The state of Qatar is young and old at the same time, immersed in both modernity and tradition. Governed by strict Islamic principles under the supreme power of the emir, Qatar is a place where freedom of speech is very limited, and where artistic expression risks being banned or censored due to its religious content or moral nature. In 2016, it ranked the richest country in the entire world – and spends vast sums of money on establishing itself as a cultural spearhead in the region. This is a story from the perspective of an independent artist invited to play at a festival in Doha, facing the conflict between progressive ambition and repressive ideals.
By Hanna Cinthio a.k.a. Hanouneh INSIGHT
My first thought as I enter the enormous space is that I wish they’d given me the hotel cost as a performance fee instead; I would have happily spent these two nights in the street and put the price of a Hilton suite in my independent artist pocket. I drop my bag on the double bed, pass the office-like desk and draw the heavy curtains; the panorama from the huge curved window is spectacular. The sharp definition of tall, angled structures seems to fade in the dusty heat; the buildings melt into the engineered background landscape – all shapes man-made. I try to feel excited: this view is the only high I can afford since the price of a tiny beer in the minibar is close to $20. I leave the curtains open and yield to the temptation, pull out the bossy leather armchair, take a seat by the desk and put my feet up on the shiny surface as I reach for the built-in phone to my left. And then I laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all.
I have composed a song for a soundtrack. It is my first proper musical contribution to a serious movie, and the process has been balls breaking but very educational. After months of muzzy guidance and implicit communication between the movie crew and me, we have agreed on a final version and – eventually! – a mix that everyone seems pleased with. I have re-recorded an old track of mine, this time with a full live band setting, and my amazing musician friend Nadin al Khalidi has added saz and extra vocals.
The movie is ‘Speed Sisters’, a documentary about an all-female Palestinian racing team, and it is to be premiere screened at the annual Ayjal Youth Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. Now, the festival has asked for some artists to grace the event, and I have been chosen to take the stage alongside Palestinian hip hop group DAM.
Pre-censorship of lyrics
The correspondence surrounding the affair is rather messy, but eventually there is an agreement made. Now, the tickets will get booked and I need to apply for my visa. The schedule is tight in a weird way – I am offered to stay for a couple of days before the show at the expense of the festival, but my return flight is due just a few hours after I’m supposed to perform. I keep getting emails from different persons regarding travel details and passport copies – the usual stuff. But as I am waiting for my visa to be processed, I receive another message regarding the event, and this time, I have to read and re-read a couple of times to even grasp what it says. Apparently, the film festival needs an approval from the Qatari authorities before I am allowed to perform, and for this to happen, I must hand in the lyrics of the songs I am planning to sing, so that they can be “checked”. There is no further information, no advice, nothing – just this short demand.
Flabbergasted, I try to get some kind of guidance from the film crew, but to no avail – they seem equally surprised. I ask my fellow musicians from Palestine, and they, too, have no idea. Finally, the director gets back to me with some rather vague instructions, however discouraging: the lyrics are not to be “political, controversial or sensitive”, and no countries or persons should be named. I stare blankly at her reply as I go over the wordings of the movie theme song in my head. It is an empowering feminist anthem over a compelling dancehall beat and a raging saz, tackling patriarchal traditions, religious hypocrisy and sexual taboos, all ending with a shrill, defiant zaghareet. I take a deep breath and wonder what the hell I am supposed to do now.
Through a good friend, I am put in contact with a stand-up comedian living in Qatar. I explain the situation to him: that politically conscious music is what I do, that the content of basically every song I have ever written or performed would probably qualify as “controversial” according to Qatari standards, and that this very much applies to the specific track that closes the entire movie. He is very helpful and quite pragmatic. Before every comedy show, he tells me, his group needs to apply for a permit, which involves handing in a transcript of the exact jokes they will make. During the four years that they have been active, they have always received the permit, but they have never strictly followed the submitted manuscript. The trick is to generally stick to “safe” topics while occasionally addressing risky subjects in a clever way, through metaphores or subtleties. His recommendation is that I send the lyrics of two or three songs that will likely get accepted, and while on stage just move on to do my thing.
