Mohamed Mounir is among Egypt’s pre-eminent living popular singers. Since his arrival on the scene in the late 70s, Mounir has built a reputation for singing songs voicing the deepest aspirations of the Egyptian people. No mere purveyor of love songs, Mounir has worked with some of the great poets, composers, producers and musicians of his time to craft a canon of enduring songs. In July, 2011, six months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow visited Mounir at his home in downtown Cairo. Eyre had seen and photographed a concert Mounir gave with his band on the Mediterranean North Coast near Alexandria a few days earlier. Mounir’s assistant Lobna Gareeb served as interpreter for the interview, and added a few thoughts of her own. This is a transcript of the free flowing conversation that unfolded that summer night in Cairo. Thanks to Nehal Elmeligy for additional help with translation.
Note: This conversation took place in July, 2011, months before any post-revolution voting had taken place in Egypt. Keep that in mind as you read the political comments near the end of this conversation.
Banning Eyre: I’m interested in what you were saying that Egypt has had “the best revolution in Africa.”
Mohamed Mounir: It’s very nice that we have the best revolution in Africa, and in the world. All the kids are under 30. They took Mubarak off when he wasn’t looking, and as Africans, we’ve taken Facebook and the Internet from the West and used it for our revolution. This is why it’s the best revolution. We’ve managed to utilize all the resources in the world to serve us.
Sean Barlow: Google and Twitter and so on.
Lobna Gareeb: Yes, it’s called the Facebook revolution in Arabic.
M.M.: The revolution started with song in 1919, the first revolution in Egypt. It was a failure but it was the foundation for the 1952 revolution and so on. And then there were the Nubians who made a song called “So-Ya-So.” At the time the British occupied Egypt and they’d always say, “So? So?” So the Nubians made the song.
L.G.: Mounir sang it, by the way.
M.M.: My roots, my heritage.
B.E.: You mentioned your Nubian roots. Tell us about that history and what it means to be Nubian in Egypt during your life.
M.M.: I don't understand why the words "Nubia" and "Nubian" have become such a problem, why it's taken this racial direction. We never before felt this way. This is a new creation, this word. Our actual complaint began in the year 1906, with the Aswan dam and the resulting migration of people. But we felt in the 1960s the beginning of this conspiracy. Before that this idea of a "Nubian problem” didn't exist.
This dam was one of the worst projects of the 20th century, and resulted in one of the worst migrations. Because the philosophy of the Nile before then had never been about blocking water, about dams. It was about aqueducts - when you are thirsty, I give you water to drink. When your thirst is satisfied, then you've had enough water.
I’ve always wished that the Nubian culture would be treated as a distinct and special culture within the Egyptian culture. I think it is a good thing to have a culture within a culture. The subcultures won’t be conflicting, but would contribute and compliment the other.
The international community did not understand the magnitude of the tragedy the free soldiers committed against the Nubians. They drove them out of their homes and didn’t attempt to preserve their culture. For example, why didn’t the UN or UNESCO interfere in the 1950’s? Why now do they have a project called Save Nubia? Why didn’t they save Nubia at the time? And why didn’t they try to prevent this tragedy from happening?
B.E.: You were speaking the other day about the bridges crossing the Nile. In the past there were arched bridges so that boats could pass and people could see each other and communicate. Then they built straight bridges that prevented boats from passing. When did that happen? During the same time, the 50’s 60’s?
M.M.: Yes, yes. It was part of the bigger conspiracy to block Egypt from the rest of Africa. And to stop the flow of the Nile to other African nations so we’d become isolated from our African brethren. In the past 60 years, many problems occurred in the field of music because the Egyptian song became more associated with Oriental music rather than the Egyptian. Egyptian song is not 100% Arab, but in the last 60 years it became very Oriental, very Middle Eastern. Therefore it lost a big part of its identity.
B.E.: The African part.
