‘Men Don't Cry Over Women’

Expressions of Love and Grief in Egyptian Popular Music

in Anthropology of the Middle East
Author:
Ahmed Abdelazim PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA abdelazim@wisc.edu

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Abstract

By examining mahragānāt, a genre of music common among the low-income working class in Cairo, and upper-class pop music, this article studies the expression of love and grief across socio-economic classes in Egypt. It challenges the mainstream argument that men, especially those belonging to lower socio-economic classes, are expected to perform ‘like men’ and suppress their emotions and affection. These mahragānāt exhibit extreme affection and grief as men threat of inflicting self-harm or committing suicide if they lose their female lovers. This genre's popularity on social media resonates with increasing suicide rates among lower socio-economic classes due to failed love affairs. By focusing on expressions of love in Egyptian music, this article suggests a dialectic relation between love, class and the understanding of masculinity.

If you leave me,
I will hate my life,
I will lose myself and never be found again,
and I will drink alcohol and smoke weed’
(Tsībīnī
akrah ḥayātī w snīnī
atuh w mish tīlaʾīnī
w āshrb khmūr w ḥashīsh)

It only took seven months for ‘Neighbour's Daughter’ (Mahragān bint al-jīran, 2019), performed by mahragānāt artists Ḥassan Shakoush and Omar Kamal, to become one of the most watched Egyptian videos on YouTube.1 The lyrics of this mahragān describe the overwhelming love of a man for his female neighbour, to whom he threatens to let himself ‘fall’ by drinking alcohol and smoking weed if she dumps him. The song's vast success granted the artists an invitation to sing in Cairo's stadium in front of eighty thousand people for the first Valentine's Day celebration of its kind. However, the last sentence, ‘drinking alcohol and smoking weed’, brought them massive criticism on the grounds of not being appropriate, which forced the artists to change it to ‘without you, I won't be able to live’.

The expression of vulnerability, depression and helplessness of a man who is dumped by his female lover has become, in recent years, a common theme in the lower-working-class music referred to as mahragānāt, the literal translation of which is ‘festivals’. This rising trend in mahragānāt music has been paralleled by the increased number of reported incidents of lower-working-class men ending their lives due to failed love. Over the year 2019–2020, 10–12 per cent of all media-reported suicide incidents in Egypt involved men who had struggled to deal with failed love.2 Poor working-class men aged 17–25 formed the vast majority, accounting for approximately 90 per cent of all love-related suicides.3

The disparity in numbers between upper- and lower-class men reinforces the existing research that suggests a correlation between class and romance. Eva Illouz's work on love illustrates how the experience of love is deeply rooted in consumerist cultural imaginations. Romantic expressions of love are associated with luxury commodities, expensive travel and vacations, involving things like enjoying sunny beaches, going to exotic places or even visiting movie theatres and restaurants, all of which might be very difficult for the financially struggling classes to realise, meaning that they ‘miss out’ on the romantic experience. Illouz, in her research, also illustrates how the different socio-economic classes engage differently or develop different ‘tastes’ regarding expressions of love. While middle- and upper-middle class respondents preferred aesthetic, abstract, more autonomous and individual experiences, the working class preferred emotional, mass-manufactured romantic commodities (Illouz 1997: 247–287). Aymon Kreil's (2014, 2016) study on the relationship between social status and consumption of valentine gifts in Egypt followed similar lines, as it illustrated the capitalist, class-dominant approach towards love.

The simultaneity of popular trends in mahragānāt and increasing suicide rates among its audience is the starting point of this study for understanding how the discourse on romance among lower-working-class Egyptian men is formulated. By focusing on the expressions of love in Egyptian music, this article suggests a dialectic relationship between love, class and the understanding of masculinity.

The correlation between language and class builds on Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of language as a class signifier. The individual's capacity for linguistic expression is linked to higher education. Mastering the proper ways to express feelings with gentleness and refined style reflects upper-classness (Bourdieu 1991).

This article starts by going back in time to offer a brief overview of how the middle and upper class ṭarab ‘enchantment music’ and lower class shaʿbī ‘local music’ have approached romance. It then examines how more recent music such as, mahragānāt and al-ughnīyah al-shabābiyah ‘youthful pop’, expressed love and distress in ways that cemented class differences. The last section draws on my fieldwork in Bulāq ad-Dakrur, one of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods, where I spent several months with four teenagers aged 17–21.

For this study, I examined a wide range of songs; however, here I choose to mention those by the leading, best-selling and most viewed artists on YouTube and on social platforms such as Facebook and TikTok. I prioritised the most famous musicians in each genre and their major hits that have received wide critical and audience attention. I also included a couple of mahragānāt suggested by my interlocutors, despite them not being necessarily as famous or successful, because they shared a lot in terms of style, topics and themes with the viral ones. For pre-internet songs, especially ṭarab and shaʿbī, I followed a similar approach and relied on their historical popularity and lasting influence on popular culture.

Love and Break-Ups in Early Ṭarab and Shaʿbī Music: From the 1950s to the 1990s

Up until the 1970s, music in Egypt was dominated by what was known as musiqa aṭ-ṭarab, or the music of enchantment. Ṭarab music was a hybrid between neo-classical Western and Arabic musical traditions. A ṭarab song was a romanticism-inspired poem written in a language that combined refined colloquial and formal Arabic. It was sophisticated enough that people would dress up in suits to attend a ḥafla or performance, which would involve one hour-long song (Gilman 2014: 1–31).

Many would regard the period stretching from the 1940s to the early 1970s as epitomising Egyptian music, when pioneers such as Umm Kulthum (1898–1975), Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Wahab (1902–1991) and ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm Ḥafīẓ (1929–1977), to mention only a few, were performing. Ṭarab was the dominant form of music until it started to lose ground by the late 1970s to the rising shaʿbī (literally, ‘local’ or ‘people’) style and the later shabābiyah (‘youthful pop’).

