Yassin Alsalman, The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe. Write or Wrong / Paranoid Arab Boy Publishing, 2011. www.iraqisthebomb.com
It’s a good time for a lyric exposé from an Iraqi-Canadian aged 25. Not that there could be such a thing as a bad time for one. With the “Arab Spring” turning the volume up, so to speak, of voices from the Arab world, “Westerners” building new ideas about the “East” are looking for different speakers and new narratives. Increasingly, it’s becoming obvious that Arabs in the diaspora are opening doors for eager spectators looking East while beaming messages West. Those who’ve spent the past two decades living biculturally, daily bridging the very gaps our administrations struggle to jump, are visibly shuttling between the “Arab Street” (a concept in need of a serious makeover) and a slightly less apathetic “Main Street” (ditto). The recent surge in visibility and success of Ayman Moheyldin, Al Jazeera English’s front man in Cairo; Sharif Kaddous at Democracy Now!; and Habib Haddad of AliveInEgypt are just a few prominent examples.
In Yassin Alsalman, we have another figurative Master of Ceremonies. Pun intended in this case, since Alsalman actually is one. In late March, the MC better known as The Narcicyst released his first book (yes, gasp, a book). The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe is a manifesto of sorts: on bicultural identity, on globalization, on hip-hop, on hip-hop culture, on politics, on poetics, on resistance, on peace, on war, on frustration, on calm, on family, on adolescence, on Arabs in the West. The insights in it will be valuable to Arabs and Westerners (and Western Arabs) alike.
[Yassin Alsalman. Image by RidzDesign.]
Most Master’s theses are not worth rereading, never mind publishing, much less publishing as a book for a non-specialized audience. Alsalman’s is a happy exception. Granted, the current version is a likely much altered and definitely expanded version from its start as an academic exercise towards the completion of a Master’s in Communication Studies at Montreal’s Concordia University. Nevertheless, the pocket-sized book is a poignantly articulate rendering of the experiences of one North American-Arab and his four similarly hyphened collaborators. Alasalman chronicles their relationships to politics, home-bases, and their music of choice: Hip-Hop. The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe accompanies a full-length album the four men produced (The Arab Summit’s Fear of an Arab Planet is available for free online) and then presented at the 2007 annual convention of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Suheir Hammad introduces the book (“repping for the females not in this book. Not on the album.”), and Alsalman preps the two large pieces of flesh he’s set out to dissect: Hip-Hop culture and rap music, and Arab culture, “or the East as a whole.” While he braves large topics, ones that are clearly and dangerously susceptible to gross homogenizations and blasé generalizations, he consistently skirts the waiting traps, shrewdly contextualizing his approach within his own experiences.
The traces of the theoretical flexing of a thesis are still visible, and Alsalman’s gestures towards deepening his analysis by applying cultural, post-colonial, or sociological theory are mostly well quipped. However, while the author’s applications of Edward Said, Homi Bhama, Pierre Bourdieu, and Stuart Hall are hardly misinformed, and while such applications will function, for some readers, as a necessary legitimization of his subject of study, I wonder if they really function to push specific understandings of the structures he is analyzing terribly far. Seeking appropriate theoretical frameworks and engaging them comprehensibly is one thing. Using theory inventively to create an understanding that pushes our understanding of both the subject and the theory itself is another, and this is something Alsalman hasn’t attempted. To be fair, it may never have been his project. I push him on this point only to avoid patting him on the back for being well read. It should not surprise us that an Arab or a Hip-Hop artist can also translate academic jargon eloquently. But we will crave invention when it comes to choosing the theoretical structures to analyze popular culture: Are theorists approaching the half-century mark still the most useful tools we have to analyze the changing world in which we live? This generation of articulate, multicultural, provocative thinkers and speakers will have to decide how to answer that question.
