Imagine a group of devout men celebrating the Armistice in Egypt in 1918. Excited if not euphoric, they believed that Egypt would become independent of Britain after the end of World War I.
Egypt had been promised independence, if it helped the Allied war effort. US President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime rhetoric about the principles of self–determination had given Egyptians the impression that the post–war international order would herald their independence. Alas, it did not do so, and this led to the 1919 Revolution, which was triggered by the British authorities’ ban on nationalist leader Sa’d Zaghloul (1859–1927) from attending the Versailles Peace Conference.
Both Sayyid Darwish and Badi’ Khayri had a religious education in their youth, and this is apparent in this song, down to the pronunciation of what is otherwise Egyptian dialect. Khayri skilfully devises lyrics in dialect,
yet with a heavier guttural diction typical of classical Arabic spoken by Islamic scholars and jurists. For native speakers of Arabic, the result is both hilarious and arresting.
As well as being a brilliant playwright and satirist, Badi’ Khayri spoke French and English, and this is reflected in the multilingual references in the song. Khayri’s daring and erudite lyrics also speak of rationing during the war, after a religious fatwa had been issued, allowing the consumption of horsemeat during times of food shortage.
To demonstrate the dichotomy with which the subjects of the song express their feelings, Darwish uses two different melodic modes (maqaam–s) to illustrate the struggle between West (major scale or ‘ajam’) and East (the seemingly ominous ‘sabaa’). The latter mode is paradoxical in its temperament; not only is it employed to relay sadness and melancholy, but it is also used in other contexts to express determination, as in the early anthems of the Palestinian liberation movement.
My arrangement aims to translate this struggle by choosing a ‘Western’ musical style reminiscent of infantry Jazz bands during WWI, juxtaposed with frenzied Egyptian percussion for the Arabic or ‘Eastern’ element of
I end with an allusion to British music hall classic ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. Popular with British Army units during WWI, the song was introduced to Egypt by the soldiers. It soon became well–known in Egyptian society, including amongst schoolchildren, so much so that the English lyrics were replaced by Arabic ones, turning the song into a dialogue between two lovers.
Read the news, Shaykh Quffaa’a!
In the latest Bourse journal
I’ll shave my beard
If you don’t dance with joy
You’ll dance and dance and dance!
This morning augurs well
And life is getting better
Dear Sirs, shout: Hurrah! Shout: Brava!
The war is now finish–ed
Finish–ed! Finish–ed! Finish–ed!
After eating bread and broth
And salad and patties that knock you out
We can now scoff two or three ounces
Of horsemeat smothered in ghee
We’ll scoff and scoff and scoff!
As long as mutton is dear
And so too is veal
We shouldn’t be fussy
A horse or a donkey or a mule will do
For sure, we’ll never starve
For sure, for sure, for sure!
There’ll come a day
When we gloat at the merchants of war
And just as we’ve suffered
They too shall suffer
And we’ll laugh our hearts out
Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha!
Come, let’s unwind our turbans
And dress à la mode
And bathe in a tub full of cologne
And travel to Europe to see the world
The world, the world, the world!
Reem Kelani is a Palestinian musician born in Britain & brought up in Kuwait. Her debut album “Sprinting Gazelle:
Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora” was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. Her next album "Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle" will be released in March 2016. Reem wrote & presented “Songs for Tahrir” for BBC Radio 4 on the music of the Egyptian Revolution....more