Iran and Egypt – where making music means torture and exile

Musical freedom of expression is under fire, but artists like Iran's Farzane Zamen and Egypt's Ramy Essam refuse to be silenced. Cristina Burak has the details

By Cristina Burack

Ramy Essam (above right) processed the events of 9 March 2011 a long time ago. Yet they remain seared in his memory. His arrest by Egyptian army officers. The beatings with wood and metal sticks. The military boots kicking his bare body, stomping on his head. The electric shocks from tasers. And his torturers calling him by his name, "Ramy", making it clear they knew exactly who he was: the musician whose song "Irhal", or "Leave", became the anthem of the Tahrir square protests that toppled long-term President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian Revolution.

Essam faced brutal retaliation from the Egyptian authorities for his politically critical music. And though he's been living in exile in Sweden since 2014, he has not been silenced. In 2018, during the Egyptian presidential campaign, Essam released his single "Balaha". In Arabic, the word means date fruit and in Egypt it's also used generally to describe a person in an unflattering manner. The song criticised the previous four years of government and was aimed at sparking debate among Egyptians before the vote, said Essam.

Music rebels face persecution as dissidents

After the video's publication, the government arrested the lyricist and poet, Galal El-Behairy, as well as music video director Shady Habash and Essam's former social media manager, Mustafa Gamal, even though the latter two were not involved in the song's creation. All three remain in prison on terror-related charges, among others.

For Essam, seeing his artistic collaborators imprisoned was more painful than the torture he experienced. "They hurt other people because of something that I did," he said. He launched the Balaha Case campaign to draw international attention to what he argues is wrongful imprisonment, highlighting his colleagues' plight while addressing a session on freedom of expression at the World Forum on Music (WFM) in Paris on 1 October.

The right to freedom of expression, one of the five music rights outlined by the International Music Council, is increasingly under fire globally. Restrictions on musical expression are being talked about more today than ten years ago.

2019 Freedom House report noted a sharp decline in overall freedom of expression since 2012; while the State of Artistic Freedom 2019 report from Freemuse documented 270 cases of repression in music in 2018, 68 more than the previous year.

"Freedom of expression has always mirrored political developments. When you get more populists, you get more limits to freedom of expression," EMC Co-Secretary General Simone Dudt said. The Freemuse report also showed that of all artists, musicians were those most often had their free expression violated.

Limiting musical freedom of expression takes place at multiple levels, explained Dudt and co-secretary general Ruth Jakobi. "It's not just I cannot perform and I cannot move. It's also I just don't get the opportunity to perform."

From the Iranian underground to a stage career in Scotland

Farzane Zamen faced this situation at home in Iran, where the Islamic government prohibits solo female musicians from publicly performing or publishing their music. Zamen spent most of the past ten years composing songs in her room in Tehran, recording them in private studios and publishing them on online platforms like U.S.-based Radio Javan.

While she was asked to sing at private gigs for mixed audiences, she always turned the opportunities down. "I didn't feel comfortable because anything can happen, even at the concerts where musicians have permission," she recalled.

Zamen has lived in Glasgow, Scotland, since 2017, first as a sponsored artist and then as a refugee. Her decision to apply for asylum was coloured by the release of her first album in 2018. Entitled Z Bent, Zamen described it as a critical take on the discrimination Middle Eastern women face. When she tried to publish the album on Radio Javan, the site's admins turned her away, saying it was too political and that other admins inside Iran had been imprisoned for publishing underground music.

"It was a very sad day for me, because I found myself in a situation where the regime controls even the media outside of Iran," Zamen said. As her album flew under the radar at home there was still a heightened sense of risk after the release. Combined with another crackdown by the regime against protesters and the general musical restrictions in Iran, Zamen then decided to apply for asylum.

Music goes on

Zamen doesn't hold out much hope that the situation for musicians in Iran will be improved. "As long as the Islamic regime is there, the hope for change is zero. Even sub-zero," she said.  And while she wishes she could be at home to connect to music-loving Iranians, she is inspired by her new musical freedom in Scotland. "Here I am a performing artist and I am really good at it," she said with a light laugh. "Honestly!"

Essam cannot return to Egypt. He has also been charged in the Balaha case, which he believes the government is using to intimidate other artists. But he and imprisoned lyricist Galal will continue to make music. They will soon release a song on the Sudanese democracy movement and Essam is currently setting Galal's prison poem "The Tartan Shirt" to music.

Essam doesn't believe there is freedom of expression in Egypt right now, but art can morph around repression, he says. The form may change, "but the message and the core will be there. And the people in the streets are smart enough to understand the message between the lines and behind the words."

Cristina Burack

© Deutsche Welle 2019