Mounir explores Islam in song
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Mounir explores Islam in song

Egyptian singer Mohammed Mounir, popular for speaking his mind, explores Islam in song,

music Updated: Feb 06, 2003 15:18 IST

Mohammed Mounir is known here for singing thoughtful and sometimes provocative lyrics, a pop star interested in more than music. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the singer was driven to learn more about Islam, which he feared was being seen in the West as the faith of terrorism and intolerance.

So Mounir performed the hajj, the pilgrimage at the heart of Islam, for the first time last winter. He returned critical of both fellow Muslims, who he says don't bother to seek a true understanding of their faith, and of a West that he says misunderstands it.

Mounir released the album "Earth ... Peace," containing the song "Give Me Strength, O Messenger of God," which he co-wrote with Kawthar Mustafa. In it, he sings, "The spilling of any blood is deemed sinful by God." The album struck some as surprisingly religious for an artist seen as a champion of secularism. For others, it was not religious enough; the video for the song was banned by most Arab satellite channels.

"My role, and the role of any Arab who cherishes his nation, dignity and honour is to reconstruct ideas and us. We should fight backward fundamentalist thought because Islam is not just a message from a prophet, but rather a full-fledged civilization of beautiful values," Mounir said in an interview.

"I saw that after the attacks, the Arab world has become more scared and lost confidence in itself." Westerners, meanwhile, "don't differentiate between a human Muslim and a terrorist, between an extremist and an artist, and between a moderate citizen and a reactionary."

The video ban reportedly was because Mounir sang "maddad," a vernacular term that roughly means "give me strength" but that can also be translated as a call on Islam's prophet to intercede with God on man's behalf. Strict Muslims say no one can intercede between God and believers. The 48-year-old artist took the controversy in stride. "It is this fight against rigid thought that makes something out of you," he says.

That philosophy sums up one of his best-known characters. In "Destiny," a 1997 film by Youssef Chahine, a leading Egyptian director, Mounir played Marwan, a singer in the 12th century Islamic state built by Arab and Berber dynasties in Spain. "Marwan and I are one and the same," Mounir says, describing the character as an "ambitious artist who does not believe that anything should be deemed sinful in art."

"Sing loudly, nothing should stop your singing," Mounir sang as Marwan in another Mustafa hit. Mounir, who sang on the soundtracks for nine Chahine productions and acted in some, says he is proud to be Chahine's "voice in cinematography." Their collaboration in the movie "An Egyptian Tale" resulted in a popular song of the same title that ordinary Egyptians embraced as an anthem. The late Ahmed Mounib, a Nubian folk musician who was Mounir's mentor, wrote the music.

The lyrics, by Abdel Reheim Mansour, include:

"Who is bowed down for the sake of your prosperity? "Your poor peasants.
"Who is bowed down for the sake of your affluence? "Your kind workers.
"Who is the one who sells conscience and buys instead destruction?
"Who is the one with the cause, the problem, the tale and the pen?"

Mounir also has appeared in seven films for other directors almost all with patriotic themes and also has appeared in TV series and plays. He began his career as a performer in the 1970s after arriving from the southern city of Aswan to study art at Cairo University.

From the beginning, he was something different. His music drew rhythms and folk melodies from the culture of Nubia, the region where Arab and African Egypt meet, in contrast to much Egyptian pop music, which was dominated by Arabic sounds.

At first, Mounir's casual outfits and performance style drew scorn at a time when singers often wore suits and appeared with orchestras. He would sway, jump and dance in a way unfamiliar to Egyptian audiences. But they saw him as genuine, and he soon became a respected star, paving the way for other Nubian musicians.

Over the years, he became known for finding lyrics that reflected his politics and philosophy; his music has become synonymous for many Egyptians with liberal thought, hope and a desire for reform.

He sometimes works closely with lyricists and co-writes songs. A pot of traditional Nubian incense burned during a recent interview in his Cairo apartment. The singer appeared relaxed in casual clothes a crème baggy shirt, linen trousers and trademark bead necklace but also displayed the reserve he is known for.

Mounir, who rarely gives interviews, would not discuss the fate of his home region, a sensitive issue in Egypt. Nubians were forced to leave the area when Egypt built the Aswan High Dam in 1971. He would, however, speak on other issues.

A recent pro-Palestine wave saw almost ever other Egyptian singer recording songs supporting the Palestinians; Mounir had been singing about them for years. "I have a dream of a better human being, of better living standards," Mounir said, adding, "I hate corruption, I hate fear and I love dreams that are based on logic."

First Published: Feb 06, 2003 14:47 IST