The Case of the Missing Liver
I saw the news on my timeline. Practically all the rappers, groupies, and back-up singers, as well as a few people working in the arts, were posting their condolences for the late star: their friend, their brother, and so on, and so on.
Daddy was dead.
It had been a short-lived friendship. That’s what I thought as the news sunk in. But then it hit me that I’d actually known Daddy for seven years, no short space of time.
I loved his voice, and was crazy about his energy onstage — at street parties and fancy hotel weddings. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed by Time, the way it crashes down on us in numbers and news articles. So I decided to go to the funeral, maybe to bid goodbye to Time itself. I don’t know, these existential thoughts and emotional tangents make me paranoid and keep me from thinking straight.
The reason I’m saying all this is to explain how I found out about his mutilated body and missing liver. Maybe I’d hoped this intriguing little detail would make my own life more interesting, by flaunting an array of mangled body parts the way a peacock flashes its feathers.
I called a friend of the deceased who lived in the neighborhood, to find out where the funeral was being held, where the mosque was. Fifty picked up the second time I rang. He told me that he’d been detained for questioning and was just leaving the station, but that he’d try to make it to the funeral.
Things were out of place, but the police were on the case.
I was the arts reporter for an Arabic magazine, and wrote a feature or two a month. I kept asking to do a story about something which, at the time, I called street music. Mahragan music, electro shaaby, Egyptian dance music, street music: whatever you called it, the music was fast-paced, high energy, and insanely popular. And after insisting for ages, the managing editor finally gave in.
But from then on, my editor told me exactly what she thought, especially whenever I filed a story and attached a few blurry, poorly-lit pictures I’d taken with my phone, none bigger than two megabytes. “No Ahmed, no. . . this isn’t the kind of work I expect. I can’t publish any of it — look, they’re doing drugs in this one.”
I wasn’t a good photographer. So I never considered getting a proper camera.
My editor was waiting for a piece about some band, a bunch of college kids who sang in foreign cultural centers and postured as singers from the street. Instead, I turned in blurry photographs of teenagers from Salam City in their flashy clothes, masquerading as gangsters on streets flooded with wastewater, while hazy in the background were the rapidly-built slums that had popped up after the earthquake in the nineties.
As for drugs, there were two pictures of Daddy holding a blunt, flattened on one end, its embers burning like a tiny sun. In the photograph he was fifteen years old, skinny, hadn’t even started shaving. That’s how his fans would remember him: in his golden era, before his sudden death.
According to reviews by colleagues that I’d read, Daddy took on his stage name around the time he started shaving his head with a single-blade razor. All of a sudden he looked like oldest one in his group, that first wave of mahragan singers.
The first time Daddy and I had met was over in Figo’s cramped shop, to do an interview for an article that never went to press. I kept addressing him as Mohamed Abdel Salam, his given name, but everyone else just called him Daddy. His coarse, kinky hair was grown out, with relaxer combed into it, and slicked back with shiny, greasy gel. I figured the nickname “Daddy” was some derivation of Abdel or Abdo, but being a journalist I feigned ignorance and didn’t venture a guess. When later that day I asked “Why do they call you Daddy?” he sang a snippet of a song I’d later hear him perform in concert many times. “Quit messing around / You’re with Daddy now.” Then he stopped singing and said plainly: “Stick with Daddy.”
That day in the shop, I heard about their legendary misadventures with girls, and Daddy mentioned the time he and Figo both slept with one babe in the same night. But even when it came to his escapades, Daddy didn’t really boast. The conversation was mostly about their friends, music, girls, and idiots in the neighborhood. I left surprised, and a bit jealous, of their carefree love lives full of opportunity. I didn’t divulge their liberal private lives in that article, though. I did mention hash, but only as the subject of some of their songs. Anyways, the article didn’t get published. And even though Daddy never asked me about it, I’d occasionally sense a bit of a smug look in his eyes, like the time we were in a studio session with Figo, and later Haha too, and he sang the lines: “A friendship I regret today / He marked my heart, he cast his shade / He made my smile fade away.”
Two years after we first met, Daddy would appear on television for the first time, and I would be the one who got him there. I knew that looking back, he’d be really happy about that first meeting: everyone in the neighborhood would watch the broadcast and let out a celebratory trill when Daddy appeared. His rates for weddings would go up, and then. . . watch out world!
