The grilled conscience of Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Wust el Balad, leading band of the Egyptian underground scene, has just released a new single “Damerna Mashwy” shortly before the new album due out this summer. The clip generated great enthusiasm on the social networks reaching close to a million views less than a week after being posted.
Imagine a hyena wearing a suit and a crown, comfortably sitting on a throne, smoking a cigarette with a predatory grin. A few seconds later, this greedy-eyed hyena is peacefully swimming in an ocean of hundred dollar bills. The streets of Cairo flow by. Streets in which passers-by are manipulated by a giant hand, just like puppets. Shortly after, sheep are menaced by a wolf, a mouth screams and faces seem to go mad..
These apparently absurd scenes make more sense than it seems. These images and collages depict the words of Egyptian poet Mido Zoheir from a poem written twelve years ago and published in his book “Hoknet Hawa” (A Syringe of Air). These words echo today in the streets of Cairo and beyond because Wust el Balad decided to set them to music in their song and videoclip “Damerna Mashwy” (“Our grilled conscience”) released on March 29th 2017.
It's not the first time that the band uses Mido Zoheir's sharp words in a song. And they are not the only ones. The poet often collaborates with Maryam Saleh, another key figure of the contemporary Egyptian musical scene, or with singer Dina el Wedidi.
The words of Damerna Mashwy are humoristic and titillating, reflecting everyday life in the Egyptian society and the videoclip went viral on the social networks. In less than a week, the video posted on the group's Facebook page reached a million viewers and was shared 4000 times.
Portrait of a suffocating society
A free-falling economy, great poverty rate, immovable ruling class and a suffocating and scared population whose hands are tied. It sounds like the claims of the population on the eve of the revolution of January 25th? Yet these words were written by Mido Zoheir over ten years ago. They were relevant then, they were relevant in 2011 and are more relevant than ever today.
The devaluation of the Egyptian currency, the increase in the price of petrol and food products, the reduction of state subsidies for bread... A cascade of torments that weigh heavily on the daily life of the population, especially of the vulnerable people.
Violent riots recently broke out around state bakeries – in March 2017 – in many Egyptian cities such as Alexandria, but also in the suburbs of Cairo and in many cities North of the Nile delta. Demonstrators shouted: “We want to eat!” These events recall the violent “bread riots” that shook the country in 1977 when Anwar el-Sadat was in power.
The economic environment was exacerbated in the last months with the loan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in November 2016 in return for drastic reforms to reduce the country's deficit. This agreement seems to actually be leading to a raise in the country's inequities. Ruling classes continue to prosper and accumulate riches like the hyena in the video clip, shamelessly counting their money and swimming in it, “mafish meshekel”, as the group sings. During this time, half the population has gone fatally under the poverty line. A whole sector of the population lacks freedom just like these chained hands in the words and images of the video:
This song is deeply rooted in the recent Egyptian history where people feel prisoners of a reality that they cannot control. In this deadlock, the hopes and dreams of the revolution of six years ago are fading away.
These words are favourably received by the Egyptians
Beyond numbers, views and shares, the reactions and comments of Egyptians are eloquent. The words written by Mido Zoheir, the music and the video have received thousands of comments saying for example that the song truly depicts “the current situation”, or that it is an “honest” or “constructive criticism” of the country's situation.
Many viewers share the same feeling about the current situation. They criticize it, they condemn it, they deplore it, as in a register of grievances. Some of them speak of the country's leader as “sick, blind, deaf and dumb”, while others approve and share the words or call upon God “so that things may change”.
All of these comments reveal the Egyptians' need to speak up and share their opinions on the issue.
The musicians of this popular group were surprised by all the enthusiasm they created. It is not the first time that their music conveys a strong message but, according to the band's oud player, Ahmed Omran, the fact that their video went viral “is without doubt a proof that this message is relevant, that people feel concerned more than ever by these words”. Mohammed Gamal Al Din a.k.a. “Mizo”, the band's drummer, says that “people's reaction could not have been foreseen. The text addresses an issue, and we express our point of view through the music and that is what people responded to.” In general, the members of the band believe that musicians should clearly transmit their point of view in the best possible way. In the end, the listeners will judge the quality of the message.
Founded in 1999, Wust el Balad is one of the most popular bands of the contemporary Egyptian scene. They play regularly for a full house in clubs in Cairo, such as the After 8, the Cairo Jazz Club, or the Riverside. They also play concerts abroad – they were part of the 2017 Jazz Festival in Carthage.
Even though the band as such was not heard through the loud speakers of Tahrir Square during the upheaval, Hany Adel, the singer and co-founder of Wust el Balad, spoke up with musicians such as Ramy Essam or Cairokee. In 2011, he wrote Sout AL Horreya (The Sound of Freedom) with Amir Eid from the band Cairokee, one of the hymns of the Tahrir Square revolution.
For Ahmed Omran, the title “Damerna Mashwy” reflects the simple idea that even though the planet offers a multitude of beautiful things, many elements unsettle the pleasures of our every day life. They prevent us from moving along and they destroy our lives, making humans feel lonely and angry. People no longer have hope and in the end feel like abandoning everything. This situation is not confined to Egypt, this sense of hopelessness exists beyond the Nile, all over the world.
It remains to be seen how long this image of a hyena with pockets full of riches will remain at the forefront, in Egypt and elsewhere.