In 2011, at age 23, Egypt's "singer for the revolution" was lionized for helping to overthrow a dictator. Four years later, a brutal military crackdown has all but destroyed the country's youthful protest movement while its hero bides his time in a faraway country, trying to keep the fight — and himself — alive.
It’s a cold, damp March night in Malmö, Sweden, but Ramy Essam props open the balcony door to his third-floor apartment to let a little of the outside in.
“I like to hear the street,” he says. Truth be told, there’s not much to hear on this Wednesday evening: car tires rolling over the slick road, the click-clack of pedestrians’ heels on the sidewalk, the odd squawk from one of the rather large pigeons that live precariously balanced on the bare branches of the trees that abut the building.
“It’s so quiet here — not like Egypt,” he says as he reclines on a brownish loveseat. “When I first moved here I was in a temporary apartment in a good neighborhood, but every time I played guitar the guy next door would bang on the wall, complaining. I’m not used to the quiet.”
Four years earlier, Essam, now 27, was at the center of one of the noisiest historical moments in a generation. As millions gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011 during an 18-day occupation that succeeded in ending the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, Essam led the protesters in revolutionary anthems, singing songs documenting their collective struggle and calling for changes that would’ve been almost inconceivable even a month earlier. For his trouble, he’s been arrested, interrogated, and brutally tortured. He’s also become famous as a living symbol of the revolution. He featured prominently in the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, as well as in a 60 Minutes segment, and drew thousands of fans to his concerts. When the military, led by the general and soon-to-be president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, returned to power in 2013 intent on silencing critics, Essam became an obvious target.
Last May, after being stopped by police at a checkpoint in Suez, then detained and interrogated all night — and with compulsory military service looming over his head — Essam decided to get out. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an organization that shelters writers in peril, offered him a two-year paid residency in Malmö. So in late August, he packed his guitar and left.
Tall, with broad shoulders and tight curls of long black hair framing his face, Essam seems to have been genetically engineered to be a rock star. Even curled up on a ratty couch in his Malmö apartment in dark jeans and a gray T-shirt, his knees drawn to his chest, he oozes charisma. That, mixed with his youthful idealism and an endearing streak of gallows humor, makes him almost a postcard-perfect revolutionary. It’s easy to see what the government was afraid of.
Before arriving in Malmö, Essam’s view of Sweden, to the extent he had one at all, was not much different from many outsiders' view of it: a peaceful, pragmatic, socialist paradise. In fact, much like other parts of Europe, Sweden is currently grappling with some of the hard realities of its famously progressive policies and attitudes on immigration and multiculturalism. The country, which has long seen itself as a humanitarian superpower, is dealing with a rising tide of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. “I’d always hear that Sweden is heaven,” Essam says. “It’s not the truth.”
Since Essam left Egypt, Sisi’s crackdown on his opposition — both liberal secularists like Essam and conservative Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood — has only intensified. More than 2,000 are estimated to have been killed, and as many as 40,000 have been arrested. Many activists have been sentenced in quick, mass trials to draconian punishments, including life imprisonment and death. And perhaps the final nail: In mid-May, Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, was sentenced to death for his role in a 2011 prison break. As Ganzeer, a visual artist who became known for painting antigovernment murals around Cairo during the revolution and quietly left for Brooklyn last May, puts it, “There’s been a dispersal of all the players within these activist circles. Everyone is either in prison, left the country, dead, or just disheartened and disillusioned.”
In Egypt, some activists have criticized Essam for abandoning the cause. But while he still records protest songs 3,000 miles away from the revolution's faint heartbeat and performs to small, muted crowds, trying to convince audiences — and himself — that the fight isn't over, he knows there's a price to be paid for his safety.
“My friends are now suffering more than ever and I’m fine,” Essam says. “I don’t want to say I’m feeling guilty, but it’s a very hard time to be away.”