Fifty didn’t exaggerate. The government was there even in death.
I didn’t meet up with Fifty the day of the funeral, because there was no funeral service the day I planned to see him. Forensics collected the body and examined it, issued a report two days later, and then turned the body over to his family for burial. The service was held that evening, after his family laid his mangled body to rest.
At first, I thought Fifty was exaggerating when he told me about the mutilated body and missing liver. But the violent nature of his lifestyle made me think it perfectly reasonable that Daddy — who often sang about thugs, fights, violence, roots, weapons, and how to oil and clean your knife — spent the last minutes of his life in a fight. The basic details I overheard at the funeral that night all lined up. Daddy was found dead in his small, ground-floor flat. His body was cut up, and his liver gone. His mother collapsed when she heard the news, and she was still out cold.
I confirmed these facts later that day, when I saw that a news site everyone knew to be Muslim Brotherhood (and against the military coup), had published an article under the headline “Pro-Coup Mahragan Singer Dies.” Lots of people were sharing the news on their timelines. There were nasty comments from Islamists, and the article contained a detailed description of how Daddy’s body was disfigured. I was as angry as anyone at the article, but none of it surprised me. Daddy had devoted whole verses in several songs satirizing these ‘sheeple,’ the Brotherhood.
I continued to follow the story, and over the next few days an idea kept popping into my head as more news about the incident was uncovered. Finally, I rang Fifty and asked him to meet up, but he said he was exhausted from being called in and questioned again and again. He didn’t have time. I didn’t pressure him for an interview. I was more interested in finding out exactly which part of the legal system was pursuing the case, and which prosecutor was doing the interrogating.
I asked two colleagues from the magazine’s criminal justice section for help finding out more information, but they told me that people were keeping their lips sealed about the case, and that signs pointed to them being close to identifying and arresting the murderer.
I met up downtown with Ali, a.k.a. “Ducky,” on my way to Salam City to see Daddy’s home for myself. For years Ducky had been my way into this world of mahragan music.
My world was about as far away as it gets from Salam City and Matareyya. I grew up middle class, with no great ambition to change the world and plenty of prejudice about all the things I knew nothing about; I was completely uninterested in anything beyond my social class.
Ducky was a skinny brown boy who exuded sex appeal in everything he did, all the way down to how his sweat smelled when he danced. Or at least that was the case when we’d first met more than ten years earlier, when I was introduced to him as a modern dancer at the Rawabet Theater. I don’t know how he got from Salam City to downtown, or how he discovered the world of modern dance, but he was a member of a troupe that formed in an old garage that was turned into a theater. The space and troupe both received generous funding from the European Union, to support cultural dialogue and Europe’s crucial role as a patron of contemporary arts, including modern dance.
Duck had clearly proven his skills in winning Europeans’ trust and money. When I met up with him all these years later downtown, he’d put on a little weight, wore flashy clothes and glasses with yellow frames, and his long hair fell down to his shoulders. He looked more like a pansy from Zamalek. Too upscale. He traveled and performed with local and international dance groups and participated in all sorts of performances and festivals. He’d also received a grant to dance in France, and had taken advantage of the opportunity to learn the language. He could speak it fluently now, and even though his reading and writing were weak, when he returned he made a name for himself as a choreographer and spread a rumour that he had a diploma in choreography. He also slept with a certain Frenchman — a cultural relations official — and so his little dance troupe consistently received generous funding from the French.
We shook hands on the street corner of Mahmoud Bassiouni and Champollion. We chatted a little, and then I told him I was on my way to Salam City to pay a visit to the Abdel Salam family. I hadn’t gotten a chance to give my condolences to Daddy’s mother, who had missed the funeral because she’d still been in the hospital. I didn’t tell him I was hoping to find out more about the incident and how the investigation was going. He said he’d come with me, and that he had heard the investigator had found the killer. It was probably just another victim, though, some poor schmuck sacrificed to put an end to the media circus around the whole thing.
We decided to go together and took a bus with air-conditioning out to Ain Shams. We sat next to each other, behind a huge woman who looked like the epitome of Egyptian motherhood, aside from her ample ears which stuck right through her hijab. Hers, unlike a donkey’s ears, weren’t covered in hair, just skin the same brown as her complexion. As a result of spoilt food, carcinogenic pesticides that have infiltrated most of Egypt’s soil, and high rates of pollution that multiplied with radiation leaks and the use of coal to generate power, a whole new landscape of illnesses and genetic transformations have emerged. And just as Egyptians had adapted to their environments and rulers for thousands of years, they were also able to live comfortably with all of this.
