Egypt is waiting for the speech that will determine the future of the world. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi gave a 48-hour deadline to President Mohamed Morsi to clean up what he had spilled on the floor. Morsi failed. The decisive moment has arrived. Sisi is now on TV, addressing the great people of Egypt, explaining how and why he decided to rescue the country from a dark fate.
Sisi is behind a wooden podium that shines with an ugly polish under a screaming glare of light, in the center of a marble hall blocking the way to ascending stairs. On his right and left, people in suits and galabiyas sit reverently listening to what he has to say.
Sisi’s voice echoes in the marble hall. He’s distracted between the paper, shooting his feelingless stares at the camera, his rusty pronunciation, and his fantastic linguistic errors.
Two cameras shoot the epic scene. The cameras are almost adjacent, there’s no difference between the two images produced except one is a long shot, the other a close shot. But wait! It’s not that simple. The camera with the long shot will now do something you have never seen before: it will slowly zoom in on Sisi’s face. That’s not all! The anonymous director will cut to the second camera which is already also showing a close up of Sisi, then the surprise happens… The camera slowly zooms out from Sisi’s face to show you a wide view of the whole scene.
The bad sound wasn’t the main reason I lost concentration while watching the Speech. I drifted far away into the depths of my cinematic subconscious trying to find the meaning of this visual message sent by a director delivering a historical moment from the womb of a man in army uniform. Was he trying to say: “The closer you get to the army, the further it evades you?” or vice-versa? Was I watching a serious imitation of the most famous scene in 40 percent of Egyptian romantic movies, where the lover pushes his lady on a swing into the air? The laws of momentum always bring her back into his lap to obviously symbolize the repetitive ups and downs of relationships, which always have happy endings. Or was I actually watching a postmodern experiment, and an implicit message to the American and European art worlds that Egyptian artistic identity is coming at them against their will and the will of their suspicious cultural agendas?
It is easy to understand when a person like me, in an ideological conflict with the military institution as a symbol of oppression and corruption, writes an article using the Speech to create a mockery of the army’s artistic skills using artistic critique. But this is actually not what I’m trying to do right now. This is not what I would waste your time on, or mine. This is not what my parents brought me up to do.
A lesson from another army
I remembered a book reproducing flyers dropped by the American army on Afghanistan and Iraq during military operations. The book, PSYOP – Post 9/11 Leaflets by Christoph Büchel and Giovanni Carmine, shows you how the American army designed flyers to convince the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq that America is not the devil. The first thing you notice when you look at the samples is how badly designed they are compared to the mainstream standards of the global consumer. The compositions are poor and there is no effort to add artistic depth of any kind. If the message of the flyer is “Report Osama Bin Laden and we will give you money” what you see is a bad picture of Bin Laden followed by a bad picture of Bin Laden behind bars, then a bad picture of a pile of dollars.
“Damn the American army and its ugliness,” is the first reaction you have. “When it comes to art they are the worst — look at their designers and their thick taste.” But when you flip further through the samples you start to subconsciously observe a specific identity appearing in them. Then the book takes you to the Iraq section. Wait … this is not just a bad design! Wait … there is a big difference between the “ugliness” — let us discuss this notion later — of the Afghan designs and the “ugliness” of the Iraq designs. There is undoubtedly a visual language for each environment.
The designer is not just a “bad” designer. He or she is thoughtfully simulating the visual language an Afghan eye is used to, and the language an Iraqi eye is used to. Each flyer is deliberately stripped of its American identity and brought closer to the enemy’s taste, so their eyes trust it before their brains. Then it can do its job easily.
The US army in this situation is saying to the Afghan shepherd: “Don’t be afraid of me, I’m not that foreign. I speak your language and I’m as ugly as everything around you. Eat this wheat that I dropped on you from my big metal bird that killed your wife, by mistake, last Friday. Now tell me where Bin Laden is hiding.”
Psychological barrier: I know you don’t love me
I’m walking along the Nile Corniche, heading north toward downtown Cairo, on a Friday when millions of Egyptians have decided to go out to the streets and show the world how much they love the sport of killing terrorists. No need, of course, to say that the Corniche is now an ocean of people, trucks, people, cars, people, and tok toks covered with people. It’s a carnival: honking, football horns, referee whistles, shouting, and hysterical chanting. But a specific sound floats over all this, with confidence and eternity, like a Chinese dragon with an infinite tale snaking slowly along the Corniche. No it’s not the sound of the call for prayer. Wrong guess, you Orientalist. It’s this goddamn song “Tislam al-Ayady” (“Bless Your Hands) that everybody is listening to now.