Love and break-ups were central themes in ṭarab music. ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm Ḥafīẓ, the leading male singer at the time, presented several songs that exhibited very distressing emotional breakdowns. In his song ‘In a Day, In a Month, In a Year’ (Fī Yum, Fī Shahr, Fī Sana, 1959), the lyrics describe the non-healing pain of break-up:

In a day, in a month, in a year, all pains are healed, except for my pain, which is longer than days.
Goodbye to the days of joy, goodbye to love, to dreams … .
My love, I see you far, and I am lonely on the road; every day without you is night, passion, memory and new pain.
(Fī Yum, fī Shahr, fī Sana tihda al-Jirāḥ wa tnām w ‘umr jarḥī anā aṭwal min al-ayām.
Wadā‘ yā dunya al-hanā, Wadā‘ yā ḥub yā aḥlām.
ḥabībī shāyfak ba'id wī anā fī ṭarīq al-Suhd waḥīd, Kul khatwa fī bu‘dak layl wī Shuq wī dhikrah wī jarḥ jadīd)

‘Lover's Embrace’ (Aḥdān al-Ḥabāyīb, 1969) is one of his saddest songs, in which he describes his failed love as thorns:

I walked on thorns and came to my lover …
You, ‘my heart’, loved someone who brought more pain, thorns in a lover's embrace …
our lovers ‘my heart’ have caused us more pain, cry, cry in the night, and the body is full of fear my heart is in strange land lit by tears.
(Mshyīt ʿala al-ashwāk wa gīyt li aḥbābak …
Ramīt nafsak, fī ḥudn saʾāk al-ḥudn ḥuzn, ḥata fī aḥdān il ḥabāib shuk yā albī, ili jinalhum yā albī fī jirāḥnā jaraḥunā.
Ibkī, Ibkī taḥt al-layali wa al-khuf milw il ḍluʿ,
albī yā blād gharībah bitnawarha il dumuʿ)

Another song that follows the same lines is ‘Destined’ (Mawʿud, 1971):

You, ‘my heart’, are always destined to agony; you are always destined to pain, never heal, and never saw happiness with me.
We end each story with pain.
(Mawʿud mʿāyā bil ʿazāb yā albī, Mawʿud wi daiman bil jirāḥ yā albī, walā btihda walā btirtāḥ fī yum yā albī.
ʿUmrak mā shuft m‘āyā farḥ
kul mara nibdaʾ il mishwār bi jarḥ)

Muḥammad Abd al-Wahab, known as Musiqār al-Ajiāl (‘maestro of the generations’), wrote several songs that expressed similar post-breakdown distress. Produced mainly during the 1950s and 1960s, some of his most famous songs were ‘Me, Pain and Your Love’ (Anā wal ʿazāb w Hawāk), ‘Who Tormented You’ (Min ʿazibak), ‘Oh My Pal’ (Khai Khai), ‘Weakened Love’ (Han al-wid) and ‘Thinking About Those Who Forgot Me’ (Bafakar fī ili Nāsini).

However, the rise of shaʿbī music during the 1970s was one of the hallmarks of a changing trend. The term shaʿbī describes both the musical genre and its primary audience, the poor working class in Egypt. Shaʿbī lyrics were inspired by the urban poor's daily life; it uses colloquial street language, which makes it closer to the daily life of Egyptians than the refined language used by the poets of high romanticism who wrote ṭarab songs.4 Shaʿbī music was characterised by its catchy tunes, short rhyming phrases and easy colloquial language. Despite its local language and concerns, it was criticised for provoking vulgarity (isfaf), as many critics linked its rise, along with other things, to declining aesthetics and bad taste (Armbrust 1996: 165–220).

Aḥmad ʿAdawiya (1945–), an iconic shaʿbī artist in the 1970s and early 1980s, used the old, colloquial Cairene dialect common in poor quarters of the city. The unfamiliar language he used was reprehensible to academic critics, who criticised him for the vulgarity of his songs (Racy 1982: 401; Al-Shazli 2013).

Unlike in ṭarab music, romance in shaʿbī songs was more cheerful, as it was inspired by street flirtation (muʿākasāt). Despite being socially and religiously reprehensible, the street flirtation style became quite popular among the Cairene lower working class. A good example of this style, from the late 1970s, would be ‘Daughter of the Sultan’ (Bint al-Sulṭān) by Aḥmad ʿAdawiyya, in which a working-class man flirts with an upper-class woman. Another example would be the music of Hamdi Batshan (1958–) a prominent shaʿbī artist during the late 1980s and 1990s who utilised street flirtation as a theme in his songs, which earned him the title ‘King of street flirtation’ (Malik al-mu'ākasāt) (Abu El-Magd 2017). His most famous song, ‘What's the Story’ (Eh al-hikaya, 1988), discussed the misbehaviour of men in public through a dialogue between the artist – Batshan – and his Chorus. Despite the song's huge success, it became seen as the quintessential vulgar song (Armbrust 1996: 179). Another song that capitalised on the pickup theme was ‘What is Happening?’ (Ah ali byhṣal dah, 1996) by the shaʿbi artist Hakim (1962–). I remember growing up hearing teenage boys using lines from this song to pick up girls.

Although shaʿbī songs maintained an overall cheerful vibe, sad and sorrowful songs managed to find significant success in the late 1980s and up until the 2000s. Ḥassan al-Asmar (1959–2011) excelled in this area with his sorrowful and sad songs, most of which however were not related to love. Many would regard al-Asmar's song ‘Book of My Life’ (Kitāb ḥayātī, 1986) as the ultimate sad song. It starts by saying:

The book of my life, nothing is similar to it, happiness is two sentences, and the rest is pain, pain, pain.
(Kitāb ḥayātī yā ʿayn, mā shuftish zayuh kitāb, il farḥ fīh saṭrīn wl baʾi kuluh ʿazāb, ʿazāb, ʿazāb).

