Sunday, October 04, 2015

Kufiya on Gotham, Season 1, Episode 4: The guy who grabs Fish Mooney

Fish Mooney is trying to flee Gotham by boat. The boat is attacked by mercenaries, and this guy enters her cabin to get her. In the next episode, she wakes up in what turns out to be a prison run by a doctor who is harvesting organs, as well as limbs, and not just selling them but conducting his own terrifying and sadistic experiments on the inmates. Lots of truly horrific things happen in Gotham, but the Dollmaker (Dr. Dulmacher) might rank as the worst, his projects evoking the most awful practices of the Nazi concentration camps. Naturally, I guess, by a kind of unconscious Orientalist logic, the mercenary sent to grab Mooney would be in a kufiya. It's the only one I've spotted, after watching the entire first season of Gotham and the first two episodes of the second. But I'll keep looking!

Saturday, October 03, 2015

RIP Belkacem Bouteldja, pop-rai pioneer

I wrote about Belkacem Bouteldja in my very long post on the origins of pop-rai. Bouteldja was, of course one of the pioneers. His first recording, released in 1965 when the lad was thirteen years old, was a cover of a 1957 recording by Cheikha El Ouachma, from Aïn Témouchent, called "Gatlek Zizia."

Another of Cheikha El Ouachma's well-known songs was "Sid El Hakem" (His honor the judge). According to Bouziane Daoudi (Le rai, 2000), the lyrics evoke the ordinary Algerians' everyday experience of military repression during wartime.

I've just come across Belkacem Bouteldja's cover of "Sid El Hakem," courtesy the latest broadcast (#26) of Toukadime Radio. (Read more about Toukadime here.) It's the first track, check it out, it really kicks. Then compare it to Cheikha El Ouachma's original. Comparing the versions, you'll get a sense of how Bouteldja (and whoever else was involved in the production) was taking the music of the cheikhat in the direction of what, eventually, less than a decade later, became known as pop-rai. Bouteldja recorded another, much more modern, version of "Sid El Hakem," with his collaborator Messaoud Bellemou, probably in the 1980s.

I also recently came across a photo of the cover of an early Bouteldja release, "Milouda Ouine Kounti," from the mid-sixties. Note that it was advertised as "Chant Folklorique Oranais." It's a cover of a song originally done by Cheikh El-Younsi Berkani. Listen here.

While looking around at YouTube vids of Belkacem, I only just now discovered that this giant, this pioneer of rai, passed away in early September.  Of cancer, in poverty. He had complained in the previous month to the Algerian daily El Watan: "je suis seul, sans ressource. Je n'ai ni retraite, ni pension, ni assurance, ni couverture sociale". Although he was well known as one of the pioneers of the now world-famous genre of rai, he never benefited financially. He complained of this in an earlier interview with El Watan in 2009. What a crime that the Algerian state, which puts on big annual festivals to celebrate rai (held, since 2008, in Sidi Bel-Abbès), did nothing to provide this great artist a pension. Read an obit here, in Nouvel Obs. Allah yarhamou. 

Finally, check out this kicking track, from 1976, which Belkacem recorded with the troupe of Messaoud Bellemou, one of the recordings from the mid-seventies that defined "pop-rai."

Monday, September 21, 2015

kufiyas: UK 'Islamic' rappers The Brotherz

I was very struck by the images used by this UK Muslim rap group, for their album, Extreme Gentlemen.

In an interview, The Brotherz note that "The concept of being an "Extreme Gentlemen" is still subtly conveyed based on the association of "extremism" with the scarf and "gentlemanliness" with the suit." Elsewhere in the interview, they make clear that scarf is a "Palestinian" scarf.