I found out that the last time Ducky had seen Daddy was about a year ago in Marseille, when he was singing in a festival under the banner of “miraculous revolutions” and the Arab Spring. Ducky may have had a polished appearance and veneer of class, but he still stopped mid-sentence and hawked, gathered the saliva in his mouth, then spat it onto the floor of the air-conditioned bus. The woman pretended not to notice, and focused on whatever he was blathering on about: his project to choreograph a dance performance based on mahragan songs, and the theme he’d picked out, the rise and fall of Daddy, a local mahragan singer who’d made it to the world stage.
Ducky had been hoping to get Daddy’s approval to use a song in the performance, but now that he was dead, he was probably trying to solidify his relationship with Daddy’s family to get their permission.
It only took half an hour together for me to remember why I’d stopped hanging around with Ducky. He was completely vapid, and as he’d grown older his sense of humor had given way to a weighty French artistic solemnity. When we first met his smile was stuck on his face like a contact lens on an eyeball, and he used his clever, lighthearted sense of humor to bridge the class gap between his world and that of downtown, with its dancers who often greeted each other in English. We once used to sit in coffee shops late into the night, smoking shisha cut with a bit of hash, and two or three times I hung out with him at his home in Salam City. It was on one of those occasions that I first met Daddy, who was just fourteen at the time. His dancing was a mix of hip-hop steps and Michael Jackson moves, and sometimes he performed with a group hired by weddings to fire up the party. He and his friends would go to the wedding, get on stage behind the singer, start dancing, and throw the groom into the air. They earned 50 pounds a gig, and a catered wedding dinner too.
His obsession with street dance led him to a passion for rap music. Come to think of it, the nickname he started using around then might have been a reference to the rap artist Puff Daddy. At more than one wedding Daddy stepped forward to take the mic, lead the dance team, and give shout outs right and left, left and right. Daddy became a wedding emcee, but his aspirations were higher.
Ducky and I arrived at Daddy’s family’s home, a small flat amid apartment blocks the state had quickly constructed to shelter victims of the earthquake in the nineties. His mother welcomed us in, hugged Ducky and shook my hand as she murmured words of grief. Her face was pale and her eyes red but she seemed to be holding it together. She had two daughters and Daddy: her youngest child and the only boy. A photograph of Daddy was hanging in the living room; in it he had short hair, smooth skin that hadn’t yet sprouted a beard, and smiling white teeth. The picture was an old one, a photo of a mother’s son before he became Daddy, and a black sash hung across the frame. A recording of the Kuwaiti imam Mishary Rashid reciting the Quran emanated from the speakers in Daddy’s room, which I remembered visiting years earlier. This had been his headquarters where he met with people, recorded, worked, and had fun, before he was able to rent a little shop on the ground floor. Later he connected the shop to a flat with a bedroom and living room, and that became his artistic residence, covered with color, graffiti, cables, speakers, recording equipment, hard drives, and CDs.
We sat with heads bowed while the recording played of Mishary Rashid reciting the Quran, in accordance with the rules of how it should be pronounced and avoiding any blasphemous melodies. He spoke so quickly that there wasn’t even a second of silence for us to contemplate the verses or engage in a moment of sympathy. We sat there quietly anyways, and before “the Duck” or I could say a word Daddy’s mother burst into tears. A man in a grey galabeyya sitting next to her tried to soothe her, murmuring There is no god but God, there is no god but God, Sister, and I guessed that he was Daddy’s uncle. His mother wailed louder, and the grieving uncle looked like he was losing control of the situation. A boy of about twelve scurried towards him and handed him a bottle of water, and then the uncle gestured at us to enter Daddy’s bedroom. A woman emerged from the bathroom, smoothing the black abaya that cleaved to her corpulent body, and she proceeded to hug Daddy’s mother, who practically disappeared as though swallowed by a great black whale. Finally, we pressed on into Daddy’s room with the boy, who headed to the computer and turned the volume down on Mishary slightly.
The mahragan star’s bedroom contained a double bed with a stiff and tattered cotton mattress, a two-door wardrobe, and a sofa with a wooden frame and firm cotton pillows covered in fabric with a large floral print. The third wall was occupied by a table with a computer and sound recording equipment. This equipment was what Daddy started singing and recording on before he met the Doctor; before the cash flowed in and he opened the shop as the headquarters for his gang, his ‘team’ as he called them in English.
