25 February - 3 March 1999
Issue No. 418
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The blessed of the earthHis voice rings out, captivating those who listen; he will drag you down, into depths of despair, move you to tears, then speak the secrets of love and the Creator
Profile by Fatemah Farag
The sound filters through your ears, but ultimately lodges itself in your heart. In the throes of the passion he stirs, you are filled to the brim with beauty yet anguished by feelings of deprivation. He confronts you with the frailty of the human soul in the face of creation. "I am the poor slave, Yassin El-Tohami," says the man who draws hundreds of thousands of people to hear his recital of religious songs.
We sit on the floor of his room in a small flat in Al-Hussein. "Excuse the place, we are dervishes," says the Sheikh as he crosses his legs. Incongruously, however, the small green light of his mobile phone flashes on the pillow beside him. But then this is Yassin El-Tohami. Through his unique recitals of Sufi poetry and religious songs, he has become an informal representative of Sufism. At the same time, however, he is an artist and a performer -- the facts of life dictate that he be a businessman as well. Some argue that the two facets are incompatible. In fact, they make him all the more human -- and likable.
From the village of Hawatka in Assiut, El-Tohami was born in early 1949. "My family was known for its piety," he explains. "Most memorised the Qur'an -- we inherit it from one generation to the next." Yassin attended the Azharite high school until the second year. His introduction into the circles of Sufi orders and mawalid did not come until later and, as he recounts himself, by chance. "My father was zahed, someone who gave up worldly interests and was with God always. Hence, I was brought up in a very religious environment and I used to like to visit the sada [the Sufi masters]."
The El-Tohami family drew many members of various Sufi orders to their home. Yassin remembers that "my father's Sufi friends would pay him tribute by holding religious recitation and zikr circles in our house during the religious holidays." During one of these events, held to celebrate the Prophet Mohamed's birth, when Yassin was 24, "I recited something by Sidi Omar Ibn Al-Farid, and my father's friends took it upon themselves to put me on this road, they took me as their son."
It is difficult to get Yassin to talk about himself and his work. "God forbid I should talk of myself," he repeats every few sentences, "I owe everything to God's blessings, and to the sada." He has great respect for the words he sings, and gives them priority in explaining his success. "The word is the basis -- then maybe the voice, maybe other things... but they are secondary. When one is convinced about what he sings -- well, that is the important thing."
His vocation springs from the oral tradition passed down over generations. "I had heard the words of Omar Ibn Al-Farid and Abdel-Karim Al-Gili', and many others. Everything in our performance is spontaneous and based on what we hear. Much later, I started to study the poetry in more depth but ultimately the practical was more important than the theoretical." In fact, among the many prominent religious singers who frequent the mawalid, Yassin is best known to his more intellectual followers for his use of old Sufi poetry. He, however, seems more interested in the majority of his audience -- mainly the working-class Egyptians who seem to understand and feel his words so deeply. His own experience makes him especially sensitive to their needs.
Yassin El-Tohami is a phenomenon unlike any other at the major mawalid. This year, at the celebrations of Sayeda Zeinab's birth date, everyone knows where he is singing, what days and what time. You know you are getting closer when the already dense crowds get even denser and an air of tense excitement prevails. Thousands of people have staked out this area long hours in advance to get the best possible position. Some are sitting precariously on high walls surrounding the open site; even the trees are filled with people. Literally hundreds hold tape recorders as far above their heads as their arms will allow, for hour after hour, in an attempt to immortalise these moments of ecstasy.
He gets very upset when asked whether a predominantly uneducated audience can understand the very sophisticated Sufi poetry he recites. "I do not accept this," he exclaims. "There is a culture of the senses; not all culture and education is related to books. To have this thaqafa hissiya is to have a soul and sentiments that are present and alive, but not the ability to articulate them." Yassin knows that people may be robbed of the tools with which to express their humanity, but not that humanity itself. Perhaps it is that knowledge that draws people towards him in masses.
Besides, he adds, "the poetry is not that difficult. Appreciating it requires obedience and good behaviour."
Many Sufis, however, would argue that "good behaviour" is not necessarily the prevalent characteristic at many festivals these days. They point to music as one element of deviation. At the mention of Yassin, a Sheikh at the Higher Council for Sufi Orders turned his head away and snapped: "Oh, he is only a singer, and expensive too." On this and other issues, Yassin seems to take the more liberal, and arguably even the more Sufi, approach. "Of course I am not a scholar, but I feel that bad music is ugly and not acceptable, and good music is favourable. In Sufi recitation, one is speaking to God and, if the music accompanying this elevates the soul, how can that be bad? If, however, it moves us towards worldly and base feelings, then it is of course haram -- totally. But people should be more critical. If this concept is applied wrongly, then the problem is in the implementation and not the concept itself."
Yassin will tell you Sufism is a way of life. "Sufism is appreciation, chastity, acceptance, clarity and the elevation of one's soul. The Sufi is one who is devoid of violence; he is the lover." In today's world, however, this Sufi wears other garb as well. Take for example his Arab identity. "I was invited to go to Palestine, but I refused when I discovered the only way to get there was through Israel. It made me very sad. I did not go. It is a matter of principle. What do you think? You know I am also an Arab and a Muslim."
Yassin El-Tohami: Sufi, world traveler and international performer. "I only travel to carry the word," he says demurely. "I go as a volunteer." So far, he has been to Paris several times as well as Britain, Holland and Spain. He is scheduled to go to Morocco soon; Brazil in August, and then back to London. A young man who came to ask the Sheikh to perform at a celebration was told that he was fully booked until May. How did he become so popular abroad? He smiles. "Well, the foreigners they come to the mawalid in search of some local colour. That is how it began. But I am honoured because it makes me an ambassador of the word."
Yassin hopes that his way of reciting will gain more formal recognition here in Egypt. "We are lumped with other arts under the title 'popular arts' or 'folklore' (fann sha'bi ). But we are religious reciters, and I hope we will be able to establish our own syndicate soon, to represent us as an independent identity." This is important to Yassin. How else can the tradition be kept alive? "Our heritage goes back 13 centuries, yet it deals with the issues of today. It is very valuable and must be preserved."
There are, of course, practical matters as well. "We do not sing for money. But there are the expenses of the musicians and transportation. Life has its requests. The money we take is not a wage for what we recite -- what we recite is more valuable than anything material." Yassin himself (who already has approximately 34 tapes on the market) has recently established a distributing company of his own and, although he depends on spontaneity, he records all his original compositions on sheet paper to preserve his copyright.
So what message would he convey to those who hang on his every word? "There is something in common between the listener and the reciter -- something that pulls us together for those moments. But that is it, because..." -- he waves his arms, momentarily at a loss for words, then looks off into the middle distance -- "because I do not know what I really want, or how to please myself. So how can I offer that advice to others?"
Perhaps then it is his own loss and constant search that pierces our hearts, as he recites, night after night, the words of love.
Photos: Sherif Sonbol