Open SkyEyes


You spend all your life thinking others are expecting things from you.

“You do not have to be good,” goes my favourite line from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

It’s been a long road for all the members of SkyEyes, formerly Big Bang Blues.

Two band members held a day job, they finally realised they did not want that road.

and when they all got together, it was as a band with a former identity as a blues band.

Till they realised, hey, that’s not my sound. It’s so easy when the weight of others’ expectations is lifted from you.


It’s the sound of SkyEyes vocalist Diyo’s Last Train going home after quitting a 9-to-5 job.  Now it’s a song on SkyEyes’ debut album.

“Too many questions on my mind,
but it’s better than too many year gone by.”

Here’s a sneak tour of the North India Tour of the Album with the music:


The three other titles on the 44-minute EP are all from the same source: a freedom that arises from a feeling they are following within, and they do this together, as a band. SkyEyes does not conform to the market – this/these ain’t a love song – and they don’t conform to one brand – their blues sound is packed away neatly in another outfit called “The Big Bang Blues Band”.

SkyEyes is the sound that comes to the band when no other eyes are watching, when your ears are turned to that inner sound and you’re listening to yourself.And now they’ve finally found that sound together: Diyatom Deb on the vocals, Akhil Kumar on percussions, Sushant Kumar on guitars and Barun Sinha on bass guitar.Perhaps you too would have sung the song “Betrayal” with all its clang and clamour like a lover’s spat. Perhaps you too would have that plaintive note in the Letter to my Father where you answer that you cannot answer to their expectations. Perhaps you too have the track of that Mad Man’s Tale playing in your mind, as you look around the world and you think what? What? What is happening?

It’s a short life after all, and we don’t know which one will be our last train home. It would be nicer if it were from a place where hard work and having fun were all the same to you.

You only get a sound so free with a lot of work.

That’s why SkyEyes got the very best backing them. Producer Dan Swift, who worked with some big names like The Passenger and Snow Patrol, worked on the album with them along with John Davis who has also mastered Led Zepellin and U2 tracks. Now that’s a lot of big names in one paragraph, but that is what can happen when you expect the very best from yourself.

That’s when you give your very best, because it’s the only thing you can give.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, it’s the screechy sound of geese welcoming you belonging into the world.

Here’s introducting that honesty-meets-hard-work sound on OkListen, worldwide today

Open SkyEyes.






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Life is Hard for Those Who Dream

“If you really want to do something, it’s not that easy,” musician Shady Ahmed tells The Cairo Beat in an interview.

Shady Ahmed at Cairo Jazz Club

Shady Ahmed at Cairo Jazz Club (Credit for bad photo: Chitra Kalyani)

It’s a truth that resonates through Ahmed’s songs, one he knows through experience.

In November of 2010, Shady Ahmed found himself feeling quite disheartened at the airport in Beirut. He had just recently been featured on TV at “Arabs Got Talent,” where he was told he had none, and that he may as well give up playing music.

So one cannot blame Ahmed for believing in signs when he spotted a T-shirt that said: “Life is Hard For Those Who Dream.” It struck a chord close to his heart, one that echoed through many years, till it became the name of his album.

Shortly (almost two weeks) after arriving to Cairo, and at a time when he genuinely considered taking up the easily-doled advice to quit music, Ahmed found that he had won the Makshoof Music Competition in Dubai that would enable him to produce his first album.

After a year and a half of work with the help of Sary Hany (also a guitarist in Digla band), Ahmed released Life is Hard for Those Who Dream in January 2012. The album muses on challenges in life and relationships, even as Ahmed’s melodies retain the stuff of sheltered hopes and dreams long cherished.

“Life is Hard..” was in fact also the title for another song that – surprisingly – does not actually appear on the album. Sung in Sean-Connery-reminiscent sibilance, this song reflects on an artist struggling to keep his dream alive.

Acoustic guitars are the second most prominent strength of the album besides Ahmed himself, who derives much of his inspiration from the unabashed romance in Jack Johnson’s music, the high notes of Dave Matthews Band, and the tempered optimism of Coldplay. Ahmed knows his art, and his strengths. Consequently, his songs are often mellow and easy on the ears.