I discovered The Brotherz in a 2009 article ("Hip Hop and Urban Islam in Europe) by Peter Mandaville published in The Global Studies Review 5(2). According to Mandaville The Brotherz call themselves "salafi rappers." They also call what they do "nasheeds" -- they use no instruments other than percussion. But there is in fact singing, as well as rapping, on at least this track. It's certainly not "traditional" nasheed.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Paul Poiret and his wife Denise at "Persian Fête" party

(I've posted about this phenomenon previously -- it was very trendy for the adventurous middle and upper classes in the US and Europe to dress up in Middle Eastern fashion. Check out this post and this one. I'm very pleased to find this photo of the Poirets, courtesy Reorient's Instagram feed. You should follow it too.)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Villagers, al-Tuwani, West Bank, Palestine, Hebron District, 12/26/1961

I posted what I've written below on my flickr account, but I thought it belonged here too. More photos of al-Tuwani to follow in future. 

photo: Romain Swedenburg

Al-Tuwani (also spelled At-Tuwani) is what as known as a "frontier village," that is, a village that is near the 1948 border between Israel and the West Bank (occupied by Jordan) and that lost its agricultural lands due to Israel. Residents of frontier villages are not considered refugees, because they still live in their original homes although they lost their chief means of livelihood. As they're not refugees, they were not covered by the the mandate of UNRWA, the agency charged with serving the needs of Palestinian refugees. We (the Swedenburg family) visited al-Tuwani on December 26, 1961, with Robert Lapham, an employee of Church World Service, one of the few aid agencies to do work in al-Tuwani. The Laphams resided in Hebron (al-Khalil), the only Christians, they reported, in the city. (You can read about Lapham here:; he passed away in 1988.)

The village, we were told, had 300 residents. We reached it over a dirt/stone track (no road) They were very, very poor -- the surrounding land was very rocky and not suitable for agriculture. My father writes in his diary: "Children without shoes, clothes in tatters." You can see an example in the photo. The villagers were extremely hospitable -- we were invited for tea at the house of the village headman, and they were about to prepare chicken for lunch but we said our thanks and departed. Reportedly we were the only Americans to have visited the village besides our host (who lived in Amman) and Mr. and Mrs. Lapham.

Since the Israeli occupation, al-Tuwani has come under very severe pressure from nearby Israeli settlers and military. You can get an introduction to the issues at wikipedia: and from the Christian Peacekeeper Teams: There is also a FB page for an organization called Humanity Together: Supporting At-Tuwani, Palestine:

Addendum: the best academic source I've read on Palestinian border villages (of which there were/are 111) is Avi Plaskov's The Palestinian Refugees in Jordan 1948-1957 (Routledge 1981).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Udham Singh/Frank Brazil, Amritsar: Ska-Vengers, Fun'Da'Mental, Asian Dub Foundation

On July 31 The Guardian reported on the release of the song "Frank Brazil," by the Indian ska group Ska-Vengers.

Frank Brazil is the alias of Udham Singh, who was an eyewitness to the notorious Amritsar massacre of April 13, 1919, when British soldiers killed over 1000 Indian civilians at Jallianwalla Bagh. In 1940 Singh took his people’s revenge in London when he assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab and the purported architect of the massacre. After he was arrested by police, Singh reportedly signed his name Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, signifying the joint Muslim-Sikh-Hindu participation in the anti-colonial freedom struggle (“Azad” means freedom in Punjabi; Ram is a Hindu god, hero of the Ramayana epic). By doing so, and by asking Heer of Waris Shah rather than a religious text, Udham Singh underscored that his vision of revolutionary politics was secular and anti-imperialist and not sectarian.

Singh was subsequently convicted and hanged for his crime.

The tale of Udham Singh, sometimes known as Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh or the “great martyr,” has been retold in numerous bhangra tracks since the early seventies as well as by Asian Dub Foundation in the song “Assassin” (on Rafi's Revenge, 1998), and he is the subject of at least three films.

Below are the opening lyrics to ADF's "Assassin."