Ramadan al-Brins (1963–1998), also known by the name ‘Microbus singer’ (Muṭrib al-microbus), was a successful shaʿbī artist who made several love-related sorrow songs. Al-Brins nickname reflects his albums’ success among microbus drivers and their poor working-class users, who frequently play his songs. One of his early songs was ‘What Do You Want?’ (ʿāizah ah, 1997), in which he expresses his grief over his ex-lover, saying:

‘What do you want from me? You loved someone else.
Go to them; I cried for you a lot; I cried feverously next to your home.
(Īnty ʿāizah ah, bitnadīnī tanī līh, mish khalāṣ ḥabītī ghīrī,
ruḥī lili ḥabītīh, yama bildim‘ah nadītīk wī bakīt biḥurʾa jamb baytīk).

Arguing that ṭarab and shaʿbī music were binary opposites is not entirely accurate. In numerous instances, leading ṭarab singers would perform songs that appealed to the shaʿbī audience in order to capitalise on its success. ‘Abd al-Ḥalīm Ḥafīẓ, for instance, released several shaʿbī songs that found wide success, such as ‘Every Time I Say I'll Stop’ (Anā kul mā aʾul il tūbah, 1965) and ‘When Love Goes My Way’ (il hawā hawāyā, 1969).5 Nevertheless, the two types of music presented different forms of romance that were connected to lower- and upper-class socio-economic backgrounds respectively. The themes of love and grief that characterised ṭarab music were not as present in shaʿbī songs, which rendered it as less emotional.6 In ṭarab music, men expressed love and pain explicitly, using high, academic and eloquent language, which reinforced their status as upper-class. Meanwhile, simple street language and pick-up lines characterised shaʿbī. A deeper analysis of both will follow as we examine their contemporary alterations.

Struggling to Love: Early 2000s to the Present

Over the past twenty years, Egyptian society has had to deal with massive social, cultural and political transformations, which have affected the lower working class the most. First and foremost has been the increasing poverty rate, which, according to the Egyptian census bureau, increased from 16 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2019 (World Bank 2020). This increase in living expenses and financial hardship has led to an increase in the average age of marriage, from 22.3 for women and 27.9 for men in 1996 to 25 and 31 respectively by 2020 (Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics 2007; Hamdy 2019). It has become increasingly hard to find a job, which, on one level, is a key requisite for being a man, and on another is directly linked to a man's ability to attract women and to be accepted as a husband by a woman's parents (Barker 2005: 98–112). In such a struggling economy, romantic aspirations are less decisive in marriage than other factors, such as finding a partner who has a decent job and residence and sufficient capital (Kreil 2016).

Another defining feature of the last twenty years would be the frenzied and overwhelming exposure to global ideas through the internet and the satellite dishes that have become a prominent feature of Cairo's cityscape. According to official and World Bank data, the number of internet users in Egypt increased from 0.6 per cent of the population in 2000 to almost 50 per cent by 2020 (Reda 2018). The internet and satellite ‘cable TV’ have allowed an influx of ideas, including ideas of love and romance through American, Turkish and Indian dramas, which eventually influenced love aspirations for Egyptians (Schielke 2015). Easy access to the internet offered an alternative way for underground music to grow and find its audience, outside of the monopoly of big production houses. The door was now wide open for new and untraditional forms of art, with minimal censorship.

Mahragānāt and Failed Love

Few would have thought that the new musical genre of mahragānāt, developed in Cairo's poor quarters during the summer of 2004, would dramatically change Egypt's music scene.7 Mahragānāt, or electro-shaʿbī as its artists call it, is a contemporary alteration of shaʿbī music. The name was an attempt to reflect the music's active beats and the nature of the events, mostly celebrations, at which it was played. In recent years, mahragānāt has come under massive critical scrutiny by officials, who have described it as a ‘negative phenomenon’ and started to pursue the musicians legally for what they believed was a cultural threat to art, public taste and society (Osman 2020). Meanwhile, supporters believe it to be a form of art that represents the poor working class (Ramadan 2019) or even, in some instances, a tool to disseminate political views (Grippo 2006).

Mahragānāt music is characterised by its strong, and in many cases violent, expression of emotions, for instance in ‘My Girl’ (Muzitī, 2019), performed by the artists Ḥamo Bika, Mudi Amin and Nûr at-Tut. The lyrics describe a man flirting with his lover. Despite the overwhelming expression of love – he describes his lover as ‘the daughter of his blood’ (bint damī) – he makes equally severe threats:

If you love someone else, I will kill you …
Only me, no one else.
I am willing to jump into the fire.
(Law ḥabītī ghīrī haʾtilik
walā ḥad ghīrī yshghlik
fīl nār afūt)

In another mahragān, ‘I Killed Love’ (ʾAtalt al-ḥub, 2020) by ʿIṣam Ṣasa, the lyrics are elaborate in describing the unbearable burden of dealing with failed love and make explicit threats of suicide:

I killed love, you are unfaithful, and all of your words are lies …
My heart is in danger; I will get a cutter and cut my ‘blood’ veins, friends have ugly hearts, I am tired, I want a break, I am suffocating, I am bored [or ‘fed up’] with this world.
(Anā ʾatalt il ḥub, khāinah wa kul kalāmik kidb
Albī fī khaṭar, hamsik katar wa aʾtaʿ shuriani, aṣl il ṣuḥāb bi ʾulub hibāb, khalāṣ baʾit taʿbān, nafsī aruʾ min al-duniā anā taʿbān)

