The golden songs for the 1952 Revolution – and beyond

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 23 Jul 2020

The songs made on the occasion of the July Revolution are still celebrated today, perhaps more than the revolution itself

From L to R: Oum Kalthoum, Shadia and Abdel-Halim Hafez

On 23 July 1952 the then up- and-coming pop singer Mohamed Rouchdi was on his way to the radio building along with his musical band to perform a joyful wedding song Oulou lmazoun elbald yetamem farhetna (Tell The Wedding Registrar To Pronounce Our Joy").

However, as he found his way to the building, Rouchdi was alarmed by the presence of tanks and armed soldiers. He tried to enter the building but he was stopped before he saw Anwar El-Sadat, one of the Free Officers, who became president less than 20 years later. Sadat inquired about Rouchdi’s unmistakable dismay and when he learned that the singer and the musical band were hoping to perform to get their financial dues, Sadat got the song to go on air, saying the ouster of the king was a moment of joy that merits festivities.

This narrative of what was allegedly the first song associated with the rejoice over the Free Officers' ouster of king Farouk in the summer of 1952 is going to be included by researcher Mohamed El-Esseiry in the second volume of his extended project, 100 Years of Politics and Singing.

The volume is due to go to print in a few weeks to find its way to bookstores later this year -- and indeed the international Cairo book fair of 2021.

The first volume came out in 2018 and was dedicated to the years 1906 to the 1952. “1906 is the year the first recorded disk come out in Egypt; the years between 1906 and 1952 were full of many political events, the most significant of which was the 1919 Revolution,” El-Esseiry said.

The second volume, he added, will be dedicated to the first four years of the July Revolution. He argued that 1952 to 1956 were politically very significant. It was during these years that the ouster of the king was renamed from “movement” to “revolution” after the public support to end the rule of the monarchy. Those were also the years that paved the way for the political rise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser after he managed to overcome all political foes in and out of the circle of the Free Officers.

“The political climax then was upon the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt [1956]; a very significant moment that came with a lot of emotions and a lot of political songs,” he said.

The subsequent volumes of El-Esseiry’s series will be dedicated to the years between 1956 and 1967, that saw the earth-shattering military defeat of Egypt before Israel; 1967 to 1973, when Egypt managed to cross the Suez Canal; and then from 1973 to 2011, or until the January Revolution to which El-Esseiry makes an exception, having talked about it in his 2014 book The January Songs: Revolutionaries and forgers.

Throughout these books, El-Esseiry has one argument to make: there was no such thing as a "patriotic song," rather a political song. These political songs reflected on particular incidents, either upon a sheer emotional inspiration of the writers and singers or upon the wish of a political group or regime to use the songs for one of the purposes it has often served: political mobilisation.

As such, El-Esseiry is convinced that it is wrong to say that the 1952 Revolution offered "patriotic songs its soul and mind," as some would argue.

For him, this is a political argument that is based on the use of political songs for purposes of political mobilisation.

“There have been political songs for a long time, and they were not always just associated with dramatic events such as 1919 or 1952; they were there in several forms in play until this very day,” El-Esseiry argued.

In fact, El-Esseiry noted that some of the songs associated with the 1952 political developments date back to older times.

He argued that Shadia’s celebrated Oulou lein El-Shams matehmashi (Tell the eye of the sun not to be scorching) was not particularly associated with the defeat of Egyptian soldiers in 1967.

“In fact, the first time this song came out was a slightly different version in tribute of the 1910 execution of Ibrahim El-Werdani for his assassination of Boutros Ghali. El-Werdany had killed Ghali to vindicate the death sentences the latter had passed against the peasants who in 1906 got into a fight with British soldiers over the violations of the soldiers in the village of Dunshway that left some peasants killed and wounded,” he said.

On the other hand, El-Esseiry argued that some of the songs perceived to be sheer pop songs, like Mohamed Rouchdi’s Addawiyah are in fact political songs.

“This song, for example, was meant to celebrate in a very popular tone the access of women to the right to vote in 1956, leading to the first participation of women in parliament in the following year,” he said.

However, El-Esseiry agreed that the early years of the 1952 Revolution created a social and political momentum that allowed for many political songs to be produced, just like the 1919 Revolution allowed for many popular songs to be re-worked into political songs.

“In association with 1919 and 1952, popular and political songs often met halfway, leading to a merge that created a mood that led to the over-riding political sentiment of the moment,” he said.

Often enough, El-Esseiry argued there was a distinction between what he qualifies as the official song -- the one performed on state-run radio and later TV -- and the popular song that was more often a function of independent performers in rural areas.

Those, he said, would always go in parallel but there would be big moments that would bring them very close together as, for example, the Tripartite Aggression, or the War of Attrition post the 1967 defeat.

After the 1967 defeat, he said, there was a dominant mood of what we could call resistance songs -- some were preformed by the official music industry and others were strictly independent, like those of Ferket El-Batatine (The Blankets Troupe) of Port Said, Ferket Welad Al-Ard (The Troupe Of The Sons of the Land) of Suez and Ferket Abnaa El-Ismailia (The Troupe Of The Sons Of Ismailia).

