Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 November 2003
Issue No. 664
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Revolutionary musahharati

As the holy month draws to a close, Noha Radwan* traces back vernacular poet Fouad Haddad's unlikely lineage

The figure of the musahharati is familiar enough: he is that often disembodied voice that goes around the neighbourhood every night of Ramadan, rapping a drum and reciting a well- known mantra designed to wake people up in time for suhour, the last meal before the next day's fast begins; only at the end of the month does the man appear, collecting small sums in return for that service. No surprise, then, that the musahharati has been around since the 12th century at least. What is interesting, rather, is that mediaeval musahharatis composed a short poetic form, the quma, a word derived from the root "to rise".

The few examples of quma that survive are either light poems on themes of love, composed for the purpose of entertertainment, or panegyrics in praise of the musahharati's individual patrons. For a modern Egyptian poet like Fouad Haddad (1927-85), however, the voice of musahharati afforded greater variety. And when he composed his first contemporary quma in Ramadan 1384 H (1964 AD), it was as much to pay homage to the heritage of the musahharati as to open up a new perspective for his own creativity: A drummer./My hand on the drum/is a quill in an ink bottle./ A drummer./My lessons/illuminate minds."

Haddad's Al-Musahharati, a collection of 30 poems, was set to music and sung by Sayed Mikkawi, one of Egypt's greatest musicians. The poems were broadcast on the radio, one each night, during Ramadan. It proved to be such a hit the radio broadcast it again for two successive years. In 1967, the Haddad-Mikkawi duo produced a new 30-poem collection, which was aired during Ramadan of that year. Al- Musahharati continued to be broadcast on the radio and was later adapted as a television programme in which Cairo by night (both real-life footage and animation) complemented the sound. Haddad and Mikkawi produced 90 poems in all, which continue to be a cherished Ramadan event today.

Significantly for such a popular achievement, Al- Musahharati is a cornerstone in the project of defining the poetics of the modern vernacular. Infused with Haddad's intellectual abilities and his familiarity with both the classic and folk heritage, it forges a seamless connection between old and new, negating an existing rupture between the popular and the literary. The overture of each poem is the familiar call: "Wake up sleeper,/testify to the oneness of the everlasting/And say : Tomorrow, if I live,/I intend to fast for the month,/and rise at dawn."

Yet unlike his mediaeval counterpart, Haddad's musahharati is committed to waking up his patrons in an ideological sense. Nation replaces traditional loved one, and Egyptians at large are the substitute for individual patrons. As the nation's socially conscious and politically engaged musahharati, Haddad's poetry celebrates the 1952 Revolution. And its frequent evocations of classic literary figures act to integrate the renewed sense of nationality with grass- roots national heritage. Antar and Abla, the legendary Arab lovers who were separated by class, for example, become co- workers united by the project for industrial and social development, which gives their now realised union both strength and pride.

The 1967 defeat blindsided not only Egyptians but Arabs everywhere. It was demoralising and humiliating, and it cast serious doubts on the Arab nationalist project of liberating Palestine and achieving true independence and real progress. Many Arab literati gave in to depression. Haddad was not among these. Rather, he found refuge in his mediaeval persona, rapping his drum and singing hope. In Ramadan 1387 H (December 1967 AD), 30 new poems began with a reaffirmation of faith: "Egypt, oasis of goodwill,/You spoke and dawn was the echo/Even the trees among barren stones sang.../You are the resilient princess/of humanity, matriarch of sacrifice/matriarch of civilisation, mother.../grant us an immortal moment.../kohl of my eye, saviour..."

Haddad's faith in the nation's ability to recover was not without a vision -- and a justification. In the 30 poems of 1967, he called for a rereading of Arab and Egyptian history, a revision of the Arabs' intellectual legacy, unity, hard work, support for peasants, workers and soldiers. He wrote no more musahharati sequences until October 1973, when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal. Then, in 15 poems of joyful tribute to the army, he assumed the voice of the musahharati again. It may have been a small military victory, but it helped immensely in lifting Arab morale, affording the much needed assertion that Israel was not invincible.

"A musahharati who, this year," he wrote, "is consumed with longing/a drummer calling out/to the eastern bank... I, an enchanted lover of the nation, wander/I have crossed six seas over six years/and now I sing.../I am a melody consumed by love.../a melody that salutes the troops..." Such was Haddad's commitment: to be spokesman for the nation. Such was the legacy he bequeathed: "I call my daughter, Inas,/and feel her kiss on my cheek./I call my son, Hassan/and feel his hug around my chest./I want to offer my children the gift of a song,/the most beautiful song: Love your nation/Love the nation in land and fields..."

Haddad remains among the most important poets in the Arab world, "the most poetic of poets", as Gamal El- Ghitani, novelist and editor of the literary weekly Akhbar Al- Adab, describes him. His literary genius is due as much as anything to the fact that he availed himself of the familiar and highly resonant treasure troves of Egyptian folklore and the Arabic literary canon while not confining himself to either's coventions. He innovated, transformed, preached his vision. Most importantly he touched the hearts of his audience, allowing them to partake of his infinite love for the nation and its hard-working people.

* Noha Radwan is a PhD candidate studying vernacular poetry at the University of California at Berkeley.

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