Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2005
Issue No. 756
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Youssef Rakha

The militant amphitheatre

Youssef Rakha, in Tunis, on Palestine

The 38-day 41st International Carthage Festival (9 July-15 August) closed on Monday with a large-scale soire violon that drew on Tunisian musical heritage. Of the 106 events making up its programme, the two relating directly to Palestine were probably the most popular; this, despite the availability of such household pop names as Latifa and Hani Shakir. One had the impression that in Tunisia, among the young especially, the Palestinian question remains alive in a way it may no longer be in Morocco or even the Mashriq. Held at the Roman Amphitheatre, at the heart of the ancient city, Lebanese musician Marcel Khalifa's concert saw a full house of mainly young Tunisians, many of whom wore scarves that replicated the Palestinian flag. Heavy security and the propensity of low-rank Tunisian employees to take themselves too seriously further testified to the importance of the event; the usher prevented my beautiful, officially appointed escort and me from sitting with her sister and a poet friend in the front row. I was subsequently told that the amphitheatre holds 12-14,000 spectators: imagine, then, the effect of spontaneous applause preempting the appearance of Khalifa. Nor was applause the only sign of impassioned engagement. At intervals the crowd would burst into song, reciting, by heart, the unofficial anthem of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon, and the most famous by the Lebanese communist party's musical group, Al-Mayadin, founded by Khalifa: Muntasibal-qamati amshi, marfou'al-hamati amshi (My back straight, I walk; my head high, I walk). It was the arrival at the amphitheatre of Mahmoud Darwish, otherwise known as the poet laureate of the Palestinian resistance, that generated the loudest applause prior to the start of the show. The live personification of the aforementioned lyrics -- old, tired and self-absorbed -- he walked slowly between festival director Raouf Ben Omar and Minister of Culture and Preservation of Heritage Mohamed Ibn Al-Aziz Ben Ashour, never turning to the audience. Not until Ben Omar pointed out that the applause was for him did Darwish wave and blow kisses in gratitude, gesticulating to indicate he had not realised that was the case; was this an instance of false modesty? During a press conference at the Africa Hotel the previous day, on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, he had managed to ask journalists not to "nag" with requests for individual interviews without antagonising them. Now he listened quietly as Khalifa's troupe, including two of his sons, appeared on stage -- to start what was to be the festival's most talked about evening.

Khalifa had given his own press conference two days earlier at another five-star hotel in the beautiful resort town of La Marsa - the occasion to read out, in his trademark melodious voice, a most moving statement. He then responded to the questions of mainly Tunisian but some Lebanese and Egyptian journalists. Khalifa had only just started composing, he recounted, when he first came to the Carthage Festival in the mid- 1980s, two years before the PLO headquarters, in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Beirut, moved to Tunis; and the success of the concerts he gave, whether due to musical merit or to his left-wing, firmly pro-Palestinian position, was phenomenal. The Lebanese Civil War was still raging and, as a representative of the Lebanese Communist Party and (by extension) the Haraka wataniya (National Movement, as opposed to Lebanese Front), Al-Mayadin had taken to presenting the poetry of Darwish in musical form; recordings were smuggled all across the Arab world, where their novelty was cherished no less than the message they conveyed. Surprising, indeed, how many of Khalifa's songs, even those with Lebanese as opposed to standard Arabic lyrics, the amphitheatre's predominantly young audience knew by heart. Khalifa lamented the fact that, in the last few years, as Ben Omar put it, Carthage, one of the most serious and multifaceted cultural gatherings in Arab history, had disintegrated into "a video-clip festival". He set himself apart from "commercial bleeding", an increasingly prevalent condition that beset not only the festival but Arab satellite channels, he stressed; he even went so far as to suggest founding a highbrow cultural channel -- short of a large-scale invasion of existing channels by "the true agents of culture". Culture, as he said again to a more and more frantic audience at the amphitheatre, is "all that remains" after the all but absolute political and economic failure of the Arabs. The battle and romance imagery he employed appealed to everyone, yet many posed questions about his work -- his allegedly floundering connection with Darwish, his increasing reliance on Western instruments and sounds and his gradual move away from lyrics and towards instrumental music. Khalifa defended himself with humour and panache, pointing out that, having recently composed a two-hour instrumental piece inspired by Darwish's poetry, his connection to the poet continues on numerous -- deeper -- levels, that Arab audiences appreciate instrumental music as much as song (something of falsehood, this, judging by audience response through the course of the very concert he was to give at the amphitheatre the next day) and that experimentation, whether or not it is Western-inspired, must not, and does not, imply compromising identity.