“The guys who issue the permits are supposed to come and check the shows, but I don’t think they usually do”, he says. “And if they should turn up, just tell them you got carried away by the crowd and the reactions! Tell them… it’s a freestyle thing!” Somewhat relieved, I start preparing lyric sheets with less explosive content. After discussing the strategy with the other artists, who do the same, I submit the texts and receive my single-entry visa along with a formal “OK” from the festival one day before my flight. So here I am, feet on desk, in a hotel so luxurious I need to play games with myself not to feel intimidated.
DAM show up the next morning and their singer Maysa shares the room with me, which makes everything better. After a gargantuan hotel breakfast, we escape the searing sun in the most radical way: by going ice skating on a frozen rink at the bottom floor of an oversized shopping mall where I get my Viking ass kicked by the Palestinians. I try not to think about the cost of keeping the ice solid in a surrounding temperature that exceeds 40°C degrees in summer. The exploration continues during the evening and I find myself equally amused and sickened by the surreal architecture of Doha, it’s like an episode of Bob the Builder on acid; an alien kindergarten.
Qatar – a modern creation based on traditional values
On the last day before the show, Maysa and I are crisscrossing between hotels in search of a specific store: her father has asked her to bring back chocolate made from camel milk that seems only to be available in Qatar. As we sing and make jokes – frog milk, dinosaur milk! – we get closer to one of the giant building sites and suddenly we see them: unprotected workers hanging from the facades in clusters, like grapes on a vine; like ants on a hill. Victims of narcissistic whims, they are risking their lives constructing modern day pyramids to please the pharaonic elite of this bizarre place.
For it is a bizarre place. Qatar is in certain ways a very modern creation although its emphasis on traditional values signals the opposite. The nation gained its independency in 1971 after a period of British protection following the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. It is a hereditary monarchy ruled by the Al Thani dynasty since the early 1800s, and the supreme authority of the emir dominates the political landscape. Its only land border is to Saudi Arabia, and like its neighbor, Qatar has considerable reserves of oil and natural gas, which has helped in creating the world’s highest per capita income among a people who used to make a living diving for pearl oysters.
By the beginning of this year, the population was estimated to 2.6 million, out of which only some 300,000 are Qatari citizens. The remaining 88 per cent are expatriates; guest workers from different countries throughout Asia and Africa who cater to the needs and wants of the super-rich and privileged. Since 2001 the population has more than tripled, and women make up less than 25 per cent due to the male majority among foreign laborers. Systematic abuse in combination with a special sponsorship system, kafala, which deprives workers of basic rights and self-determination, has made international human rights organisations and the UN refer to the conditions as forced labour and a form of slavery. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, at least 4,000 migrant workers are expected to die in work related accidents during the preparations for the 2022 Fifa World Cup which is to be held in Qatar. Neither domestic workers, such as maids and cleaners, nor construction workers, are covered by the country’s labour legislation.
Limitations of freedom of expression
The judicial system is mainly religiously based, and in accordance with the hanbali school of jurisprudence the laws of Qatar are very strict. Corporal punishment such as flogging is used, and several crimes are punishable by death, among them apostasy (although no such penalty has been imposed on those charges since the nation was declared independent in 1971). Proselytising and blasphemy are also outlawed, and Article 256 of the penal code states that it is “punishable by up to seven years in prison to commit acts that in any way insult, challenge, abuse, destroy or offend anything connected to “the Supreme Being”, the Qur’an, the prophets, the Islamic religion, its rituals or buildings, or any of “the divine religions protected by Islamic law”.
Notions of Islamic morality are also discernible in regards to official cultural policies. In 2013, ‘Coup de tête’, a bronze sculpture by Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed portraying football players Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi, was removed from public view after conservative Qataris accused it of being anti-Islamic in its “idolatry”. Another example from the same year is the traveling Greek exhibition about the Olympics, which included ancient statues of male nudes that the organisers chose to cover in black cloth to make them less offensive. In 2014, two separate Hollywood movies were banned on religious grounds – ‘Noah’, for depicting messengers and prophets of God, and ‘Exodus’, for misrepresenting religion – and in January 2016, transgender-themed film ‘The Danish Girl’ was banned by Qatar’s Culture Ministry after viewers had complained on social media about the “depraved” content, causing a representative of the ministry to write a tweet thanking the Qatari public for their “unwavering vigilance”.
