Arab Nationalism: a musical record

The evolution of Arabic music provides a record of the Arab experience, including the effect of Ottoman rule on society, the plotting of European powers, and the increasing role of Islam in the Arab world. Arabic music can, therefore, be thought of as a holding tank of Arab heritage and history, which can be explored to trace the political timeline of Arab nationalism and its appeal to “speakers of the dhaad (?)”. Navigating Arabic music in the past 100 years reveals three phases of Arab nationalism: confidence, despair and confusion.

The Confidence Stage

Perhaps unknowingly, Ibrahim Al-Yaziji, a Syrian poet, had written one of the first significant expressions of Arab awakening that eventually led to the radical spread of Arab nationalism. “Awake, O Arabs, and arise!” he wrote in 1868. And they did. By the time of the first world war, millions of Arabs, from Mauritania to Oman, awaked, arose and announced before other nations and each other that they be recorded as Arabs.

What was the aim of this awakening?

To integrate Arabs, to pursue the autonomy of Arabs, and maintain Arab heritage. The agenda of the awakening was pushed forward by a revival in Arab culture, particularly poetry, and pride in the language common to all Arabs: Arabic. Indeed, the call to revive Arab pride is evident in songs recorded during the first half of the 20th century. These songs were written to romanticise the concept of an Arab homeland, the ‘watan’ , and to push forward Arab legacy and tradition (through the use of the pen), thus motivating people to rebuild the Arab civilisation from Syria to Morocco.

1. Chalchal

Written sometime between 1917-1920 by an unknown lyricist

The purpose of Chalchal, an Iraqi song, is to critique Turkification across the Arab world. The lyricist argues that welcoming British rule as a means to end the Ottoman empire was not an ideal solution. He concludes that Arab self-determination can and will only be brought about when Arabs seek a way to govern themselves.

2. Mawtini

Written by Ibrahim Touqan, 1934.

Mawtini, the national anthem of both Iraq and Palestine, called for an Arab nationalist movement in a period where discontent with the British was growing. Here, Arab nationalism meant Arab unity, autonomy, and pride.

3. Bilad Al Urbi Awtani

Written by Fakhri Al-Baroodi, year unknown.

This song, originally written as a poem, was taught at schools during the initial stages of the Arab nationalism movement. The poem, much like other songs recorded during this period, calls for brotherhood (“all the Arab nations are my nation”), education, and maintaining Arab traditions in a world that is turning Western.

The Despair Stage

Not long after Arab nationalism had spread, it waned. “Are we Arabs one big lie?” asked Nizar Qabani in 1991. Indeed, at some point during the political timeline, perhaps after the Six-Day War, the Lebanese Civil War, or the Gulf War, Arabs replaced their belief in an integrated Arab nation with doubt about a united Arab mission.

Millions of people who once identified with being Arab suddenly claimed to be someone else. In fact, the term Arab became synonymous with greed, foolishness, violence and other derogatory labels. Those that engaged with the Islamic movement of the 80s preferred to instead identify with the label of ‘Muslim’, and those who did not engage with a particular movement preferred to instead identify with their nation state, making way for identities such as ‘Lebanese’, ‘Iraqi’, ‘Algerian’, etc to emerge. The Arab identity faded. Indeed, songs recorded during this time – 1948 and onwards – were grand in style, and, rather than calling for an Arab unification, like the songs in the first phase of the nationalist movement, they attempted to tie the purposes of pan-Arabism (i.e., togetherness) to a fight against a common foreign enemy

4. Filastin

Written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, 1948.

The Arab nationalist movement was first triggered by a growing discontent of Turkification and a need for social change that restores Arab pride. However, in the second half of the 20th century, Arab nationalism was triggered (or, rather, maintained) by the occupation of Palestine. The song Filastin starts off this second phase by aligning the goals of Arab nationalism with the liberation of Palestine from the enemy: Zionism.

5. Al Watan al Akbar

Written by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, 1960.

Al Watan al Akbar is arguably one of the most famous songs from the Arab nationalist movement. The song was written in celebration of the inclusion of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic. The song, often described as an operetta, is an ode to the great Arab homeland between Syria and Morocco.

6. Zahrat al Mada’in

Written by the Rahbani Brothers, 1969.

This song was released after an Australian Jew burned parts of Al Aqsa mosque in 1969 and, therefore, its tone is one of resistance. The lyricists write that it is only together that we can restore the glory of Jerusalem.

7. Al Hilm Al Arabi

Written by Midhat Al-Adil and Saif Salem Al-Khaldi, 2000.

Al Hilm al Arabi was broadcast in 2000 following the onset of the second Intifada. At this point in time, Palestine and South Lebanon were in the hands of Israel, Iraq was under embargo following its invasion of Kuwait, and most other Arab states were allied against each another with foreign powers. The dream of Arab unity seemed unattainable and this operetta set out to awaken the then dormant Arab Nationalism.

The Confused Stage

So what has become of Arab nationalism in the 21st century? Is it dormant and waiting to be revived? And, perhaps most importantly, is the world after the Arab Spring in need of an Arab awakening? Will the next form of Arab nationalism take its goals from the previous forms or will it be entirely different in style and method?

If Arab nationalism is to again gain momentum it will no doubt face challenges, particularly the growth of loyalty to Arab states and, more recently, Muslim sects. And, of course, the threat of the West on a united Arab world still exists.

It is not easy to gauge the future of Arab nationalism, but the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, perpetrated by Arabs themselves against each other, has shown that Arabs have lost sight of brotherhood since Ibrahim Al-Yaziji penned his call for an Arab awakening in 1868. Perhaps the only way in which this sentiment can be regained is by doing away with allegiances to nations and sects, and, instead, holding on to what makes us ‘us’: kalemat al dhaad.

In this next phase, it is clear that Arab nationalism, if it emerges, will be a youth led movement. The music appearing in this phase does not yet lay the groundwork for an Arab awakening, or indicate what form it will take, but it reflects the ultimate desire of Arab awakening: self-determination (the yearning for a voice) from both foreign and domestic occupiers.

8. Sout Al Horeya

Written by Amir Eid, 2011.

Sout Al Horeya, filmed at Tahrir square, reflected the shift in Arab nationalism. It was now a movement dominated by the youth, a youth who recognise that Arab unity cannot be achieved until domestic (not only foreign) occupiers are toppled. The song, therefore, calls for people to go out on the streets of their homeland and demand their right to freedom, self-determination and autonomy: the goals of pan-Arabism.

9. Can’t Take Our Freedom

Written by Khalid M., 2011.

This song is written by a Libyan in the diaspora. The song highlights that the repressive governments in the Arab world not only affect the people living on the inside, but also those in the diaspora, who left for political reasons. Of course, the song calls for the youth “from Tunisia to Libya, Bahrain to Yemen” to rewrite history and stand against domestic oppression. It also calls on Arabs abroad to strengthen their Arab identity.

10. Reyes Le Bled

Written by El General, 2011.

This song is written to the former President of Tunisia, Ben Ali. The rapper released this song two months before the beginning of the Tunisian Spring. The purpose of the song was to showcase how domestic occupiers have ripped apart, and stolen from, their nations. Indeed the message of this song: unhappiness about governance, resonated with Arabs, particularly Egyptians, that were ready to oust their own leaders.

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