Though evident, particularly in the final, remarkably long, solo- studded rearrangement of Ya bahriya, in which Rami Khalifa gave a memorable keyboard performance while his father made use not only of piano, string quartet and clarinet but, notably, accordion, such experimentation hardly interfered with the conventional atmosphere of a Marcel Khalifa performance. Here were all the staples: the singer Omayma, lyrics drawn from Darwish poems and an overriding sense of militant patriotism (some would describe the latter as belonging to the armchair-revolutionary variety). Khalifa sat mid-stage with the oud on his lap, going periodically into trances, by turns addressing the audience and, like a traditional conductor, communicating with band members. "The instrument around which everything else arranges itself", as he described it at the press conference, he would hide his face behind it following a dramatic pause, holding it as if it were a weapon -- the metaphorical arm of the battle for identity and freedom. Confident in his audience, on several occasions he depended solely on their collective voice -- a highly melodious contribution. He also quoted the late father of the National Movement, Kamal Joumblat, a fair-minded left-wing Arab politician if ever there was one, saying that revolution is about contributing something beautiful. Introducing Asfour tal mneshebak (A bird appeared at the window), a song about the freedom to fly based on a child's lullaby, Khalifa addressed his dedication to "Arab prisoners in Israeli jails" and waited for the applause to subside before adding, with both courage and ingenuity, "and to Arab prisoners in Arab jails" -- a truly memorable moment. In a range of lighting conditions, the concert afforded the sight of ancient tiers filled entirely with people; young men and women sat, stood, danced, clapped, waved flags and shouted slogans, notably Berroh beddam nefdiki ya Falastin (With our souls and blood we will defend you Palestine). Exiting the Carthage Amphitheatre complex, one felt like part of a multitude, an enormous collective body thirsty for a lost Arabness, a long absent sense of self. It was then that the reason behind heavy security became apparent: the situation really was potentially explosive.

A similar clamouring occurred two days later at the entrances to the St Louis Cathedral (Acropolium de Byrsa), where the long- awaited poetry reading by Darwish happened to coincide with unbearably hot and humid weather; if not for the occasional downpour of summer rain, indeed, there would have been no respite. The cathedral doors were kept open, and for a while at the beginning one could see the glorious hilltop sunset adjacent to the stage. The same brawls with the porters occurred, the same exchanges of compliments between Darwish and Khalifa who, along with his wife and two sons, sat in the front row. Yet the occasion afforded fewer opportunities for passionate expression of solidarity, and, though the space was filled to overflowing, there could only have been fewer people. Preceded and interspersed with violin performances by the prodigy Tunisian virtuoso Yasmine Azaiz, the reading provided for a range of old and new work, both full shorter poems and extracts. Darwish sang of Tunis as well as Palestine, of his own first name, the letters of which became the emblems for various psychological-political states, and his encounter with death, the latter being the subject of his book-length poem Al-Jidariya (The Mural); he also recited extracts from his last collection, Sarir Al-Ghariba (The Bed of the Stranger) and lines -- Ahinu ila bayti ommi wa qahwati ommi (I yearn for the house of my mother, and the coffee of my mother) made famous by Khalifa. Despite visible fatigue and a complaint or two about the weather, he read steadily, in the rhetorical tone that has characterised Arabic verse renditions since pre- Islamic times, infusing the lines with a range of emotions from melancholy to anger, and occasionally playing with the audience by inserting a comment in dialect or postponing a word. As a performance, however, Darwish's reading was something of a disappointment: it was rather too formal, even stilted, for there to be much audience interaction; Darwish himself didn't seem to be enjoying the reading as much as he might have been. Indeed, here as at the Africa Hotel press conference, he was not in his element.

A somewhat brief, one could say abortive affair, the conference was an occasion for Darwish to answer questions about his recent work, the future of Arabic literature and, despite his pleading with the audience not to ask him about politics, the situation in Palestine. On several occasions he was rather aggressive with his interlocutors, with even the vaguest criticism of his work prompting defensiveness. To the charge that his poetry was "lyrical" (a term loosely deployed to contrast with "modernist"), Darwish pointed out, demagogically, that the right use of the word is rooted in the threefold, functional division of ancient poetry into epic, dramatic and song-oriented. Since he writes neither drama nor epic, he said, his poetry can only be lyrical. Similarly, in being asked about prose as a poetic medium, he insisted that, since art depends on the challenge of facing technical difficulties, there could be nothing wrong with "displaying language skills" in the form of rhyme and rhythm. It was the memory of the 1994 speech Darwish famously gave at Al-Masrah Al-Baladi (Tunis's Municipal Theatre) on the occasion of the Palestinian return to the occupied territories following the Oslo Accords -- many Palestinians including Darwish had settled in Tunis following the PLO-led exodus from Beirut -- that formed the most engaging topic of the press conference. Many attendees remembered Darwish breaking into tears mid-sentence, as he stated that it was pointless to thank one's own people (in reference to Tunisians welcoming Palestinians and providing them with shelter). Interestingly, though he said he was overtaken by an "explicable bout of weeping", Darwish suggested that he had cried because, even then, he realised that in leaving Tunis he was "following a mirage"; though he did not announce it in the course of the speech, in other words, he was not convinced by the Oslo settlement. But the most positive consequence of Darwish's presence in Carthage was the publication of a valuable book, funded by the festival administration, Al-Sha'ir Al-Falastini Mahmoud Darwish fi Tunis (The Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish in Tunis), edited by Abdel-Raouf Al-Khanisi. A substantial volume, it includes poetry and prose by Darwish, testimonies and memoirs by Tunisian poets as well as the text of speeches and interviews he gave on various occasions before, during and since his longest stint in the country during the 1980s.

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