Quite unsurprisingly, not only religious concerns draw boundaries around the acceptable. Overall, freedom of expression is very limited in Qatar, and self-censorship among journalists and other media professionals is frequent for fear of repercussions. In 2011, the Qatari poet Muhammed Al-Ajami, publicly known as Ibn Al-Dheeb, was arrested on state security charges. The background seems to have been a Youtube video, shot in Cairo, where al-Ajami recited a poem inspired by the Tunisian revolution, in which he talked about a “repressive elite” and referred to Arab regimes as thieves. After three governmentally employed “poetry experts”, belonging to the ministries of education and culture, had stated their opinions on how the content should be interpreted, the court sentenced Al-Ajami to life imprisonment on the grounds of inciting to overthrow the regime and insulting the emir. Many human rights organisations engaged in the case, and in February 2013, Al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced to 15 years, followed by his release in March 2016 after an unexpected pardon.
Now it is 2014 and Ibn Al-Dheeb is still in jail. The premiere night is here and the air is almost sticky with hairspray and perfume: the actual Speed Sisters have arrived from Palestine to watch themselves on screen for the first time and of course, they want to look like a million bucks. DAM and I will perform on a nice outdoor stage overlooking the turquoise water, the tech part feels a bit shaky since our sound check earlier in the afternoon came to an abrupt end because of the dhuhr prayer, but it should be fine. When we arrive in the evening, the entire Katara village is exquisitely lit up to enhance its traditional design. The contrast between the clay walls and the high-end fashion on display is striking. There is a thick red carpet where the local stakeholders parade; bright photoflashes are reflected by bleached teeth and crystal sprinkled mobile shells. My fellow artists and I are certainly not matching the dress code but seem somehow excused in our specific capacity. We find some abandoned sandwiches and stuff ourselves before sneaking backstage to relax before the gig.
A challenging moment
I am opening the performance, and as I am about to start my set, I stupidly scan the audience for any sign of censor board representatives. Realising that I have no idea what such a person would look like, I zoom out and rest in the glittering lights of the horizon.
“Stuffing your backpack / You’ve got a plan
Elevator dressing room like Superman
Your high heels, your tight top, your lip gloss and comb
Wipe off the make-up before you get home
This is a new schizophrenia / Afghanistan, Falasteen or Armenia
Two sets of morals and two sets of clothes / You know when to cover and what to expose…”
The audience seems quite blasé at first but as the ironic Arabic chorus kicks in I see raised eyebrows. I have their attention now, and the strategy suggested by the stand-up comedian seems perfectly legit: I need to do my thing, what is the point in going all the way to Qatar and not say what I have to say?
“We are not safe in these times
When telling the truth is a crime
They try to bring us down
But when a sister falls / I’ll be the next one in line
They claim their authority to act violent
They use force to keep us calm and meek
But we don’t want the right to remain silent
No, we want the right to speak
We want the right to speak our minds in these times
They try to silence us but when one voice fades out
I’ll be raising mine”
As the bouncy bassline of the second track echoes out, I decide to finish with a song I wrote and recorded in Bamako just a few months earlier, together with the legendary vocalist and n’goni player Issa Bagayogo. The islamists had banned music in Mali, and the track we made, mixing English, French, Arabic and Bambara, was a response to the perverted idea of limiting creative expression in the name of a higher power – the Supreme Being, perhaps. I turn around and give a sign to Irfan, the DJ.
“Guided by fear / Frightened by love
Hiding their weakness / Behind words from above
They say they know what’s right / ‘Cause their level of moral is higher
They say they come with the light / Then try to kill our fire
But this is our nature / This is how we’re created by God
Would there be songs in our souls if it’s hated by God?
If each dancing move leads us closer to sin
Why would our hearts beat a rhythm from within?
We don’t want their kind of heaven / We’re not afraid of their hell
This is how we worship and how we rebel
‘Cause God gave us the music / This is how we pray
It’s our duty to use it / And they can’t take it away…”
The final verse approaches and I brace myself for the reactions to the Qur’anic passage that makes up the last line.