Essam’s small apartment is not much to look at, but its contours would be recognizable to struggling twentysomething musicians the world over: bare white walls, an open MacBook Pro flanked by takeout wrappers on a small wooden coffee table, a gaggle of empty liquor bottles gathered in the corner of the living room, piles of clothes on the bedroom floor, dirty dishes stacked in and around the kitchen sink, a small Ibanez amp next to the couch. He’s rehearsing for a concert he’ll play at a theater in Malmö in a few days. An Egyptian guitarist and friend, Rami Sidky, who left Egypt around the same time as Essam to study international relations at the University of Amsterdam, is with him, drinking whiskey, as they hash out arrangements to some of Essam’s songs.
Sidky and Essam met in 2012 at a Cairo studio. Sidky had been mostly a casual participant in the revolution and didn’t know Essam’s music, only his name. “I thought he was going to be very arrogant,” Sidky says of their first meeting. “He had that reputation. It’s not true at all.”
Hanging out with Sidky — a short, thin former NGO worker with a shaved head, patchy beard, and wry, bookish demeanor — Essam listens more than he talks, eager to hear his friend’s take on everything from ISIS and Egyptian race relations to Bollywood and the criminally underrated albums of Sammy Hagar–era Van Halen. Cradling an acoustic guitar on his lap, Essam launches into a song whose title translates roughly to “I Am Awake.” It, like pretty much all of Essam’s songs, is about the revolution in Egypt. He strums intently and sings in a deep, gravelly, wounded voice while Sidky picks out some nice counterpoints on his guitar. But stripped of its turbulent context in this quiet apartment, the song’s raw passion feels a bit, well, ill-fitting, and Essam knows it.
Since leaving Egypt, Essam has performed in several European cities and done a quick mini-tour of North America, with stops in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Vancouver, generally playing to fans who politely appreciate his historical import but have no real connection to the music or the emotions behind it. “They want to know the story,” he says, “but there’s a gap because of the language. I’ve never been used to that before.”
Essam was born in Mansoura, a city of half a million people on the eastern banks of the Nile River Delta. His father was an engineer who died of a stroke when Ramy was 12. After his father’s death, his brother, Shady, who is only two years older than Essam, became his father figure.
Despite the family misfortune, Essam grew up solidly middle-class. It was Shady who first introduced him to American rock bands like Metallica and Linkin Park. From there, Essam discovered Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, and Nirvana. At the time, as a teenager, Essam didn’t speak much English and couldn’t understand the lyrics: “I just loved the energy.”
When he was 17, Shady bought him his first guitar. After a few months, Essam found he had a knack for composing melodies and arranging music. “For two or three years, I was just singing silly love songs.” He laughs. “My dream was to be a rock star.”
Shady, an avid reader who now teaches international law, emphasized the importance of lyrics. “I told him, ‘You must have a vision,'" he says via Skype from Mansoura. "'You must have a message, not just to be famous as the end in itself. That’s a waste. You must try to influence people.’”
Around 2008, Essam met a poet named Amgad El Kawhagy in a coffee shop/bookstore that staged small concerts. "He helped me because he was writing a lot of political, revolutionary stuff,” says Essam. The two began collaborating frequently, and to this day, Kawhagy has penned the lyrics to roughly 75% of Essam’s songs.
Although the words Essam sings have made him such a celebrated and persecuted figure, he’s written very few of them himself. Mostly he works with poets and lyricists, either adapting existing text into songs he arranges or, more often, suggesting topics and having lyrics written more or less to order. Strangely, the authors of even the most controversial lyrics remain mostly unheralded and largely unbothered by the authorities. As Sidky explains, “The pop culture [in Egypt] is only about singers. What the singer is singing is his responsibility and not anybody else’s.”
Egyptian protestors in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Feb. 1, 2011
Despite the political turn in Essam’s music, he was hardly expecting revolution in January 2011. When I ask him what he was doing when the first protests broke out on Jan. 25, he smiles sheepishly: “Nothing." Small demonstrations were not an uncommon occurrence back then and generally achieved very little. Essam figured this would be the same. “I had a normal day — going to the gym, going to see friends,” he says. But Shady had been an active, enthusiastic participant in the first protests in Mansoura and convinced Essam to join him three days later. Even then, Essam admits his motivation was slightly suspect.
