“Governments can go to hell”

Like a lot of people, I’ve been transfixed by recent uprisings in north Africa and the middle east. Like a lot of people, I’ve relied on writers with a far greater understanding of the region (like, say, the Guardian’s Ian Black) to explain why this is happening and where it might lead. It’s a lightheaded experience for most British observers — the thrill and joy of watching people overthrow, or at least shake up, hated authoritarian regimes, tinged with anxiety as to exactly who will fill the power vacuum, and a sobering sense of how little you really know about these countries.

But you can at least appreciate the spectacle. In 1967 Allen Ginsberg influenced the shape of US antiwar protests by arguing that “national politics [is] theatre on a vast scale, with scripts, timing, sound systems. Whose theatre would attract the most customers, whose was a theatre of ideas that could be gotten across?” A modern demonstration is part street theatre, in which long ignored voices suddenly break into the public sphere. You can see that theatricality in the homemade protest signs they hold up for the cameras, and you can hear it in the songs. I’m not yet sure what rallying anthems the Egyptian crowds sing but Tunisians have a rapper called El Général.

The Tunisian revolution began on December 17 with the self-immolation of a young fruit seller called Mohamed Bouazizi, who was protesting police violence and corruption. While he lay in a hospital bed, 22-year-old Hamada Ben Amor, aka El Général, posted an online video of himself furiously addressing “Mr President”: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. One line — “I see too much injustice and so I decided to send this message even though the people told me that my end is death” — was more than typical hip hop bravado. On January 6, two days after Bouazizi died of his injuries, the rapper was arrested by a horde of plainclothes policemen and not heard from for several days. Meanwhile, demonstrations spread and dozens of protesters were shot by government forces. When, a week later, those forces refused orders to shoot anymore, it was game over for Ben Ali. He fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

DJ Alaeddine Ben Amor (no relation) told NPR that he played El Général’s song (which translates as either Mr President or Head of State) to celebrate Tunisian radio’s new freedom from censorship: “If I played that before, I’d be in jail. That’s it.”

Last Saturday (Jan 29) El Général greeted his audience for the first time when he performed his song to hundreds of supporters at an opposition party rally in a Tunis sports hall. “Now that the dictator has left, I can finally breathe,” he said with relief. The crowd, further energised by news from Egypt, chanted “Mubarak! Mubarak! Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!” Ben Amor had a new song for the occasion, celebrating the revolution and calling for more like it: “Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, all must be liberated/Long live free Tunisia!”

“It’s not music for pleasure,” one student told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s music with a real message. It helped people rise up.”

In 2007, I interviewed musicians from Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, who had come together under the name Music Matbakh. One, the celebrated Egyptian guitarist Ousso, told me about the Mubarak regime’s crackdown on the burgeoning heavy metal scene in 1996, when musicians were falsely charged with satanism. “I was very lucky,” he said. “But I would say 90% of the scene went to jail.”

The experience had made him cautious and canny. He paid the police to protect his underground music festival in Cairo and invited the children of government officials along. His expressions of dissent were subtle. “We have a message and if you want to understand it you will and if not that’s OK. You want to change things in a clever way and spend the longest time outside a jail.”

But if the mood in Tunisia in recent weeks made it possible for someone as blunt and angry as El Général to be heard and to prevail, then the kaleidoscope has been shaken. The region is changing, tongues are loosening and it will be interesting to see what they say out loud. As Ousso told me of his friends from across the middle east, “All musicians say [in private] the same thing: governments can go to hell.”