Fans from all backgrounds filled the over 1,000 seats of the historic Lincoln Theatre, a venerable 1920s cultural institution in Washington DC, awaiting Tunisian-born singer Emel Mathlouthi on October 17.
In a breathtaking opening number, behind dim lighting and shadows of smoke, she floated onto the stage dressed in a long red gown, her head and shoulders covered in a flowing translucent red veil, like an apparition emerging behind the band of instrumentalists. She evoked Elissa, the queen of Carthage, Tunisia’s ancient capital.
Suddenly, the audience was captivated by her haunting, pure, ethereal voice that carries in its depth the suffering of the world that Mathlouthi has sworn a lifelong oath to uphold.
Convinced that music is a universal language that does not need an interpreter, Mathlouthi describes her music as “a reflection of what’s happening in the world.”
In 2011, her now famous song, “Kelmti Horra” (My Word is Free), both expressed and projected the revolution in her country, Tunisia, where it has become an anthem for the times signifying the desires of the people to be free from autocracy.
In 2015, Mathlouthi performed it at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony honoring the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a Tunisian civil society organization.
Mathlouthi has been portrayed as the voice of Tunisia and the “21st Century’s Catalyst for Change.”
Since then, Mathlouthi has been portrayed as the voice of Tunisia. NPR called her the “21st Century’s Catalyst for Change.”
Her Washington DC concert on October 17 came just days after the 2019 Tunisian Elections that saw Kais Saied, an unknown law professor and independent candidate, elected as the new President of Tunisia.
In an exclusive interview, Mathlouthi told Inside Arabia that she was happy to be a voice for change that inspires Tunisians. “I saw people celebrating in the streets and I loved what I saw,” she said. “Definitely there is lots to celebrate because this is democracy, and we worked very hard and suffered a lot to get there.”
“Youth are the ones that need to dream so they can believe in themselves and bring new perspectives for our country,” she continued. “I want them to feel that they are part of the change in the democratic transition.”
In her concert, Mathlouthi took the audience on a world tour telling the story of the songs she wrote and where she wrote them. She had a message for people who are destroying nature. In a song called “This Place,” which she wrote in Egypt at a festival by the Red Sea, she voiced her sadness at the sight of a huge and very green golf course.
In her lyrics, she perceives the green fairway as an affront to nature and to justice because there is little water in Egypt, and it is unfathomable that so much of it is used to maintain a playground exclusively for the rich.
“I don’t like that space,” she sings, “for it has no name. I don’t like this place, for it has no soul.”
Because of her background, one would expect that her audience would be predominantly Tunisian or maybe mostly from neighboring Maghreb countries, but her fans hail from many different ethnicities and cultures.
Mathlouthi’s voice has no borders and touches everyone.
Mathlouthi expressed her pleasure and satisfaction that her voice has no borders and touches everyone: “I feel great to perform in front of people from different backgrounds,” she told Inside Arabia. “I take lots of pride that my music is touching everyone and that is what I intend my music to do. I felt as if people follow their hearts and emotions.”
Mathlouthi shared her compassion for the dispossessed, downtrodden, and marginalized when she performed a stirring Kurdish song, a cappella, as a salute to the Kurdish people who are being imperiled by international political decisions. She mesmerized the audience with this unaccompanied stunning solo, and though the lyrics were in Kurdish, a foreign language to most if not all the audience, they touched every heart.
The ecstatic audience kept interrupting her with standing ovations and stood up for a long time clapping with sadness as she was leaving the stage. “The hours are getting late,” she sang, a song from her latest album, entitled “Everywhere we looked was burning.” This anthem to the burning Amazon and forests of our planet, was an imploring cry for humanity to rally to planet Earth’s defense.
Niranjan, a second generation Indian-American financial advisor who attended her concert, put the night’s energy into his own words: “Language was not a barrier and her emotions spoke out very well,” Niranjan said.
“I had no idea in what language she was singing but her message was clear. We should be doing more in the world, especially regarding climate change and what is happening with the Kurds.”
He added: “This is the first time I have seen a performance that gave me chills the entire time.”
Katia, a dancer originally from Russia, was also deeply moved despite the language barrier.
“Mathlouthi’s messages were very powerful,” Katia told Inside Arabia.
“Even though she sang in a language I cannot understand, I was able to see, through her body language, how she was protesting. Her messages throughout the show were very powerful,” she said, “showing how the world or what is called Western democracy is ignoring people who are dying and don’t have opportunities.”
Mathlouthi has performed in over 40 countries and at some of the most prominent music festivals in the Arab world, Europe, and North America. While her work was previously banned in her own home country (from 2008-2011), it remains a rallying cry for people’s protests for freedom all over the region.