“On the 28th, the government cut the connections.” He laughs. “You’re at home and there’s no mobile phones, no internet. It was like, ‘Hey! Fuck you! I will go to the street!’ It was the worst decision they made. If they gave me the chance to just watch from home, maybe I would’ve!”
But once he got to the demonstrations, he was swept up in the emotion and excitement of the scene. Essam joined a pitched battle against local police in the streets of Mansoura, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails while being shot at, mostly with rubber bullets.
The protesters’ original demands — calling for reforms of the police, Interior Ministry, and economic system — suddenly seemed insufficient. “We started chanting, ‘Down, down, Mubarak!’” Essam laughs, recalling how audacious it sounded. “The first time you’re like, ‘Really? We will ask for that? Really?’”
After the three days in Mansoura, the local police disappeared and Essam decided to travel with a friend to Cairo to join the demonstrations there. Shady insisted he bring his guitar. At first, Essam performed for small groups of protesters in Tahrir, then progressively larger groups, until he was invited to play on a makeshift stage in one corner of the square. Throughout, he cycled through a very small batch of songs.
“I already had like 25 political songs and most could fit with what’s happening, but I chose songs that make people interact and sing with you,” he says. “Because it wasn’t a concert. They’re protesters, full of anger. Even if you have the best voice ever or are the best musician, if you’re just singing for them, they’ll turn their back. Some days, I’d sing 10 hours a day, the same six songs.” Probably his most famous song, “Irhal” (“Leave”), was a reworking of chants already popular in the square, combined with a few lines he wrote himself.
“The first time I sang, it was on the 1st of February, after the emotional speech from Mubarak,” Essam says, launching into a mocking impression of Mubarak’s weepy oratory from that day: “‘I will not go into the next election. Just leave me for the next six months.’ A lot of people in the square received calls from their parents like, ‘Hey, he promised everything will be fine. Just go home.’ We were disappointed because he didn’t listen to anything we’d said. So I tried ‘Irhal’ and the mood changed in a minute.”
Even after this galvanizing performance, Essam says some protesters were still unconvinced of his revolutionary ardor. “Most thought, This guy just wants to be famous.”
Tahrir Square, Feb. 2, 2011
On Feb. 2, pro-Mubarak thugs, many riding horses and camels, stormed Tahrir, attacking the demonstrators in what became known as the Battle of the Camel. The charge failed to clear the square, but Essam was bloodied during the two-day melee, which became a decisive turning point in the revolution’s early days. In the aftermath, Essam, his head and upper lip covered in white bandages, gave a defiant interview to an English-language television reporter, and then, still bandaged, performed for the triumphant, battered crowd. Both moments were replayed on news broadcasts worldwide.
“A lot of people came to me to say, ‘Sorry, we thought that you were just an asshole coming to be famous and sing,’ he says. “After they saw me with them in the front lines, fighting, the guys ruling the stage started introducing me as the ‘singer for the revolution.’”
It’s hard to think of any singer who occupies a similar place in American culture. “It’s sort of like Bob Dylan in the '60s,” says his friend Ganzeer. “He wasn’t the only guy doing socially engaging songs, but there was something about the way Dylan did it, the simplicity of the tunes — simple but somehow incredibly telling.” Of course, Dylan sang about Molotov cocktails and rocks but never actually threw them at cops. Nor was Dylan forced to leave his country.
For people in their twenties like Essam, Mubarak had been president their entire lives. Their enduring commitment to change, as Essam explains, was based largely on the fact that they had simply come too far to turn back: If they quit, they’d all surely be arrested. “You can’t imagine what it was like singing with hundreds of thousands of people with this amount of anger, united against just one guy," he says. "The energy in the place, it feels incredible.”
Essam was onstage singing on Feb. 11, when Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced Mubarak was resigning, leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in charge. That night, most of the protesters left Tahrir, satisfied their work was done, but Essam found some of the movement's leaders distraught, screaming at people to come back. The goals should be civilian-led government, a new constitution, a host of reforms, not just Mubarak’s ouster. Two weeks later, Essam was part of a smaller group of thousands who began a new sit-in in the square. Without a simple, coherent demand, though, support for the movement withered.