Mohammed Singh Azad
No apologies
Not a shot in the dark
This is a warning
The sleeping tiger awakes each and every morning
The time is now right to burst the imperial bubble
And my act of revenge is just a part of the struggle
A bullet to his head won't bring back the dead
But it will lift the spirits of my people

We'll keep on fighting
We've been a nation abused
Your stiff upper lip will bleed
And your pride will bruised

Fun'Da'Mental also do a verse about Udham Singh on the song "Electro G-had," off their controversial 2006 album All Is War: The Benefits of G-had. The song celebrates the memory of the so-called “terrorists” who fought the British in India during the colonial period. It was composed and sung by then-19-year old British-Asian musician Subiag Singh Kandola, a Punjabi folk song put to electronic beats. It is in the vein of a BrAsian tradition of "revolutionary’ poetry recitations” held periodically to commemorate the heroes of India’s anti-colonial struggle.

Fun'Da'Mental provide this translation of the Udham Singh verse:

On the day of Vaisakhi, Udham Singh made this solemn prayer:
"Oh my Guru, may I take revenge on those who murdered my people at Jallianwalla Bagh. I ask for your blessings in this task."
After 20 long years, the hero Udham Singh tracked down the main culprit, Sir Michael O’ Dwyer and exacted his revenge in the home country of his oppressor.

The evil regime was knocked into place by his back handed stroke.

In conclusion, it should be noted that Mahatma Gandhi condemned Singh's assassination of Dwyer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Eddy Grant, "Living on the Front Line," Palestine

I only just noticed this verse from Eddy Grant's classic "Living on the Front Line," even though I must have heard this song dozens of times.

Me, no want nobody's money 
There lord they sugar me no want to see 
Me, no want to shoot Palestines 
Oh I have land, oh I have mine 
Way to go, Eddy!

The song is off of Grant's 1979 album, Walking on Sunshine, and it reached #11 in the UK; in the US it hit #86 on the R&B charts. Grant was born in British Guiana, moved to England as a youngster. He was a member (lead guitarist and main songwriter) of The Equals, who had a number one hit in 1968 with "Baby Come Back." He is probably best known for his song, "Electric Avenue," which reached #2 in both the US and UK in 1983. But I think this is his best, and his most "political" song.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Cool Middle East music guide: Brownbook

Brownbook is a magazine focusing on urban design, travel and culture in the Middle East. It's published (paper) six times a year, in London, but also has a website, and a music section. Periodically they introduce you to a new artist or mixtape or whatever. Recent items include:

DJ K-Sets' mixtape of Persian Pop made in LA in the 1980s and 90s...

Reem Kelani's "Galilean Lullaby"...

Nass El Ghiwane doing "Subhan Allah" live in concert... (and what a fabulous photo!)

A clip of the late Sabah doing "A Man from Tehran" (so terrific)...

and much more...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The fate of art in the Middle East: two comments

"One day, the war will end and I will return to my poem" 

Not sure who the artist is for this one

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Chaba Fadela (and Cheb Sahraoui), "N'sel Fik"

I'm trying to work out the history and trajectory of "N'sel Fik," by Cheb Sahraoui and Chaba Fadela, one of the first rai recordings to be released in Europe -- in 1986 on the Paris label Attitude, and in 1987 (October) on -- if you can believe it -- the famous Manchester label Factory Records, as a 12" single. Yes, Factory: the company that released all those great recordings from Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Durutti Column.

Here's the story of how that Factory release came about: It was "selected after Pickering heard the exotic Arabic-disco hybrid at Mark Kamins' Harem club in New York. 'Mark talked Tony into licensing Fadela and I remixed it,' says Pickering."

Mike Pickering was Factory's A&R Chief. Tony Wilson was part owner and manager of Factory.

As for Mark Kamins, the legendary New York producer and DJ, here's the story of Harem, in his own words:

I went to open my own club, which was called the Harem, and I rented out a belly dance studio in Time Square at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. God, why did I leave? I just think I got fed up. Well, actually, I started getting a lot of work in the studio and I wanted to DJ something new. I started this club called the Harem where I had five Turkish musicians behind me who played live with instrumental house tracks that I would play. It was completely spontaneous. It was about me being more of an artist than a DJ. There was an English band came down – “pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance” – remember those guys?...

