Songs of Revolution: Arab Springs
Tunisia is making headlines again over violent clashes. Around 600 have been arrested, and the army has been deployed as unrest continues to spread across the country. Protests erupted after the government imposed a lockdown to contain COVID-19 amid economic hardship. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political reforms a decade after the Arab Spring.
This year marks a decade of civil war after the Arab Springs. Back in the days when I was twelve, I remember seeing Pakistan drown in blood. It was like a plague, and everyone everybody knew, had lost a dear one to one terrorist attack or the other.
During our darkest days, news of political upheaval in the Arab world was making rounds on social media, and on TV. Always into politics, I followed the Arab Springs closely. Unfortunately, some of them grew to become civil wars about which we have been hearing from childhood to adulthood, and still have no end in sight.
There was one aspect of the revolution, which often goes unnoticed: the music. This piece is dedicated to the melodies, the artists behind the tunes, and to everyone who paid a dear price for being on the right side of history.
The iconic slogan “Ash-shaab yuris isqaat an-nizam” which translates to “The public/nation wants the fall of the regime!” was the chant of the revolution throughout the region. However, it manifested itself in varying forms in different countries.
The rappers, “Al-General” took centre stage with “Rais le Bled”, addressed to the President, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, calling for his departure, was sung along by thousands in protests.
“Bread, freedom and social justice”, the slogan of the Egyptian revolution took the form of an anthem “Irhal”. The title translates to “leave”. Tahrir Square came alive to the sound of Ramy Essam’s guitar, and his “Irhal”.
“Yalla irhal, ya Bashar”, “Leave, O Bashar” was sung to a plethora of tunes. I don’t have words to describe the music. It is so alive, pinching, bone-chilling-there is no apt word for it. All I can say is that it is enough to give you goosebumps.
Protestors singing the mantra often made sure it was accompanied with dabke and durbaka, a popular folk dance and drum in the Levant, respectively. However, the man behind the chant, Ibrahim Qashoush, was brutally murdered by the regime, a clear message about the consequences of joining the revolution.
As the revolution began, then President, Gaddafi vowed to “purify Libya” in a speech which was powered by sheer vengeance. “Inch by inch, house by house, alleyway by alleyway, person by person…” the dictator warned. This took the form of an auto-tuned song, “Zenga, Zenga” which became on online sensation overnight, slamming the President for his rant.
This revolution, which has proved to be the harshest and the deadliest for the people, taking into consideration the heartbreaking current state of the Yemenis, started off as one of the liveliest. Protesters waved “Jambiyas”, traditional daggers, and the women took to “Zaghareet”, a celebratory cheer. Over 500 songs, by local artists, revolutionising traditional music were released in one after the other, particularly after the Saudi-invasion in 2015.
The upbeat anthem, entitled “Hurriya”, “Freedom”, sung to traditional Yemeni wind instruments, by Khaled al-Zaher was by far the most famous and became “the anthem of the revolution” of sorts, but the Yemeni rendition of “Irhal” remains iconic in terms of its stark similarity but unique feel against other revolutionary songs.
Unfortunately, the music is all that remains of the revolutions, a warm reminder of fleeting hope, regardless of whether better times are closer, or further away today, after a decade of the Arab Springs.