Words by Mohammad Dagman

Decades before the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other new media outlets, unmarked cassette tapes transmitted dissent in the Middle East. Because tapes were easy to record and even easier to duplicate, they were used to spread all kinds of treasonous speech far and wide. Here are some examples of how the cassette tape was used to fuel rebellion.

Al-Shaykh Imam and Ahmad Fu’ad Najm

Egyptians Imam Issa (aka Al-Shaykh Imam, 1918-1995)—a blind, struggling musician— and Ahmad Fu’ad Najm (1929- )—a famed poet—were partners in crime. Often singing solo, Al- Shaykh Imam would put Najm’s political satire to music. The collaboration landed both of them in jail, where they only caused more trouble, singing to prisoners…and guards. The Egyptian authorities noticed their increasing popularity and thought it better to release them. The duo rarely sang love songs, but when they did, the political undertones made them cult classics. One of their most famous songs ridicules Nixon’s visit to Cairo during Sadat’s reign, while another makes fun of the French president’s visit. Their cassettes were banned by nearly all Arabic countries, but still reached millions. Nowadays Ahmad Fu’ad Najm can be seen on Egyptian TV as smart and original as ever, while al-Shaykh Imam passed away in 1995. The legacy of this duo is far reaching in Arab streets.

Mudhaffar al-Nawwab

Mudhaffar al-Nawwab (1934- ) is an Iraqi poet whose cassette tapes have received lots of attention. His prose takes the form of traditional Shia mourning, sounding like an attack by a wailing man, cursing the government with extremely vulgar language. He was imprisoned, but managed to escape after he dug a tunnel with fellow prisoners. He reached eager listeners while hiding in the marshes of Southern Iraq, delivering prose about his experience, including phrases like, “Who smuggled this village out of my country?” Passed on by listeners who made bootleg copies, al-Nawwab’s voice was never silenced.

Ziad al-Rahbani

Ziad al-Rahbani (1956-) is the son of Fairuz and ‘Asi al-Rahbani, and the nephew of Mansur, perhaps the three most important figures in Lebanese music. During the civil war that began in 1975, Ziad wrote a series of plays that dealt with the war in Lebanon and the interference of other countries there. His tapes were not as hardcore as those of al-Nawwab or al-Shaykh Imam, but still they were banned in many countries. Even so, the messages found their way to open ears via cassette. Besides the masterfully crafted scripts of Ziad’s plays, they always contained gems of music. Among his actors was the late, great Joseph Saqr, who most often sang about unemployment and life’s other prevailing troubles. Ziad’s plays include Film Amerki Tawil, which became an American feature film, Belnesbe la-Bukra Shu (translated: What Up about Tomorrow), and Nazl al- Surur (translated: Happiness Inn). He has also produced his mother’s music and his own music; Ziad’s Arabic jazz albums are a must.