Transgressive Aspirations: Regimes of Mobility and the Multiple Geographies of Mahraganat Dance Music in Egypt 

Dalia Ibraheem, Rutgers State University

 

Mahraganat is a do-it-yourself, Egyptian electronic dance music genre that emerged from the informal peri-urban neighborhoods of Cairo and Alexandria. These degraded neighborhoods belong to a broader urban topology called ashwaiyyat, literally informal or haphazard and indicates quarters that are informally developed and lack public service. This paper unpacks the relationship between mahraganat music, its neighborhoods of origin, and the social imaginaries the music engenders. My investigation of the socio-spatial underpinnings of this male-dominated underclass music analyzes the political economy of mahraganat in terms of production relations, media technologies, and modes of circulation. Based on participant observation, in-depth interviews, and commented walks and rides with mahraganat artists conducted throughout 2022, I seek to illuminate how those ashwaiyyat are not merely the birthplace of mahraganat and its artists. Rather, they function as an integral part of the music’s political economy and a formative place of its artists.

The paper argues that the literacy of mahraganat artists in the virtual geographies of transnational platforms, coupled with their reliance on communal support networks, has enabled their cultural production to bypass the state. This affordance, in turn, has radically transformed the landscape of cultural production in Egypt, leading to a war over what constitutes art and culture. I further argue that the power of mahraganat lies in the extent to which the music and its artists transgress the hegemonic norms of social mobility and media circulation, disrupting the established doxa, and changing the limits of the possible for underclass young men.

On Music and Earthquakes

 What are the cultural responses to urban disasters and the state’s failure to address them? Can earthquakes generate cultural changes more seismic than their geographical ones? There is a street in Cairo’s peri-urban informal neighborhood of El-Salam city that is called شارع الزلزال (Shāriʿ 2zilzāl, the earthquake street). The street, which is named after Cairo’s 1992 catastrophic earthquake, indexes a temporary place that has turned permanent. Most of the inhabitants of this street and other parts of El-Salam are internally displaced families who lost their inner-city apartments during two main urban disasters: the 1992 earthquake and a rockslide that hit the western neighborhood of Duweika in 2008. A decade and a half later, young men who were newborns at the time of the earthquake became the inventors of mahraganat music. While the popularity of the music soon extended beyond El-Salam to reach national, pan-Arab, and even international audiences, the cultural producers of the genre, particularly singers, belong exclusively to ashwaiyyat; both peri-urban and innercity ones.

Mahraganat literally means festivals (sing. mahragan). The “handle” or self-classificatory term for the genre is electro-sha’bi: electro because it relies heavily on the synthesizer, and sha’bi denotes its association with low-income classes, connoting crudeness, unsophistication, and vulgarity for aspiring elites (Armbrust, 1996). The genre started in the street weddings of El-Salam and its surrounding neighborhoods where families who were not able to hire wedding singers hired local DJs instead. The DJs improvised, using turntables and synthesizers, and sampled from a wide spectrum of musical genres, while MCs electronically manipulated their voices.

In an in-depth interview, one of the genre’s founders, Fifty Al-Ostoura” (Fifty the Legend) told me how he moved to El-Salam as a baby with his family after their house in Bab El-Shaaria collapsed during the earthquake. Fifty is what could be described in hip hop language as an MC: “I was 14 years old and I would go to street weddings and tell rhymed stories, ḥikāyāt.” Figo, who worked as a DJ in El-Salam weddings, convinced Fifty that he could work on his rhymed stories, put a beat to them and make them more danceable. Together they came up with the distinctive sound of mahraganat. Understanding what it means to grow up in the wake of an urban disaster and in a place where policing and surveillance are the main manifestations of the states presence is pivotal to our analysis of the musics political economy and the labor it deploys.

In this section I trace the emergence of this genre and analyze its various regimes of mobility (Schiller & Salazar 2013). My aim is to highlight the compounded economic modalities that underlie mahraganat production and discuss them in relation to ashwaiyyateconomies more generally. The guiding question for this section is: How have mahraganat artists achieved transnational popularity, despite being heavily censored by the state-affiliated musician’s syndicate, denied access to state radio and television media technologies, and lacking record label deals, at least during its first decade of its emergence?

