You know when you find someone whose very soul – their essence – exudes beauty? That's what Monica Gerges found when she sat down for what felt like a heart-to-heart with the captivating and talented Souad Massi.
Curled up in the passenger seat of a car ba-bumping rhythmically down the road from Sokhna to Cairo alongside an old-turned-dear friend, I raise my eyes above the monotonously empty landscape and stare up at the dark yet vibrant sky as an unfamiliar song begins to play, tugging on my heartstrings with every note. “7ajeetak majeetak,” my friend tells me, “means ‘once upon a time’.” It is in this moment, once upon a time, that Souad Massi captivates my heart.
“Raoui is the first song I wrote when I was 17 years old, but I can’t tell you that I myself am a storyteller or a writer out of respect for the countless great poets,” the humble songstress tells me of my favourite song two years later as we sit face-à-face on the terrace at Dusit Thani. “The words are very simple – they’re things that I experienced and was affected by; it’s a song based on my personal life.” Perhaps the storyteller in me – the imaginative wanderer who seeks to tell every tale – immediately loved the song about a storyteller who takes us to faraway places because it so deeply captures the essence of the 17-year-old who penned it and brought it to life. “It’s the things we live through in society that affect us,” she continues. “As artists, we need to express them.”
You know when you find someone whose very soul – their essence – exudes beauty? As I sit next to this artist of great talent and revisit her life experiences, something about her very core – melancholic as she may be – overflows with a peace that transcends any circumstances and allows her to find the beauty in them. But in a society – nay, in a world – that has grown so tainted and broken, how does Souad Massi seek, create, and express such beauty?
Inspired by la vie quotidienne and constantly challenging herself to “make use of situations [she’s] lived and transform them into positive things,” Souad Massi expresses herself as though a wise old friend sitting you down for a heart-to-heart. Growing up as part of a very simple and conservative family in Algeria, Massi acknowledges the difficulties of growing up in the Arab world, but asserts that we always have a choice to see beauty where others may see a tainted and broken world. “In everyday life we deal with difficult things, and as we grow we try to take lessons from life and we learn,” she shares. “We have to try to learn from the thing we lived and from our trials.” Speaking with nostalgic hindsight, she quotes Jalal al-Din Rumi: Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.“Growing up, we didn’t have money to go out often, but I remember that my brother went to the library a lot and got us books, and that’s something that really helped me. I would read anything – any book I would come across at home, I would read – and this allowed me to travel with my mind. I learned a lot of things; so this was a huge opportunity for me to grow,” she shares as I nod nostalgically, reminiscing on the days of Archie Comics and Goosebumps to the days of Soul Cravings and Eleven Minutes.
“I never imaged that I would one day become a singer or pursue a career as an artist. As a child I had to study and work to help my family, like a lot of girls do,” she recounts of her childhood struggles, where she was inspired her brother Hassan’s pursuit of the piano and classical music. “It’s a lot easier for a man to learn to play an instrument and to sing than it is for a girl. It was very difficult for me as a girl and I struggled and fought a lot; I had to succeed in my studies so I could be able to study music, so there was a type of sacrifice involved. Now I know the price a real artist has to pay in order to get into this field.” Souad Massi’s style of music reflects her choice to embrace her difficult path and produce a uniquely inspired, pensive and melancholic style of “music that nourishes the soul.”Growing up in Algeria, “a country very rich in music and rhythms,” Souad Massi’s music is heavily influenced by the amalgam of unique voices that express the Algerian culture. “We are African, Amazigh (Berber), are related to Arabness, and yet are very open to the Mediterranean world and Europe,” she says, speaking to the culture that nourished her musical inspiration significantly. Although she frequently sings of the politics and realities of the Arab world, which are often bleak, Souad Massi holds to the beauty that remains in the home of her youth, irrespective of the turmoil. “Algerian culture is a treasure,” she concludes, “an inheritance we artists must share.”Now, as the enchanting voice of Souad Massi commands The Marquee, I sit front and centre with Sara El-Redy – Marketing Manager at CJC Agency who helped make this far-fetched dream a reality for me – before the woman who had captivated me all over again just a few hours before. In those very moments, I’m carried – by the music, the ambiance, and the essence of it all – to a distant yet familiar place. Walking the all too familiar streets of Hollywood some time ago, it wasn’t the Mann Chinese Theatre or the stars along Sunset Blvd that captured my attention; it wasn’t even the Hollywood sign, El Capitan, or the roped-off portions of the strip where a camera crew filmed the next big blockbuster. It was around the corner and to the left – hit by the stark contrast of a shabby homeless man pushing a cart with his humble belongings to nowhere in particular – where I found beauty. Beauty was in the hole-in-the-wall family-owned Mexican restaurant where people poured their hearts and souls to make a living – and perhaps lives – for themselves. Beauty was in the facades of buildings worn by time and bursting with tales, standing in contrast with Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
It was beautiful because it felt like home, and home is where beauty is found. Beauty is found in the people, in the places, in the nooks and crannies, and in the brokenness. Beauty is found in the midst of turmoil and chaos. Beauty is found in the soul and struggle of the everyman. Beauty is found in every person’s ‘once upon a time’.
Shoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Photography: Ahmed Najeeb and Osama Selim
Cinematography: Mina Saber Mesheal Maged
Video Editing: Khaled Fahmi