Music and Movement
posted July 11, 2018
Cairo, a bustling, multi-dimensional metropolis in which custom Range Rover and Lexus SUVs share the packed streets with multifamily mopeds, microbuses, and 1970’s Volvos spewing thick clouds of diesel. Hagas (slang term for older, covered women) selling 1 L.E. tissue packets out of pillowcases and old men smoking shisha outside block sized Ahwas (coffee cafes) are existing amidst the thriving new luxury suburban housing complexes, exclusive downtown nightclubs, and Mercedes Benz dealerships. As you try to soak it all in on the 20 km ride from Cairo International to a hotel along the Corniche it would seem as if any evidence of the 2011 revolution has disappeared.
The daze brought on by sensory and emotional overload is quickly broken by a rage of autotune blasting from the line of tuk-tuks whizzing past you in traffic. It is there, in that autotune where the heart of the Cairo youth lives.
This is no Umm Kulthoum. This music is called mahragan (Arabic for festival). It is a ubiquitous presence in Cairo life, roaring from the backs of tuk-tuks and motorbikes. The unique synchronization of electronic dance music supporting provocative lyrics has not only become the soundtrack to street weddings, this is the anthem of the new Egyptian generation. Artists such as Oka w Ortega, Sadat (No, not the former president, Anwar Sadat. He was assassinated in 1981), DJ Amr Haha, DJ Figo, and Madf3gya create pervasive messages discussing drugs, sex, harassment, violence, poverty, and politics. Topics that resonate with the lower-class, poor, young men of Egypt, a majority population that went relatively ignored by Cairo until 2011.
Although having only gained international attention due to association with the revolution in 2011, mahragan started making waves on the local Cairo scene in the early 2000’s. Pioneering artists DJ Figo, Sadat, Alaa Fifty, and DJ Amr Haha began creating sha3bi fusion music with cheap synthesizers in basement clubs of the Madinet-el-Salaam slums . This fun, extravagant metallic mix quickly spread throughout Salaam City and the surrounding areas. Over time the music evolved from a party soundtrack popular at street weddings to a portal for political statement with the release of DJ Figo’s single Ana Baba, Yala (I am Daddy, Boy) and Sadat, Alaa Fifty, w DJ Figo’s Rab El Shab wEl Hokoma (Rap of The People and The Government).
Still, since it predates the overthrow of Hossni Mubarak, Mahragan artists don’t necessary associate the music with the revolution. According to Sadat, "Not all the Egyptians are part of the revolution – the slum areas until now are not interested in anything other than eating.” 
While the genre can take on a political tone, mahragan is at its heart, a social music. It is for celebrating and having fun. Take for example Oka w Ortega’s newest single El3b Yala (Play, Boy!), DJ Filo’s earworm Fartaka Fartaka (or as I like to call it Fart-taco Fart-taco), and Sadat’s classic Msh Haro7 (I Will Not Go). These are fun, light hearted songs meant for dancing. These will be played in clubs on mahragan night (for social reasons many major clubs have designated nights for mahragan) and at weddings and parties. While listening to this music you can hear the evolution of Egyptian society. The lyrics discuss changes in the social relationships between men and women bringing attention to the juxtaposition of a westernized youth emerging within the confines of a deeply traditional culture.
Alternative music label 100Copies has become the largest mahragan music distributor in Egypt. According to 100Copies founder and musician Mahmoud Refat “[Mahragan] is the most exciting thing that’s happening in Egypt, if not in the Middle East, if not in pop music on any scale. This is very original stuff. It has everything – It has the Egyptian culture.”
With the international rise of artists like Oka w Ortega, documentaries such as Electro Chaabi (a term coined by French-Tunisian filmmaker Hind Meddeb), and social media which gives us a front row seat to any and all experiences regardless of location, mahragan has taken the world by storm. Type “mahragan” (or mahraganat, the plural of mahragan) into Youtube and the search will yield singles produced by big and small names alike, clips of ridiculously choreographed TV talk shows trying to bring in ratings, home videos of neighborhood guys tearing it up at street weddings, and an abundance of belly dancers trying their hand at this exciting street dance.
Like mainstream sha3bi, mahragan is a form of music and lyricism- it is not a form of dance. However since the street dance accompanying the music is such an important part of the experience, the music and dance have been conflated.
The movement performed to mahragan is similar to hip-hop or break dance but it is also distinctly Egyptian. Dancers pantomime (or, in some cases actually incorporate) the use of matawee (ma-TA-wee, pl. matwah, sin.) – small, very sharp knives carried by men for protection and use during street fights , , . Performances are high-energy, athletic, and improvised with an effortless combination of isolations and flowing movements.
However, and this is important, elements of Raqs Sharqi technique should be kept out of mahragan dance performances.
Mahragan is not belly dance. At all. Some elements of Raqs Baladi do transcend into mahragan dance but they have a completely different execution and vibe. Furthermore, there is no place for cutesy children’s beauty competition expressions in this dance. It is tough and powerful. Originally, mahragan was performed by groups of young men at street wedding, and underground raves.
Today, men and women participate in the dance together but the women who do participate in these dance circles or parties are considered to be crossing social barriers.
As Egypt moves through this political renaissance, mahragan is an expressive form of modern
folk art. It has a message and sense of humor. It is the resonance of an ignored and
deprived generation that will make any attempt to make their voices heard.
1. Kinglsey, P. Cairo’s street music mahraganat both divides and unites. The Guardian, May 9, 2014,
2. Baird, S. 100 Copies: Interview with Mahmoud Refat and Hassan Khan. Afropop Worldwide, May 6 2012,
3. Chasek-Macfoy, N. Mahragan: The Story of Egypt’s Street Dance. Indegogo.com
4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGQqaObkRvA (embedded on page above)
6. Golia, M. Egypt’s Mahragan: Music of the Masses. Middle East Institute, Jul 7, 2015.
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