M.M.: Yes. In general, the Arab culture is partially racist. This is why most of governments that came in the last 60 years did not care to cater to the African part. Therefore the Egyptian has zero information about Africa. They only pay attention when there is a catastrophe or a disaster, like right now when the Nile Basin countries were going to stop sending the water from Kenya I think. And so then they paid attention to the African nations. But before this, no.
And with music, on the charts, African songs were never on the list or even part of the menu as they say. So to answer your question in the beginning, this is what drove me to become a successful black singer in the beginning. I said, “Ok, this is going to be a conflict. Artists thrive on conflict and struggle. This is going to be my conflict. I’m going to show you that I can be the best.” This was my strategy. I thrive on it.
B.E.: So this kind of goes to what you were saying to me the other night, after your concert, that Egypt is the luckiest and the unluckiest. Can you give me that one more time?
M.M.: The line that starts from Africa, going on to China, is one melody, one rhythm. So we are luckier because we are in the middle. It’s all happening here, like Aswan. It’s the gateway to music. So therefore we are the luckiest because all these cultures touch us. But we were unlucky at the same time because just as communication and technology were about to pick up, and we were going to integrate, the conspiracy happened and our governments shut us off from the rest of the world. So therefore we were unlucky because we could never develop what we had.
And even the radio and media dealt with Upper and Lower Egypt as if they were a second class part of the country. Cairo was the capital of music, the capital and everything, the number one source of culture. Everything outside Cairo was unacceptable.
B.E.: The conspiracy. And you cite that going back to 1952, the very beginning of that revolution? Or is even earlier?
M.M.: It started before. But in 1952 and with the rising of the revolution it really grew. It really took shape and showed its ugly face.
B.E.: Before we come back to your story, when we talk about the revolution now, is it really just a revolution against this most recent regime, or is it bigger, going all the way back to 1952, and this conspiracy you speak of?
M.M.: In my opinion, this revolution has nothing to do with 1952. Or, if you want to date it to 1952, then this is the real revolution of 1952. And the Egyptian people from then until now were in a coma. They took a sleeping pill and only woke up now. The revolution was driven by the accumulated frustration of 60 years. One of the beauties of this revolution is that it had no leader. It was a united movement. We’re going to wake up from our long sleep, and we are in the phase of waking up right now—take a shower, drink our beautiful Egyptian tea, and we are going to fix this country. We are in this process right now.
B.E.: Okay, let’s go back to your beginnings. Tell us where you were born and how you became a musician, the early Mounir story.
M.M.: I was born in a wonderful and strange city called Aswan that has a collection of cultures. It is the gate of African music and at the same time it has the music of the North cities around it, and we received the Bedouin music that came to us from the Arabs. Bedouin music is really dry, but from life, because it’s a dessert life. It’s very estranged, it’s filled with nostalgia. But we took that and cultivated our music and this is what Aswan is all about.
I grew up listening to the radio like everyone else. In addition to the singers in Aswan who were as important as the Egyptian singers of the time, in addition to the Arab music that was coming from the gulf. So I grew up carrying all this heritage in me. And I’m a mixture of all that. And the Turkish occupation.
B.E.: What year were you born?
L.G.: He grew up in the 1960’s.
B.E.: Were you always a musician, singing from when you were very young?
M.M.: I was always interested in running after folk singers. Unlike other children I was always interested in watching them play. And from there I gained a musical ear because I was enchanted with them and always wanting to hear what they had to sing.
B.E.: And when did you start composing your own songs?
M.M.: I don’t compose my songs. Like all the singers of the world I don’t have to be a composer but I know what music is, and I have the ability to choose the right composers, and choose the right rhythm for each melody that will influence people and touch them. Music shouldn’t just be for entertainment or for recreation. It should also challenge and present serious issues.
B.E.: So when did you start recording? How did your professional career begin?