When I sat down in the room, I realized that the last time Ducky had been here was with me and a French journalist. She’d paid him fifty dollars to show her around Salam City and meet Daddy, whose star had begun to rise. He’d also told her that he could translate for her, but instead of actually doing it he took me along and then tossed me in to interpret her interview with Daddy. I didn’t realize that she’d paid him fifty until Fifty told me.
We’d sat in the room and Fifty had been there too, observing. He didn’t interrupt the conversation, but he also didn’t quit taking his long tail out of his shorts and playing with it in front of her.
At this point, I should say that Fifty was a werewolf. When he was young he’d been bitten by a salawa, a dog-like beast that some people thought was just a myth. They took him to the hospital and gave him a rabies vaccine, but the active ingredient was contaminated, so it only half-worked, and as a result he half-transformed. He had the legs and tail of a wolf, thick soft hair covering his back, and, according to some, the ability to smell betrayal. He’d smelled it in the room that day, and when he did he grabbed my hand and insisted on staying there until Ali “the Duck” left with the French journalist and Daddy shut the door behind them. “There’s something not right about that kid,” Fifty said. “I know, man,” said Daddy, reading the look in his eyes. “It’s true, we need him, but I’ll throw a fit if he sets foot in my house again.”
We left Daddy’s building after a few minutes of silence with his uncle. I hadn’t said more than a sentence of condolence to his mother when we came in, and didn’t dare ask his uncle how the investigation was going, not in the middle of Mishary Rashid’s recitation and with Daddy’s mother’s wailing. Ducky invited me to hang out with him in his brother’s pigeon hutch on the roof that evening, but I couldn’t stand any more of his boring company, which dragged me down like rocks in my trousers. So I made an excuse and walked around Salam City instead. The sidewalk was almost entirely covered by puddles of wastewater, with algae and long grasses growing at the edges. This created islands of green that covered the pools, and transformed the heart of the neighborhood into algae flats that actually worked to clean the air and preserve green spaces in the district.
That night I walked towards the shop, the place I’d often met up with Daddy over the years, and also the scene of the crime. When I arrived I found the door half open and a red light shining from inside. I pushed the door open and Fifty appeared. The shop had been turned upside down, the bathroom tap was on, and water was overflowing onto the black ceramic floor tiles. Fifty had rolled up his trousers and was bailing the red-tinged water out of the shop. We didn’t hug or shake hands. Several chairs were piled on the desk, and I lifted one off, adjusted it, and sat down. Fifty had lost a lot of weight. I took a piece of hash from my wallet and started crumbling it into some tobacco against my palm.
Fifty said the government had caught the killer, a kid named Steel who had gotten into a fight with Daddy at a wedding a few days earlier. Ten days after the incident he turned himself in and said he was the one who’d killed Daddy, but the liver still hadn’t turned up. The kid apparently threw it away.
What with the whole liver business, the government suspected Fifty, but to be honest they were always suspicious of the werewolves, jackals, and fox pups in the neighborhood. Those three sections of society were known for their love of human liver. But they found the last call Daddy made to Steel on his phone, and when they pulled up the recording it was clear that plenty of insults were exchanged, each of them threatening to fuck the other’s mother or sister. I interrupted Fifty mid-flow.
“And where were you that night?”
“My Lord most merciful of souls, which our eyes have longed to see $$ Oh Lord forget their savagery $$ And be pleased with them $$ Oh Lord terrible is the torment of the grave, turn their graves into a garden of the gardens of Paradise.”
These were the words I found posted as an update on Daddy’s personal account, there in front of me. I messaged him right away. You ok man?
A reply came in less than a minute: May Mohamed Abdel Salam rest in peace, this is his nephew, we’re opening his account for prayers and excerpts from the Quran. Mercy and light on his soul.
I shifted in my seat in front of the computer. I wrote to the account of mercy and light, asking which of Daddy’s nephews he was. I knew Khaled, who was closer to Daddy and sometimes hung out with us, but it was Hamza operating the account. I’d seen him when I came to the house to bring food for the funeral with Ali “the Duck”, but hadn’t really met him given everything else going on.
