Egyptian-American artist Kareem Rahma’s hard-hitting haiku

“We Were Promised Flying Cars” is a book of haiku — poems consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. (Supplied)
Updated 23 September 2019

Egyptian-American artist Kareem Rahma’s hard-hitting haiku

AMMAN: Egyptian-American artist Kareem Rahma’s latest project is an encapsulation of this polymath’s experience and talents. “We Were Promised Flying Cars” is a book of haiku — poems consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables — which Rahma then used his extensive experience of digital media (he’s worked for Vice and the New York Times, and is a cofounder of Nameless Network) to promote, using an app called Cameo, which enables you to pay celebrities (many of whom really stretch the limits of that term) to read/sing/recite whatever you ask them to.

“I heard about (Cameo) maybe 16 months ago, and I really wanted to use it for some sort of art project but I couldn't figure out what,” Rahma tells Arab News. “I had the initial idea to have celebs congratulate me on publishing my book but (that) evolved when I realized it would be much more interesting and dynamic if the celebs read poems from my book. This really tied it all together with the themes of the book, because misinformation will continue to plague our society and eventually we won't care, because we'd rather be entertained than informed — which is already true, but I think it'll get more intense. The difference between now and then is that, in the future, we won't care that we're being lied to.”

And so we have Anthony Scaramucci — a.k.a. The Mooch, briefly Trump’s director of communications in July 2017 — reciting “Unnecessary Memories,” which runs as follows: “Nostalgia is banned/Hindsight is 20-20/What’s the use for truth?”

“The lack of self-awareness is truly magnificent,” Rahma says. “Here is a guy who is a lying, sociopathic narcissist who made a name for himself by being a moron reading a poem about regret and the dissolution of truth.”

Rahma — born in Cairo and raised in Minnesota — has been writing poetry for the past five years. “I’ve always loved haiku because of how accessible it is,” he says of his choice of format for the book. “My goal is to express complex topics, philosophies and ideas by using the simplest vocabulary possible. I want my poetry to be for everyone.” The haiku forced him to “figure out how to communicate my thoughts more clearly,” he says in his book’s introduction. And when he found the way to do that, “I found real peace in having a path forward.”

Much of the poetry is, he says, “undeniably dystopian.” Take, for example, “Fun In The Desert.”

“The rich fled to Mars/They come back for Burning Man/Welcome to The Purge.”

Or “Out of Sight.”

“The Emergency/Came and took the poor away/We are happy now.”

But, Rahma adds, it also “allows plenty of space for humor, laughter and satire.” Sort of a haiku-version of “Black Mirror,” then. (He’s right, though, there are some very funny verses — “We love Muslims now/Ever since Ramadan became/A Bank Holiday.”)

“Ultimately it is an exploration of the world we live in right now and an attempt to predict our trajectory forward,” he says. 

Rahma says he came up with the idea for the book while he was asleep in a Beirut hotel room.

“I was being drawn to Beirut for artistic reasons,” he says. “I really felt like I needed to be there in order to come up with some new ideas, and in the middle of the night on my fourth or fifth night, I woke up and wrote down ‘We Were Promised Flying Cars 100 Haiku From The Future.’ When I woke up, I looked at what I'd written and the idea had merit. Once I came back to the USA, I began to write and it was very therapeutic and fun, so I just kept going until I had nearly 200 poems written.”

The next step was to select the celebrities he wanted to read his haiku. “Tara Reid, Andy Dick and Gilbert Gottfriend were all $100 and those were the most expensive. A dog called Puggy Smalls was the least expensive — $10. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Tomi Lahren all ignored my requests,” he says. “I'd ignore my request too.”

Rahma hopes the book will “open the door for new projects beyond poetry” and says he has already been approached about turning “We Were Promised Flying Cars” into “some kind of television anthology, which is exciting to me.”

And he’ll definitely be heading to the Middle East for inspiration again. “I'm always being pulled there, energetically-speaking,” he says. “The Middle East has a magnetic energy to me.”


Meet the Egyptian sisters revitalizing classical music

The sisters are apparently in the very early stages of discussions about performing in Saudi Arabia. (Getty)
Updated 20 February 2020

Meet the Egyptian sisters revitalizing classical music

  • The award-winning Ayoub sisters discuss their childhood, culture, and working with Mark Ronson

LONDON: Two Egyptian sisters, Sarah and Laura Ayoub, are rapidly establishing themselves among the UK’s premier young classical musicians with their mesmerizing talent. We met for the first time at the Arab Women of the Year Awards in London last November where they collected an award for Achievement in Cultural Exchange. Now, we’re sitting with the sisters at the stylish Balans Soho Society café in Kensington.

Sarah, the eldest, plays the cello, while younger sister Laura plays the violin. They were raised in Scotland, where their father, a maxillofacial surgeon, earned his PhD at Glasgow University before he and his wife settled in the city. 

The sisters’ musical aptitude was evident at an early age. Sarah describes how their mother took the two sisters to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Glasgow Concert Hall when they were very young. In fact, at just 18 months old, Laura was really too young to attend, but she sat quietly throughout and stunned her mother by humming the music on the way home.

Sarah, the eldest, plays the cello, while younger sister Laura plays the violin. (Getty)

Sarah showed the same precocious talent. When her mother enrolled in night school classes to learn the keyboard, she discovered that when she sat down to practice with her daughter perched on her knee, her little girl could play everything by ear. So, she decided to enroll her daughter into the class, saying, “You’ve got more promise.”