Then, on March 9, the military decided to clear Tahrir once and for all. The crowds were violently dispersed, and Essam, along with some others, was dragged to the nearby Egyptian Museum. “I thought, I will go meet an officer who is educated, who could understand. I will tell him, ‘Hey, man, I’m Ramy Essam, the guy singing in the square! I have a concert to go to!'” He laughs. “Then I passed the first gate and the darkness came.”
Essam was stripped, bound, and tortured by officers who he says were part of a special army unit. His hair was cut with broken glass, his head smashed repeatedly into a column. He was beaten with wooden and metal rods, kicked, and electrocuted.
“They never asked anything,” he says. “That’s why I thought they would just kill me.” He was slipping in and out of consciousness. "This special forces guy is jumping on my head. I thought, I’m dying now. But I heard a voice in my mind telling me, 'Don’t give them a chance to kill you. Keep fighting as much as you can.’” After roughly eight hours, he was released.
He returned to his family’s home in Mansoura to heal. A video shot during this time that aired on 60 Minutes later in 2011 shows Essam lying facedown on a bed with hardly the strength to lift his head, his face and back covered in bruises, welts, and fresh wounds. Shady felt a twinge of guilt — it was he, after all, who had encouraged him to pursue music, to join the protest movement, to sing revolutionary songs.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to our family, after my father died,” he says. “My mother and all our close friends told Ramy, ‘Enough is enough. Don’t talk politics anymore.’ But I told Ramy, ‘You have two choices: Surrender or continue to struggle.’”
It took months to recover, but amazingly, the beatings did little lasting damage, just a couple of scars on Essam’s torso and a finger that doesn’t work as well as it once did. His experience in the museum, while horrific, was also revelatory. “This day changed my personality for something better. I started to throw away my fear.”
Once Essam had recovered, he returned to the cause with a vengeance. He performed around the country, in theaters, on festival stages, on street corners, wherever. In the messy post-Mubarak scramble for power, several nascent political parties approached him about joining their ranks. He refused them all, insisting on remaining independent. When the SCAF acceded to popular demands and allowed parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2011 and 2012 — elections that would bring Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power — Essam didn’t vote.
“I don’t want to be involved in any sort of government process because I don’t trust them,” he says. “I saw a lot of blood. I lost my friends. Any massacre, people dying, police torturing, I’ll feel I’m a part of that because I voted for this person.”
For nearly two years between 2011 and 2013, Essam’s life was a blur of performing and protesting. “I was so crazy about sit-ins, fights, and struggling,” he says. “In some sit-ins, we were only 15 or 20 guys, without any media, without anyone knowing.”
In 2012, Essam married a woman who’d been working as his manager, and the following year, she gave birth to their son. In the four days I spend with Essam in Malmö, it’s the only subject he seems less than forthcoming about. “Putting everything into the revolution affected everything in my life,” he says. “I was just away from everything.”
By mid-2013, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government was wildly unpopular. On June 30, people took to the streets in record numbers to call for Morsi’s resignation. Although Essam had spent the previous year campaigning for Morsi’s downfall and spent that day in front of the Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters battling with their supporters, he felt disconnected from the millions of Egyptians who saw the military as their savior. The following day, he went to Tahrir — “our home,” he calls it — “and it was full of idiots cheering the army, cheering the tanks, the helicopters, hugging the soldiers. Even police officers came into the square and were dancing with people.”
He got onstage and started performing songs decrying the Muslim Brotherhood but finished with one whose title translates as “Fuck the Military Council.”
“It was the first time in my life to be in the square singing in front of hundreds of thousands and they’re not singing with me. But I finished the song and told them, ‘We’re not with the army! They killed our friends and we will not forget that!’ I was so angry. No one said anything. They just listened and kept silent.” Two days later, he repeated a similar performance to a similar response. By the time Sisi made a speech later that day announcing Morsi was out and the military was once again taking over, Essam had left Tahrir entirely. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Mansoura, dejected and exhausted.