I called Khaled and asked him how he was doing, and he said he was still sad about his uncle, but he’d started thinking about singing himself and wanted to go to weddings, so I invented a white lie and said I was doing a story about Daddy’s family. I told them I wanted to meet him and Hamza in their uncle’s room, to photograph them and talk to them. Khaled got excited; his uncle had often greeted me in front of him as a journalist and media guy who got him on television.
The rest wasn’t hard. Hamza had access to Daddy’s Facebook account from his tablet, and I got the password to his Facebook account and email. Actually, I logged onto his account from the tablet and changed the password. I also went through the rest of Daddy’s stuff in the room while I was chatting with the boys, and then I left, channeling the spirit of cartoon sleuth Detective Korombo.
I couldn’t sift through the archives of Daddy’s messages when I got home because my girlfriend was in a bad mood. She had decided to come over for some comfort, and so the evening was lost to laughter, moaning, and her sweet company.
After she left the next morning, the first thing I did was enter the new password to Daddy’s account. I spent time reading his messages and archives, and sipping green tea — this was my attempt to start the day with a healthy diet, an intention I renewed each morning and consistently abandoned by evening. I looked in his inbox and first pulled up his messages with Fifty. The last one was sent about two days before Daddy was killed. And I can say with confidence that motives for the crime were all there, though there was no actual evidence of Fifty’s involvement in the murder of his friend, brother, and companion.
Very few people might understand what their last few conversations meant. But I, by chance, was one of those few: I’d been there for plenty of details they discussed in those final chats.
From a production standpoint, the process of recording, mixing, and distributing mahragan songs went against all market norms. First, mahragan singers didn’t exactly recognize intellectual copyright laws, and lots of them borrowed phrases or even whole songs from each other. Their songs weren’t licensed, they were all creative commons, available for everyone, they uploaded them online and made them downloadable by anybody for free, and so songs spread from tok toks to mobile phones to computers in net cafes and pool halls.
As the West, and particularly France, grew more interested in mahragan music, Ismail “the Cabbage” appeared, a graduate of the German school and a failed rebel against social hierarchies. For years he’d tried to blaze a trail into the music world, only to spend years playing metal songs with English lyrics at small, cramped, and sporadic concerts. Cabbage was getting older, and when his father passed away, he used the money he inherited to open a small studio, which he turned into a production company called Dawayer.
Ismail had picked up his nickname “Cabbage” from the years he’d spent playing heavy metal. I didn’t know where the name came from, but Daddy teased him about it behind his back, saying he refused to eat grape leaves and always chose the stuffed cabbage instead.
Ismail descended on Daddy and the mahragan boys like a paratrooper, by virtue of his facility with more than one European language. He marketed them abroad, provided them with advanced recording equipment, signed contracts with YouTube and other sites he sold the boys’ songs to, and gave them a few thousand pounds in return. It always looked to me like he was taking advantage of them, plain and clear; I could never stand the smell of cabbage. But Daddy figured it was better than he could do himself.
In the mahragan world, the only contract that counts for anything is your word. And Cabbage’s words were just strings of lies.
Two years later they found out that Cabbage had been introducing himself as their business manager and taking a cut of all their concerts and work without telling them. Meanwhile, Daddy’s group had expanded to include Doctor Haha, Fifty, Ghost, and various other friends, fans, and followers.
Daddy stopped working with Cabbage, but less than a year later, the Voice of Egypt company appeared on the scene with the aim of monopolizing all the artists, by bullet or bribe. Daddy refused to join and decided he would rather go back to his roots: recording freely, uploading songs himself, and relying on concerts and weddings. But the messages in front of me made it clear that Fifty wasn’t happy. They revealed that Fifty had actually signed with Voice of Egypt. But at the time, he was still in Daddy’s shadow. Fifty was the echo to Daddy’s voice, the hype man when Daddy sang. I could see in the messages that the Voice of Egypt company wanted to buy the rights to all the songs that Fifty and Daddy had collaborated on, and Daddy refused to sign, and at this point their disagreement had escalated from arguments to threats. So how had all this sat with Fifty?
“You’re killing me, bro,” he responded in one of their conversations. “You’re stealing years of work that belong to me.”
I was no a criminal investigator, but I knew I’d discovered something in all these messages and threats from Fifty. It was clear that Daddy had responded to them by trying to contain the situation, and he’d refused to sign or work with Voice of Egypt. “Because they’re a military company, and if you hand yourself over to them today, they’ll have their foot on your neck tomorrow.” I picked up the phone and called Fifty, who surprised me with a big hello and an invitation to his engagement party.