Tracks that hit home are “Amsterdam” – a song about separation caused by distance, “about people that take flights” as Ahmed says on one YouTube recording. The energetic tempo of the CD version rewards one with a contrasting floating moment at “Would you know my name?” Yet listeners are advised to also hear it in its unfiltered brilliance here:

The Way Out starts the album out on an energetic bang, but the pace only dips too quickly with “Would you mind?” – which begins with promising fat saxophone notes and percussions, yet with lyrics that don’t quite seem to hold together: “Would you mind if I took your photo tonight? / I hardly see you and I’d like something to pass the time.”

Far superior lyrics appear in the song The Wind – musing on the inevitable loss of someone once tantalisingly within reach. (If you hear something ‘mispronounced’ as “frAH-grance” don’t panic, it’s actually “frAH-gments”). This song that many fans claim as their favourite, says Ahmed, only barely made it to the album. As opposed to “The Way Out” which came out of much preparation, “The Wind” was recorded on a whim when Ahmed found himself with some extra time at the studio. “Might as well,” he thought.

Album Cover: Life is Hard for Those Who Dream“Some themes belong to everybody,” says Ahmed attempting to explain why the song is as well-liked. “I chose to speak in metaphors,” in this song about “accepting that certain things just go on to the wind.” Translated,to many it means, “I love you but cannot own you so I’ll just see you walk away.”

While his songs For the First Time and The Price of Freedom are about the revolution, he chose not to make a “revolution album,” especially when the revolution had become a one-sided argument: “Nobody came up with a song about the loss of revolution.” Ahmed prefers to be honest to his music – which is personal rather than political, and English rather than Arabic. If there is any higher purpose to which Ahmed admits, it is to ease some of the pain which everyone goes through. Life is hard enough, “but you gotta keep dreaming,” he says.

Ahmed says he prefers to write in the language where words and music come to him more naturally given his influences (DMB, Coldplay, Jack Johnson among others..) Had he had singers of today influence him at 15, Ahmed says perhaps he would have sung in Arabic.

Lyrics for his songs are often dictated by the melody, says Ahmed, but a lot depends on pure chance, “Sometimes I’m in my car and if I don’t record [a song or a lyric], it might leave me.” Ahmed says he has to “live with an emotion for a very long time,” sometimes “for months,” before it becomes a song.

Other times these songs too “belong to the wind.” Many a time on his busking gigs in streets in Zamalek and Maadi, he offers lyrics to passersby, like “drawing something on a piece of paper and giving it to a stranger…without a desire to frame.”

Ahmed recounts an old lady coming up to him, saying in Arabic, “I know you’re singing about politics.” Yet Ahmed chooses not to correct: “Who am I to tell them their imagination is not right?”

All the same, Ahmed refuses to be categorised by another’s expectations. Must I Be is a song that reflects on this decision to refuse to play up to people’s expectations, for instance in music. “I used to talk a lot to the point where I was doing stand-up comedy. Now I just sing,” he says.

With a debut album that offers real value, Shady Ahmed’s music is a diamond in the quagmire – just a little rough around the edges, honing itself, but very, very precious still.

Check out Life is Hard for Those Who Dream at (some CDs at Sufi bookstore)
More on Shady Ahmed on Youtube . Facebook . Myspace. and Soundcloud.

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In the Age of Morsi

Like many, I heard from afar in February 2011 that a dictator in Egypt named Hosni Mubarak had fallen. Unlike many, I was only in India by a twist of fate. Egypt had been home for almost two decades.

I came to make a new life in India in November 2010 tired of an Egypt I found stagnant, convinced of my inability to master a decent amount of Arabic, and unable to find a reason to tie me to the land. India would treat me better, I decided. The following January I watched from afar as protestors poured into familiar streets, and Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square took on meaning as it never had before. While Egypt chanted “Irhal” asking Mubarak to leave, another chorus rang through my head: I should never have left.

In the days and some sleepless nights that followed, I called Indian news channels, giving them numbers of Indians in Egypt, circulated emails in India to mobilize some action. I tried to be in Egypt the only way I could, calling landlines, re-activating my Facebook account and posting volumes, replying to friends in broken Arabic, tweeting and retweeting news from Egypt and, increasingly, neighbouring revolutions.

