June 20, 2015


What Louis Armstrong taught Egypt and the Middle East about itself : Armstrong's encounter with the Middle East was a reflection of the wider socio-political disease of denial and scapegoating in the region--one that just festers with time. (AMRO ALI, 19 June 2015, OpenDemocracy)

If there was one legacy (among many) of president Gamal Abdel Nasser that Egypt could have done without, it is the peculiar suspicion towards foreigners, to the point of embarrassment, that rode the region's pan-Arab nationalism wave in the 1950s and 1960s. A problem that still, in various manifestations, continues until today in institutions, mass media and the public discourse.

Behind the iconic image of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet at the Pyramids was an artist that you would think had no relation to Egypt's politics and the Middle East conflict. In fact he once stated, "I don't know nothin' about politics", but he was dragged into a mind-boggling controversy.

On his visit to Egypt in 1961, Armstrong was standing in a Cairo hotel lobby packed with over twenty news reporters who asked him if he supported Zionism. It must have been like asking Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez on a visit to Russia what he thought of the imperialist forces in the emerging Vietnamese conflict.

An incredulous Armstrong replied: "What is that Daddy?" The reporters were surprised that an artist, immersed in his own world, was ignorant of their regional issues. The reporters said: "You helped the Jews a lot." Armstrong replied: "Yeah, I help them. I help anybody. I help you. You need help? I help anybody'. He continued: "I'm going to tell you this. I got a trumpet, and I got a young wife, and I ain't got time to fool with none of the stuff you guys talking about."

Armstrong just walked off and left them all in the lobby. [....]

The 1959 Middle East tour, that Nasser referred to, saw a prophetic Armstrong when, in Beirut, sitting around with colleagues and reporters, all smoking hashish, was asked "Say, how come you going playing for them damn Jews down in Israel?" Armstrong replied: "Let me tell you something. When I go down there, the first thing they going to tell me, how come you play for them damn Arabs over there? Let me tell you something, man. That horn", pointing to his prized instrument, "you see that horn? That horn ain't prejudiced. A note's a note in any language."

True enough, when Armstrong landed in Israel, the first question he was asked as to why he plays in Arab countries, a furious Armstrong responded "I told them that you guys were going to say the same damn thing. So ain't none of you no better than the other side. You's as bad as they are, man."

Posted by at June 20, 2015 9:06 AM

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