Life had calmed down. I arrived at the compound gate and mentioned the name Fifty, but none of the security officers seemed to recognize it. “You here for the party, sir?” one of them asked. I nodded. He looked at my ID card, wrote down the information, and pointed me in the right direction.
I arrived at the villa and tried to take in everything around me, registering that all this was an engagement party for Fifty: mahragan star and Wolf of the Mic. No street, no stage, no weed to smoke, and no lights — instead there was a sprawling villa garden with a DJ at one end, a swimming pool, and guests everywhere. The villa was a white three storey building with green windows and doors, and walls engraved with the wings of birds of prey. In front of the main villa was another building, modern but smaller, a one-storey building with three rooms which looked to me like a pool house. This building was contemporary; its cement walls fitted with tinted glass.
I didn’t see anyone I knew, though there were several film and TV stars I recognized, people who worked in entertainment and advertising, the owners of fast food chains. Not a whiff of Salam City’s wastewater.
I spotted Doctor Haha over in the corner. He was standing with a spliff in his hand, smoking serenely, by himself as usual. I started walking over to him, but halfway across the yard I felt a length of fur wrap around my right arm and grab me. It was Fifty’s tail.
“Dude. . .”
His face split into a wide grin. I shook his hand enthusiastically, and to my surprise he hugged me with exaggerated gusto. Before we could start the usual greetings I heard a strange panting sound, and someone calling his name. He apologized with a laugh. “Guys, come here and I’ll introduce you.” He took me by the hand and I saw that his fiancée, who he’d apparently started calling “guys,” was an actress, comedian, and singer named Fatima “the Seal”.
Fatima had appeared on the scene a few years earlier. She’d started off as a comedy actress, and since she was skinny, with prominent bones, most of her roles relied on her body as the butt of the jokes. Then she decided to change all that, and underwent a series of cosmetic surgeries. At the time, the trendiest procedure used blubber extracted from seals instead of silicone, but for some reason the operation ended up resulting in a genetic shift. After her mutation, the public started calling her Fatima “the Seal”. Her features became more feminine and she developed a wattle, like a turkey’s. Her voice changed too, and she gained new singing abilities that actually helped advance her career. She earned critical acclaim alongside opera stars and singers from the Gulf, and now she was on her way to marrying Fifty, a rising mahragan star more than twenty years her junior.
In the Godfather films, religious and family celebrations have the air of Shakespearean drama, in the way the characters are introduced, and how the seeds of their relationships are planted. So did Fifty’s engagement party — it opened up a new world for me. Maybe it had always been there, but that night I was let in for the first time.
They turned up the music after midnight, but from inside the little building next to the swimming pool you could see everything in the garden without hearing a thing, probably because of the acoustic insulation and double-pane glass. I liked watching all these people move to the music in apparent silence save the gurgle of water from the tap in the en suite bathroom.
Then the sound of the water ceased, and I heard the click of high heels on ceramic tile. A woman’s voice interrupted my reverie as I gazed at the silent dance scene.
“Bulletproof, soundproof, heatproof too.”
In the room was a wide bed, and two massage chairs you could connect to an app on your phone to control how it massaged the muscles of your legs, back, and even your ass. Across from the chairs was a glass table and a plush sofa, and sitting there was Doctor Haha. There were lines of white powder on the glass table in front of him, but he preferred the lit joint in his one hand and the can of beer in his other. In the corner in front of him was a plain-looking desk, and behind that sat Mr. Barakat, dressed in a suit that was too big for him — as it had been since he first laid eyes on it, and as it would be when they buried him in it.
Doctor Fayza Nahawy extended her hand in greeting. I shook her damp palm, not knowing why I was here or who Doctor Fayza was, aside from having seen her name listed as Managing Director on TV networks like Hayat, Tahrir, and Tanweer. I also knew that she was a partner at the biggest advertising agency in the market, the one that held a monopoly on online ads and news sites. She launched into a long speech about technology, the Internet, a new world, a market filled with opportunities, and — most of all — YouTube (which wanted to steal our hard work, suck up all our energy, and spit us out without a cent), but I didn’t understand what she was getting at. She kept on talking, while I nodded and smiled, and when she stopped for a moment to catch her breath between sentences I looked at Doctor Haha as if to say, “Come on man, what does this have to do with us?”