Diatribes of a Dying Tribe is an equally balanced analysis of Hip-Hop, identity, and politics, though these are all hard to separate. The middle chapters further Alsalman’s anaylsis of both Hip-Hop’s history and its powerful potential, expanding on the author’s own experiences vis-à-vis the Western and Eastern parts of his upbringing. “I find myself at a pivotal point in history,” Alsalman admits,
“As a product of two multibillion dollar industries – Hip-Hop and war – I have a sense of urgency and natural passion to make music about being Iraqi in the West. This music, regardless of its quality or taste, will appeal to an audience in the United States due to those strained relations between nations and will inevitably cause communication among Arab-Americans worldwide.”
The author and his collaborators on this project, Omar Chakaki (“Omar Offendum”), Nizar Wattad (“Ragtop”), and Tarik Kazaleh (“Excentrik”), can be reasonably confident of their music’s ability to stir communication among Arabs in the diaspora, because they have already seen it in motion.
Arabic Hip-Hop may be said to have first picked up speed in the late 1990s, just before the Second Intifada. Palestinian groups like DAM (based in Lyd, Israel and featured in the critically-acclaimed film Slingshot Hip-Hop) began receiving international attention and a far-flung diaspora began associating political engagement with their own generation. The collaboration headed by Iraqi-British MC Lowkey (Kareem Dennis) on the song “Long Live Palestine” attracted a huge following, further positioning solidarity with Palestine as a central rallying point of the genre. “Part Two” of this latter track, which featured verses from nine different artists (including Yassin Alsalman), topped the Amazon Hip-Hop download charts in 2009, ahead of tracks by both Jay-Z and 50 Cent. As in the recordings of the artists who first inspired them, however (Public Enemy is a repeated, stated favorite, a legacy Alsalman respectfully points to throughout his book), resistance is to be found not in one political issue but in a collective reclamation of dignity. This comes differently for each artist. The solo albums of Omar Offendum, Lowkey, KhaledM, and Arabian Knightz (to name just a few) represent a range of identities and experiences and differ very much from each other: not just in the lyrical approaches of each artist, but in where and how each poet locates and articulates strength or pride. Offendum wraps himself in an Arabesque mystique, much of it informed by classic twentieth-century poets like Nizar Qabbani; Narcy tends towards the more ostentatiously confrontational:
“Word, I’m cocky/ the Iraqi Rocky/ Trying to shake the terror off me/ Truth I see it rarely, achi…” (from “Good Night!!!” on the self-titled album);
and Shadia Mansour, one of the most prominent female MC’s in this genre (yes, Arab women are busting rhymes), combines R&B and verse to terrific effect.
To be sure, Middle Eastern MCs may share cultural experiences, but the range of their work is as wide as the international gamut of Hip-Hop itself. Alsalman’s book closes with a tribute to this diversity. The last forty pages or so consist of personal statements from his three collaborators and interviews with a dozen leading voices in the field.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Hip-Hop in the Middle East is gathering more and more international attention. Buoyed by the revolutionary energy in Cairo and Tunis, new tracks have galvanized a diaspora out of the silence of the post-9-11 years. The work of young Tunisian artists like El Général (Hamada Ben Aoun) and the crackdown on him and colleagues in Libya have proved again the efficacy of Hip-Hop culture in vocalizing resistance.
Tracks like “#Jan25,” featuring both Omar Offendum and The Narcicyst, have invited the diaspora into a vocalized solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution.
Especially compelling parts of Alsalman’s book are the last chapters, in which he unpacks what he thought he and his collaborators were doing on the album Arab Summit’s Fear of an Arab Planet and in which he describes with harrowing detail the formal and informal interrogations, the limited acceptance couched in condescension, and the general climate of suspicion encountered while travelling to and performing at ADC in DC in 2007. We see him struggle with success – the invitation to perform in DC – mixed with defeat at the recognition of the depth of contradictions facing young Arabs in the West from older peers and from American establishments. He recounts the hypocrisy of being confronted by FBI recruiters and an Iraqi-American soldier at banquet dinners, gags on his own and the young soldier’s gullibility (different kinds), and spits it all back out again, raw yet sharpened by reflection. Despite the weight clearly riding on these memories, the trap Alsalman skirts here is the lecture. Readers won’t feel preached at, as Alsalman charismatically beckons his audience through his analysis. True to his own colorful criticism, the analysis of the album and its performance begins,
“If the restaurant of life were an Arab establishment, dictators would be the waiters to a Capitalist chef. With war on the menu, it’s hard to digest an enjoyable meal of food for thought best served cold. I realized my search for studies on the topic of Arabist Hip-Hop was unsatisfied to say the least.”