Doing Mahraganat with Love

As the popularity of mahraganat songs increased around the years of 2005–2007, young boys in ashwaiyyat started to experiment with music on a massive scale. Internet cafes turned into musical laboratories where kids taught themselves and each other how to use programs like FruityLoops, Acid Pro, Mixcraft, and other digital audio workstation software. Aspiring artists’ reliance on neighborhood social networks and infrastructure was key to how they produced songs, shot music videos, advertised their songs, and finally shaped the songs’ modes of mobility and circulation. Young men in El-Salam, El-Marg, Mattariya, Ain Shams, and similar quarters in Alexandria borrowed cameras, outfits, and cars from their neighbors and friends. They used local amateur poets, directors, graphic designers, street dancers, and computer wizards to produce the songs. Friends also appeared in the music videos to provide the street life element and the image of local gangsters. At this time, friends, neighbors, and fellow ashwaiyyatresidents were the primary audiences and committed fans of mahraganat. This reliance on locality reflects the broader self-sufficiency that typifies the informal economy of the ashwaiyyat (Ibraheem 2022). While El-Salam city represents an extreme example of economies of abandonment” (Povinelli 2011), its conditions are barely exceptional as internal displacement and hyper-policing are becoming Egypts new paradigm of urban government under the pretense of developing informal areas (Mandour 2021).

Responding to my question about the significance of his neighborhood to his music, a 28-year-old, little-known mahraganat artist from the informal neighborhood of Ain Shams, told me:

You gain a lot if people here like you. If people love you here, that’s it, you have passed. Nobody could truly brag in Ain Shams. Look at the neighborhood, it is run by drug dealers and their interests. So, if you are loved here, you gain so much. People here observe you. If you sang one song with a famous artist, they would wait and see if you are going to change on them or not. If you stay humble, they will make you even more successful. They will add to your views, appear in your videoclips, share your songs. One hand cannot clap, you know!

Street weddings, USBs loaded with music, and battery powered speakers of autorickshaws (the tuktuks) and micro-buses have functioned as an alternative circulation grid for these songs. In the Egyptian context, one can compare this web of small technologies to the role of audio cassettes and the privately-owned micro-buses in popularizing sha’bi music starting from the 1970s well into the early 2000s. Audio cassettes were also crucial to the organization of an Islamic counterpublic in the 1990s, as Charles Hirschkind (2006) argued, through the circulation of Islamic sermons on cassettes and the ethical debates and discussions these sermons engendered in Cairo’s public sphere. USBs, tuktuks, speakers, mics, and computers are not merely small technologies, they are affective infrastructure (Bosworth 2022) the peri-urban youth mobilized to advance the mobility and circulation of their cultural production along with broader sonic and visual ashwaiyyat aesthetics including high volume and tuktuksdecorations.

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Tuktuks (auto rickshaws) circulating mahraganat in an informal neighborhood in Cairo (photo by author).

Producing, mediating, circulating, and consuming mahraganat is thus an all-encompassing neighborhood economy that folds in many of the neighborhood’s young men, even those who are not singing. This economy includes people who manage the studio, those who give up their rooftop rooms or parts of their ground floor shops for the artists to turn into studios, tailors, cameramen, social media specialists, and definitely hairstylists. There are no written contracts, and in many cases there is no money involved in these production relations. Nonetheless, as Julia Elyashar (2005) has pointed out in her ethnography on workshop masters in El-Salam City during the 1990s, there is a strong element of reciprocity in this economy. And although the terms of this reciprocity are never clearly spelled out, all artists I spoke to expressed that there is always a way for things to even out. A young mahraganat artist described this mode of labor and producing music to me by saying that this is doing mahraganat “بالحب” (“with love”). This brilliant descriptor indexes the gift economy that underlies this cultural production and foregrounds its affective nature. This gift economy is always pronounced in terms of kinship as mahraganat artists constantly describe their fellow artists and their local folks as brothers, family, and kin. A pivotal element in this gift economy is hustling; people always have to be on the move, they must keep trying because nobody knows which song will be the new hit. This constant hustling defers financial agreements. People collaborate to produce songs and then if one of the songs goes viral, they can negotiate the distribution of profits. In many instances, profit can be non-monetary as well. This resonates with Nevola Luco’s (2015) observation that impoverished people in Yemen had faith that God would help sustain them as long as they were not indolent and inactive. A similar moral economy governs mahraganat production where fortune always favors the hustler.