Doctor Haha passed me the half-finished joint, and Doctor Fayza seemed to take the gesture as a sign that I was getting restless. She went over to the massage chair and sat down, then took out her iPhone and kept talking.
“Look here Ahmed, here’s the deal: what I want from you is a written, methodical work plan. How we can rein in in those kids on the Internet and save Egyptian music.”
Silence filled the room. She lifted up her iPhone, typed something on the screen, and then turned to Haha.
“I mean, can you tell me why there’s not a single nationalist mahragan song, or one about the Egyptian army? Why is that? We want people to love you, we want your songs on TV, and we want you making money. Why not?”
After my third hit of the joint, my nerves calmed down and my muscles relaxed. I looked at Doctor Fayza. “Alright.”
I’d never had more than twelve thousand Egyptian pounds in my bank account in my whole life, but after one month of light work, meetings, and planning with Doctor Fayza, my bank statement showed fifty thousand. All in just a month. It reminded me of a line in a song by some mahragan singer whose name I forget: “We got no choice — it’s steal or deal.” But not even those two choices could earn you fifty thousand pounds a month. And I knew this was just the beginning. As soon as the real work began, sales would increase and the money would start flowing, and then I’d start getting a cut of the profit, not just a monthly salary.
I hardly knew what to do with fifty thousand pounds. I flagged down a taxi, told him to take me to the Four Seasons, and decided to treat myself to a massage, Moroccan bath, scrub, rubdown, and pedicure.
Our sales plan depended on several tracks. I knew we had nightlife, weddings, and bachelor parties in our pocket, so all that remained was to reach the middle class. We had to make them feel part of it, feel that mahragan music wasn’t just for those from a lower social class. We also had to find a way for political players and the national discourse to make use of this energy, this ‘explosive’ power in the mahragan beat.
So I looked to the stories of American rappers for inspiration. Clearly the way forward was to take Daddy’s death and construct some enigmatic rumors. Create an icon. The security forces hadn’t yet managed to pin his murder on anyone. But in microbus stations, and in front of elementary and secondary schools, posters showing Bob Marley, Tupac, and Daddy were everywhere. Then came lots of posters, just of Daddy.
Of course, before all this I’d convinced Daddy’s grieving mother, and the uncle who descended on the family to provide a male role model, to sign with us in exchange for a big advance. With that, we obtained rights to use all of Daddy’s work, none of which had been licensed, as we wished. Dr. Fayza and Mr. Barakat created ways to legitimize mahragan music and related merchandise, and then they established intellectual property laws. They sued Mahmoud Mataba more than once, and their rights agents hounded DJs who played mahragan music without obtaining the proper permissions.
There wasn’t room anymore for small time producers like Mataba or Studio Kanka. In this new world, songs weren’t the only product of mahragan music, we also had plans to manufacture clothing and chains, as well as posters, and accessories for cars and tok toks. Next we started producing popular perfumes named after famous songs and mahragan stars. And before we knew it, the Internet was flooded with Daddy’s photographs and songs.
Kids loved him. Because he’d died so young, and because his songs were filled with violence and fighting, he came to represent a self-confident soul who had “Music from my head to my feet / Listen to rap or shaaby beat / I meet the world and bring the heat.” People started wearing T-shirts with a photo of Daddy opening a flip knife, or with a joint in the corner of his mouth. He became an icon. Everyone wanted to wear clothing with him printed on it, and there was a resurgence of his older music, too — though this time it wasn’t available for free on the Internet. You could download it, but it cost you half a pound.
We started working the back catalog, reissuing and updating the classics. With Fifty for instance, we produced a new album for him with several star Arab singers. Doctor Haha took care of distribution, and turned these songs into the Holy of Holies at weddings and dance clubs. The album included songs that married mahragan music with music the Gulf Arabs loved, proving that mahragan music was accepted by stars like Abdallah Belkhair, Hussain Al Jassmi, Waed, and other Gulf singers. We dropped songs that shook the world and lit the roof on fire, including some that blended Bedouin music from the Levant with mahragan music. Cash was flowing and our power was growing. We also quietly sponsored a group of people who opposed mahragan music and spoke out against it, so it would stay a subject of debate on talk shows. The hosts would always invite one of our company’s musicians or singers, and every time I insisted they call Hilmy Bakr, a prominent and established composer, who I knew would interject with an attack on mahragan singers.