From afar, I witnessed friends catapulted into heroism, journalists turned citizens in the line of fire, and citizens turned journalists on social media. I thought of my family: my brother patrolling streets at night like many others in Egypt where police and military were no longer to be trusted, his visiting fiancée who took my mother India to the airport in a vehicle meant for evacuees of another nation, my over-fearful father who asked me to speak in Hindi even as he lied into the phone everything was all right, and my steadfast mother who came to India so that I would not go to Egypt. They were all heroes, learning to protect others, and I was an idiot. I was the prodigal child being asked not to return, to stay just a little while longer till things were safe.

I still wish I had been there.

Finding myself here in India again for another visit amid another season of strife in Egypt, I am less troubled. I know what I did not know then: that Egypt will be safe. Despite many unnecessary deaths in recent days, I am thankful and aware that these are not the flailing attempts of a dictator to assert his rule through fear-mongering; they are a result of the very real divisions in society that need to be addressed. This is the street – somewhat sadly – addressing the street and its ills.

When I returned to Egypt to live there again in April 2011 fresh after an attack at the women’s rally at Liberation Square, I felt the truth of many friends’ words: that it would be all right to return when I did, that this was a long battle. Slogans, parties, banners have since echoed that sentiment: The Revolution Continues. Within the freedom gained from dictatorship, other rights and freedoms needed to be fostered, for women, for Christian and Baha’i and other minorities, for media, for workers, and for the citizens of a state learning what it was to be a democracy.

For Egypt is an unfolding democracy, now, no matter what Morsi and his backers try to pull off with the constitution – media is not just in newspapers and websites which went to strike – it’s on blogs and social media, the graffiti on the wall, and the songs echoing from the Square.

Thinkers, artists, and movements have shed their anonymity and are now vocal and articulate. We are closer to the “heaven of freedom” that Rabindranath Tagore spoke of in his poem, “where the mind is without fear.”

Morsi, despite popular attempts to label him as such, is not a Mubarak. He is a man battling with holdovers of the former regime. Seeing no way of circumventing the legal loopholes passed his way by the judiciary, he raised himself above it, and in so doing was caught by the very ruling he thought would liberate him. While he may well prefer being likened to the Roman Cincinnatus, who temporarily assumed dictatorial powers towards a noble end, the essential difference is this: unlike Cincinnatus’ state, Egypt is not threatened by powers outside, it is torn apart by divisions within.

Unless Morsi and his religious allies implement the constitution to address these divisions within society, protecting minorities and safeguarding democratic rights and freedoms, they will be labeled pharaohs rather than friends of the revolution. The mistake they make is in representing a religion rather than representing a people which elected them.

When the current government fails to perform that befits demands of the revolution, it is
understandable that some are chanting the slogans of the revolution, to remind others of the direction in which they are headed. Morsi is not a Mubarak, calling him such is only a warning of what he could become.

In 1981 Mubarak had reinstated the “Emergency Law” granting the state unconstitutional powers. Perhaps Mubarak had initially meant these powers to be ‘temporary’ till a ‘threat to the state was removed.’ Renewed every three years since, the Emergency Law was only repealed in May this year.

It is no wonder then that many Egyptians are showing some reluctance to grant keys to that door again. They have learned better than to let Morsi repeat history.

Written Dec 6, 2012

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Goldilocks and the Sarod Player

“That’s just my hair,” is all petite songbird Fiona Bevan has to say about her golden curls, and to what is possibly the most-asked question of her. That one full golden afro makes many a head turn at Darb 17 18, where I first take a double-turn myself. It is only the next night, at Cairo Jazz Club, that I hear her play and this time, her voice provides the same pleasant surprise.

Soumik Datta (L) on sarod, Fiona Bevan (R) on guitar

The song that hit home most was the title song of her singles’ album “Us & the Darkness,” where an insomniac finds comfort understanding that others beyond her own window share her sleeplessness.

Indeed, it was one such sleepless night in Brick Lane, London, when Bevan having suffered a broken heart found comfort in the idea that she was not alone: that others beyond her window could not sleep while they longed for love.

