The US Embassy's “Sing Egyptian Women” contest was in many ways the Egyptian counterpart to the popular reality TV show American Idol, which has served as a career launch pad for a number of American artists. On Friday, contestants from both competitions collaborated for a joint concert at the open air theater in the Cairo Opera House complex.
Restricted to women only, the “Sing Egyptian Women” contest was organized by the US Embassy’s public affairs department and took place from January to April of this year. Contestants posted videos of themselves performing on YouTube, and the public voted for their favorites via Facebook. The winner of the contest was awarded a four-day trip to New York City and a recording session at the Manhattan Center Recording Studios.
Assistant press attaché David Linfield said that the embassy organized the contest in the hopes that it would provide a platform for existing local talent, as well a digital soapbox for Egyptian women to discuss their hopes for their role in the country. Contestants outlined their own brief messages in their audition videos.
“Responses ranged from ‘I just want the freedom to sing’ to ‘I want women to be completely equal,’” Linfield said. “One woman said that the president should be a man and there should be a specific role for women in society.”
During Friday’s performance, contest winner Nathalie Alain, 21, said the program allowed Egyptian women’s voices to be heard both literally and figuratively. When she touched on the shared experiences between the participants of both the Egyptian and American contests, she was met by laughs of understanding. “We both endured the tension, the waiting, the weeks of suffering,” she said.
The contestants also shared a similar understanding of the nature of their respective contests. “People think of American Idol as a competition, when we are really just friends having a good time singing together,” said Rachel Zevita, 25, from New York.
Alain agreed. “One contestant said that there is room on the iPod for more than just one singer,” she said.
Probably the best example of this understanding was when runner up Maggie Fikry, 18, wanted to share the stage with her sister, Noha, who is an accomplished jazz singer in Cairo. However, Linfield said as much as the organizers wanted to accede to her request, at the end of the day “Sing Egyptian Women” was a competition.
For each round of the contest, the Egyptian singers were allowed to choose their own songs — a source of envy for Americans, who had to select from a prepared list. During the semifinals in February, some of the Egyptian contestants chose political songs, although often times they were not explicitly so — Alain, for instance, sang “Footprints in the Sand.”
“The program is inextricable from what’s going on in Egypt,” said Linfield. Voting in February took place against the backdrop of the stadium violence in Port Said. When those events were mentioned during the performance, both the American and Egyptian contestants became notably solemn. Sara Arbie, the embassy’s cultural affairs assistant, said that the organizers stopped promoting the contest for the two weeks following the violence.
Friday’s show did not have explicit political tones, although a number of 1980s pop songs touched on hardship and risk taking, themes particularly applicable to the events of Egypt’s transition. Brett Loewenstern, 19, gave a particularly stirring version of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”
It is unclear if the Americans were aware of their songs’ import, but they were conscious of the political circumstances in Egypt. Colin Benward joked that he and his fellow “American Idol” contestants decided to scrap their plans to perform songs by Rage Against the Machine for the Cairo concert.
The Egyptians’ performances were more soulful and passionate. Alain sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and she, along with Fikry and runner up Malak El Husseiny, 18, captivated the audience, whose cheers as the singers belted out refrains clearly invigorated their already powerful performances.
The American Idols' stop in Egypt was the only concert on their world tour that was based on cultural exchange, said Ryan White, the tour manager. It was also their first performance in the Arab world after visiting Turkey, Italy, and Portugal.
The audience in Cairo was also a bit different than the other stops on the tour, White said, which are usually for members of the American military. Friday’s concertgoers included a large number American families and Egyptian school groups.
While the set list, which was completely made up of songs in English, may have limited the concert’s potency as a vehicle for cultural exchange, there was no lack of enthusiasm from the Egyptians in the audience. A group of boys who spent a fair portion of songs doing jumping jacks on stage to the music were at a loss for words when asked what they thought of the show. Hassan Mohamed, a 15-year-old student from Helwan, said it was “a great and wonderful concert.” When asked what he particularly enjoyed he said, “Everything, it was so nice.”