Sunday, February 27, 2011

“Zenga Zenga”: Mad Dog Gaddafi and the Hip-Hop Theme Song of the Libyan Uprising

(Music: Noy Alooshe. Lyrics: Muammar al-Gaddafi.)

by Michael Kaplan

Downfall of a tyrant?  A poster of Muammar al-Gaddafi is desecrated in Benghazi.  Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

The account I have given . . . shews how the abuse of authority, by causing the misery of individuals, becomes eventually destructive to the power of a state; and what we may safely venture to predict, will soon prove, that the ruin of a nation sooner or later recoils on those who have been the cause of it, and that the errors or crimes of those who govern cannot fail of their punishment, even from the very misery and wretchedness of those whom they have governed.

The Mad Dog of the Middle East (as Ronald Reagan called him) may finally be meeting his Götterdämmerung. That the world put up with the antics of Muammar al-Gaddafi, the psychopath masquerading as a buffoon, for forty-two years, says much about the sordid workings of international power politics. Leaving aside the horrors he perpetrated on his own people, Gaddafi has more American blood on his hands than anyone other than Osama bin Laden. But since Gaddafi sat on a pool of oil, the rest of the world, including the United States after 2003, was willing enough to do business with him. In September 2009, Gaddafi stood at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, honoring that august body with one of the most incoherent and downright weird speeches it ever had to suffer through.

The people of Libya, though, never benefitted from their nation’s vast reserves of oil. Instead, Gaddafi, and his equally vile children, used the wealth provided by oil to live lives of gross debauchery and finance armies of terrorists worldwide. One son, the grandiloquently named Saif al-Islam (Sword of Islam), presenting himself as the westernized face of the regime, bought himself a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. In return for his degree, Saif donated £1.5 million to support the work of the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance on civil society organizations in North Africa. Even British academia, it seems, was willing to play along with the Gaddafi family’s theater of the absurd if the payoff was right.

Now, as Gaddafi goes down in flames, pledging to take as much of his country as he can down with him, his own words have been turned into the theme song of the rebellion. Noy Alooshe, an Israeli musician of Tunisian heritage, took the phrase “zenga zenga” from a rambling, gibberish-filled, 75 minute speech delivered by Gaddafi on Tuesday February 22, and set it to a hip-hop vibe. Gaddafi, dressed in brown robes and a turban, spoke from what appeared to be the residence damaged in the 1986 bombing raid ordered by Ronald Reagan. Alooshe overlaid the video with footage of a scantily-clad woman dancing to Gaddafi’s trance music riff. The video, posted on YouTube, has gone viral throughout the Arab world and has captured the spirit of the Libyan uprising. The irony of an Israeli artist creating the theme song for an Arab fight for liberty is something we should all ponder. Here is the video.

You know a tyrant’s days are numbered when the people who had lived in absolute fear of his wrath can turn around and assault him with mockery. The speech itself was classic Gaddafi. The self-styled “Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” proclaimed his defiance of those who sought his downfall, blaming the uprising on everyone from Al Qaeda to American agents drugging Libyan youth with LSD-spiked Nescafé. More ominously, he threatened to unleash his security forces on all rebels, declaring that “when I do, everything will burn.” Rambling on, Gaddafi issued a call to his people: “Come out of your homes, those who love Muammar Gaddafi. Women, men, girls, boys, those who side with Muammar Gaddafi and the revolution. . . . As from tomorrow, no, as from tonight, actually, people in Libyan cities and towns . . . chase [the protesters], arrest them, hand them over to the security [forces].”

Noy Alooshe

“Gaddafi's speech had all the makings of a hit,” Noy Alooshe says regarding his idea to turn the tyrant’s words into a song. “Repeating the words ‘Zenga zenga’, his unique outfit, lifting his arms up in triumph like he’s at a party—I just added some club music to it and thought it would be a funny joke.” The words zenga zenga mean alley by alley in Libyan Arabic. The excerpt that Alooshe set to music was Gaddafi’s vow to hunt down protesters and clean Libyainch by inch (shiber shiber), house by house (beyt beyt), room by room (dar dar), alley by alley (zenga zenga).” These lines are followed by Gaddafi’s cry: “ela amam tawra (forward, revolution) / dakkat sat al amal (it’s the moment of action) / bssura bssura (hurry up hurry up).”

This is no empty threat. Gaddafi’s capacity for sheer ruthlessness must never be underestimated. In this he is much like Saddam Hussein. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, autocratic and corrupt as he was, could never have contemplated mass genocide against his people. Gaddafi can, and he may yet rally enough of his regime’s power base, especially in the paramilitary security forces, to suppress the uprising through maxim force. Another factor which will shape the outcome of the Libyan uprising is the tribal structure of Libyan society. Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University, who until February 22 served on the governing board of the Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (Walter Russell Mead dubbed Barber one of the world’s “Top Ten Gaddafi Toads”), writes that Libya is made up of 160 tribes divided among the three provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Muammar al-Gaddafi is not just another dictator: he is a tribal chieftain, the head of the Qadhadhfa tribe of Sert, which along with its allied clans, historically dominated Tripolitania. Gaddafi can draw on the tribal loyalties of these clans, which make up the core of his military, in his war against the insurgents. The uprising’s base of support, aside from modern urban professionals, is with the tribes of Cyrenaica, which were in rebellion against Tripoli forty and eighty years ago. In these circumstances victory for the uprising will depend on the ability of its leaders to reach out to the Gaddafi-allied tribes of Tripolitania, and convince them to switch sides.