Threats of cutting veins are also present in another mahragān, ‘I Will Take Drugs if She Doesn't Talk to Me for a Day’ (Ḥashrab Ḥashīsh law Yum ma Kalimnīsh, 2020) by Samir al-Madani and ʿIṣam Ṣasa. The lyrics say:

I will take drugs if she doesn't talk to me …
I can't control my heart, and I lost my mind …
I will cut my veins
My tears will be like rain
I will be a dangerous man.
(Ḥashrab ḥashīsh law yum ma kalimnīsh
albī sāb wa il ʿaql bāz wi khāb...
haʾtaʿ waṭar
wa damūʿi kalmaṭar
hākūn insān khaṭar)

Threats of suicide are made explicit in the mahragān ‘My Ripened Heart’ (Albī ʾistawā, 2020) by Ahmed Abdo and Bido an-Nigm:

My heart is ripened, I am tired, and there is no treatment for my case …
I can't explain my condition; I feel l am going to die …
I am tired of people; I will get a hanging rope and hang myself.
(Albī ʾistawā tʿbān w mālīsh dawā …
Ḥālī ṣaʿb ytfaham ḥāsis ʾinī hamūt …
Taʿbt baʾa min nās il dyaʾa, hagib ḥabl il mashnaʾa wa ashnuʾ nafsī)

In ‘Candy Dipped in Nutella’ (Bonboni saʾit fī Nutella, 2020), by Omar Kamal and Hassan Shakoush, the lyrics describe the positive impact the lover had on the male singer. He lists the changes he made for her, such as quitting smoking, forgetting his insecurities, feeling safe, becoming kind and starting to pray, and he ends by saying ‘you disciplined me more than my father did’ (ʿūdik yā bit rabānī, ādibnī aktar min abūyā). Such statements may sound familiar in love songs, yet when they are followed by threats to inflict self-harm, like those mentioned earlier, they start to sound less metaphorical.

Aside from threats of self-harm, mahragānāt songs seem to share similar characteristics. One of these features is a tendency to objectify women by comparing them to or describing them as an ‘expensive’ fruit or sweet. In the last quoted mahragān, the female lover is described as sweet dipped into Nutella; she is described as a ‘crispy biscuit’ (ʾintī baskutāyyah mʾarmishah) in another mahragān that goes by the same name, and as ‘you chocolate, you mango, you sweet’ (yā shukalātah yā mangah yā mlabisah) in a third mahragān; the list goes on. Older shaʿbī music used a similar approach: Aḥmad ʿAdawiyya, in his song ‘Daughter of the Sultan’ (Bint al-Sulṭān), which was a big hit at the time, described his lover as ‘fruits with pineapple’ (frutah b-ānānās).

Another feature that seems to be widely shared across mahragānāt is a lack of religiosity. Despite the strict and explicit prohibition of drugs, alcohol and suicide in both Islam and Egyptian law,8 many mahragānāt bring these up as doable options. This willingness was manifested in the examples discussed earlier, but the most notable example is ‘Bring Me Vodka and Chivas’ (Hātlī Vodka wa Chivas, 2019) by Shakoush and Bika, where the lyrics say:

Bring me Vodka and Chivas, get me lost [or ‘deviated’] …
To hell with marriage; love is the aim.
(Hātlī Vodka hātlī Chivas, inḥirāf kubilī gāz
Yalʿan abū il gawāz, dah al-gharām huwa il murād)

Challenging societal and religious norms could be understood as a way to express emotions of distress or as a call for help, as in many contexts, men are not allowed to show emotions in other ways (Barker 2005).

Mahragānāt seem to share features that reflect ideas of manhood. First and foremost is the excessive use of violent language when threatening enemies and fake friends with murder, humiliation and torture. The establishing of physical power and explicit readiness for violence could be regarded as an attempt to maintain traditional gender roles (Gilligan 2004; Kimmel 2011).

The examined mahragānāt also illustrate a kind of mistrust in women's love and faithfulness, presenting them as opportunistic and not appreciative of men's struggles. This mistrust is not entirely surprising; relationships between men and women in poor environments are often characterised by mistrust and accusations of women being materialistic (Brown and Chevannes 1998; Barker 2005).

Mahragānāt, and the earlier Shaʿbī music, reflect existing norms regarding expected gender roles in flirting and romance. Mahragānāt primarily present romance in a manner that entails a position of control for men; they are the initiators and go after women with flirtation and pickup lines. This enforces a common notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity where men are expected to act in a certain way that allow[s] their dominance over women to continue’ (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). It also reinforces the notion of hiya ʿāyzah titʿākis (‘women want to be flirted with on the street’), a justification used frequently after any incident of harassment, by which men justify the act by suggesting the woman's responsibility and sometimes even her anticipation of such an act (Fortier and Monqid 2017; Henry 2017).

One of the main factors that contributed to the rise of break-ups as a theme in contemporary mahragānāt versus the earlier shaʿbī is the improved financial situation of the lower socio-economic class during the mid-1970s and 1980s, caused by the ease of migration to the Arab Gulf countries. According to state figures, Egyptian migrants in the Gulf grew steadily during the 1980s, from one million in 1981 to two million by the end of the decade. Educated middle-class people who held university degrees formed almost 20 per cent of the total number of migrants, whereas illiterate people and those who had maḥw il-ʾumīyah (‘literacy certificates’) formed 35 per cent and 15 per cent respectively (Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics 2007). For the first time, landowners were not able to find workers to work on the land, mainly because 20 per cent of the workforce in agriculture migrated to the Gulf, which led to a massive change in the relations of power between socio-economic classes (Abaza 2006: 105).

These numbers indicate that the lower socio-economic classes benefited the most from migrating to the Gulf, which subsequently led to their relative economic prosperity when compared to their contemporary counterparts. This rise was manifested in the aforementioned lower average age of marriage compared to now.

