The release of the song “El Watan El Akhbar” (“The Great Nation”) seemed to capture the sentiments that were running wildly through the hearts of young people across the Arab world. Longtime rulers were falling victim to an outcry for liberation. The lyrics, by legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, read: “Nothing but the triumph of the Arab people, my country, my beloved. In Yemen, Damascus and Jeddah, you are sweet, oh victory ... Between Marrakech and Bahrain, the same tune for a perfect unity. Oh you, whose soil is the makeup of my eye; my country, O fortress of freedom.”
The year was 1960. An air of emancipation was sweeping through Arab nations, as people sought to free themselves from colonialism and to embrace an era of nationalist resistance movements. Pan-Arabism was a concept championed by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and it seeped into the political discourse of countries across the region, urging Arabs to come together in the face of tyranny. “El Watan El Akhbar,” a collaboration by some of the Arab world’s most famous singers, including Algerian legend Warda Al-Jazairia and Egyptian heartthrob Abdel Halim Hafez, stirred the vehemence and imaginations of people from Morocco to Bahrain.
Decades later, Arabs are once again fighting tyranny—this time, from within. While leaders have become targets of discontent of their citizens, the legacies of many singers, like Warda, Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum, and Lebanon’s Fayrouz, with their gallant, patriotic lyrics, continue to inspire and unite the Arab people in a way many politicians tried—and failed—to do. And they will continue to do so even in death, as evidenced by the massive outpouring of grief at the death of Warda, the Algerian Rose, at the age of 72 on May 17 in Cairo.
Today, very little else links the highly contrasted Arab people beyond music and art, particularly that which touches upon three very basic sentiments: love, God, and nation. Even now, as several countries across the Middle East and North Africa usher in a new hodgepodge of leaders, nostalgia remains for the triumphant era of pan-Arab awakening.
In Algiers on May 19, mourners gathered outside the Palace of Culture to remember Warda’s life. Many sobbed as the crowd waved posters of the late diva and crooned her patriotic songs—both melodic and melancholy. In a rare honor bestowed only on politicians, the government sent the Republican Guard to preside over the procession; Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi said Warda leaves behind “a deafening silence and a profound sadness.” Her passing triggered responses across the region, with Egypt’s state-run Al Ahram newspaper running the headline: “The Algerian Rose’s legacy will live on.”
Warda was born in France but returned to her motherland when Algerian fighters defeated French colonialists in 1962. She had already earned a reputation as a patriot, having released a number of songs calling for the freedom and liberation of the Arab people. “Her songs had an important message in those days, and still the meaning is strong today,” said Cherine Said, 27, a receptionist for a government office in Algiers. “I listen to Warda, or Oum Kalthoum’s music, and my mother and father listen to them, too. It makes us feel like we have something in common with the other Arab countries.”
Warda “is viewed in much of the Arab world as a symbol of Algerian nationalism as part of pan-Arab identity,” said Adel Iskandar, a lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University. “She is publicly associated with the long-gone era of pan-Arabism that so many people are yearning for, especially these days with the Arab Spring making people very nostalgic for those days.”
Inspiration is not a concept taken for granted in the Arab world, particularly since it takes a legend to bring this vastly diverse region together. Arab nationalism is an ideology built on the belief that the people living between the Atlantic Ocean and the Persian Gulf are linked through linguistic, religious, and cultural heritage. The humiliating defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war strengthened the resolve of the Arabs to unite against a common enemy. But the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, which included Egypt and Syria, and attempted to incorporate Iraq and North Yemen, did not take and quickly crumbled, each country pursuing its own interests, abandoning the pan-Arab dream. While it failed in practice, this new concept of nation-state instilled in Arabs a sense of empowerment. The ideology, meanwhile, morphed over time from a reality into utopia.
Warda’s death triggered memories of a time when Oum Kalthoum, then the biggest name in Arab music, would hold controversial underground performances for student activist groups and for the Free Officers Movement, the group credited with unseating Egypt’s monarchy. “She was an essential part of the anti-colonialism movement,” said Iskandar. “She’d perform at the student events even though she was a very notable singer; that made a huge impact.”
So significant was her influence across the region that her 1975 funeral drew an estimated 4 million mourners—one of the largest gatherings in Arab history, even more than the funeral of Nasser, who gained widespread support for his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal and declare war on Israel. In a 2010 interview by France’s Courrier de l’Atlas, violinist Said Hekal, a member of Oum Kalthoum’s ensemble, said: “The death of Oum Kalthoum caused a great shock to all Egyptians. If they saw Nasser as their father, they then lost their mother.”
Other singers rooted in that genre would have a similar impact. The music of Fayrouz was banned in her native Lebanon for six months in 1969 after she refused to perform for Houari Boumedienne, who had seized power to become president of Algeria. Her act of protest only further catapulted her career, given Boumedienne’s unpopularity. Similarly, Lounès Matoub, an Algerian Berber singer, soared to fame during his country’s civil war for his provocative advocacy of Berber rights. He was shot several times, including once by a policeman in 1988. Ten years later, he was fatally gunned down, his death triggering mass protests by Berbers who chanted “Pouvoir, Assassin!” (government assassins!) He is still revered as a martyr of the Berber people and a symbol of their fight for equality.
As the years passed, indeed, the element of cynicism grew. Bold revolutionaries like Nasser, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, who emboldened citizens via coup d’états and uprisings, would eventually fall from grace, one after the other. Yet the tarnished reputations of those leaders never detracted from the longing for that era in modern Arab history, and the patriotic songs of the period remain among few tangible memories.
Just as youth have been a driving force in the Arab Spring, young activists played a major role in bringing an end to colonialism across the Arab world. However, as the dust settles in countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, concerns are growing that the revolution is falling into the hands of elderly leaders, too disconnected to mobilize a young populace—65 percent of which is under the age of 25. Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is 75, and the country’s Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia is 77. The top two contenders in Egypt’s presidential election are 60 and 70. Tunisia and Yemen’s interim presidents are both 66. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is about 87, and his new Crown Prince Nayef is 79.
“We are in a time of revolution and our young people don’t feel inspired because the governments have no link to 2012— they are totally disconnected,” said Fodil Boumala, an Algiers-based sociologist and analyst. “The Arab youth see the new French government, many in their 40s and 50s; they see Barack Obama, who is only 50; and they see a big gap between their governments and the new world.”
“These days we have new rappers in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria who are talking about jobs, about poverty, about a political, social, cultural, and sexual revolution,” added Boumala. “They have a huge following on the street, more than any of our leaders ever did or ever will.”