M.M.: I began singing in 1978, but I had a very strong conflict when I moved from Aswan to Cairo. I didn’t feel the words of the songwriting that was being presented at the time. People were immigrating from Egypt, and there was a sense of estrangement and nostalgia for the old times. So I presented that with the new songs that I sang. And they needed it at the time. To prove this, they would listen to non-Egyptian rock and roll bands.
I started using the tools that would enable me to transfer my music to the rest of the world, and deliver it in the best shape possible, holding onto my Egyptian identity and delivering Egyptian issues. I cared about Egypt very much. Most of my songs are about the Egyptian cause and Egyptian freedom. I waited for the revolution of January 25th all my life, instigating people, pushing them to feel free and revolt, to fight against oppression.
Therefore the January 25th revolution was always in my heart ever since I started singing. I mixed it with all the songs that I sang: love songs, patriotic songs, normal songs. But, holding onto my own identity and giving people the message that we have to be better and we have to be the best.
B.E.: That’s beautiful. I know you have a long career, more than 20 records. If you were to pick a few songs that really defined you in people’s imaginations, tell me about a few of the landmark songs that you think are the most important in your career.
M.M.: Throughout my history, every two years I would make an important milestone in my career. In 1978, I sang “Arous El Nil” the “Bride of the Nile” for Egypt, which the youth in Tahrir Square were singing, by the way. In 1980 I sang “Hadouta Masria,” “Egyptian Story,” and again it was sung in Tahrir. We have it on video. In 1984 I didn’t like the silence around me so I made a song called “Etkalemmy” or “Speak.” Again the kids were singing that song in Tahrir Square. In 1987, I sang “Taalo Noldom Asameena,” “Let’s Connect Our Names.” That was in the theme of the concert the other night. It was the 5th or 6th song.
M.M.: In 1990, I sang “The Son of Marika” (America). I was warning people and asking them to look at the big picture and see where the real enemies are.
B.E.: You said that to the crowd the other night too, didn’t you?
M.M.: Yes. My songs never hated the people of the world but they hated the policies and attitudes adopted by their leaders. In 1997 I sang a song called “Aaly Sotak Bel Ghona,” “Raise Your Voice By Singing.” It was also sung in Tahrir and it was very popular because what it says are, the overall meaning is, “I sing because I can still sing. I still have a voice. You can take everything from me but I can still sing.”|
M.M.: In 2001 after 911, I wanted to cry out to the world and tell them that Islam is civilized and doesn’t adopt terrorism. Terrorism is an industry. Islam has nothing to do with it. In 2008 I sang a song called “Yunis,” which is the love story of Aziza and Yunis in Arab heritage, and it discusses the idea that no one can give without freedom; no one can love without being free. And again the protesters in Tahrir were singing it. All of these were calling for a better society and a liberated world and that’s why in the end of 2010 I “screamed” and sang “Ezzay (How).”
L.G.: In 2010/11 he was very angry and upset because no one seemed to be doing anything. He produced a song and it was ready to go 2 months earlier. He said he was so angry that people were not doing anything, he had to scream and say, “I love you so much, but you are not loving me back the way I love you. All I want from you is your grace and your kindness. I make you proud. I’m there when you’re broken. I’m your foundation. But you’ve done nothing except be a thorn in my back, holding me down. Making me humiliated wherever I go.”
M.M.: It’s a song about the unrequited love between Egypt and its citizens. It was meant to come out in December 2010 but was banned by the government. It was eventually released during the revolution and all of Egypt knew that the song had been banned by the government. On the day that Mubarak left, they broadcast the song on television and said that it was previously banned.
B.E.: This is your famous revolution video. I heard that the broadcaster Mona El Shazly at DreamTV was the first to show it on the air.
M.M.: Yeah. Dream TV and Hayat TV and many independent stations broadcast the song.
B.E.: Now, someone told me that when Mona first put the video on DreamTV, Mubarak had not yet resigned and she herself was not sure if she would be safe in her job. She was very brave for doing that. I heard that she told her audience, “This might be my last broadcast because I’m showing you this video.”
