An Arab spring
Music, song and the substance of poetry: Rania Khallaf
revels in rare pleasures
Finally, an opportunity for music and poetry outside the cultural establishment. According to Basma El-Husseiny, director of Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafy, with input from organisations like the El-Sawy Culture Wheel, the Mawrid's Spring Festival of Poetry and Music (20 April-12 May) is an attempt at "exploring possibilities of cultural integration". The event, she said, will help the as yet fledgling independent culture scene built credibility: "Though we started a couple of years ago, we still have to negotiate our own existence with official organisations and other social powers. As often as not, we still have to submit to harsh social conditions. On this occasion we are lucky to have [high-profile left-wing Lebanese musician] Marcel Khalife and others with us here in Cairo..." Audience members like engineer Akram Ismail echo such sentiments: organisations like the Mawrid provide necessary space at a time when university students, for example, are deprived of art and music on campus.
Judging by the warm reception the predominantly young audience gave Khalife at the Cairo Opera's Open-air Theatre, that would seem to be the case indeed. As he sang his trademark Palestinian anthems -- many of them poems by Mahmoud Darwish, the poet laureate of the resistance, which Khalife set to music -- the audience spontaneously joined in, as it invariably does. "I inherited the love of Khalife from my family," Ismail, 25, explained. "I went to Lebanon in 2001 with the Arab National Youth Camp, and I attended a Khalife concert in Tripoli. I've been a big fan ever since..." For his part Cairo-based Sudanese painter Mohieddin Adam, another young fan, was frustrated with the fact that tickets to Khalife's concert were sold out before he could get his hands on one: "But I enjoyed Soheir Hammad's poetry readings" -- another highlight of the festival -- "which showed sensitivity and proved accessible to me despite my weak English." Nothing could assuage the disappointment of missing Khalife, widely perceived as a close ally of the blind Quranic reciter-turned-oppositional-composer Imam Issa.
SPEAKING to Al-Ahram Weekly, Khalife elaborated: "my experience with Darwish, who exerted much influence over generations of young Arabs, has been very complicated. It's taken the form of a straightfoward tune or a 90-minute orchestration like Ahmed Al-Araby -- but to the audience it is always the same." Though popular here as elsewhere in the Arab world, Khalife has since his first visit in 1977, which coincided with President Anwar El-Sadat's much denigrated visit to Israel, shown a certain reluctance in coming to Egypt. "I don't know whence this attachment to Cairo," he said. "Perhaps it is the urge to rekindle a candle in the face of the darkness pervading the Arab world... Ever since [that first visit], no attempt at holding a concert here came to much, whether on my part or the Egyptians'. It feels like a loss, since I would have valued links with young Egyptians and university students. Both sides should work to bridge that gap." On this occasion Khalife had come straight from Yemen: "I was deeply impressed, and surprised by my ignorance, on visiting the great antiquities and natural museums there. I felt ashamed as an Arab, to have lived so long and not thought of exploring the historical city of Sanaa. When I went to Hadramawt, treading in the footsteps of the great pre-Islamic poet Imru' Al-Qays, I felt rooted in a way I had never experienced before in my life. I was rediscovering myself."
More to the point, Khalife expressed strong views on media and censorship in the Arab world: "The Arab scene is alarming in the extent to which it sustains links with the prevalent suppressive politics. Under the new world order, we are mediocre and humiliated. I wish the Ministry of Culture catered to the interests of their people rather than their governments." Deterioration is a function not of misinformation but suppression: "Depriving society of free speech will corrode the cultural sensibility. [What we have now] is not music but essentially noise, ahistorical noise." Likewise satellite TV: "By the influence it wields, it marginalises Arab society. It distances our children from reality..." An innovator Khalife may be, but he will establish no school of his own: "I am completely against imitation in art. Schools teach rules, something I would never do." A UNESCO Artist for Peace (June 2005), Khalife donated the award he received from a major Palestinian organisation to the Arab Music Institute in Ramallah, which has since established its own Marcel Khalife Music Prize, in turn -- soon to be pan-Arab. In the period 1967-2000 Khalife donated his musical earnings to the Karakela Ballet Troupe. Why stop? "I strongly believe in this marvellous amalgam of theatre, dance and music, but I had done enough for one troupe. I have been looking for new musical trends, new experiences that really require my support."
Paris-based since the 1989 Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese Civil War, Khalife claims that he is but "an airport resident" who finds the French capital convenient for a life of touring and exploring. Still, he concedes that it was Al-Taif that pushed him out: "I objected to this pain-killer, which has failed to cure the sectarian illness of my country." Ironically for such a staunchly political figure, Khalife's next project is a musical production titled The Body : "It deals with sensuality, the female expression of love. It draws on the Arab poetic canon, whose supposed obscenity is delaying the CD release -- now doing the rounds of that marvellous invention of our dictatorial regimes: the censors." From Egypt Khalife will leave for Khartoum, Sudan, where he will hold a concert in Khartoum. A destination many contemporary artists might think unrewarding. Not so with this staunch Arab: "I love to read," Khalife says. "I love to go to the movies and attend dance parties, to listen to different kinds of music from which I draw inspiration for my own. I hate TV because it pollutes the mind; it desecrates our homes."