Libya’s fighters for freedom also need support from the international community (yes, I see the dark humor in that) and the United States in the form of supplies and weapons and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. They need to change the balance of forces if they are to triumph over the tyrant. But they neither need, nor want, American or other foreign boots on the ground. The Libyan people need to be the owners of their fight for freedom.

Gaddafi in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and female bodyguards.

That a tyrant’s arrogant boast could be transformed into an anthem of liberty, is a hopeful sign that the people of Libya, and other Arab peoples now challenging their authoritarian governments, can find their way to democracy. The people of the Arab world, it seems, are not immune to the claims of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; nor are the Arab peoples doomed by their history, blood-soaked as it is, to inevitably fall into the clutches of a new set of Islamist tyrants. Should the uprising against Gaddafi succeed, it would bring to an end sixty disastrous years of Arab experiments with totalitarian utopias; hopefully to be replaced by responsible governments that don’t brutalize their own people or threaten their neighbors, and are focused less on ideology and more on social development. The great challenge now facing the Arab world is not to rush into American-style democracy, but to create legitimate politcal orders on the ruins of tyranny, rooted in their own governing traditions. Such political orders would combine institutions of local government, for which, historian Bernard Lewis says, there is a tradition in the Arab world, with consensual and effective central governments.

Yet, as Professor Thomas Sowell cautions, “the fact that Egyptians or others in the Middle East and elsewhere want freedom does not mean that they are ready for freedom. . . . Freedom and democracy cannot be simply conferred on anyone. Both have preconditions, and even nations that are free and democratic today took centuries to get there.” Likewise, Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, insists that Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and assorted Islamists, will succeed in hijacking the post-uprising Arab regimes from the nascent democrats because they have the organization, infrastructure, and ruthlessness to do so. That the people of Libya, Egypt, and other Arab nations are culturally predisposed to favor Sharia law over democratic forms of governance will also work to the Islamists’ advantage. Scheuer concludes that bin Laden and his cohorts correctly assume that the secular pro-democracy protesters, who use Facebook and Twitter, are but “a thin veneer across a deeply pious Arab world. They are confident that these revolts are not about democratic change but about who, in societies where peaceful transfers of power are rare, will fill the vacuum left by the dictators and consolidate power.” To assume, as many Westerners do, that power in the Arab world after the uprising will come from anything other than the barrel of a gun, is naïve in the extreme. Medieval historian and conservative writer Charlotte Allen, who spent much of the summer of 2010 in Tunisia and Egypt, agrees with Scheuer’s analysis. Exploring sections of Tunis and Cairo away from the elite cosmopolitan enclaves (and where tourists rarely venture), Allen found “societies that were obstinately Islamic in the face of efforts by leaders with vast state-police apparatuses at their disposal to shove them into secular modernity.” Ordinary Tunisians and Egyptians, far from yearning for the liberty and secular democracy that we in the West enjoy, are more committed than ever to maintaining Islamic norms for society and governance that are not democratic.

Other observers find more cause for optimism, and even hope. Yes, the political culture of the Arab world to date has been toxic, the habits and institutions of self-government have never taken root, jihadism has run rampant, and liberty has been an unwelcome guest. That no democratic leaders of the moral stature of Václav Havel or Nelson Mandela—mature, civilized men who, like George Washington, could be trusted to exercise power with restraint—have yet emerged in the Arab world is cause for great concern. But cultures, like individuals, can evolve and change for the better. Professor Fouad Ajami, one of the wisest students of Arab history, having long given up on the Arab peoples’ prospects for joining the modern world, finds signs of just such a change in the revolutions of 2011: “For decades, Arabs walked and cowered in fear. Now they seem eager to take freedom’s ride. Wisely, they are paying no heed to those who wish to speak to them of liberty’s risks.” The Arabs, Ajami insists, have risen up to transform shame into liberty.

Libyan opposition fighters man a checkpoint on the edge of Adjabiya.  Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

Sadly, the wisdom of history tells us that revolutions begin in hope and joy but end in bloodshed, cynicism and despair; the American Revolution being the great exception of course. “O pleasant exercise of hope and joy! / For great were the auxiliars which then stood / Upon our side, we who were strong in love; / Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.” So Wordsworth exclaimed in those ecstatic early days of the French Revolution, before the heads started to roll off the guillotine. But even with all of history’s bitter lessons in mindthree hundred million people, heirs to one of the world’s great civilizations, cannot simply be written off as unfit for liberty. Former President George W. Bush understood this. Eventually,” Bush proclaimed in the poetic words of his Second Inaugural Address, “the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.” Where Bush erred was in assuming that Jacksonian America’s brave fighting men and women could do the job that the Iraqis needed to do themselves. Or, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “that freedom is only freedom when you have won it on your own.” Those of us who believe that liberty is God’s gift to all men and women, and who believe that if history does have a purpose it is in the continuing quest for and advancement of liberty, can do no less than Professor Ajami to support and encourage the Arab peoples in what will be a long and difficult struggle.

Noy Alooshe admits to some concern that should Gaddafi hang on to power, one of his odious sons might try to come after him. Nonetheless, he confides that it is “also very exciting to be making waves in the Arab world as an Israeli.” Among the many (largely positive) responses to his Revolution Anthem that Alooshe received from all over the Arab world via Twitter and Facebook, was one from a presumed member of the Libyan opposition. It said that when the Gaddafi regime is no more, “We will dance to ‘Zenga-Zenga’ in the square.” So, just maybe, Alooshe’s song offers the tantalizing possibility that young Arabs and Jews can transcend the burden of their tragic history and find common ground in the quest for liberty and the mythopoetic vision of music.

P.S. For the “realists” among you, who would say that I’ve given myself over to idealistic flights of fancy, I leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “My theory has always been, that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair.”

© 2011 Michael Kaplan