“Their songs were coming out in parallel with those of Um Kolthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez, and they were all appealing to the sentiments of resistance and defiance in the face of defeat,” El-Esseiry said.

El-Esseiry is also of the opinion that “it is such a big mistake to assume that a particular group of singers were the ones who promoted the July Revolution.”

“I have often heard people speak of Abdel-Halim Hafez and Um Kolthoum as the singers of the July Revolution, but this is so untrue. First, because these two singers were not at the forefront of the performers who opted to support the revolution, and second of all, because for example Um Kolthoum had made songs in praise of the king that was ousted by the Free Officers in 1952,” El-Esseiry said. Then again, he added, “it was also possible that both Hafez and Um Koltoum chose to sing for the July Revolution because, like the Free Officers, these two singers come from a rural backgrounds, so there was an element of association or even affinity there,” he added.

According to El-Esseiry, it was two weeks after the July Revoluiton that Shehrazad made the first song in praise of the revolution. A few weeks later, comedian Ismail Yassin included a short musical performance in one of his movies on the July Revolution. In October 1952, pop singer Mohamed Kandil performed the first song that echoed the principles of the July Revolution Addawar (Towards Our Rural House).

“Kandil’s songs came weeks before the first song Um Kolthoum performed to the July Revoluiton and months before Hafez made his early, timid contributions on this path,” El-Esseiry said.

As far as El-Esseiry is concerned, both the July Revolution and the singers who promoted the revolution in their songs benefited from one another.

“It so happened that these were the years of wider access to recordings and better scope of radio and then TV coverage; so the works of these singers were getting a big exposure and the sentiments of association to the revolution were also being empahsised --so it was a two-way street really there,” he said.

According to El-Esseiry, about 300 songs were dedicated to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, where his name was mentioned -- mostly during his life and some after his death in September 1970. Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak who took over in the subsequent decades leading to the 2011 Revolution had a much lesser share of songs where their names were directly mentioned.

This, El-Esseiry argued, was not about the emphasis that one president chose to make over the music industry as opposed to another, but rather about the flow of political developments associated with the presidency of each.

Nasser’s presidency was certainly a strong political moment, with many socio-economic and political events. This is why, El-Essiery added, it is safe to argue that the history of the 1952 Revolution is recorded upon the narrative of Nasser in these years. “This was the space that allowed for the incredible production of Hafez, Salah Jahine and Kamal El-Tawil,” he added.

“These three, a singer, a writer and a musician, could not have made the songs they performed had it not been to the impact of the political events on their minds and the public sentiment at large,” El-Esseiry argued.

Sadat too had his share during the years leading to the 1973 Crossing and later to the reopening of the Suez Canal in 1975, El-Esseiry argued. Afterwards, he added, it was mostly the moment for early versions of underground political songs, including most obviously the songs of Sheikh Imam.

According to El-Essiery, Mubarak’s era, the last portion of the 1952 rule, saw more of strict propaganda songs peformed for specific occasions, like the famous Ikhtarnak ("We chose you") that celebrated yet a new mandate for Mubarak in the early 1990s.

Since the January Revolution until present, argued Mohamed Diab, a researcher in the history of modern and contemporary music, it was essentially the songs of the heydays of the July Revolution that were “called upon to project patriotic sentiments.”

“In Tahrir Square in 2011 and two years later in 2013, the songs of Shadia and Hafez came into play,” he said.

Today, Diab argued it is not just on occasions like that of the anniversary of the July Revolution that the songs of these years come to the forefront in the radio and TV. It is rather every time there is a significant political moment that these songs are broadcast.

“The fact is the 1952 Revolution allowed for the production of the most significant patriotic songs that managed to survive not just because unlike those great songs performed during the 1919 Revolution, the ones of 1952 were recorded, but also because unlike the songs of the 1919 were sentiments of patriotism expressed in the most figurative words, to avoid the wrath of the British occupation. The songs associated with the 1952 Revolution spelled out the sentiments of patriotism,” Diab said.

“During those years, those songs were not just heard and sang by people in Egypt, but all across the Arab world. There are recordings in the archives in many Arab countries because at the time Egypt’s revolution was the liberation movement that Arab nations looked up to; this too gave the songs of the 1952 Revolution an extended life,” he argued.

“Up until the defeat of 1967, the day of 23 July was always celebrated with a large number of new songs that were dedicated not just to the revolution and Nasser, but also to the cause of social justice and national liberation that the 1952 Revolution called for. This meant a huge volume of songs that were of good musical and artistic qualities,” Diab said.

“These are the best patriotic songs in the modern history of Egypt in terms of quality, and this is certainly a reason that they have lived and will live for many years to come, not just to tell the history of the 1952 Revolution but also to tell many following generations about the golden years of patriotic songs,” he added.  

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