Bevan’s vocals and lyrics – sweetly reminiscent of another UK-artist, Katie Melua – find a natural chemistry in her improvisations and live partnership with the sarod player Soumik Datta, no doubt enhanced by their 10-year on-and-off collaborations that began as students at Trinity College, UK.

Datta, or more specifically his instrument – a customised is smaller and more guitar-like version of the sarod, was the reason I had actually walked in to Cairo Jazz Club that night. The instrument, says Datta, allows for more Western sounds being of a more portable size and with more bass parts than the original Indian instrument. He draws musical influences from both his native India, where he was schooled by Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, and London where he was “brought up listening to hip-hop and other rubbish,” he offers in warm banter with the audience.

One particular composition sees Datta fusing these disparate worlds, with lyrics in English nostalgically recalling “rivers and bridges and the Bay of Bengal.” The music in turn is informed by the classical and rooted in the modern.

In the intimacy created at the warm but not over-crowded Jazz Club, the duo made for well-chosen act for the finale night selections of the ArtBeat festival. Datta warmed up willing audiences to clap along as he played the sarod, and the warmth grew to enfold more as Bevan shared a small tambourine with another audience member. In their final song “This Is The Refrain,” Datta and Bevan had audiences hum and sing along, and who does not like the sound of their own voice singing?

Soumik Datta and Fiona Bevan were in Egypt through the British Council as part of the ArtBeat Festival produced by Cairo Jazz Club and Darb 17 18.

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The Darwasha Effect


Darwasha blends unlikely fusion of metal and oriental. Photo courtesy: Rachel Adams.

It has been only three nights since Mohamed Darwish’s gig on Saturday at Cairo Jazz Club with Syrian outfit Tanjaret Daght, which audiences are still raving about. It’s hard to predict, but Sawy may well be packed Wednesday as Darwish performs yet again.

Photographer Rachel Adams and I meet up with the Egyptian musician. Our conversation begins with him introducing us to the nuances of modern Egyptian slang that has arisen since the revolution. “There are a lot of words for ‘ignoring’ these days,” he says, citing “sa3lo” = freezing someone, so that the topic is refrigerated till later, or “a7laqlo”= cutting someone’s hair, a term that refers to the violent but common practice fashioned by military police to shut protestors up during revolution-time in Egypt.

Darwish sports long hair, and is keen to let them down while we photograph him. They are in keeping with his identity as a ‘metalhead’ – and he has worked with metal projects like ‘Odious’. “Darwasha” – his oriental-metal-rock fusion band – derives its name from the reference to whirling dervishes, rather than his own last name. The title denotes the mood of the music, Darwish says, and is “nothing related to religion” but rather about “doing crazy things to be close to God.”

The sound that Darwish craves is unconventional – fusing melodies of a nostalgic Arab era in an unlikely mix with the metal that has been the secret world of many an adolescent.

Darwasha’s songs express people’s power to overcome their frustrations, such as “Ya Shaab” which is a composition of Ahmed Fouad Negm’s “Doaa el Karawan” (The Bird’s Prayer), and “OmOm” (Genie’s Bottle) which speaks to a youth that feels trapped in his life. Yet Darwish emphasizes the importance of compositions and music, rather than lyrics and what they mean, which he finds overemphasized in Egypt. A song can have minimal lyrics and still have value, says the singer-composer who also provides soundtrack for drama pieces such as those produced by Tamye Theater.

Vocals, too, are not the center of attention in Darwasha – though the talented Karim Abo Reda does full justice to the mood – putting into perspective Darwish’s collaboration with Maryam Saleh on her project ‘Ana Mesh Beghani’ (I Do Not Sing). The emphasis in Maryam’s project is not on a mellifluous voice. Rather her voice is deliberately off-key at times; it aims to be local, accessible, mocking, scoffing. “It is not about the voice, it is also about the thought,” says Darwish. When Maryam or Darwish sing popular Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm’s lyrics, they are propounding his idea: it is not governments or positions that have power, it is the people. “What people want, they will do. Harking back to a message that was once addressed to another generation, the musician says, “I feel like I want to say that now.”