M.M.: That’s her problem. I don’t know about that. I felt like this was a real revolution from the very beginning, that was it successful. And so I can’t claim that I was venturing with my career because I’ve always believed that change would come, and so I wasn’t actually scared of anything.
S.B.: When you heard the protesters in Tahrir Square sing your songs, how did that make you feel?
M.M.: I was concerned about the next phase, the important phase, because any revolution comes with a cost. Due to the widespread corruption in Egypt, for the actual revolution to begin I knew that the chaos taking place now would happen. There is no revolution in the world that wasn’t followed by chaos and opportunism. In Egypt, we need to undergo a complete change, and for that happen chaos and uncertainty have to take place first.
Maybe I was lucky because I was never stopped from saying what I wanted. Throughout my career I’ve seen what it’s like for other countries to live in democracy. I learned what democracy is and that it’s a huge responsibility and I know that it costs a lot to be able to deliver this feelings and knowledge to the people
B.E.: Your album Earth Peace, came out in America right at the start of 2002. We played it on our program, and I remember writing about it because it seemed like the perfect record for making a new mood and turning the page after this horrible pain of 9/11. This blue album, the one with “Yunis,” that’s your most recent one, right? 2008.
M.M.: That one is called The Taste of Home or The Taste of Houses. One day I was standing by my window and saw an old woman standing by her balcony, crying. And then I went out the same day and saw a porter and his wife fighting. And they were crying. And then I went to visit a minister for some reason and there was a fight inside the house. And then I came home at night and drew the conclusion that homes can have different facades and outsides, but inside they are really the same.
B.E.: You say they sang these songs at Tahrir Square. And I know they also sang songs by Sayed Darwish, Sheikh Imam, and some by Abdel Halim Hafez. But not many others, right? It’s a short list.
M.M.: Exactly, it’s a very short list.
L.G.: Even sha’abi music is very limited in terms of its effect on the public. They like to listen to it maybe at a festival but it’s very limited, really. Very local. Hakim is not on that list. In times of need or celebration or real agony, the sha’bi does not have a place Not just Hakim by the way. Even the father of sha’bi music, he lived in the 1920’s, 1930’s, but you’re not going to even hear him. He’s the father. They all walked in his footsteps. But all those guys, where are they? Where are they really?
S.B.: They’re not singing about politics?
L.G.: Of course not. They’re entertainers. They’re not singing about reality.
B.E.: But wasn’t the original idea of sha’bi that it expresses the view of the man on the street, the urban underclass?
M.M.: Part of being a singer is to be an entertainer and so this is the role that sha’bi music plays: entertainment. It is entertaining but it lacks content and national issues, it also appeals more to the body than to the mind. There’s no issue. It’s not expressing a cause. It’s not talking about human conflict. It’s not talking about segregation, if we’re in America. It’s not talking about Egyptian men and women or Christians and Muslims. It’s not talking anything of essence. It’s usually talking about, “I love you and you dumped me,” and shaking their hips, or whatever they can shake.
You know, it was my dream to sing in Tahrir at the time of the revolution. It was not possible because I had just had an operation, surgery. It was very dangerous.
B.E.: What was the cause of that?
M.M.: It was accident in 1986. I made a mistake in 2002 in Germany. I tried to lift a big bag. Nerve touched bone. It was a serious problem, a lot of suffering. But the operation was good. Number one operation in the world, complicated because I am a singer. They couldn’t touch my vocal cords. It was really dangerous. Long time repairing.
L.G.: We were really terrified because we didn’t know that it was such a big operation.
B.E.: And this had just happened when Tahrir Square began?
M.M.: Yes. But my house was like a center.
L.G.: We were here every day, not just me. Everyone would come visit.
M.M.: Most of the people they love me. If I went to Tahrir, they’d be like “Ah! Oh!”
L.G.: But if anyone had touched him after the operation, he would have relapsed. He had to lie very still. We couldn’t hug him. Imagine if one if his fans tried to touch him.