M/A/R/R/S, OK. They came one night with a white label. And I played the white label, and then I would play an Egyptian singer, a cappella on top of M/A/R/R/S. So they went back to London and remixed it with my Arabic a cappella. That’s when I made my record United House Nations, which was one of the first releases on Circa, where I took house beats and I sampled music from all over the world. So I took that hiatus, I would say, for one year and the Harem became the hippest club in New York. We shut it down after we did a party for New Order. We shut it down after one year, at the peak.

"Pump Up the Volume" from M/A/R/R/S, you may recall, samples Dunya Yunus' "Abu Zuluf" from the album Music in the World of Islam, 1: The Human Voice. You can check this out here.

The one "Middle Eastern" recording that you will find on Kamin's United House Nations LP is "Muhammad's House" by Sheik Fawaz, released in the US in 1988. I in fact purchased it back then, there wasn't anything else much like it coming out at that time. Check it out:

Here is the jacket for the Factory release of "N'sel Fik" (You Are Mine). Like all Factory products I've seen, it has a great design. But...(and thanks to Geir for making me notice this) Fadela is spelled incorrectly in Arabic. It should be فضيلة  and not  فظيلة

Although credited to Fadela, the track in fact is by Chaba Fadela and her husband Cheb Sahraoui (the couple married in 1982). I believe that this is the version that Factory released (the discography says the Factory track is 7:10, and this one is 7:09 -- close enough).

Below is perhaps the first recording of the song, off of a 1982 cassette. Note the spellings here: Chaba Fadila, and "N'sal Fik." According to maghrebunion, who posted in on Youtube, the male singer on this recording is Cheb Hindi, and Cheb Sahraoui is on the accordion.

I presume this is not the version recorded by producer Rachid Baba Ahmed. According to Abdi and Daoudi (1995), Rachid Baba's recording came out in 1983, and it was, they say, the first rai international hit. They say that Rachid wrote it, but other sources credit it to Cheb Sahraoui, and I believe the latter is correct. I guess that when they say 'hit' are referring to its release on Attitude (France), Factory (UK), and then on two very influential and groundbreaking rai albums put out in the West, in the earliest wave of the world music rai phenom: (1) Rai Rebels, released on Virgin in the UK in 1988, and on Earthworks in the US in the same year. Although this LP features a photo of Khaled on the cover, the opening track is "N'sel Fik," credited here to Fadela and Sahraoui; (2) You Are Mine, a Chaba Fadela album put out in 1988 by Mango in both the US and UK. Since "N'sel Fik" is translated as You Are Mine, that makes it in fact the title track of the album. Interestingly, the recording here is credited to Chaba Fadela, although her husband of course also sings on it. 

The jacket for Rai Rebels provides a translation of a few lines of "N'sel Fik," and as far as I can tell by checking other translations, these seem about right:

Cheb: Looking to God, waiting, you are mine
Chaba: I saw you in the dark and my heart stopped
Cheb: I didn't say a word, but her eyes said it all
Chaba: You are mine, your body and your soul
Cheb: In the evening we go to her place and spend the night

Based on the evidence of the video below, clearly shot in a studio in Algeria, it would seem that the version of "N'sel Fik" that was exported abroad was basically the same as what was released in Algeria -- in 1983, if we are to believe Abdi and Daoudi. The vid shows Fadela and Sahraoui doing the song and Rachid Baba on the mixing controls. 

Here's the vid:

On the other hand, if you check out this vid, of a TV show tribute to Rachid Ahmed, one might think that the 1983 version was somewhat different. Rachid in the interview footage says that Sahraoui brought in his wife to the studio, when he was to record "N'sel Fik" for a cassette to be put out by Rachid et Fethi, his company. Rachid had not met Fadela before. He suggested to them that they sing the song as a duo. They did it as a trial, and it was perfect the first time, did not need to be re-recorded. The version you see them do here, however, is a bit different from what was released on Factory in 1987. Check it out, Rachid speaks about the song starting at 7:13.