Almost overnight, Essam’s gigs dried up. He was forbidden to play in any government-run venues, and independent promoters generally refused to book him out of fear of angering the regime. In late 2013, a law was passed that severely restricted public protest, effectively banning the sorts of demonstrations that had forced two previous governments from power. Just like that, Essam had been deprived of the two activities his life had revolved around.
When Sisi was “elected” in May 2014 with 97% of the vote, he ramped up the crackdown. Essam saw friends quickly sentenced to years and even decades in prison. That same May, Essam was traveling back from Sinai in a car with friends when they came to a police checkpoint. He was singled out, taken from the car and approached by an officer who was singing Essam’s song “Taty Taty” to him in a mocking tone. The officer then whipped out a tablet and played a video of the singer in Tahrir Square performing a song railing against the police. Essam was searched and interrogated all night before being released. Ole Reitov, who runs Freemuse, a nonprofit dedicated to the plight of persecuted musicians worldwide, came to visit Essam the following month.
“I could see the pattern with all the police around and interrogations during nighttime,” Reitov told me. “The interrogation up at Suez — it was clear they wanted Ramy to shut up now or else. We thought, Now is the time to get out.”
Essam says his biggest concern wasn’t getting arrested, but that he was due to be drafted the following June. (With a few exceptions, all Egyptian men must serve up to three years in the military before they turn 30.) “I got a lot of threats, face-to-face, and on social media like, ‘We’re awaiting you,’” he says. “If I joined the military, that will not just be jail. That will be my end. Forever.”
Reitov connected Essam with ICORN. In August, Essam, who had been prevented from leaving Egypt multiple times in the preceding two years, managed to get his visa and other paperwork in order and slip out of the country. He spent a month in Helsinki, where his very first gig was interrupted by Egyptian hecklers, shouting at him and waving posters of Sisi. He later discovered the hecklers had been paid by the embassy. “I think the government wanted to tell me, ‘Hey, we’re watching you, even if you are out.’” He laughs. “They succeeded in doing that.”
When Essam arrived in Malmö, he knew no one. His only real local contact was Reitov, a white-haired man in his sixties, whose organization, Freemuse, is based in Copenhagen, a 30-minute train ride across the Öresund, the narrow straits that separate Sweden and Denmark. Reitov, a former journalist with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, first met Essam back in 2011.
“When you walk with Ramy around Tahrir, it’s nonstop, people coming up and talking to him — old people, young people,” says Reitov. “When you walk around here, no one knows who he is.”
Essam spends most of his days writing songs. He works out a lot, and started taking music classes at a local university but feels he doesn’t have any real friends yet. “Here, I am a homesick guy,” he says. “I’m always alone.”
Since he’s been here, Essam has released several songs online, including one, “Age of the Pimp,” that takes aim squarely at Sisi. His album, Mamnoua (“The Forbidden”), was released May 1, and it's about Egypt, despite the fact that he’s not in Egypt.
“It’s talking about what’s happening there now, the feelings and emotions of this hard time,” he says. Beyond counting YouTube views and SoundCloud hits or reading comments, it’s unclear how to gauge the impact Essam can have from afar, but he’s not dissuaded. "It's very important to keep this part in my career going on because there's not a lot of people doing that now. I think that people that believe in the struggle, believe in the revolution, they need to have new music telling [them] about that or speaking about their feelings, at least to be sure [they] are not alone,” he says. “So if you are a revolutionary and you find that it's a new song, [you'll think], ‘Wow, there are thousands, not only me, who are believing in the same stuff.’"
Before moving to Malmö, Essam had left Egypt only four times, all during 2011 and 2012, to collect awards and play concerts in Europe. Since then, Europe itself has been undergoing something of a transformation: Amid the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring revolutions, millions of immigrants and refugees have fled for Europe.
