Five days after she arrived in Cairo last year, Laila Selim, A10, found herself in the midst of the popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. “It was a jarring experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said earlier this year. “I believe in the power of the Egyptian people and what they were trying to achieve.”
Selim, who is Egyptian-American, returned to the country of her birth after her best friend, Yasmin Tayeby, asked her to become the marketing coordinator for Nile Productions, the event promotion company she had just started. Many of the big-name performers the enterprise was trying to lure were scared off by the uprising.
But business soon took off after Tayeby traveled to New York and met with a fellow Berklee College of Music graduate who had cofounded a cultural outreach organization called ShareTheMic. The two wanted to support Egyptian women musicians. What better way, they thought, than with an American Idol–style competition? The program would mix live and online elements, and the top prize would be a trip to New York and a session at a Manhattan recording studio.
Selim threw herself into the job of promoting the competition, dubbed Sing Egyptian Women. “As a half-Egyptian, half-American, I’ve seen the role of women in both cultures, and I’ve seen that there’s still a lot of room to grow” in Egypt, she said. “Egyptian society has been getting more conservative over the last 10 to 20 years. The music scene has been opening up, but at the same time there are parts of society that are closing down the paths in Egypt.”
The contest kicked off in late January, with financial backing from the U.S. Embassy. Scores of competitors, ranging in age from 14 to 30-something, uploaded video submissions. Forty were chosen to attend a workshop on vocal production, stage presence and marketing, including instruction from the well-known Egyptian soprano Neveen Allouba. Because voting would take place on Facebook, Selim and Tayeby also taught the women how to promote themselves online.
The contestants performed at several venues around Cairo, and one Saturday night in March, a field of 16 performed before a packed crowd in the center of the city. Singer after singer spoke of how the program had empowered her. One performer, Dina El Wedidi—belting out a song by a famous Egyptian vocalist, Sayed Darwish—roused the audience to sing along and leap to its feet.
Many participants had never had an opportunity to sing live, according to Mariam Ali, a 29-year-old contestant who is among the country’s few female singers to perform with bands. “A lot of these women have been singing in their houses,” she said. “I had no idea that there were these other female vocalists around.”
A 21-year-old university student named Nathalie Alain grew especially savvy about showcasing her talent. She would carry around her laptop, outfitted for mobile Internet, and every now and then would burst out singing wherever she was, even on the bus. “Whenever I find a lot of people around, I sing a little a bit, and then I ask them if they like it,” Alain said in April, just before the competition concluded. “If they do, they log in to Facebook on my computer, and then they vote.”
Selim beamed as she described the competitors’ cordial spirit. The women exchanged tips about writing music and performing, and several of them hoped to form a choral group. “Not one of them has got up on stage and said, ‘Vote for me,’” Selim said in the final days of the contest. “They say, ‘Look at all the women—vote for who’s the best.’”
The final event took place on April 5 on the rooftop of a posh Cairo hotel. On hand to mentor the three finalists were the American Grammy-nominated recording artist Maiysha and an Egyptian singer, Nesma Mahgoub, a winner of Star Academy, the Arab world’s American Idol. In the end, Alain’s guerrilla marketing paid off, propelling her to first place.
Alain praised Sing Egyptian Women for “making women be heard in Egypt.” But the competition’s reach was limited somewhat by its reliance on Facebook, which is less common in Egypt than in the West. The organizers hope to make future competitions more accessible through television and phone-in voting.
Another hindrance was timing: Sing Egyptian Women came during a period of particularly high anti-American sentiment. At one point, officials considered axing it. A tabloid story suggested that Americans behind the contest were trying to “Barbie-ize” Egyptian women, and the occasional taxi driver still admonishes Selim for helping women perform publicly. “It’s that kind of perspective,” Selim said, “that makes me even happier that we’re doing it.”
This article first appeared in the summer 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.
Ben Gittleson, A11, is a freelance journalist who was a 2011–12 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo. At Tufts, he majored in international relations and Arabic and was editor-in-chief of the Tufts Daily.