Today marks the end of my semester as intern for the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum. The last four months have provided me with an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the First Amendment in depth, along with the controversies that surround its application to the daily lives of United States citizens. Through monitoring major daily newspapers I have seen first-hand how the First Amendment protects the right of a woman to curse loudly at her overflowing toilet and the right of students to form religious groups outside the classroom. I have witnessed debates over the boundaries of expression, like displaying an image of Malcolm X in a school mural or young men wearing saggy pants. It never ceases to amaze me how restrictions on expression or assembly affect communities from the level of the school or parish to the entire nation. The First Amendment is not absolute. It is rather a dynamic piece of law that changes with the needs and situations of Americans, but the spirit of freedom that surrounds the rights to speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition remains manifest throughout the nation.
The contemporary political climate within the United States is far from my area of study, Islamic world history, but similar themes cross cultures, religions, and languages as people fight for the essential right to expression. One example that I have studied in some depth is the case of Raï (ﺮﺃﻱ) musicians in Algeria and in France. The genre of Raï, which means “opinion” or “point of view” in Arabic, arose in the port city of Oran (ﻮﮬﺮﺍﻦ) among women who were too impoverished to remain on failing rural farms. At the time it was socially proper for women to sing only in the company of other women, and typically songs had to have some religious significance. Early Cheikhas, the founding mothers of Raï, broke both these cultural ties. They performed for men in cellars, bars, and brothels. They further broke ties with polite society by singing of what they knew: poverty, love, sex, and alcohol.
As time wore on, men entered into the movement. Raï became a voice of resistance to the causes of the day, from independence from France to criticism of the Islamist party (Le Front Islamique du Salut) and oppressive governmental control. Beginning in the 1980s, Raï musicians were routinely subjected to censure from the government and the surrounding society. Several important artists, including the singer Cheb Hasni and the producer Rachid Baba-Ahmed, were even murdered. Many of those who could afford to leave the country fled to France to escape persecution, among them the now international stars Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami. The title “Cheb” (“ ﺸﺎﺐ” in standard Arabic), meaning “young” in the Maghrebi dialect, was commonly adopted by male Raï artists.
Raï musicians continued to reach the Algerian population even after their move to France. Cassettes were regularly smuggled back into the nation, and some reports claim that youth would secretly replace the recording of the morning call to prayer with the latest song from Khaled or Fadela.
In the face of persecution by religious zealots, an oppressive government, and crushing poverty, singers of Raï asserted their opinions and spoke the reality of their lives. Many of them were willing to die or pass into exile rather than be silenced.
An excellent example of a true Raï song is the popular “Abdel Kader” (ﻋﺒﺪ ﺍﻠﻗﺍﺪﺭ), which many hold as a benchmark to greatness for any Middle Eastern singer. The basic melody remains unchanged, although singers’ voices often depart from the melody and improvise new lyrics. The video I have chosen to represent the genre features three prominent Algerian singers, Rachid Taha, Khaled, and Faudel, on a world tour made in the late 1990s. The lyrics of the song are included, but they are not my own translation. The North African dialect combines many languages, including Berber, French, and Spanish and is very difficult to understand even among Peninsular Arabs. Because this was a very popular song in its time, the lyrics can be accessed easily and, hopefully, accurately online. I hope you enjoy hearing a piece of music from artists who spoke out boldly in spite of the danger they faced in a society less free than our own.
Abdel Kader, my master, my guide
Ease my pain, make me strong
Help me through the dark night of my soul
O sweet girl of my homeland
Why is my heart so troubled
While yours is at peace?
In spite of love's many pleasures
She's turned away and left me
After a night of bliss
Abdel Kader, keeper of the keys
Keeper of my soul
I have left heaven and come back to earth
Away from her arms
I pray life is long enough to let me start over
Heal me and turn me away from my pain