Rachid Baba Ahmed and his brother Fathi fronted a band called Les Vautours (The Vultures) and then went on, in the early 70s, to enjoy some modest success with rock recordings released under the name, Rachid et Fethi. (Check out some footage of them here.) The brothers went on to open a very advanced, 16-track studio at Tlemcen (their home town) as well as a record label (Rallye). In 1976, a rai cassette producer sent Rachid a young rai singer Cheb Sahraoui. At that point Rachid had no interest in rai, but was instead into the synthesized pop of the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre. Rachid commenced to work with rai singers, recording their vocals and them sending them off as he and his studio musicians laid down the instrumental tracks (see Abdi & Daoudi 1995). I believe that Rachid is the one who is primarily responsible for really changing the sound of pop-rai (I posted earlier about pop-rai's seventies origins) both through this production method and also by the heavy use of synthesized keyboards, electric guitar, and the like. Baba was assassinated in February 1995, probably by militants of the Armed Islamic Group.

Rachid produced many, many great pop-rai tracks, but "N'sel Fik" remains one of the greatest.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Middle Eastern artists (El Haqed, Salomé, Ramy Essam, etc.) do Fela's "Zombie"

Rapper L7a9ed (El Haqed, rapper from Morocco), Ramy Essam (singer from Egypt, who raps here), Karim Rush, Egyptian rapper from the group Arabian Knightz, Refugees of Rap (Palestine/Syria), Salomé MC (Iranian rapper), Palestinian Rapperz (Gaza), Armada Bizerta (Tunisian rappers), and Moe Hamzeh (Lebanese rapper) all appear on a new version of Nigerian singer Fela's immortal "Zombie." The rhythm track is provided by Voodoo Sound Club (Bologna), and the song opens with a segment from Fela's son Seun Kuti. Producers are Reda Zine (Morocco), Mark Levine, Anton Pukshansky and Andrea Deda. They plan to produce several more Fela re-visions over the year.

It's great, give it a listen (download here) -- I particularly like the segment from the one female rapper, also the only Iranian rapper, the super Salomé. Read more about it here from Freemuse.

Friday, May 29, 2015

kufiyaspotting: Palestinian priest at St. Peter's Square

I love this photo:

The priest (his name is not given) is waiting for the ceremony (May 18) in which Pope Francis canonised four nuns, two of them Palestinians (Sisters Mariam Bawardy and Marie Alphonsine Ghatta). He is really stylin', isn't he? (Here is the source. The photographer is not identified. Thanks to Allen Hovey for this.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bendaly Family's "Do You Love Me?" --- 3.5 million views and still counting (but no royalties)

My post of April 19, 2007 had the following title: "Is this the best video clip of Arabic music ever?" (I don't know whether anyone who read the post realized the fact that the question was tongue in cheek, as the song is sung entirely in English with the exception of a couple of aywa's interjected.)

Accompanied by this video:

Who knew that I was part of what was to become a huge trend? Pierre France discusses the Bendaly (alternate spellings: Bendali, Bandali, Bandaly) phenomenon in a recent article on OrientXXI.

It turns out the family is from Tripoli, Lebanon. They were a very big live sensation in the seventies and into the mid-eighties, playing in the Arab capitals and as far afield as London and Australia. They did make recordings, but the thing was the live show. Because of this, their music does not show up on the collections of Arab music that are now being issued in a wave of nostalgia for the old stuff. Even though "Do You Love Me?" is a huge on-line sensation. I'm not sure where Pierre France gets his figure from, I guess it must be counting up the views from several different on-line versions. Let's hope, with Pierre, that the Bendalys do really get discovered, and start collecting some royalties.

Meanwhile, here are some great vids:

Live in Kuwait (this is the first of three). Really delightful.

"Alo, alo." Hilarious song. 

"Ayilitna Ayilah" (our family's a family), where the stage looks like something out of Hollywood Squares.