HELD at Makan, a recent downtown space, Palestinian American poet Soheir Hammad's poems made for another compelling evening on the Spring Festival programme. A New Yorker from Jordanian refugee camp stock, Hammad writes -- and performs -- in American slang, and finds affinity with both rap and canonical Arab recitation. Though it replicated the colours of the Palestinian flag, Hammad's dress was contemporary, and her performance began with an informal self introduction that set the tone for her hip- hop brand of Arabness. She made conversation in between poems: Have you ever been to Palestine? New York? And to a five-year-old: Are you enjoying the poems? She also inserted extracts from Um Kulthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez songs -- two major (Egyptian) influences, she said. And she was well in control of her predominantly young, and very excited, audience. An activist, she has learned to command attention at rallies, some of which included 30,000 protesters. Born in 1973 in Amman, to Palestinian parents, Hammad grew up in Brooklyn, where she immigrated with her family at age six. She chose this mode of poetic exposition, she explains, because it allowed her to relate directly to people, to expose her vulnerability, her fear, pain and even the human ugliness she harbours: "it is interesting to have New York as a hometown. If Cairo is um al-donya (mother of the world), New York must be its centre -- a place where you can experience not only other languages but musics and cultures..."
Speaking to the Weekly, Hammad went on: "As a girl, I looked into the status of women in my society, trying to understand the other or the shadow in all these different cultures." Her earliest poems appeared in college journals when she was 19, and she has since found her calling among working-class poets who "produce oral and rhythmic writings", she explains, "because not everyone has the leisure to read". Likewise with gender-based restrictions imposed by a family that was eager to preserve its Palestinian identity (through, among other means, Arab music): she was not allowed to date, and it was no job for a woman to be a performance artist. She had to learn her trade independently: "I spent long hours reading poetry. As a Palestinian, the writings of Afro-American women writers resonated with how I felt -- marginalised. I learned how to express myself in my own language, and to be honest. I believe that the artist should be a reflection of his community. I never finished college, but now they teach my books in different schools throughout America." Poems like Sawwah (Wanderer, the title of one of Abdel-Halim Hafez's best-known poems) reflect a fascination with Eastern music, coupled in Hammad's work with a solid rap background: "I am a child of the hip-hop generation and I grew up when rap was not yet exported. And though it was still the voice of the youth, it was a way to make something out of nothing; youth who did not have music or art classes used to invent their own music and draw on the walls of the city."
But the Eastern component came just as naturally: "In the 1980s, when we were listening to Abdel-Halim and Um Kulthoum, there was other music being made, but as immigrants we did not have connections to the Arab world, so we listened to the same recordings over and over. Um Kulthoum's songs were interesting. We always think of her music as pure and flat. But I think if we look for the dynamics and the relationships, we realise that 'complicated' might not be a bad word. You could keep coming back to it, from a different perspective each time, and see it differently." Voice of the marginalised and the discontented, Hammad's treatment of her feelings in the wake of 9/11 has almost acquired cult status: "There were times after 11 September, when I think my audience was too afraid to listen to my poetry, afraid not of me necessarily, nor 'the truth', but for their lives. I had to learn to have compassion for that, because it is important to move a step forward, because I would need some one to step- forward me if I were afraid. On the other hand, there are people who are naturally peacemakers and as a consequence of the September attacks, there are now an increasing number of Americans eager to learn Arabic and read Quran, to try to find out more about Arabs. After the attacks, people could have chosen not to listen to me, but they chose the opposite. So, I definitely benefited from the vacuum created by the absence of a moderate American voice. However favouritism still exists and there are still doors closed to Palestinian writers. Arab poets have given me great support. There are so many amazingly interesting Arab poets such as the Lebanese American Hayat Sharara, from Detroit, Mathew Shenouda, an Egyptian Copt, Khaled Mottawea, a Libyan, and Naomy Shehabnaie, the most published and academically recognised Palestinian voice. Actually we work as a net; we represent different styles. There is room for all of us."
Though she writes in English, Hammad does not believe that language is a barrier in her way to Arab audiences. "I'm keen on meeting Arab writers visiting the States, and I believe that there are other barriers; class is a barrier and so is background; we have a president who had never been outside of the States before becoming president, think about that and realise that language is not the worst of barriers." But aside from language, Hammad has found a unique community among American prisoners, organising workshops with juvenile detention centres and victims of domestic abuse: "I remember that one of the women I met in a rehabilitation centre memorised my poem Sawwah, which I love because it is about my life, and because she could not pronounce the Arabic word; she used to say it as 'Say wha'. It makes me confident that poetry and art are a universal language." This notion found confirmation on her travels to the southern States in such Arab cities as Beirut, Dubai and Amman. On many occasions, she explains, it didn't matter that people could not understand English or were illiterate. This, Hammad's first visit to Egypt has been "awesome, because Egypt is the centre of art and music. I like the way Egyptians smile, and the way they hold hands." Scheduled to perform again at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, Hammad says she would love to stay longer still. "But my sister is expecting a baby," she confides, asking the way to Um Kulthoum Museum. "I want to see her dresses, her jewellery..."