Issue 3
April 18, 2019

Take a Vacation to Egypt with Rouka

When not able to physically visit, the artist explores his ancestral home through his music.

by Lincoln Mondy
dahab

This piece originally appeared in Issue #3. Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter!
- Amina and Lincoln

A study on diaspora tourism found that Chinese-American participants took an average of 5.3 trips to China before the age of 30. Of course, not everyone can make these trips, leaving many children of immigrants searching for other ways to explore their ancestral roots. For 22-year-old Rouka — the son of Egyptian immigrants — that means taking trips to Egypt through his music.

Rouka, who was born Tarek Abdelhalim, named his recent song Dahab after a small town on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It’s a place he’s actually never visited, a fact he reveals is what led him to the name. “I’ve never been there and have only heard about how dumb gorgeous it is. I can imagine the rest in any way I want, and it’s not entirely dishonest.” This duty to honesty — a type of honesty that’s messy — is present throughout the track.

Even though it was released in January, Dahab feels much more like a dewy summer love. The track is both a romantic tale of a far off land and a clear-eyed journey that doesn’t fight to hide context. The high-tempo beat resembles a dance track, and the lyrics express a sense of conflict. To that, Rouka notes, “The chorus is me being realistic with myself, I can’t have it the way I envision it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ever have it, it’ll just take work.”

The song explores love in a way that isn’t one singular cookie-cutter relationship, but a type of love that transcends love of self and love of country. Rouka wrote the song as if he was already in the city by incorporating sounds he would hear on the street in Egypt, notably in the percussion. Rouka says he wasn’t focused on making Dahab relatable to everyone and that the track reflects everything in his life he’s ever had to be patient for — “a prosperous Egypt, romantic love, mental health, an actual vacation I can’t take because I’m broke.”

Rouka has a complicated relationship with Egypt. It’s one that grows more complex with every passing year as he works to square tradition with his own experiences and beliefs. The song also touches on LGBTQ+ relationships, the experience of having to wait for love that you can’t express openly yet due to cultural and religious barriers. “There are parts of my identity, personality and convictions that don't align with the norms of my home country. In my ideal paradise these things start to mesh.” When he imagines himself going back to Egypt, he imagines a specific Egypt without all the stressful parts — “I go there a lot when my mental health is dismal, and I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety.” When he does have the opportunity to physically be in Egypt, he becomes overwhelmed with how much he loves the country and wants to see it be better.

Even though Dahab has a theme of conflict, it’s showered with a layer of autonomy. “The best part is that it’s mine, it’s my vacation, and I can go back to it at any time because a little bit is better than nothing.” This intentional disregard for the past and the present — time and space — sticks out. As children of immigrants are pressured to leave their culture behind in the name of “assimilation”, Dahab is just one defiant example of how art can help take control over your narrative and rewrite your song.