Sweden in particular, with its promise of generous government benefits and social welfare programs, has been a prime destination, accepting more than 80,000 applications for asylum seekers in 2014 alone, the most per capita in Europe. (By comparison, the U.S., which has about 310 million more people than Sweden, took in roughly the same number of applications in 2013.) The far-right Sweden Democrat party, which got its start in 1988 as a white supremacist group, doubled its representation in last fall’s elections — it's now Sweden’s third-largest political party — on a platform of cutting immigration by 90%. Around Christmas, there were three arson attacks in 10 days on mosques around the country. Malmö, where 31% of the population is foreign-born, has become a particular flashpoint: Last March, four neo-Nazis attacked and stabbed a man of Iranian descent in a busy part of the city; two months earlier, two men assaulted a 16-year-old girl after she gave a speech on immigration.
Attitudes on the far right have only been exacerbated by recent terrorist incidents, including the massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January and shootings at a cultural center and outside a synagogue in February that left two dead in nearby Copenhagen. “A lot of people start to be panicked,” says Essam.
Essam says he’s spent most of his time in Malmö in his apartment. He has noticed the rhetoric and attitudes toward immigrants among a minority of Swedes, though, and was refused entrance at a bar recently. “He didn’t let me in because of my look,” he says. “Here, some people still don’t like people who look like me.”
Reitov says there was some concern about dropping Essam into this volatile atmosphere. “We had a lot of talks with Malmö before he came,” he says. "There are all kinds of difficulties when an artist is supposed to feel safe then arrives in an environment where maybe he will not be.”
Fredrik Elg, chief development officer in Malmö’s Department of Culture and ICORN’s local program coordinator, explains, “We had a security plan [and] we still have to keep our ears to the ground. Ramy wants to be a public person, but we never reveal where his apartment is. We have secure windows and doors. Where he sleeps has to be safe.”
ICORN will provide Essam his apartment and a monthly stipend, no strings attached, until October 2016. He intends to stay in Sweden past his 30th birthday the following June, which will make avoiding military service a simple matter of paying a small fine. After that, his plan is to return home, regardless of the political situation there — “even if it’s risky, because it will always be risky,” he says.
He believes that building his fanbase and an international following while he’s in Sweden — a tall order for any working musician, much less one who sings exclusively about foreign politics in a foreign language — will provide him a measure of protection when he returns to Egypt. If the media pays attention to him, if people know him, the government will have a much harder time making him quietly disappear. “My power,” he says, “is the people.”
Essam doesn’t have any grand political solution for Egypt and doesn’t pretend to. He talks somewhat hesitantly about governance through some kind of “presidential council,” of learning how to adapt the fundamentals of Swedish-style parliamentary democracy to his homeland, but he’s clearly most comfortable talking about what he’s against: the military, the police, the Muslim Brotherhood, and politicians who hijack the spirit of the protest movement for their own ends. He insists, though, he’s not a nihilist.
“I’m not the guy that is just against everything,” he says. “I’m not fighting for fight. I’m fighting for peace. And that’s something totally different. I want to reach something good. I want to take a rest. From a lot of stuff.”
Essam’s concert on Saturday night is at a cinema house in Malmö called Panora that is so new that when Essam, Sidky, and I arrive, we’re asked to wear bright blue disposable shoe covers to keep from tracking construction dust onto the new carpeting. The place is beautiful but feels unfathomably sterile. The woman who helped organize the event is fastidious in explaining tonight’s schedule: First will be a Q&A session hosted by Reitov at 6:30, then the concert at 7:30, and, finally, a screening of Art War, a documentary about the role of art in Egypt’s revolution, at 9:00. She shows us to a makeshift backstage dressing room, careful to point out that in order to come and go from the room we’ll need her to accompany us down the hallway so she can unlock all the doors and disable the alarm system. Essam finds this entire rigmarole — and Swedes' general discomfort with disorder — hilarious.
“I will tell you something a little weird,” he says to me. “I miss the kind of freedom in Egypt. Here, everything is too organized. [Even] the musicians, the artists are organized people. In Egypt, if you’re away from the political stuff and if you choose a place without officers, you can find a lot of places [where] you can do anything. You just feel free.”
