I try my best to keep up on new sounds out of the Middle East and North Africa, but the name Youssra El Hawary was completely new to me until just a couple of weeks ago. But now, I'm totally hooked on music by this 28-year-old folkie-ish, indie-ish, chanson-ish singer/songwriter from Egypt armed not with a guitar, but ... an accordion.
In preparing for the Revolutionary Road Trip series, one of my colleagues here at NPR had stumbled across her Soundcloud page and passed it along. Hawary's songs were charming and spare: mostly just her sweet voice and either accordion or piano, lithe and sleek. But then, when I got to the third song, I fell in love. It's called "Al Soor" — "The Wall" — and despite its simple framing with accordion and recorder, lilting rhythm, playful melody and easy charm, "Al Soor" is a biting political commentary about life in Egypt right now.
The more I heard and read about Hawary, the more I realized that her quirky charm was less a persona than who she really is. Trained as a set designer, she's spent much of her creative life as an actress, not a musician — and this month, she's off performing with a mime troupe (yes, a mime troupe) on a tiny island in northern Holland. (Let me emphasize: mimes.) And after I talked with Hawary earlier this week, I realized that she's just as bubbly and frank in conversation as she is in her songs; hear her for yourself at the audio link above, from her appearance on Morning Edition.
For "Al Soor," Hawary borrowed the lyrics from one of her friends, the political cartoonist and author Waleed Taher: "In front of the wall/In front of those who built it/In front of those who made it high/Stood a poor man/Who peed/On the wall, and on those who built it and those who made it high." (Needless to say, a "good girl" doesn't sing about people eliminating — but Hawary does it with a wink and a smile.)
Taher had published them as part of one of his cartoons years ago, long before the Arab Spring — but Taher's meaning gained new resonance after a huge wall was erected in Cairo on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which leads on one end to Tahrir Square and on the other towards the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
So it was natural, if pretty daring, for Hawary to enlist a photographer friend to go shoot a DIY video for "Al Soor" in front of the Muhammad Mahmoud wall, which is now covered regularly with fresh work from a burgeoning group of graffiti artists.
In the video, Hawary is bathed in beautiful breaking morning light; the women shot the video shortly after dawn, mostly in hopes of not having their work shut down. But the giddy happenstances of this shoot done on the sly — the random guy who asks El Hawary to snap his picture, the kids dancing, the caretaker shooing everyone away at the end — just adds to the perfect, easy magic of "Al Soor."