Objections like these only strengthened the music’s character and the younger generations’ affinity for it. More and more it became it a way for them to express their identity and independence in the face of people like Hilmy. It paved the way for a new tomorrow; there was no room for Hilmy except his grave, all while the stars of happiness continued to ascend.
I too was bidding farewell to my old life, distancing myself from journalism and writing. Now my days were lost to sitting in meetings, making arrangements for ad campaigns, and seeing time seep away; to cigarettes; to back pain from not walking or moving around enough, and to Mr. Barakat’s advice to walk at least half an hour every day. Dr. Fayza warned me to stay in shape and get rid of my paunch, so I went to the gym, and downed protein shakes and dietary supplements. I changed my body and increased my whisky and cognac consumption, and whenever my head spun I thought of you as spears drank my innards, and Indian blades dripped red with my blood, and I said mercy and light on you a thousand times, Daddy.
But even with how far we’d come, I knew that my job here wasn’t yet done. Just as with any type of art or music, in order to establish a place in accepted history and the Egyptian psyche, mahragan music needed to gain the acceptance of the authorities. It needed to weave itself into the national fabric, and the threads of that fabric are national discourse on military victories. This, I knew, would be the hardest step yet.
But like the dog who lunges at the river for his reflected bone, and so drops the one he’d been carrying, I was soon to learn that you can’t have it all. My relationship was falling apart; under pressure from work, passion was in its death throes. The girlfriend and I sat down together to find a way forward, searching for any life still beating in our love as it faded. But my phone rang in the middle of our conversation; Mr. Barakat’s number appeared, and since I’d been waiting for his call I answered it and told her to hold on a minute.
I turned my back to her as I took the call. Barakat told me that they’d managed to sign a contract with an agency to organize the annual celebrations the October War victory and the Glorious Revolution Day. I asked him for details, and my pulse quickened as the news I’d been waiting for poured out, and when I finally hung up the phone and turned back around, I couldn’t find her anywhere.
Celebrations for the Great Victory and October Revolution involved troops from every branch of the armed forces, in dazzling parades through Grandstand Square. Doctor Haha had written all the music for the celebration; oriental melodies accompanied the troops’ choreography as lights from the laser show intersected the square.
The troops acted out the history of the Egyptian nation: the triumphant struggle of its people and military from the dawn of time until the tree of nationalism, watered by the martyrs’ blood, finally bore fruit. The backdrop of the stage was a huge screen, and as the last martyr fell in the troops’ choreography, a photograph of Daddy appeared on screen, standing straight and tall, with his chest thrust forward, giving a military salute, as the Egyptian flag fluttered behind him and musicians played the national anthem. Then suddenly, the anthem dropped into a mahragan track with thumping bass and electronic tabla samples, and Fifty appeared onstage, shouting in his harsh, raspy voice: “I dish it out and you lap it up / I sing the words now you listen up / Egypt, my country, will shake you up” to the latest nationalistic mahragan song: “My country, my hero, you outshine our rivals.” I’d made sure that during the concert he looked and gestured towards the President every time he said the words ‘my hero.’ And sure enough, halfway through the song, the camera zoomed in on the president’s face as a simple smile traced its way across his lips. Then there was a wide shot of the front row, filled with senior state officials sitting alongside him. And with my own eyes, I saw the president’s left foot tapping along with the beat. That, for me, was even than the handshake we’d shared earlier that day.
After months of exhausting work organizing concerts, I decided to spend two days at home. I woke up from a deep sleep, went to the bathroom, washed my hands and face, brushed my teeth, and decided to shave my beard, as I’d noticed a few white hairs.
But first I decided to cook a piece of steak with pasta and bechamel sauce. I walked out of the bathroom and into the kitchen, and headed to the refrigerator to take the meat out and let it thaw while I shaved and showered. I opened the freezer and found a tightly sealed bag containing a piece of paper with the message “You’re with Daddy now.” I opened the bag and found a cut of meat inside, about half the size of my palm. I prodded it with the tip of my finger. It was deep red, almost black in some places. I raised my finger to my nose. There was a spot of red where I’d touched the meat. It wasn’t until I tasted it, my finger fully inside my mouth, that I realized it was a piece of Daddy’s liver.
By Ahmed Naji
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette