Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 April - 6 May 2009
Issue No. 945
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

There will be black

The Adawiya urban folk classic Salametha ummo Hassan, writes Gamal Nkrumah, takes on new form as the champions of Egyptian-style heavy metal roll it out

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When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters: one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity -- John F Kennedy

"I was looking for something I could trust, but nothing was trustworthy, especially the people you love the most," Ahmed -- not his real name, of course -- muses in a corner of Heliopolis Sporting Club, somewhere near the swimming pool. The sun is setting behind giant trees, the pool a shimmering turquoise that turns lilac, then purple in the twilight.

Ahmed is not just another angst-ridden adolescent. I study his mannerisms and the maddening melody of Marginal Man comes to mind. I glance at his black canvas sneakers, his studded belt and belt buckles.

"Mothers hurt you the most but girlfriends do, too."

I gaze into Ahmed's face, studying his appearance: the heavy mascara, the floppy jet black fringe (a revolting, greasy shock of unwashed hair), the skin-tight black jeans, and even tighter T-shirt; any minute now, I am thinking, this T-shirt could burst at the seams... Resolute, Ahmed glares back, his eyes burning with rage behind the most ridiculous horn-rimmed spectacles I have ever encountered in Egypt, the tears blurring their beauty. Surely he cannot be a misogynist, I reflect.

In Heliopolis, where madness is hardly at home, Ahmed is an oddity, routinely gawked at by the neighbours and club members. He hates the club, he says, hates his home -- somewhere in the vicinity of the club -- and hates his parents' lifestyle. He hates them all with unrestrained venom. "Yes, I am on anti-depressants, tranquilisers. I hate mum, I hate Lubna," his ex, I presume. "I wish I was homosexual."

Ahmed's face brightens gradually as the sun goes down. He tells me about Facebook, about bloggers like Mohamed Emo, and of course, Salametha emo Hassan. Bless her emo (a semantic play on ummo, or Mother of, in the original song) Hassan. The adolescent gains respite from his domineering mother by flirting with emo and relishes every aspect of the cult.

Dismissed as brainwashed automata, practitioners of Punk Emotive Driven Hardcore -- emo for short -- are part of a phenomenon that first emerged in the United States in the early 1990s. Today it is a global marvel, a byproduct of globalisation, I suppose, and proof of the power of the Internet and satellite television. It is unwelcome in many countries, the conservative ones more so than the liberal.

Emo is especially abhorred in predominantly paternalistic and macho cultures such as those of Latin America and the Arab world, and Egypt is no exception. I wonder momentarily what the security men at Heliopolis Club make of Ahmed.

"The state security sees us as a dangerous underground, as Satanists, as queers and faggots," Ahmed snarls as if he was some kind of mind reader. But there is a sudden change of tone. "Love is life and life is love," Ahmed gasps, bursting out in tears. He is not ashamed to cry in public. I glance surreptitiously around me, hoping no one is taking much notice of the melodrama at hand. Perhaps Ahmed is gay, after all.

"I dress in black because I am depressed and have nothing to be cheerful about. What is wrong with tight shirts and makeup? Have you heard of 'guyliner' and 'manscara'? People in Egypt are homophobic and I hate it. I am not gay, and so what if I was? It is nobody's business." I eye the eyeliner -- excuse me: guyliner -- and skinny black jeans. "Absolutely everyone has heard of emo," he shrugs his shoulders in disgust.

Eventually Sarah arrives, tongue-tied and gauche in the blackest black and wearing a plastic smile on her gaudily painted face. She, too, has applied a thick layer of "manscara". They wait, gauging whether it is dark enough to steal a kiss.

Risqué, but not crude, Ahmed obviously lives in some cocoon -- a most parochial world that revolves around Facebook, other young depressives and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. His daring to wear eye makeup in public is a huge achievement, I guess. So is his capacity to shock. This may explain why emo is already proving hugely popular among middle-class Egyptian adolescents. And that is precisely why teenagers like Ahmed are, after all, noteworthy. So what about his girlfriend?

Sarah strums a single string on her acoustic guitar and rolls her blackened eyes. Emo music on estrogen? She complains about her parents who "just don't get it".

The cult is not as crazy as it sounds. Many and various are the versions of Egyptian emo, some downright obscene. They all despise the morally bankrupt Babylon. But then what is Babylon? To some it is home and parents, to others it is Egypt itself and the state security apparatus. To others still, it is the women in their lives who have ditched them for more conventional men. And, lest we forget, girls too can be emo.

The music has had a profound effect on the youth's social mindset. It is said that there are an estimated 52 different emo groups on Facebook and they number some 10,000 members. Performances featuring their music might well fill the theatres of Cairo given half a chance. But already the security apparatus in conjunction with the Cairo governorate have removed their graffiti from the streets of downtown Cairo.

Not least among the establishment's concerns is the fact that the emo deliberately injure themselves in an attempt to cleanse themselves of sins. "We use sharp instruments to inflict pain and suffering," Ahmed admits. The habit is unhygienic, I venture gingerly. "Scarification is a common feature of many African cultures," he says.

More relevant, scarification expresses the guilt and being habitually disheartened. Emo have been accused of being Satan worshippers, a charge they hotly deny. The emo of Egypt, in sharp contrast to their European and American counterparts, do not indulge in sexual orgies or in secret religious rites. Many are deeply religious, but they adhere to the religions of their fathers and mothers: either Islam or Christianity. Yet they maintain the appearance of scantily clad nymphomaniacs. Perhaps the Egyptian emo is an antisocial poseur? Some are terribly tortured souls. The truth, however, is that emo is a choice. Homosexuality, in sharp contrast, is not. Many emo men, however, have a deep phobia of women. The Egyptian emo is into music -- emo music: confessional lyrics, fatalism and theatricality.

It doesn't require a Freudian analyst to decipher the symbolism. The emo of Egypt are a frustrated lot. However, Ahmed is ambivalent about religion. He is agnostic, he says. The emo of Europe and the Americas -- and that includes Roman Catholic Latin America -- believe that when they die their souls are transferred to a secret destination called "The Black Parade", which is a sort of purgatory for the soul.

Ahmed does not want to be drawn in a discussion of The Black Parade. Ironically, a radio popular chanteuse blasts away -- Salametha emo Hassan. Middle-class and pretty well off, Sarah who now plays the guitar, says she prefers to sing in English. "It is more expressive," she explains. "Words sound stupid in Arabic."

The malevolent sounding guitar enchants Ahmed. Voices like a pride of lionesses on heat taunt him. Ahmed is an angry youth going through the motions. They meet at a friend's house and discuss their problems. They burst into another feisty song-and-dance routine. A typical Egyptian emo is shy, retiring, rather pessimistic in outlook, subdued and unobtrusive. Many suffer from chronic depression. They believe that depression is the direct result of the sins they commit. We're back to The Black Parade.

"We've got some old songs and some new songs for you," Yassin tells me. He, too, is dressed in tight black jeans. They are a bunch of frustrated youth obsessed with the colour black, with darkness and with the darker side of human nature. Pent-up feelings grip them. The bottom line is that one cannot be poor and an emo in Egypt. An Egyptian emo is typically a spoilt brat, who has plenty of time on his or her hand.

Demented music aside, they are young people of unimpeachable integrity. The transfiguration wrought by emo music can be threatening to mainstream Egyptian culture. The day when an anti-emo attack breaks out in Egypt might not be so far away. Upmarket, leafy suburbs of Cairo like Maadi and Heliopolis are already seething with vitriolic diatribes against the emo lifestyle.

Black clothing is predominant among adolescents, and not only among the privileged and well heeled. And this sombre imprint one must forget or simply ignore. There are youngsters from less privileged backgrounds that imitate their well-off counterparts. They are draped in black, but less conspicuously so. They are to be found in Ain Shams, Zeitun and Matariya on the outskirts of Heliopolis, and in Abbasiya and downtown Cairo.

"From a psychological perspective, emo is a multi- factorial phenomenon," psychiatrist Hisham Ramy explains. "The first factor is frustration: sexual, economic, educational or inter-familial. Future frustration is also a factor -- adolescents are unsure what to make of life and fear the future. The second factor is modelling, whereby Egyptian youth imitate Western role models via the Internet and satellite television. The third factor is identity crisis. Egyptian youth are unhappy with traditional role models and desire special attention because they yearn to be unique. Emo is the equivalent of extremism in religion."

In Mexico, punkeros and darkeros are hounded and badgered. In Egypt, we have not yet reached boiling point. There is no emo crisis. There is danger and there is opportunity -- the danger of a backlash against those perceived to be decadent and an opportunity for better understanding the lost generation.

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