He continues by explaining that despite the universality now often attributed to strains of global Hip-Hop, identity, specifically localized Arab identity, increasingly became a central focus in his work. He refers to the multi-various guilt complex riddling the diaspora (which Aissa Boundaoui recently touched on in her article “Young Arab-Americans and the ‘Arab Spring’”), and, deftly expanding an understanding of a collective psyche post 9-11, suggests:
“Arabs and Muslims worldwide were forced to defend their stance of being. No longer were we allowed to exist without first discrediting the angst in our war-torn cities and nations, or even disassociating our thoughts from those who are less fortunate in their will to be ‘free.’”
This kind of direct and only seemingly effortless analysis can prove incredibly moving. Furthermore, it is here that one may locate the pointed resistance this poet, and many of his peers in the genre, are offering. Alienated Arabs, within the diaspora or not, will invariably identify with these statements, a clean untangling of the messes embarrassedly pushed to one side.
Before I got my hands on Alsalman’s book this spring, I came across a 2007 track by the Ramallah Underground, a Hip-Hop collective based in the title city. The closing refrain runs like this:
بحاول اطنش بس السياسة بتشدني
بقولها افلتي ما بدي
بتقولي انا جزء من حياتك
مش حتقدر تمشي ضدي.
I try to turn the other way, but Politics pulls me;
I tell her: Let go! I’m not interested.
She says: I’m a part of your life, you won’t be able resist me.
You won’t be able to resist me.
Here, less than twenty incredibly simple words cut to the core of the experience of an extended adolescence. No fronting: I cried the first time I heard it – headphones framed wet cheeks on the morning commute. The attention of these artists, and especially of Alsalman in the closing (opening?) chapter of his book to the anxious ambivalence felt by a generation of Arab youth in the diaspora and in the Middle East, is perhaps the single most effective tool of resistance the genre offers. Alongside overt attention to Palestine and to Iraq, encouraging their brothers and sisters to recognize themselves culturally, politically, and critically as active subjects is an invaluable step towards the further empowering of a generation.
I suppose one of the best things about the movement for the movement, and Diatribes is a fine example, is that its members are so damn articulate. (Multilingual poets would be.) Indeed, what Yassin Alsalman has done with his book is set the bar unusually high for future academic or other critical assessments of a popular musical genre largely performed by an ethnic, religious, or cultural minority. By publishing this tract he has ensured that the quality of writing about him and his colleagues will more closely approach the quality of their own work. Let’s be clear: this is no easy feat.
If hearing accounts of how young Arabs articulate personal emotional and political struggles in their infinite incarnations is healthy for this generation of Arabs, it’s also essential for the West, as conceptions of Mesopotamia necessarily begin to acquire more of the shades of gray necessary for empathetic understanding and collaboration. In an especially loaded moment of uncertainty near the end of his book, Alsalman suggests: “We, as Arabs, are no longer, and probably never have been, one.” But when The Narcicyst says it, it’s not defeatism. I read it more as a brave antidote to tired Nasserism in 2011. This is exactly the kind of complicated optimism that cultural studies desperately needs: simplistic views of culture and politics have led to monolithic Western understandings of the “Arab Street” as homogenously terrorizing and terrorizable entities. And the tired memory of the Arabist dream of the 1960s has left young Arabs unable to articulate productive criticism of themselves or their countries of origin. These artists are getting those voices back. They say: We are united against wrongs we see in the world. But louder than that, I think, they say: We are several. We are individuals. Articulate Arabs in a postmodern world.
Listen to us.
Many thanks to Hass Dennaoui (“Big Hass”) at Re-Volt Radio for much guidance and support.