Darwish has had an artistic background with unusual influences for an average Egyptian – a brother that grew up playing classical and contemporary violin, a mother who worked as a costume designer for a singer, and a father who liked listening to Beatles. While Darwish grew up with music all around him, he also had ambitions in another field. When he took a sabbatical from his seven-year career in advertising, he came to some important decisions. “I understand it’s only a job,” says the musician about advertising, seeing himself as being more ambitious in music now.

“What made me realize that was the effect I had,” says the singer, who started the Darwasha project seven months ago. “There is a more direct effect via music.”

And we’ll be there to feel it this Wednesday!

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Just One Step: Salalem’s Mohamed Ali / Walkman

This article was recently published in Discord Magazine.

Mohamed Ali (Walkman) of Salalem band plays at Cairo Jazz Club, July 10. 2012.
Photo courtesy: Rachel Adams.

I’m particularly happy about the title of this article already. Not only because it’s about Mohammed Ali of the band Salalem – named after the stairs where the band practiced at university – but also because Mo Ali (aka Walkman) was my first step into the band’s inner workings.

Walkman is a few heads taller than yours truly, but because he bends his tall and lanky frame as he smiles, he does not appear to tower above. He is all humility and modesty. Like the band’s name, his own moniker comes from his university days. “I used to listen to music through my walkman device. My colleagues started to call me Mohammed Walkman, and that’s it ! Very cliché!”

It was only in 2005 when the band was to perform in El Sawy Culture Wheel, that they had to think of a name. “Since we were jamming on the stairs of the faculty’s building, we decided that we will name it Salalem, which means stairs in Arabic.”

Even when they had no stairs to name them, the group had jammed together singing covers of Gypsy Kings. In 2005 as a bunch of university colleagues, they coalesced on the factulty stairs, with Mo Ali (guitars, vocals) joining Amr Geuoishy (guitars) and Osama Saad (guitars, vocals). As you can tell they were a guitar-heavy band. Later Mohamed Jamal the lead vocalist , Ezz Shahwan the bassist and Sherif Nabil the drummer  joined the group, and the rest as they say, is music. (You weren’t expecting that twist, were you?)

The musical powers that be in university were not very inclined towards Salalem. “[They] were only interested in Classical Arabic music, the type of music we couldn’t produce on that time because we only had guitars!” says Mo Ali.

And with characteristic honesty he adds, “We wanted to do our own music. Classical Arabic music…was boring for us.”

The title track of their debut album released in 2011 is also about a man bored out of his mind. Kelma Abee7a (A Nasty Word) is “about an individual stuck in his daily living, bored of the daily system.” It sounds like he may be giving up, says Ali, and is wondering what to do to the extent he is about to say a nasty word.

“…In a funny way,” adds Mo Ali, who has composed the lyrics for this and most songs for Salalem. He keeps his lyrics light, but with a slight hint of sarcasm.

“Most of the songs are about social criticism. We sing for the individual and we criticize whatever is going wrong with a sense of sarcasm. We really do believe that we as Egyptian can make jokes , so why don’t we make people smile while listening to us , even if we are tackling a problem within the song! We should laugh!”

If anything, the band keeps it interesting. Often they appear onstage toted in hats and sunglasses with colorful frames. “Sometimes we have to be like clowns,” says the Walkman, “because we do believe we are on stage to entertain our audience, as if they are watching a feel good movie.”

In fact, the Hakuna Matata is not just a put-on, it goes into a deeper philosophy. “I really do believe that we should be positive,” says the singer-songwriter. “We never know what will happen in the future , we only have the present time and the plans of the future are not guaranteed.”

“Change is the key, and I wrote – along with Mohammed Fayez – a song about that called, “El Donya Ooda” (Life is a Room.) It says, if life is a room, just change its decoration, you will feel positive. The song is to be released in Salalem’s second album next summer

His pen has turned not only towards lyrics but also to poetry, and Mo Ali has already finished writing his first book. The collection of poems called “Ana Sa3eed” (I’m Happy)  includes most of Salalem’s songs and a few more, and is slated to be published soon

“I don’t see myself as a poet,” says an ever-modest Mo. “I am just a songwriter who is trying to deliver some choruses and bridges in Salalem’s tunes.” And in line with his humility, he does not have a grand message to deliver through his work. “It is just a product of what I have experienced in my life and how I see things as an individual. I just want to keep it simple,” says Mo, “When you listen to my lyrics, you can create your own philosophy about them.”