Earlier Shaʿbī music though focused on ‘separation’ or and furāʾ was not associated with love and break-ups, as is the case in current mahragānāt, but the lyrics were vague enough to fit the theme of travel. An example would be Aḥmad ʿAdawiya's song ‘The Loved Ones Are Gone’ (rāḥū il-ḥabāyīb), released in 1986, which illustrates distress over leaving loved ones:

The loved ones are gone for a while … and their absence is too long for me
Lucky is the one who finds his loved ones … absence is very hard on me
The loved ones are gone …The loved ones are gone … The loved ones are gone and left me behind.
I miss them and I wish … If I could see my loved ones with my eyes.
(Rāḥū il-ḥabāyīb wi ghābū… w ṭawilū il-ghībah ʿalaīah
yā bakht mn yilʾā aḥbābū… di il-Furʾah ṣaʿbah yā ʿinayah
rāḥū il-ḥabāyīb… rāḥū il-ḥabāyīb… rāḥū il-ḥabāyīb wi sābūnī
ashtāʾ luʾāhum w atmanā… ashūf ḥabāybī b-ʿinaīyah)

The songs examined here illustrate a correlation between worsening socio-economic conditions and the increase of break-ups in lower-working-class love songs. They also illustrate readiness to act violently, which not only did not exist as such in earlier shaʿbī music, but also reflects the increasing popularity of the thug figure in Egyptian movies produced after 2011. According to Hasso (2020), the celebration of violence in movies has been in part a response to the political turmoil in the country and the systemic violence sponsored by the state.

Upper-Class Pop Music and Failed Love

Al-ughnīyah al-shabābiyah (‘youthful pop’) could be regarded as the successor to tarab in representing middle- and upper-class romantic aspirations. The differences between the two are notable: Western music trends have more influence on the ‘youthful pop’ songs; they are shorter, use faster beats and use more accessible, ‘colloquial’ language, though this is significantly more refined than that used in mahragānāt. Nevertheless, al-ughnīyah al-shabābiyah has maintained a distance from lower-working-class music by reflecting its upper-class socio-economic notions of love and break-ups. While mahragānāt portray male physical weakness (taʿbān) and pain over lost love with statements like ‘I will hang myself’ (ashnoʾ nafsī) or ‘I will lose my mind’ (hatganin), al-ughnīyah al-shabābiyah, as we will see, takes a substantially different approach.

Amr Diab (1961–), the most award-winning and best-selling Middle Eastern artist (Stephenson 2016), has made several songs that address furāq (break-ups) and failed love. In one song, ‘Days Pass By’ (Ayām wi bin‘ish-hā, 2005), the lyrics describe a break-up scene:

Days pass by, what shall we do, my heart, with those who don't feel our pain,
We should hide our tears; it is not right to show our weakness.
We should not look afraid [or ‘hesitant’] when we leave each other; we should force ourselves to that.
(Ayām w bnʿish-ha, haniʿml ah yā albī fi nās, mā humāsh nās māfīsh ʾiḥsās wa msh byḥsu bi jruḥnā,
dmuʿnā hanḥush-hā, ʿashān msh ṣaḥ nibʾa ḍuʿāf
nibān saʿit il furāʾ binkhāf, yā rīt naghṣib ʿalā ruḥnā)

Another of Diab's famous songs is ‘Opposite to Each Other’ (ʿaks baʿd, 2016); the lyrics describe a man justifying to his female lover their failed love story:

I don't feel sad when I remember you; nothing about our history together tells us that we will continue.
We were always opposite each other; we didn't agree on anything; the only thing we are similar at is that we disagree all the time.
(Mā bazʿalsh ama baftikrak, balaʾi kul mā atʾamil, maḍinā makansh fī ḥagah tʾūl ʾin iḥnā hankamil
Kunā dāiman ʿaks baʿd, ʾulī min imtah itafaʾnā, dḥna lw nshbih li baʿd, il shabah ymkn fūraʾnā).

A similar approach can be seen in the songs of Tamir Hosny (1977–present), one of which is called ‘180 Degrees’ (180 darajah, 2015) and describes to his ex-lover – who is trying to reach out to him again – the changes he has experienced in his life that make it impossible for them to be back together. In the song, he acknowledges his earlier mistakes and how he learned from them.

Despite these Egyptian artists’ regional fame, I was surprised to learn through my ethnography that they barely existed on the playlists of my lower-working-class male interlocutors. One of my interlocutors pointed out that their female lover was more likely to listen to them.

The intention here is far from arguing that there is a lack of grief in the upper class's music, as such grief does exist; the aim is to point out several differences between the way that break-ups are treated in lower-working-class mahragānāt versus upper-class pop music. The upper class's music shows fewer emotional breakdowns in break-ups and attempts to justify the endings. There are certainly no threats to inflict self-harm, be violent, smoke drugs or drink wine. Upper-class music also reflects different types of problems, such as a couple's inability to handle situations together. Meanwhile, mahragānāt connote a different position, in which relationships seem to be ruined by external forces, mainly the cruelty of life and the hardships men face in the attempt to marry.

Men Don't Cry

‘Men don't cry’ (Il Rigālah mā bitʿayatsh) was a phrase I grew up hearing a lot throughout my life in Egypt. When I was a child, the phrase was commonly used to encourage boys to hold their tears back if they were subjected to any form of pain or intimidation, so as not to be shamed by their peers as a ‘cryboy’ (bi-dimʿah). As Farha Ghannam has noted, boys in Egypt are caught up in masculine trajectories whereby they have to be dominant, strong, assertive and exhibit fewer emotions in order to be ‘real’ men (Ghannam 2013: 31–57). Putting this into perspective, the interesting question here is: does crying over lost love and expressing physical and emotional distress make them less ‘men’ (Fortier 2021).