M.M.: All my friends, media, journalists, everyday they are here. I sent my song to Tahrir Square from here, from this table.
L.G.: We sent it on the CD at night, and they played it at the same time. The kids in Tahrir they got a blanket, and they projected it on like a screen from someone’s laptop. They were very creative. They had pots on their heads like helmets. This is what gave them hope, to know that you were supporting them.
[We pause to watch a video of Mounir’s final performance for Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle. The concert took place on October 18, 2010, just months before the revolution began.]
M.M.: In the past few years, I usually held concerts for President Mubarak in celebration of the Air Forces—the anniversary of the Air Forces, or something related to them. And I usually sang the same songs that I would sing in any concert; I had no secret songs to hide, and so I had no problem singing in front of the President or any citizen. I address human beings in general and I try to appeal to their feelings and make them better humans.
B.E.: Was this the first time that you had sung directly for Mubarak?
M.M.: No, no, no.
L.G.: The song “Ezzay” was not an attack on Mubarak. Nor was it addressed to a person per se, but it was expressing our desire to change. We want to live in a better place, to fight the corruption that surrounds us, that’s pretty much the gist of “Ezzay.”
B.E.: But it’s expressing dissatisfaction, saying, “Why do you treat me badly when I treat you so well?”
M.M.: The song expresses what all Egyptians dream of, to be treated better.
B.E.: Sure. And did you sing this song in October at that event at the airforce?
M.M.: No, I was still preparing it at the time. It wasn’t ready.
B.E.: Did you sing anything that you were trying to communicate something special to him?
L.G.: Mounir had sung for him about 3 or 4 times. Mubarak loved Mounir as a singer very much. It wasn’t a personal thing.
M.M.: All Egyptian officials knew that my songs carried messages of what they sometimes called “incitement,” but is actually a dream of a better life.
B.E.: You say it’s not personal, not incitement, and yet people are singing your songs in the square in order to overthrow this president who doesn’t want to leave. That’s the kind of thing that in other countries leads to terrible violence. Of course, a number of people did die, but it’s unusual that this all went so peacefully.
M.M.: There are usually a number of reasons that lead to a revolution, but this time the only reason was that all Egyptians wanted to change and wanted a better life for themselves. That’s why it’s a unique revolution. And that’s why all means of expression were allowed, whether it was by joining a riot or by singing. And the revolution was not just about the protestors who were in Tahrir Square. In fact there was a collective desire across the country for improvement.
L.G.: Because people are sensitive to religion. It’s a very delicate subject here. Spirituality is very delicate here. An Egyptian would never say the word Allah like this. You know in the old Catholic schools they would never use the Lord’s name in vain? Same thing with us here. So instead of saying “Oh, my God” we say “Oh, Mohammed” because we only want to use his name when we are worshiping. He’s our Messiah. So save us from the evil that has surrounded us. But Mounir’s song was the only one made at the time to talk about peace and to save Islam from stereotypes. He’s also saying that Saudis are our real enemy. They are funding the Muslim movement. They are funding the Salafi movement.
M.M.: Because when Egyptian people become educated, they become a threat. That is the Saudi philosophy. I think they are paying billions now for this chaos. All of these Egyptian problems are not coming from the Muslim Brotherhood. The problems come from Saudis.
L.G.: Their movement covers all the women.
B.E.: That didn’t used to be true. Women on the street in Cairo now mostly seem to be covered though. That was not true 10 years ago?
L.G.: Twenty years ago. Like my mother and my sister. All these people who are over 40 and 50 in our family did not grow up covered. They covered them in 1985.The Saudis have been working on this for a long time. Covering Women is considered the 6th pillar of Islam. They added one.
B.E.: How are the Saudis trying to manipulate the situation now? After the revolution?
M.M.: First of all, they are funding the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis. The Muslim Brothers are not part of what’s happening in Tahrir now. Actually they are saying it’s a sin against God to make a demonstration or a march. Because they are stopping the progress of stability.