But we will wrangle one secret out of him yet. When not playing with the band, you will often find Mo Ali lurking in Al Kotob Khan in the shape of a bookworm.

“Of course, it’s hard always to make a living out of music only , thats why I wanted to have another income . By coincidence it was the book shop!”

“It was the only place where I could go and work. My boss was always aware of the fact that I am a musician and my band is my priority.”

But books do come to a close second. “I do love books, and I can’t deny that working at the bookshop put me in contact with the cultural life in town. It helped me understand what people are looking for, what are their interests and what do they read. At a certain point, I could understand someone’s personality through the book he is asking for.”

Just for kicks, I’ll be at the bookstore soon, asking for a new release, “Ana Sa3eed.”

Special thanks to Rachel Adams for the picture.

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Writing through the confusion that is Tahrir

I often find it is not my place to say much in the current scheme of things in Egypt, but I find that in the absence of me saying things, a lot of nonsense goes by without people noticing.

Rubbish I’ve participated in recently:

“Let’s go to Tahrir.”

“Do you know what’s happening there? Why are people gathered?”

“No, but let’s go.”

In an interview the other day, Dalia Danish articulately said, “Tahrir has become a habit, and soon it will lose its value.” It’s something everyone knows already, but even as we do, we are afraid to say it. Tahrir has become the Jerusalem of democracy, the Mecca of freedom. It’s where we now go to derive meaning. It has replaced our failed loves, our lost jobs, and under that brave open sky we think we’ve found a vision that will guide our life from hereon. How shall we say that it will become meaningless, kitsch even?

Please don’t turn Tahrir into a t-shirt.

It’s time to grow up and go back to the drawing board, and start the hard task of thinking and, what is harder, to throw away your sketches and re-think.

At her talk on psychological effects of the revolution, Dalia answered some question on the fear of the future by assuring people that they had intelligence, and they should rely on it to make decisions. Yet ironically, Dalia herself sent me a message saying “You make me sound so intelligent,” as if she were not.

I too fear saying what I think, because there are other people who speak much louder and with much more confidence, even if they say things that make no sense to me at all.

Last afternoon when in Tahrir, Bibi-Aisha and Birte observed that some stalls were even selling knives. Seeing the politically charged atmosphere, it didn’t seem like a wise idea to us, but no one was taking an opinion poll on this, and no one seemed to care. It doesn’t make the charts on twitter, or break news like deaths and army brutality. The effects of danger come through, but its potential in Tahrir never remarked.

At times, being at Tahrir seems like fighting for a right you’ve already won. You are free to assemble, free to discuss, free to share opinion, free to publish, and yes, free to sit and squat on Tahrir for hours on end.

It is not just ‘the army’ fighting against ‘the people’ and divisions are not sown by ‘the army’ within ‘the people.’ Here is the evident which already divides those in and out of Tahrir:

This huge bottleneck in the streets and lives of Cairo is bothersome.

People are putting paints on their babies’ faces with Egyptian flags, at the same place where at night people will be firing guns on youth.

Your guy friend is standing behind your girl friend, so she’s not groped – even though, post-revolution you expect everyone to become a saint and keep their hands off women at protests.

You don’t carry valuables on to Tahrir, even the ones that you would before revolution, because it’s a playground for pickpockets.

The problems are not in authorities alone. The problem is in the process of communication. If I’m unhappy, I’ll go squat in Tahrir, and all are free to join – pickpockets, harrassers, hawkers, and news-tourists. But, it will take years and years to form the democracy you want, and even then you will not have it, because it is not a one-person vision.

The basics of what I’ve learned is that freedom comes with responsibility. And as we act as we do, not only are we hijacking Tahrir of its current uses and purposes, we are also hijacking the meaning it gave to our recent past.

I would advocate the sitting down and talking, and even better, the listening. And if you must, because you do not feel heard and respected, then yes, take to the streets, but don’t take to Tahrir. Don’t take from Tahrir what it already has achieved. Don’t make Tahrir a habit, as Dalia said, Don’t make it lose its value.

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