"Ghazala." Nice oud from Roger Bendaly on this one, even if just a bit out of tune.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Kufiya iPhone 5 and 6 case, made out of wood!

You, and I, really need one of these!

They come in 3 flavors: cherry, rosewood and walnut. This is the walnut:

Available for $30 from Goodwoodnyc.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The 'rai rebel' Cheikha Rimitti was also a 'hadja'

The typical bio of the great rai artist Cheikha Rimitti will almost invariably label her as a "rebel," as the well-informed music journalist John Pareles does in his New York Times obituary of May 28, 2006. Also typical is an account of how she got her name -- which had to do with drinking -- and how, in a song recorded in 1954, Rimitti challenged sexual taboos regarding virginity for unmarried women. Pareles raises these two issues, as does almost everyone else. In an earlier post, I've tried to problematize, or at least complicate, both these stories.

The discourse surrounding Rimitti is consistent with the usual world music accounts of rai music, which stress its "rebel" quality and tend to emphasize the antagonism between the rai rebels and Islam.

To his credit, Pareles' obit does (as do many other accounts) acknowledge that Rimitti made the hajj to Mecca in 1976 (some say 1975) and that as a consequence she gave up drinking and smoking. She did not, however, give up performing, and her songs continued to be "edgy" when it came to the subjects of women and sex. I do not have the space to elaborate here, but it should be asserted that there is no necessary inherent contradiction between being a believing Muslim and singing in public about women's issues, including sexuality. (Unless, of course, one believes that salafist Wahhabis get to define what "real" Islam is.) The key source to consult on these issues, when it comes to rai, is Marie Virolle's La chanson raï.

When I visited the Barbès district of Paris in summer 1992, I found this cassette in one of the many cassette shops selling vast quantities of rai tapes. It's the only recording I've ever seen where Rimitti is called "Hadja" rather than "Cheikha."

The tracks are: "Sidi Bouabdala" (I presume this is the name of a saint); "Ya Mohamed Ya Rassoul" (O Mohamed O Prophet); "Sinia Halouha"; Hamra Ou Baida (Red and White); "Haoulih Ya Zerga"; and "Ya Oulidi Ouankhaf Aalik."

As far as I can tell "Ya Mohamed Ya Rassoul" is the only track that is unambiguously "religious," but of course, to do such a set of songs and include a song in praise of the Prophet Mohamed was a way of making the other material (if it does indeed deal with "secular" concerns like male-female relations) socially acceptable. (Virolle has written about how [Cheb] Khaled has used the same mechanism as a strategy. He typically used the song "Salu' 'ala al-Nabi" (Praise the Prophet) to open or close concerts in Algeria during the eighties, as a means of making his other material, dealing with, say, alcohol and dancing, acceptable.)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Look magazine explains the kufiya (May 13, 1969)

From an article in Look magazine, May 13, 1969, entitled "Revolt of the Arab Refugees: 'We'll Meet in Tel Aviv!'", pp. 27-36. It's by Look senior editor Christopher S. Wren, and the photos are by Thomas R. Koniges. If I'm not mistaken, one of the early accounts of the Palestinian resistance movement based in Jordan by the US mass media. It is fairly even-handed, given that it is not hostile to the fedayeen, even if it sees the Palestinians and the Israelis as two more or less equivalent "sides." (Christopher Wren, incidentally, now teaches at Dartmouth College.)

Here's a photo of PFLP fighters, from the same issue:

The cover of the magazine:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Kufiyaspotting and turban spotting: Gustav Klimt

photo: Imagno/Austrian Archives

Famed Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, at an artists' party hosted by Otto Primavesi at his house in Winkelsdorf (Moravia), 1916. Otto and his wife Eugenia were among the most important patrons of Klimt in his last years. Otto was owner and director of the Primavesi Bank, based in Olmütz (now Olomouc, Czech Republic). Klimt designed the Primavesis' country house at Winkelsdorf.

