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Egyptian Singer Tackles Real, Metaphorical Walls

  • Elizabeth Arrott
  • Japhet Weeks

The Fair Play international music awards honor young musicians for their work exposing corruption and oppression around the world. This year's winner, who will travel to Brazil in November to receive her award, comes from Egypt.

Egyptian songwriter Youssra el-Hawary is new to performing, but she won the global music award with her first video Al Soor, or The Wall.

El-Hawary set her video against walls built by Egypt's military rulers earlier this year around government ministries in Cairo.

Youssra El Hawary, 29 at her home in Cairo. (Yuli Weeks/VOA)

Youssra El Hawary, 29 at her home in Cairo. (Yuli Weeks/VOA)

In a light and lilting voice, el-Hawary tells the story of a “poor man” who stands before a wall and “peed - on the wall, and on those who built it.”

It's a cheeky dig at the authorities, at one with the sunny scenes protesters painted on the imposing walls.

But the lyrics, from a poem by her friend Walid Taher, were written in 2005, well before last year's revolution. "When Walid wrote it, he didn't mean this wall, of course. It was more like a philosophy, about any wall," she said.

The military's walls have since fallen, like the old government before it. But even after democratic elections, el-Hawary says, other barriers remain.

"For the government, I see that nothing changed. I don't see that we have more freedom now actually. It's still the same. Actually, I face more problems in the arts after the revolution,” she said.

El-Hawary lives on a bustling street not far from Cairo's Tahrir Square. In general, she is optimistic, heartened that her fellow Egyptians have been empowered by the revolution. And despite growing concern for women under an Islamist government, she says she has not suffered for not wearing the veil.

Watch Youssra el-Hawary perform Al Soor, or The Wall (Video by Japhet and Yuli Weeks)

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There is a freshness to the 29-year-old singer, who also is an actor and a mime - a contrast to the pop trends common among her contemporaries.

And then there is the accordion. "I wanted to play an instrument that I can take anywhere because I was very jealous of my friends," said el-Hawary. "They can take guitars on trips or something. And I play piano, so I can't take it anywhere.”

Although the instrument is played in Egypt, el-Hawary evokes a French style that she balances with Middle Eastern melodies. She says the novelty of “a young girl playing the accordion in Cairo” helped make The Wall a success. She recalls posting the video late one night.

"I woke up the next morning with my phone saying that I had 350 emails and 400 notifications on Facebook and I said, 'There's something wrong with my phone,'" she said.

The song went viral, catching the attention of the Fair Play judges in Brazil, where she will receive her prize in November and take part in a “Voices Against Corruption” festival. Hers is a political voice, and a strong one, yet light, cheerful and sly.

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