexity contradicts the singular Western narrative regarding the people of the Middle East. The “exotic” beats, chimes, and sounds found in contemporary Western music only further these images and perpetuate the refusal to acknowledge their origins.
His love prevents me the sleep
And yet here I lay restless not because of the love of my country but because of my separation from it. I lay restless not because of a passionate love for Egypt similar to Kalthoum’s, but because I find myself stuck within this awkward convergence, thriving at its very apex. Where do I stand? Where do I lie? Do I choose? Have I already chosen? Or is this decision false? Maybe fake? Is it simply just air to which I ascribe an arbitrary identity to?
I was taught the math as a child that ancient pyramids + modern society = ancient society. A false math that has left me dismissing my culture and remaining ashamed of its perceived “backwardness.” Leaving me to further push it away, leaving me dislocated, misunderstood, upset. Dwelling in this convergence, I find Oum Kalthoum as the muse that guides my diasporic identity, through the whines and wanes of her voice and the instruments that follow her pattern. However, I am still lost.
To the beloved country
She requests. I continually find myself requesting that as well. But where shall I be taken to?
Written by Michael Elsanadi