The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt

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History often reaches us in visual forms: documents, books, images, monuments, and so forth. But the experiences of past people encompassed all of the human senses. Visceral moments do not always have a verbal dimension, and our most indelible memories are often tied to touch, smell, and sound. In this mini-series, we explore the sonic history of modern Egypt through four episodes about pivotal moments in Egypt's political history. In doing so, we use sound as a gateway onto the experiences of ordinary Egyptians whose voices have often been excluded from the sources and dominant narratives of academic history.

Our series on "The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt" covers a century of history from the First World War to the present day. We feature the songs and memory of Egyptian laborers in the British army and consdier how they offer a different narrative of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. We explore the soundscape of interwar Cairo and the class politics that played out on the level of sensory experience. We analyze the triumphant music that accompanied the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the Nasserist period and the subaltern songs of Nubian communities displaced in the process. And we enjoy some treasures of the cassette era, during which new recording technology created an underground for personal, artistic, and political expression. We conclude with a brief reflection on the sounds of revolution from Tahrir Square in 2011 and the echoes of modern Egyptian history contained within them.

Part 1

The Egyptian Labor Corps and the Echoes of WWI

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Egyptian streets rose up against British rule during a period of global anti-imperialism, and the voices of the 1919 revolution have echoed throughout Egyptian history ever since. In this first installment of our four-part series on "The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt," we consider how the First World War reshaped political consciousness in Egypt, as our guests Kyle Anderson and Alia Mossallam explore the experiences of the Egyptian Labor Corps and the sonic history of WWI. We examine the adventure, hardship, exile, and abuse Egyptian workers faced serving the British war effort, as well as how the war changed the society they returned to, in the words of one famous song from the period, "safe and sound." In discussing the popular songs of the war period that entered Egyptian national canon, our guests illuminate the ways in which shared songs can be modified and repurposed for new political contexts, drawing attention to the need for reconstructing the layers of context contained within some of history's earliest sound recordings.

Click here for images, a bibliography, and more.

Part 2

The Politics of Street Sounds in Interwar Egypt

During the interwar period, the recording industry reshaped Egyptian culture and politics through music. But as we discuss in part two of our four-part series on "The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt," everyday sounds of the city are no less part of Egypt's political history. As our guest Ziad Fahmy explains, writing sonic history requires listening to the sources with ears attuned to the sentiments and sensibilities of past people. Together, we listen to a early recording of Egyptian street sounds and explore the world of sound that awaits within the textual record, focusing on how class dynamics played out on the soundscape of Cairo and Alexandria. We also consider how the rise of a new medium, radio, began to reshape the sonic life of ordinary Egyptians during the interwar period, paving the way for the media revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Click here for images, a bibliography, and more.

Part 3

Nasser, Nubia, and the Stories of a People

In 1952, a coup d'état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser ushered in a revolutionary period of Egyptian history in which sound played an integral role in shaping collective political consciousness. The culture of the 50s and 60s was dominated by songs by artists like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez that still resonate within national consciousness, but as we explore in this third installment of our four-part series on "The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt," the period produced spectacular sound as well as conspicous silence. As our guest Alia Mossallam explains, triumphant musical celebrations of the Egyptian state's signature achievement --- the construction of the Aswan High Dam --- shaped the terms through which Egyptian's have come to remember this period. At the same time, songs of workers and Nubian villagers displaced by the dam captured subaltern sentiments beneath the surface of Nasserist cultural hegemony. We conclude our conversation with a reflection on the singular importance of sources like folk songs for writing histories erased by official sources.

Click here for images, a bibliography, and more.

Part 4

Media of the Masses in Modern Egypt

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 is one of the most spectacular examples of how social media has played a pivotal role in political movements of the 21st century. However, in this final installment of our four-part series on "The Sound of Revolution in Modern Egypt," we argue that the true beginning of Egypt's media revolution arrived with the cassette tape, which for the first time, made it possible for every Egyptian to be a producer rather than a passive consumer of popular culture. As our guest Andrew Simon explains, this veritable "media of the masses" was not only a means of disseminating commercial music. Western pop music and classics of the Nasserist era mingled with new underground music, religious content, home recordings, and personal voice messages on Egyptian cassettes, which circumvented and subverted state censorship. Artists like Sheikh Imam and the poet Ahmed Fouad Negm produced celebrated political satire that defined the sound of the Infitah era, much to the chagrin of state authorities and the commercial recording industry. In 2011, when Egyptians took to the streets to protest the Mubarak regime, Imam's songs along with a century of sound stretching back to the First World War filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, as a new generation produced new sounds of revolution. We conclude our series with reflections from Alia Mossallam and Ziad Fahmy on the sounds of the square in 2011 and what they reveal about change and continuity in Egyptian politics.

Click here for images, a bibliography, and more.

Chris Gratien is Associate Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. His first book, The Unsettled Plain: An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier, explores the social and environmental transformation of the Adana region of Southern Turkey during the 19th and 20th century.
Alia Mossallam is a cultural historian, educator and writer interested in songs that tell stories and stories that tell of popular struggles behind the better-known events that shape world history. For her PhD she researched a popular history of Nasserist Egypt through the stories and experiences of the popular resistance in Port Said (1956) and Suez (1967-1974) and the construction of the Aswan High Dam through the experiences of its builders and the Nubian communities displaced by it. As a EUME fellow 2017-21 of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, she worked on her book on the visual and musical archiving practices of the builders of the Aswan High Dam and the Nubian communities displaced by it. Her new project at EUME (2021-24), “Tracing Emancipation Under Rubbles of War”, retrieves the physical and political journeys of Egyptian and North African workers on the various fronts of World War I through the songs and memoires that recount their struggles. Some of her research-based articles, essays and short-stories can be found in The Journal of Water History, The History Workshop Journal, the LSE Middle East Paper Series, Ma’azif, Bidayat, Mada Masr, Jadaliyya and 60 Pages. An experimentative pedagogue, she founded the site-specific public history project “Ihky ya Tarikh”, as well as having taught at the American University in Cairo, the Freie Universität in Berlin, and continuing to teach at the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts.
Kyle Anderson is an Associate Professor at SUNY Old Westbury and the author of The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War. His research has been funded by the Kluge Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). His current book project, tentatively titled, Egypt and the Global Freedom Struggle: Failed Radicals in the Long Revolution, 1830s-1930s, looks at the role Egypt played as a node in global radical networks and argues that the specific form revolution took in 1918-1923 led to a narrowing of the horizons of Egyptian patriotic anti-colonialism in the 20th century. 
Ziad Fahmy is a Professor of Modern Middle East History at Cornell University’s department of Near Eastern Studies. Professor Fahmy is the author of Street Sounds: Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2020). Street Sounds was a co-winner of the Urban History Association's 2021 Award for Best Book in Non-North American Urban History. He also wrote Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford University Press, 2011), and is currently writing his third book, tentatively titled, Broadcasting Identity: Radio and the Making of Modern Egypt, 1925-1952.
Andrew Simon is a historian of media, popular culture, and the Middle East at Dartmouth College. He was a fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in downtown Cairo during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and is the modern history book review editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies. Andrew is the author of Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2022), which will be made available in Arabic by Dar El Shorouk this upcoming spring (2024). Currently, he is writing a biography of Shaykh Imam, a blind performer and political dissident, and is in the process of making his private collection of cassettes public in a digital archive for anyone to access.


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