This is not just an idle worry. A part of Essam clearly longs for the chaos and strife of Egypt, but more than that, he fears being away from it might make him less able to handle returning there.
“I want some action,” he says. “I don’t want to be soft. In Arabic, soft is called tari — and tari is the worst word that anybody could say to you.” Two months ago he took up kickboxing. “I’m sure I’ll need it in the future. If I could’ve had these skills before, maybe I could make a difference in some fights. I could help some of my friends who got arrested in front of me. I could even help myself.”
Essam is careful not to call his time in Sweden “exile.” He hasn’t applied for asylum, given up his passport, or claimed any sort of refugee status. In fact, almost everything Essam does these days he views through the lens of his eventual return to Egypt. He’s already working on another album and has even begun writing songs with English lyrics in an effort to connect more easily with European and American audiences — a shrewd career move, but also a survival tactic.
All of it — the kickboxing, the university classes, the new music — is part of an effort to make him a more influential, more effective revolutionary when he returns home. But as he adapts to life in Sweden, as he learns how to engage foreign audiences and combats loneliness, dislocation, and even some of his adopted country’s own prejudices, is it possible to keep his finger on the pulse of Tahrir Square from a third-floor apartment in Malmö? He thinks so. He’s in touch daily with friends and family back in Egypt, and has no trouble relating to the protest movement’s recent hardships.
“I lived it," he says. "Being arrested, in jail, tortured, beaten, in a fight on the front line, sleeping in the street just because you believe in something — I know all this stuff. I have it with me. It’s not gone because I’m here.”
His brother, Shady, has told Essam that he sees his Swedish sojourn in grand historical terms. “All the greatest people in history, at some point of their struggle, have traveled abroad to get more power until the unjust regime becomes weak,” he says. “Jesus, Moses, the Prophet Muhammad — all have traveled abroad, then get back to their countries and continue the struggling.” Despite the lofty rhetoric, Shady worries that Essam’s current plan — to return home in roughly two years — might be too soon. “If the circumstances are like now, he’ll be in great danger.”
Backstage before the show starts, Essam runs through a quick series of stretches and vocal exercises that he learned recently in one of his university classes. He downs a quick Fireball shot and walks out with Sidky. The auditorium is maybe a third full, about 70 or 80 people in all. Most are Swedish, though there are a small handful of Syrians and Iraqis. All sit politely through his set, breaking their silence with hearty but brief bursts of applause after each song. “The culture of the audience — they are so polite, just appreciating you too much,” Essam told me a couple days earlier. “I hate that.”
Essam and Sidky sit on stools with the theater’s large white screen rising behind them. Essam introduces each song with a story, in English, explaining its meaning. On most of the songs, the guitars swirl around each other and drive the music forward at an insistent clip. One tune called “Hela Hela,” which Essam first released as part of a band he started with Sidky called Eks, feels like an epic rock ballad — think Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” — with Sidky picking out warm, melodic notes on the guitar and Essam’s voice full of weary emotion. For an encore, Essam simply plays one of the songs he’s already played — “Al Shaheed” (“The Martyr”) — again.
Afterward, probably close to half the audience members come down from their seats to shake Essam’s hand. We stay and watch Art War even though Essam has already seen it. The film features incredible on-the-ground footage from the most turbulent, violent days in Tahrir, including lots of images of Essam himself, singing and fighting on the streets. As we watch, Essam repeatedly leans across Sidky to tap me, nod toward the screen, and whisper things like, “That guy next to me? He was my friend. He is a martyr. He died.” Another guy, he tells me, is in jail. Another fled the country.
None of these asides make Essam mournful or despondent. On the contrary, he seems positively invigorated as his mind wanders back to those days of rage. It’s no wonder that polite audiences at well-oiled gigs leave him a little cold. “It’s impossible to have the same feeling again,” he says. The only thing, he believes, that could really match that high is to return to Egypt and do it again.
“Maybe it won’t be easy to sing in Egypt with my name, but I can get a cheap guitar and go to the demonstrations [with] this speaker in a bag and just sing like that.” He laughs loudly. “So I’m able to run.”