During the Jahiliya, the pre-Islamic era in the Middle East, each tribe contained a Shair, who was the designated poet and bard, the keeper of received wisdom, denigrator of the wicked and the inimical, the preserver of the tribe’s lineage and glory. Arabic poetry, a notoriously strict poetic tradition with a strong emphasis on rhyme, saw its heyday in that dawn time. The poetic form was neither chaste nor loose, but something in between, an earthy qareen (companion) whose duty it was to portray the full range of life in the desert. The qasida (ode) of Imru al Qays, for instance, reads like a wide-ranging treatise on heritage and lust. The poet himself, however, meets his end wearing a poisoned shirt gifted by his patron, the king, whose queen he seduced. This poetic tradition survived, rarely practiced but well-remembered and respected, well into the Islamic era and into the present.

Music, however, fell out of favor in many parts of the Islamic World somewhere in the Middle Ages, seen as a wicked art leading the righteous into sin and temptation. Attitudes varied from region to region. Turkey, for instance, had a vibrant musical scene throughout its history, as did Iran, parts of the Western Arabian peninsula and North Africa. It remained tightly regional in much of the Eastern part of the Arabian peninsula. The traditional mudhainas, the slave songs of the Sharqiya region of Oman, remained confined to the province. It would be quite shocking to come across a Muscati who had any notion of its sound. Lebanese pop and Egyptian telenovelas, however, were the unifying media factors across the entire region. Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab and the like were everywhere in my youth. Arabic music itself, however, seemed to me as existing in a time warp, forever 10 years behind the music of the West. It is not until recently, as recently as the Arab Spring in fact, that Arabic music has broken out of its shell and become truly worthwhile.

This modern music is revolutionary. This is the music of a people speaking for themselves, becoming Shairs as they spit rhymes and play acoustic guitars in the face of the military police. Here is the mild-mannered Engineering student Ghassen Hamdani aka Tiger Man bouncing his rasta way through a two-week illegal detention by the military police on trumped up terrorism-related charges in Tunisia, the lone country that came through the Arab spring with lasting political change. Here is Cairokee, the band who were teargassed at Tahrir Square. Here is Torabyeh, the Jordanian rappers who were held up by Benjamin Netanyahu as the harbingers of ISIS in a naked political attack on the Israeli left. The campaign ad involved masked fighters asking for directions to Jerusalem only to be told “Take a left”. Yet it goes on. Much of modern Arabic music is not simply revolutionary in the traditional sense of rising up against a nation-state but also in fighting prevailing attitudes. Here is Dam, a Palestinian hip-hop collective, bringing in Amal Murkus to speak about honor killings and the rights of women. The chorus reminds us that if the murdered woman could turn back time, she would draw, she would write, she would sing. This was also the function of the Shair, to remain in constant dialogue with the Sheik through the medium of his people. In this way, the tradition is continued.

A strong satirical current runs through the music directed inward. Egypt’s Sharmoofers bemoan the compromises of modern life in the same way that Lebanon’s Mashrou Leila lament the materialistic nature of marriage. A quick aside: Mashrou Leila were briefly notorious for the first overtly pro-gay Arabic single of the modern era, “Shim el jasmeen” where a lover wishes he could introduce his partner to his parents, spoil his kids, and be his housewife, but alas, they live in different houses so they must simply smell the jasmine and forget their nights. Secrets, what one can and cannot say, occupy a central place in these songs. Even the ballads, like El Morabba3’s “Ya Zein” are, on their face, about asking love (O Beautiful) to reveal secrets, but the secret revealed involves depleted uranium. For a more straightforward love song, try Ghalia Benali’s cover of the Tunisian classic. Pain is a recurring motif in these songs. Amr Diab’s contribution to this playlist is literally titled “I pity you, my darling” but it’s only truly brought to the fore by Natacha Atlas informing us that happiness is only the last resort after a life full of regrets. How our hearts try to chain us! Lena Chamamyan’s song of the moon singing to the sea understands that pain while setting up a distinctly Parisian ambience.

My favorite song, however, is +/-‘s Fogel Ghaim (Above the clouds). It soars in a way that reduces me to a child listening to music for the first time.

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