Orientalist parties like the one depicted above were a common feature of bourgeois life in the US and Europe in the first three decades of the twentieth century, as I've blogged about previously: here and here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kufiyaspotting: Sam Zaman of State of Bengal (RIP)

Bad news yesterday (May 20, 2015), the death of Sam Zaman, age 50, who recorded as State of Bengal. State of Bengal were one of the key players in the so-called Asian Underground movement that emerged in Britain in the mid-to-late nineties. Read more about him here.

I particularly like these State of Bengal tracks: "Chittagong Chill"


Sam was also involved in Khaled's version of "El Harba Wine" recorded with Amar. (Not, in my opinion, one of Khaled's most successful outings.)

This is way better, the State of Bengal remix of Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps."

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Yemeni Jewish kufiya

From the cover of the latest issue of Qantara, published by the Institut du monde arabe in Paris.

The photo is of one of the last remaining Jews in Yemen, now a refugee in Sanaa (© Naftali Hilger).
Someone who knows Yemen will have to explain the particular significance of the kufiya.

This topic of this issue of Qantara is Jews of the Near East in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it features articles by Orit Bashkin, Abraham Marcus, Joel Beinin, Sami Zubaida, and Trevor Parfitt, plus an interview with François Zabbal. Check out the table of contents here.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Adam Shatz goes to a nightclub (rai) in Oran

Yesterday's (April 6) New York Times Magazine featured a very fine article by Adam Shatz (of the London Review of Books) that focused on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Shatz went to Oran to meet up with him, and one night the two of them plus poet Amina Mekhali went out to a nightclub. Because it's Oran, of course the featured music is rai. Here's what Shatz has to say about it.

On the street, most women wear hijabs. But at late-night cabarets like the one we went to, young people dance, drink and, as Camus wrote in 1939, “meet, eye and size up one another, happy to be alive and to cut a figure.”
At midnight, when we arrived, the crowd seemed tentative, but when Cheba Dalila, a raï singer with a voice as deep as Nina Simone’s, came on at 2 a.m., the dance floor filled up. She strode with her microphone from table to table, collecting bills from people who paid to have their names mentioned in her songs. The bass was so loud I felt it in my belly. A woman in tight jeans wore a T-shirt that said “Detroit 1983”; pairs of men danced with women when their interest was plainly in each other. I took a photograph, but Mekahli’s son, Hadi, told me not to: “This place is run by the mafia.” The “mafia” makes its money on bootleg liquor and prostitutes. Some of the women at the nightclub were apparently for hire. “For me,” Mekahli said, “clubs like this are a reappropriation of Algerian identity. France doesn’t exist here. The people here are totally decolonized.”

I've not been to Oran but Shatz's description rings true with everything I've read about nightclubs and rai in Oran. The patrons of the nightclubs are typically the well-off of Oran (or other Algerian towns); prices are too steep for the young people who so love rai and constitute its core audience. They might expect to see rai live in performance at the occasional wedding or the big summer festivals sponsored by the state. The practice of collecting money from people who want their names mentioned in songs is described by Marc Schade-Poulsen in his 1999 book, Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï. And yes, there are gays in Algeria, and in fact one of the most popular rai artists, Cheb Abdou, is openly effeminate, in a kind of Boy George, without being 'out.' And yes, the rai clubs have been mafia run for some time, and it is also likely that many of the patrons of the club that Shatz visited had made their money in the black market economy, in what is known as trabendo.

I had not heard of Cheba Dalila, but was glad to learn of her. Here's a clip of her in concert. Heavily autotuned, as has been the practice ever since the release of Chaba Djenet's hit "Kwit Galbi Wahdi" in 2000.

As an aside, I posted in 2011 about Kamel Daoud, columnist for Le Quotidien d'Oran, whose column is called "Raina Raikoum," in reference to a piece he did about harragas, as Algerian migrants who escape by boat are known. I learned from Shatz's piece that Daoud's younger brother is also a harraga.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Jewish-Arab victims of the Paris massacres (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket)

For some reason, the Maghrebi origins of many of the victims of the massacre has not been getting much play, especially in the English language media. (Other than this article in Ynet which reports that all four of the victims of the kosher market shooting will be buried in Israel, and whose chief point seems to be the dangers posed to Jews by living in France).