B.E.: But I heard that they are planning a big march there in a few days.
L.G.: For stability. It’s ridiculous.
S.B.: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will win the majority of the election?
L.G.: No way.
M.M.: Because Egyptians don’t like them. They have their Islamic way.
S.B.: So not 50%?
L.G.: Not even 20%. What you see on the surface are the Muslim Brothers. But if you go to Upper Egypt, if you go to any of the interior, you’re not going to find them. Because where they can reach schools and educated people, this is why Algeria has the Muslim Brothers. If Egyptians are uneducated, we are great slaves.
B.E.: I’ve heard a lot of complaints about education under Mubarak.
M.M.: We had a good education system before the 1960’s. The minister of education had a famous quote, “Education is like water and oxygen.” And he made people educated. My mother doesn’t have a high school degree. My mother got married when she was in secondary school. When I was college, I went to America, I didn’t study Dickens. My mother used to study Dickens with me in college. She used to read with me.
B.E.: This minister of education was from when?
M.M.: The 1930’s on. In the 1950’s we had the best doctors, the best medicine, engineers.
B.E.: So this goes to the idea that since 1952 everyone’s been asleep?
L.G.: They also kicked out the heritage, like Jewish Egyptians. Jewish Egyptians are part of the culture. How could Egyptians kick them out? This happened under Nasser, and then he kicked out the Nubians. Worse, he dispersed them, like the American Indians.
S.B.: You know, everyone around the world knows the Egypt has an incredible ancient civilization, but they don’t know much about the current situation. The common American doesn’t know very much about Egypt. But now the big thing is Tahrir Square. Youth going “YES! CHANGE!” That was very exciting for us because they were taking risks for their lives to do that. That’s changed forever the picture of Egypt in the world.
M.M.: The problem is people like you, Banning and Sean, you’re already impressed with the Arab people. So you’ve done your homework. So you’re coming to us with a certain understanding and perception of respect. Therefore we don’t need to impress you. The problem is that the people who leave Egypt and go to America or Europe are not happy with themselves so they give the Americans the wrong idea about Egyptians. So they’re always communicating with people who are already not impressed or who are already not willing to sit in front of a computer and read about Egypt. Or even open an encyclopedia and read about Egypt. And so they are left with this impression.
I love all the peoples of the world. And I also love that every culture or population has its own special philosophy that it would share and discuss with the rest of the world. The problem of our reputation, it is all the regime’s fault. For the past 60 years it has made us lose confidence in ourselves, because otherwise I would’ve been an international artist. But because for many years, we’ve seen ourselves as not good enough, and we’ve seen ourselves that everybody’s better, therefore we’ve never had the chance to showcase ourselves in any other way. I’m not racist. But I know that Egypt and the surrounding countries could have been in a much better situation had circumstances been better, politically.
B.E.: How do you see Egyptian music changing after the revolution?
M.M.: The number of real artists will increase, not the ones in the scene now. And by the way, the people don’t actually like those singers. By looking at the charts and the records, you will notice that the people who were popular before the revolution are no longer popular. We will have a mixture of generations coming up. But they will definitely learn from my journey and how corruption has barricaded my development. And they will learn from the artificial artists that only their connections are what made them successful. Then when there was a real test, they were no use. The only ones who were heard are the ones who were held back by corruption.
Egyptian musical heritage is very rich. But 90% of the musical interests is given to western music. But the minute they discover how rich the Egyptian persona is, they will then sing about it and frame it in universal frame. The new generation needs to identify with their heritage and with how rich it. But the previous generations never tried to find out because the governments marginalized it.
B.E.: So what are your plans for the future?
M.M.: Up until January 25th, that was a phase, a phase of challenge and barricades. But now it’s a new phase, a new Egypt, an Egypt that requires a new agenda, a new plan, which will require the same effort that I exerted in my previous years.
B.E.: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We hope to see you in the US one of these days.