Ali, a 23-year-old man living in Bulāq ad-Dakrur, one of Cairo's poor neighbourhoods, works in the kitchen of a small restaurant after years of working as a delivery driver for the same place.9 Ali told me about the nights he spent waiting for his neighbour's daughter, who lives in the opposite building, to come outside. This love affair was one-sided; he spent months watching and fantasising about her without even speaking to her, and he thought it was not ‘manly’ (ragulah) and ‘inappropriate’ (ʿayb) to talk to a girl whom he only knew through her brother and father ‘without entering their house’, by which he meant proposing.10 His feelings were so overwhelming that he became close friends with her brother so that he could enter their house and talk to her, despite his lack of financial ability to propose marriage. It took him more than a year to talk to her for the first time while dealing with these secret feelings. However, soon after he started talking to her, spending hours on the phone, he learned that his best friend, also a neighbour, was talking to her too. That night he took his moped (vispa) and had a severe accident that required three weeks of hospitalisation.

Eva Illouz, in her book Why Love Hurts, has argued that love in the ‘modern romance’ is intertwined with one's self-value and worth. Break-ups threaten one's basic sense of worth and threaten the basis of ontological security (Illouz 2013: 109–155). After he left the hospital, I met Ali and asked him if what he did on that night was a real accident, or if he had got into an accident on purpose. His answer was, ‘I was blindfolded “metaphorically” and didn't care about anything’.

When I asked Ali's friends, in his presence, about the accident and the idea of someone ending their life due to failed love, their opinions sounded very similar. They tried to come up with justifications as to why someone would end their life after losing a lover. One of his friends said, ‘if you [have] lost the girl you love, life has no meaning’, and the rest seemed to agree. When I asked Ahmed, one of Ali's friends, who is 21 years old and works at a supermarket, about why it seemed understandable to him that a man would harm himself or end his life if his love affair failed, he answered, ‘She gives “taste” to life’ (Hiya ʾilī btidī lil ḥayāh ṭaʿm). Nevertheless, they thought that one should proceed with one's life and bear the pain, but that if one decided to commit suicide, then it was understandable.

Ali was not alone in his struggle. As seen in the reports discussed earlier, he and his friends were at least eight to ten years younger than the national average marriage age for men in Egypt. They are very likely to have their hearts broken several times before being able to get married. Neither Ali nor any of his friends whom I met had university degrees. They all had poorly paying jobs that required long hours of work. Ali, for instance, worked twelve to fourteen hours for six days a week. Even on his day off, he would find something to do. Despite having different jobs – delivery driver, supermarket assistant and tuk-tuk driver – Ali's friends faced more or less similar working conditions.

As for music, these young men consumed Mahragānāt almost daily. Mahragānāt were always somewhere in the background, either through the speakers of a nearby shop, in a passing tuk-tuk or as a ringtone. Every now and then, Ali would circulate on WhatsApp specific segments of a mahragān, either as a short clip or as a quote that he used instead of his profile picture. When I asked him why he listened to Mahragānāt, he said that he liked the music and the lyrics. He struggled to explain precisely what he liked about it, but he said, ‘they seem to be like us’ (shabahnā kda). This was also why he did not listen to upper-class pop, which he used to mildly enjoy; for him, this type of pop music was for the ‘sassy’ (siis).

Marriage and forming a family are the basis of the household in Egypt. Despite the equal split of ‘marriage expenses’ (gihāz) between the bride's and groom's families in contemporary Egypt, men are still the greater contributors to marriage and the sustainers of the household (Hoodfar 1996: 57). Accordingly, economic productivity and financial success are integral parts of a man's masculine trajectory (Ghannam 2013: 71). The ability to find a spouse, support a family and put food on the table are tied to notions of manhood (Naguib 2015).

Despite not being in official relationships, these young men are expected to grow up and have their own families. At this early stage of their relationships they exercise the ‘sponsoring aspect’ of manhood, though to a much lesser extent, by paying for phone bills and gifts on special occasions, namely birthdays and Valentine's Day (Kreil 2016). For these young, poor working-class men, falling in love is more than a foundation for marriage. Love is a way to acknowledge the self, to prove self-worth and self-esteem.

Mahragānāt tell these men's stories and ‘sing out’ their daily lives. Mahragānāt portray them as victims and spare them the burden of self-guilt or blame for their current situation. Instead, they can blame ‘circumstances’ (al-zurūf) and ill-mannered people. On the other hand, Mahragānāt play a role in changing their ‘locus’ such that love is at the centre. Their subtext is that you are bearing this ‘out of your control’ situation because of your lover.

Conclusion

Over the past ten years, all the five-star-hotel weddings that I have attended played mahragānāt, thanks to its beats, which bring everyone to the dance floor. I couldn't but see the irony of the whole scene, in which upper-class people would dance to a song that described the suffering of a low-income, working-class man threatening to end his life. For an upper-class person, listening to mahragānāt beyond weddings is regarded as biʾa or baladi (‘low taste’). Biʾa literally means ‘environment’, and baladi means ‘local’, yet both words are used to describe low or bad taste. It is a term used by the upper class to describe the lower classes’ vulgar taste.11

Meanwhile, lower-working-class men consume mahragānāt daily; my interlocutors would play them whenever possible. At lower-working-class weddings, mahragānāt is the only type of music played; if the groom's family is wealthy enough, they will bring in the singer, who in turn will repurpose part of the song to salute the family, or even make a whole new song that in some instances may go viral. Interestingly, bringing mahragānāt artists to sing at weddings is also becoming very popular among the middle and upper classes.

As this article has tried to argue, love is an intersection of social, economic and cultural forces. Increasing poverty, the delayed age of marriage and socio-economic transformation have all created a situation in which lower-working-class men are left desperate, weak and vulnerable to love.