“Ils citent leur livre / mais ils oublient
Lakom dinukum wa layyi dini”
(They quote their book, but they forget
“To you your religion, to me mine”)
A line of poetry can generate a life sentence
As I am ushered off the stage towards a waiting taxi, I pass a festival representative whose bleak expression speaks for itself. Before she manages to approach me, I am saved by two guys who seem to know my music and who want to take a picture. I muster a smile; a flash goes off and there: I’m in the comfortable belly of an air-conditioned cab. Less than an hour later, I am passing through the aisles of the spaceship that is Hamad International Airport.
I am torn between wanting to high-five myself for making it out of this crazy scenario, and feeling guilty over the liberties that my passport privilege allows me to take. Not everyone can jump on a plane after dropping subversive lines on stage in an autocracy; not everyone can speak their heart and mind without consequences. Apparently, Qatar is a country where a line of poetry can generate a life sentence, where the Internet is filtered by the government, where “provocative” artwork is removed from public spaces and movies are banned due to “moral depravity”.
At the same time, Qatar aspires to become the number one cultural hub in the region. Vast amounts of petrodollars are invested in exclusive galleries, museums and film festivals, and by value, Qatar is the world’s biggest buyer in the art market. It seems as though the nation seeks to create a specific heritage and identity through a government funded top-down strategy, contrary to the natural and spontaneous growth of popular initiatives. The obsession over cultural prestige in a nation built on injustice, bigotry and repression seems paradoxical at first, but as I sit back on the plane and recall the flamboyant spectacle I just left behind, it all makes perfect sense.
The filthy rich, I think to myself, will always seek to acquire symbols of class and sophistication to match their wealth and perhaps make it look less obscene, and the coveted capital associated with fine arts might just be the last needed element to complete the red carpet look.
Hanna Cinthio a.k.a. Hanouneh is an independent artist and the founder of label Don Dada, through which she has released her own music and managed a number of international projects revolving around creative freedom. She has a history of fusing music with political struggle in her work which often comments on burning issues of conflict, justice, and international solidarity. She has worked closely with the MENA underground scene, blending genres such as reggae, hip-hop and soul, and has toured in the Middle East and West Africa. She is also a scholar within the field of human rights, gender and diversity, and does research and analysis for NGOs internationally.
The lyrics above are all by Hanouneh
Explanation of words
Zaghareet – “ululation”, a high-pitched, trilling cry, traditionally used during celebrations to express emotions of joy, but also sometimes to grieve and honor a deceased person.
Kafala – the much-criticised system through which labor migrants are brought to Middle Eastern countries by local “sponsors” (usually the employer) who are legally in charge of the workers and whose consent is needed for the workers to change jobs or leave the country. The system is widely abused by employers not paying salaries or not releasing workers upon termination of their contracts, using their passports as security.
Hanbali – the smallest and strictest of the four main schools of orthodox jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, refusing some of the methods used by the other schools to derive legal principles. Found primarily in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Dhuhr – the second of the five daily prayers in Islam, around noon
N’goni – a West African rhythm harp said to be the predecessor of the banjo. The kamele n’goni, usually made of calabass and goat skin, has a modern construction with 10-14 strings.
Speed Sisters is a 2014 documentary about five women who make up the first all-female race car driving team in the Middle East. The soundtrack can be found at www.itunes.apple.com
Nadin Al-Khalidi is an Iraqi-born musician, composer, singer and actress living in Malmö, Sweden. She leads the Swedish/Arabic ensemble Tarabband and tours frequently in Sweden and abroad. » www.nadin.se
DAM is a Palestinian hip hop group established in Lyd in the late 1990s. They had their first major hit with ‘Min irhabi?’ (‘Who’s the terrorist?’) in 2001, and are featured in the 2008 documentary ‘Slingshot Hiphop’. » www.damrap.com
Maysa Daw is an independent singer/songwriter and actress from Haifa who has collaborated with dub/reggae movement Ministry of Dub-Key and other Palestinian groups. Since 2013 she is also a member of DAM. » www.facebook.com/MaysaDaw
Issa Bagayogo was born in a rural province in Mali in 1961 and became known as Techno-Issa for his blend of traditional music and modern Western dance influences. A much-loved singer with a gritty, hypnotic voice and a master of the kamele n’goni, Issa sadly passed away in October 2016. » www.sixdegreesrecords.com
The tracks referred to in the article can be found here:
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in February 2017.