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Music and protest in the Muslim world

todaySeptember 4, 2023 7

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Seen from one angle, Mark LeVine is a respected professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, not far from Los Angeles. The author of a thesis on Jaffa and Tel Aviv before 1948, which has become a reference work, he has since written or directed numerous academic publications on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and popular culture in the Muslim world.

But LeVine is also a rock guitarist gifted enough to perform in the shadow of Mick Jagger or Doctor John. He does project after project; in 2015, he invited Arab rappers and a Persian rapper to perform “Zombie,” the Afrobeat anthem composed by Fela four decades earlier in Lagos. In fact, LeVine combines his academic methods and his passion for music in his solid investigations of the alternative scene in the Middle East, which, to date, have not been translated into French.

In 2008, LeVine published the incomparable Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. While many specialists restricted this “struggle” to the religious sphere, focusing on the polemics between theologians and Islamists, LeVine instead shed light on the unexamined: how Middle Eastern youth have fun. The book’s cover, which features a young woman wearing both a headscarf and an Iron Maiden t-shirt, showcased his desire to move beyond overly rigid categories of analysis. LeVine was therefore less surprised than others when, in 2011, the region was swept by a wave of democratic uprisings known as the Arab Spring. His last book, We’ll Play till We Die, deals with material gathered during, as the book’s subtitle puts it, his Journeys across a Decade of Revolutionary Music in the Muslim World.

In central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, musical effervescence provided the soundtrack to the February 2011 fall of President Mubarak, who had been in power for 30 years. Ramy Essam galvanized the demonstrators with his acoustic guitar, the refrain “Leave” becoming a popular rallying cry. He became the bard of the ultras, the football fans whose commitment to the streets ensured protection for revolutionary gatherings. The ultras hated the military as much as the Muslim Brotherhood, who were victorious in the June 2022 presidential elections but overthrown by General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in July 2013. As a final shot, Essam released another song in January 2014 (“this not a match where whoever scores a goal wins our revolution and takes it home”), before going into exile in Sweden. But protest is still alive and well at the mahraganat, festivals where electrified verve meets a ferocious lucidity. The title of LeVine’s new book was sadly proven correct in January 2015, when DJ Ahmed Mohsen was killed by police gunfire. As for Shady Habash, he died in police custody in May 2020; his only “crime” was producing a music video in which Essam mocked el-Sissi.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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