At primary school the sisters had the option to play either trumpet or violin. Their mother, Sarah recalls, calculated for a moment before declaring: “Trumpet? A bit too loud. Let’s go with the violin.”

By the time the sisters were ready to move on to secondary school, it was clear that their musical talent needed to be the focus. They attended the Douglas Academy School of Music in Milngavie, Glasgow.

The sisters’ musical aptitude was evident at an early age. (Supplied)

“It didn’t mean, at that point, that we had chosen music as a career,” says Laura. “We were just going to crank it up a notch.” 

That meant violin, cello and piano tuition; singing lessons; harmony; and composition and music theory. They played in orchestras and quartets and sang in vocal ensembles and choirs.

But alongside their music studies, the sisters still had to study a full academic curriculum.

They were raised in Scotland, where their father, a maxillofacial surgeon, earned his PhD at Glasgow University before he and his wife settled in the city. (Supplied)

“The only way to fit all that in was that at some point during the school day, you had to miss out on an academic subject to receive your music lesson. It was up to you to catch up,” says Laura, recalling that, more often than not, it was the music students carrying the heaviest workloads who were consistently at the top of their classes. The old adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it; the more things you do, the more you can do,” comes to mind. 

Sarah went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Laura at the Royal College of Music in London.

It was only when Sarah moved to London and the sisters started sharing a flat that a closer musical collaboration began. “We tapped into this creativity that we didn’t realize we had and started writing new things and playing in different styles,” says Sarah.

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In 2016 they were selected for a “Priceless Surprises” campaign organized by Mastercard alongside Grammy award-winning DJ and producer, Mark Ronson, thanks to their cover version of Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” (the smash hit performed by Bruno Mars). The sisters say they felt a little conflicted about entering the competition by putting the video online, as they knew that whenever anyone pops their head above a parapet it can attract unfriendly fire. 

“I had just started my undergraduate studies at the Royal College of Music and the standard was incredibly high,” Laura says. “I don’t think anyone was really venturing outside of the classical sphere at that point. For me, as a first-year student, putting that video of us playing ‘Uptown Funk’ online was quite scary. We almost didn’t do it. Anything that resembles self-promotion usually comes with a bit of potential judgment — but (eventually) we followed through.” 

And it had an electrifying impact on their lives. Not only were they among the six acts whose covers were selected as winners by Ronson, but they then found themselves in the iconic Abbey Road studios recording a collaborative version under the famous producer’s direction. That recording was played at 2016’s prestigious BRIT Awards to an estimated TV audience of 5.8 million.

In 2016 they were selected for a “Priceless Surprises” campaign alongside Grammy award-winning DJ and producer, Mark Ronson. (Supplied)

“The fact that Mark Ronson selected our version — which was in its complete infancy with under 200 views, most of which were from our mother to be honest — was incredible,” Sarah says. “For him, it would have meant many hours going through potentially thousands of YouTube covers.”

In 2017, the sisters dropped their debut album, “The Ayoub Sisters” — recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Abbey Road Studios. It was released by Decca in partnership with Classic FM and went to Number One in the UK’s Classical Artist Album chart. 

One track on the album that the sisters are particularly proud of is the beautiful “Call to Prayers (A Message of Unity),” in which Sarah and Laura utilize the Islamic call to prayer — the adhan — and evocative chants from the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy to deliver a powerful message of peace. “In a musical way we symbolized how these two faiths can thrive together beautifully and in harmony,” says Laura.

In 2017, the sisters dropped their debut album, “The Ayoub Sisters.” (Getty)

On their website the video of this recording includes a quote from the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb: “The time has come for the representatives of the Divine Religions to strongly and in a concrete way turn towards mercy and peace.”

The sisters themselves, of course, are living examples of cultures coexisting. They say they greatly value their Scottish upbringing and all the opportunities their schooling opened up to develop their musical talents, and they are also very proud of their Egyptian heritage, which they say means more to them now as adults than it did when they were young. 

At the time, their annual childhood holidays with family in Cairo seemed routine, but they have grown to really appreciate their culture to a fuller extent. They have performed at the Cairo Opera House and had the honor of playing the Egyptian National Anthem live at the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, where they received an award for their musical achievements from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

The sisters received an award for their musical achievements from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. (Supplied)

The sisters, who manage themselves, are now in demand from fans around the world. Their schedules are becoming increasingly hectic, and the sisters are conscious of the need to maintain a healthy work/life balance. “We recognized last year that that’s something we should be careful about,” Laura says. “We try to go out as much as possible. It’s important to get out of the flat — which is our workplace, studio and rehearsal room as well as our home. It’s so easy, especially in the winter, to stay in. When you don’t have concrete work hours built into your schedule, you can find yourself wondering ‘Where does my day start and when in theory should it end?’” 

They are apparently in the very early stages of discussions about performing in Saudi Arabia. “We have had a few enquires and we are very keen,” says Sarah. “I have noticed that there is a buzz happening in the Middle East and Gulf region. It is becoming more and more recognized as a cultural hub for music and art.”

And wherever they travel, they make a point of contacting local primary schools to try and arrange music workshops. “Giving our time in this way is rewarding, and educational for us as well. We aim to do more workshops this year, especially in the Middle East. It’s one of our big goals — to give back,” says Laura.