Dealing with failed love varies across socio-economic classes. Lower-working-class men are more likely to lose their lovers due to forces beyond their ability to change – mainly, their financial readiness for marriage. Not only are they financially vulnerable, but they are caught up in a traditional practice of masculinity that they need to stand up to. Resorting to violence is a last attempt to prove their existence and to have a voice in a love affair that they are not meant, or qualified, to sustain. Mahragānāt reflect their reality; they use their language and make relevant connections. Meanwhile, the upper classes are more likely to rationalise the ending of a relationship and attribute it to incompatibility between partners.

By illustrating the emotional vulnerability of lower-working-class men, this article argues against the disembodiment of men in Egypt by highlighting their vulnerability, passion, grief, love and, most importantly, their failure to fit into the existing ‘masculine trajectory’. Mahragānāt make a case for lower-working-class men who are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their lovers, even if, sadly, it means ending their lives.

Notes

1

By March 2020, the mahragān reached 500 million views, two times more than the most watched Egyptian video on YouTube for 2019. It is worth mentioning that the top five videos for 2019 were mahragānāt (Sada AlBalad 2019)

2

It is difficult to have a complete idea of suicide numbers in Egypt due to the lack of sufficient state reports. Although official numbers estimate suicide incidents to be 3,799 annually, the WHO estimates the number to be more than eight thousand (Khalil 2019; WHO). To have a better idea of the motives, which neither number offers, I started tracking reported suicide incidents in three leading Egyptian newspapers – al-Youm al-Sabi’, al-Ahram and al-Masry al-Youm – over the period from July 2019 to July 2020. The total number of reported incidents in each newspaper was 120, 55 and 18 respectively; love-related incidents were 12, six and two. After excluding repeated reports, I ended up with 15 profiles.

3

Among the 15 profiles examined, two (13 per cent) belonged to the middle and upper classes, while the remaining 13 (87 per cent) belonged to the lower working class. Determining the socio-economic level of the 15 profiles was not difficult because information about their location of residence, level of education and occupation was included in the reports.

4

According to the historian Ziad Fahmy, the rise of Cairene colloquial language as a language of cultural production, primarily through audiovisual and sound media, can be dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, when it was used to communicate nationalist ideas to the predominantly (94 per cent) illiterate population. The cultural production in Egypt at the time was not ‘high’ or ‘formal’, but low and colloquial (Fahmy 2011: 59).

5

One can argue that the state under Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s played a role in portraying ṭarab as ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’, while rendering shaʿbī as ‘local’, ‘primitive’ and even ‘vulgar’. Ṭarab music reflected a desired image of the state, as it promoted certain forms of romance in which love becomes the ultimate goal and foundation of marriage, which was a key trope of modern identity. Aymon Kreil (2016) used the term ‘Love modernism’ to describe the link between marriage on the basis of love and the imagination of progress. For more on this connection between love and modernity, see Hirsch and Wardlow (2006).

6

Arguably, the gender of artists might have played a role in enforcing stereotypes. Shaʿbī artists were predominantly men, while there was a greater gender balance among ṭarab artists.

7

The first song that belonged to the genre of mahragānāt was released by Alaa Fifty, 16 years old at the time, under the name mahragān al-Salam (‘The Festival of al-Salam’). The mahragān carried the name of Alaa's slum neighbourhood, al-Salam in Cairo.

8

According to law 63 from 1976, anyone convicted of drinking alcohol in non-licensed locations, or being drunk in public, is subject to a maximum of six months of jail time and a fine, or one of these penalties. Consuming drugs is also a punishable offense in Egyptian law, with a fine and jail time ranging from one to five years.

9

In the memory of Ali, my main interlocutor, who died in June 2021 due to COVID-19 related complications at the age of 23. You will always be remembered as a fighter who tried to find a foothold in a fierce world. I met Ali through a mutual friend, ‘K’, who works near Ali's residence and had developed a strong friendship with him. After learning about my research, K told me Ali's story and suggested that I meet him after he left the hospital. I was able to meet Ali and discuss the idea of inflicting self-harm after failed love with his friends. It is worth mentioning that neither Ali nor any of his friends held a university degree; most of them had a diplom Sanai’ (Industrial or Technical Diploma).

10

It is worth noting that although Ali's story might seem rather poetic and idealised, it reflects a particular dynamic of how men are ‘supposed’ to deal with women who fall within specific social circles, such as relatives, neighbours, spouses and sisters of friends. Arguably, he might have acted differently if the woman had not been a neighbour.

11

While discussing my project with upper-class women aged 26–30, I came to realise the appeal that the mahragānāt style of flirting had in upper-class circles. One woman told me about how she thought it ‘exotic’ and different to the usual love songs, which she had got used to and become bored of (zihiʾt minuh).

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Shazli, O. (2013), ‘Ahmad Adawiya, When the Street Finally Had a Voice’, Almasry Alyoum, 25 November.

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  • Osman, N. (2020), ‘Egypt Just Banned “Mahraganat” Music: Listen to Five of the Most Popular Tracks’, Middle East Eye, 18 February.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Reda, L. (2018), ‘Analysis: What are Egyptians Using the Internet For?’, EgyptToday, 30 May.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, S. (2015), Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stephenson, K. (2016), ‘Egyptian Singer Amr Diab Recognized by Guinness World Records for Most World Music Awards Wins’, Guinness World Records, 28 September, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2016/9/father-of-mediterranean-music-earns-title-for-most-world-music-awards-445370.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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Contributor Notes

Ahmed Abdelazim is a current PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in the department of art history. He holds a master's degree in Arabic and Islamic Civilization from the American University in Cairo (AUC) (2014), a diploma in religious studies from the Institute of Islamic Presenters in Cairo (2014) and a MA in Anthropology, also from AUC (2018). His current work examines the visual and material culture of the Islamic revival movement, both in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Email: abdelazim@wisc.edu

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  • Abaza, M. (2006), Changing Consumer Cultures of Modern Egypt (Leiden: Brill).