It is not much remarked that about 60% of the French Jewish population of 600,000 are 'Sephardic,' that is, of Middle Eastern/North African origin -- mostly from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.

Much more has been written about the Charlie Hebdo victims than the kosher supermarket victims to date. That may be a function of the fact that the kosher market events are more recent. Or it may be, as Gil Hochberg noted on FaceBook, the fact that secular Jews (who are among the Charlie Hebdo dead) are more familiar than the more religious Jews shopping for kosher.

Of the 12 dead in the Charlie Hebdo attack were two Jews of Tunisian origin: Georges Wolinski, 80, a cartoonist at the magazine, born in Tunis, and Elsa Cayat, 54, a journalist at CH and a psychoanalyst, whose father, Georges Khayat, was from Sfax, Tunisia. (And another of those killed was the Algerian-born Kabyle [Berber] Moustapha Ourrad, copy editor.)

Of the 4 dead at the kosher supermarket, three have positively been identified as being of Maghribi origin, i.e., Jewish Arabs.

Yoav Kattab, 21, was the son of the grand rabbi of Tunis, Tunisia, Benyamin Hattab. He was born in La Goulette and raised in Djerba. After completing his bacalaureat in Tunis, he had gone to Paris to study marketing and international commerce. He had recently, and proudly, voted in Tunisia's presidential elections.

Yohan Cohen, 22, born in Enghien-les-Bains. His parents were from Algeria, settled in Sarcelles, France, in the 1960s. He was a grandson of a famous Jewish-Tunisian singer, Doukha, who passed away in December. He liked rap, particularly French rapper Booba -- one of France's great rappers, who frequently raps against racism, is a 'non-practicing' Muslim, and whose father is Senegalese. Cohen reportedly died when he tried to tackle gunman Amedy Coulibaly, in order to save a three year old child.

 Yohan Cohen

Cohen's grandfather Doukha was a passionate fan of the great Syrian singer Farid El Atrache as a boy, and got his start in music singing the songs of Farid in the group of the celebrated Tunisian-Jewish singer Raoul Journo. He was a master of the Judeo-Tunisian, the Judeo-Algerian, and the Egyptian repertoire. Check out his rendition of a "Tunisian folklore" song here.


François-Michel Saada, 63, a retired senior executive, whose children live in Israel, was born in Tunis, Tunisia.

I have not yet found information on the background -- Maghrebi or otherwise -- of the fourth victim, Philippe Braham, 45. According to his brother-in-law, Shai Ben-David, "He was a man who always wore a kippah, a Zionist whose dream was to make aliyah and he never made it. Every time he used to tell me, 'God willing we'll come, we'll make aliyah soon.'"

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Quick note on the Charlie Hebdo attack and French history and massacres

So many news reports about the Charlie Hebdo attack say it's the worst terrorist attack in France in 50 years. They (at least the ones in English) never tell you exactly what they're referring to. It would seem to be an act of the far-right Organisation de l'armée secrète which was fighting to preserve the French colony in Algerial. In June 1961 the OAS bombed a fast train at Vitry-Le-François, resulting in 28 dead and 100+ injured. I would have guessed, however, that the worst violence in France over the last 50 years was the October 1961 Paris police massacre of as many as 200 French Algerians who were peaceably demonstrating against curfews and in support of the FLN. Some deaths resulted when police tossed men they had beaten unconscious into the Seine. Funny, you don't see either of these horrific events (acts of first, the extreme right, and second, the cops) being discussed. Ah, historical consciousness.

 October 1961

An excellent source on the events of October 1961 is: Jim House and Neil MacMaster. 2006. Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Excellent films on the October 1961 events include: Octobre à Paris, Le silence du fleuve, and Dissimulation d'un massacre.