If you have a good relationship with Egyptian radio and televised musical heritage — I doubt you do — you will notice right away that the main melodic phrase that repeats about 350 times throughout the song is copied from a phrase that goes “Tamm al-badr badry” (“The moon is full too soon”) from the song “Wallah lissa badry ya shahr al-siyam” (“Don’t leave already, oh month of fasting”) by Sherifa Fadil. The lyrics are different this time: “Tislam al-ayady / tislam ya gaysh bilady” (“Bless your hands / Army of my country”).
This melodic phrase is carved into the memories of many Egyptians as a soundtrack for the last 15 days of Ramadan every year. It’s a decorous piece of music that has an oriental influence and tastes like hot chicken soup; the lyrics talk of the sorrow of Ramadan’s abrupt end, of longing for the next Ramadan even before the end of the current one — a magical song that has earned a very special place in the Egyptian spirit.
The artist in charge of producing “Bless Your Hands,” Mustafa Kamel, decided that this melodic phrase would be the backbone of his militaristic masterpiece. The song’s title repeats throughout it: “bless your hands” is an expression Egyptians use in the context of relaying gratitude to people who cook food for them. The words, like the melody, address the listener’s stomach. The lyrics aren’t so different from most songs written for the army in the past, telling us how it is amazing, fearless, heroic, scary but at the same time tender, country-loving, etc. The lyrics of course don’t forget to mention “Mina” (the only Christian living in Egypt, whose name is the only Christian name to be mentioned in any song that makes the effort to deal with citizenship). There is also a verse of coded personal complements addressed at General Sisi’s self, flirting with his political virility, militaristic manhood, physical hardness, and things of that sort.
Like a general forming a special forces battalion, Kamel excelled in choosing the heroes of this epic. A song like this is not a one man job; it’s a fight with those who have disruptive thoughts, with the “glue sniffers” — a fight that needs all possible striking power.
Two botoxed artists open the song shock-and-awe style: Ihab Tawfiq sweeps the field with his armor-ripping voice, crying out something about the year 73, followed by long-range artillery. Then words are launched from Hakeem’s throat like less-than-accurate mortars. Ghada Ragab, who I had a hard time identifying in the video as her features have changed a lot and she now looks like wannabe-posh moms in Carrefour, was in charge of the first air strike. Leaving behind her famous dignity and the memory everybody had of her as the delicate girl sitting on a chair singing classic Mohamed Abdel Wahab songs, which was seen back then as a revolution in oriental singing traditions, she stands in front of a camera making suspicious facial expressions. Her sharp voice cracks the skies like the F-16s that America didn’t give Egypt yet.
More strikes come after that led by monsters of the type of Souma and Bousy — I tried really hard to figure out what non-sexual role either of them could be playing in the song, but I failed. Surprises come afterwards. Hisham Abbas, reportedly accused of fraud a couple of months ago. Khalid Aggag — you’ll never forget the way he screams “SHOULDERS”. Kamel himself. Even his brother, who adds a sudden miserably funereal depth to the song. Aggag’s brother or son (nobody knows) also appears. And there is a 3D simulation of “singer” Samir al-Iskandarany. It’s so convincing you might not notice it’s a simulation.
Despite a disclaimer on the video clip saying the song (or operetta, as the makers prefer to call it) is no more than a dedication offered from Kamel to our beautiful Armed Forces, the spirit and scent of the latter’s morale department are violently present. There’s scenes of special forces personnel jumping everywhere, quick shots of rows of armored vehicles, and fighter jets drawing hearts and smiling Spongebob faces with smoke in the sky, romantic feelings mixed with images of tanks firing shells at sand. Indeed, there’s a special thanks to the Armed Forces’ morale department at the end of the clip.
Everybody knows how expensive it is to fly aircraft, but has the army really not put some money aside for emergencies of this sort? Isn’t it possible for the great Armed Forces of Egypt to pick up a phone and the person on the other end of the line be a proper pop star like Amr Diab? Of course it is. So why doesn’t the army seek solutions of that sort in this critical moment of Egypt’s modern history?
Maybe there’s a psychological barrier? Maybe there’s a message? Maybe an institution is whispering in our ears to say: “Don’t be afraid of me, I’m not that evil, I listen to the same music you listen to, we have similar taste in women, I’m as ugly as everything around you, go on, eat the pasta I made for you in the military production plants, let’s forget about when once, on the Corniche, I drove my big armored car over your wife, by mistake. Now you know what you ought to do.”
Note: During the writing of this article at 6:30 am a vehicle drove by along my street, playing “Bless Your Hands” as loudly as it could get.