  • Abu El-Magd, R. (2017), ‘It's Hamdi Batshan Birthday, Six Things to Know about the King of Street Flirtation’, Ain Magazine, 10 September.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Shazli, O. (2013), ‘Ahmad Adawiya, When the Street Finally Had a Voice’, Almasry Alyoum, 25 November.

  • Armbrust, W. (1996), Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

  • Barker, G. (2005), Dying to Be Men: Youth, Masculinity and Social Exclusion (London: Routledge).

  • Bourdieu, P. (1991), Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • Brown, J. and Chevannes, B. (1998), Why Man Stay So: An Examination of Gender Socialization in the Caribbean (Kingston: University of the West Indies).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (2007), ‘Al-Sokan: Bohoth wa Dirasat’ [Population: Research and studies] (Cairo: Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Connell, R. W. and Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005), ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender and Society 19, no. 6: 829859, doi: 10.1177/0891243205278639.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fahmy, Z. (2011), Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

  • Fortier, C. (2021), ‘Passion Love, Masculine Rivalry and Arabic Poetry in Mauritania’, in International Handbook of Love: Transcultural and Transdisciplinary Perspectives, (eds) C.-H. Mayer and E. Vanderheiden (Cham: Springer International Publishing), 769788, doi:10.1007/978-3-030-45996-3_41.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fortier, C. and Monqid, S. (2017), ‘Le corps féminin en contexte arabo-musulman: entre autonomisation et domination’, in Corps des femmes et espaces genrés arabo-musulmans, (eds) C. Fortier and S. Monqid (Paris: Karthala), 919.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ghannam, F. (2013), Live and Die Like a Man (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

  • Gilligan, J. (2004), ‘Culture, Gender, and Violence: We are not Women’, in The Gendered Society Reader, (eds) M. S. Kimmel and A. Aronson (New York: Oxford University Press), 427436.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilman, D. J. (2014), Cairo Pop (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

  • Grippo, J. (2006), ‘The Fool Sings a Hero's Song: Shaaban Abdel Rahim, Egyptian Shaabi, and the Video Clip Phenomenon’, Arab Media & Society, 1 June, https://www.arabmediasociety.com/the-fool-sings-a-heros-song-shaaban-abdel-rahim-egyptian-shaabi-and-the-video-clip-phenomenon/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hamdy, O. (2019), ‘Masr Fī Arkam 2019’ [Egypt in numbers 2019], Akhbar el-Youm, 25 September.

  • Hasso, F. S. (2020), ‘I Have Ambition: Muhammad Ramadan's Proletarian Masculinities in Post Revolution Egyptian Cinema’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 52, no. 2: 197214, doi:10.1017/S0020743820000033.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Henry, H. M. (2017), ‘Sexual Harassment in the Egyptian Streets: Feminist Theory Revisited’, Sexuality & Culture 21: 270286, doi:10.1007/s12119-016-9393-7.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hirsch, J. S. and Wardlow, H. (2006), Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship & Companionate Marriage (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hoodfar, H. (1996), ‘Egyptian Male Migration and Urban Families Left Behind: “Feminization of the Egyptian Family” or a Reaffirmation of Traditional Gender Roles?’, in Development, Change, and Gender in Cairo: A View from the Household, (eds) D. Singerman and H. Hoodfar (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 5179.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Illouz, E. (1997), Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Illouz, E. (2013), Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (Cambridge: John Wiley & Sons).

  • Khalil, Y. (2019), ‘Hālāt al-Intihār fī Masr’ [Suicide rates in Egypt], An-Nahar, 4 December.

  • Kimmel, M. S. (2011), The Gendered Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • Kreil, A. (2014), ‘Love Scales: Class and Expression of Feelings in Cairo’, La Ricerca Folklorica, no. 69: 8391.

  • Kreil, A. (2016), ‘The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and Its Enemies’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no. 2: 128146.

  • Naguib, N. (2015), Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press).

  • Osman, N. (2020), ‘Egypt Just Banned “Mahraganat” Music: Listen to Five of the Most Popular Tracks’, Middle East Eye, 18 February.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Racy, A. J. (1982), ‘Musical Aesthetics in Present-Day Cairo’, Ethnomusicology 26, no. 3: 391406, doi:10.2307/850687.

  • Ramadan, S. (2019), ‘Long Live the Degenerate Art: The Old State Faces Mahraganat Songs’, Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, https://afteegypt.org/en/freedom_creativity-2/publications_freedom_creativity_en/2019/08/29/18097-afteegypt.html (accessed 26 July 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reda, L. (2018), ‘Analysis: What are Egyptians Using the Internet For?’, EgyptToday, 30 May.

  • Sada AlBalad (2019). ‘Al-Aghani alakthar Mushahada ’ala alYoutube fi 2019’ [The most Watched Songs on YouTube in 2019], Sadah AlBalad, 29 December, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v = GhtCt8W1mRo

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, S. (2015), Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stephenson, K. (2016), ‘Egyptian Singer Amr Diab Recognized by Guinness World Records for Most World Music Awards Wins’, Guinness World Records, 28 September, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2016/9/father-of-mediterranean-music-earns-title-for-most-world-music-awards-445370.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • World Bank. (2020), ‘Overview’, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/egypt/overview (accessed 8 August 2020).

  • World Health Organization (n.d), ‘Suicide Rate Estimates, Crude: Estimates by Country’, https://apps.who.int/gho/data/view.main.MHSUICIDEv?lang=en (accessed 11 August 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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