Yasine El-Tohami: Ungodly saint of British Islam
Born in 1946 to a deeply religious if far from extremist family in the village of Hawatka near Manfalout, Assyout, Yasine El-Tohamy attended a secondary-level institute affiliated with Al-Azhar after learning the Quran; mastering tajweed (the art of Quranic recitation), he would later become one of the area's most aesthetically pleasing voices, long before it had occurred to anyone that he might become a munshid (religious chanter). Due, probably, to financial pressures -- the true reason, like much else in the life of Tohamy, has never been stated clearly -- he dropped out before completing his course and never found his way to university. In his adolescence, rather, Tohamy developed a fascination with Arabic Sufi poetry -- hardly an unexpected turn of events in a village where the vast majority of the population are devoted members of Sufi orders intimately familiar with the work of such poetic giants as Ibn Arabi, Al-Hallaj and, notably, the 13th-century Omar Ibnul Farid, valuing the baraka (blessing) associated with Aal Al-Bait (literally: "People of the House [of the Prophet Mohamed]") and the Sufi activities surrounding their anniversaries and those of other saints more than most. On returning to Hawatka from Assyout, where the institute he attended was located, Tohamy spent two years reading and meditating, a formatively significant chapter in the saga of his spiritual growth, and though a traditionally important part of the life journey of a Muslim, especially a Sufi, something most people no longer bothered with. Yet the two years he spent at the institute had strengthened his command of classical Arabic and familiarised him with its cadences; he was no longer timid about using it, a confidence two years of reading could only enhance.
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Koan: When he died in Damascus, did Ibn Arabi demand to have a shrine in Kew Gardens as well?
The chances are it was during his two years of adolescent devotion to Sufi poetry that Sheikh Yasine El-Tohami acquired the most interesting aspect of his character, whether as performer or sheikh -- a truly Sufi wisdom that doesn't equate faith with outward piety, appreciates the absurd, the ridiculous and the worldly -- it is no infrequent occurrence to notice him making less than innocent contact with female members of his audience even as he is in the process of invoking the sacred name or praising the beloved bearer of the Message -- and makes room for a childlike enjoyment of life.
One line of Ibnul Farid's Tohamy has sung seems to sum up this sense of the divine in its all- too-human manifestation, the attitude he adopts: "Hold onto the trails of love, scale off timidity/ Abandon the way of the hermits, glorious as they may be."
The drive to deliver Sufi lines to the accompaniment of traditional Upper Egyptian music asserted itself early enough in his life, but it was, Tohamy insists, "out of nowhere, just like that". And notwithstanding the immense accomplishment it has since given way to, Tohamy qualifies his "success" with two disclaimers: that it is out of love of religion and devotion to "the masters" that he performs; and that he does it in the context of community service, as it were -- never mind that his is an enormous, international community, by now -- always free of charge.
The Muslim "minority" in London makes for a remarkably polyglot scene of which Arabs seem to occupy the periphery. At the Grand Mosque off Regent Park, at least, it is by and large strictly observant Asians who prevail, spreading Asian- Muslim dress codes and even a taste for Indian cuisine. Elsewhere multinational clusters, made up of a mixture of converts and immigrants, are organised into Sufi orders or prayer groups, sometimes community associations; and they display rather more tolerance of divergence and difference than the average rooted Bengali or Kashmiri, to mention but two examples. A modicum of respect is of course legally and morally written into living in so called multicultural London, so extremists have less scope than in the Arab world to impose their interpretation of Islam. It is therefore here, perhaps more than anywhere in the Muslim world, that the full spectrum of the faith can be explored -- African and Arab as well as subcontinental, mystical and esoteric no less than fundamentalist Wahabi.
All of which came up with a vengeance in the course of July this year -- the first opportunity to reflect on the 7 July terrorist attacks of 2005 -- London's answer to 9/11 -- which brought the question of Muslim Britain to the fore in the media, prompting embittered debates. Notably Tony Blair called on Muslim community leaders to actively discourage sympathy for alleged terrorists elsewhere in the world and their home-grown affiliates, causing a variously mitigated uproar. As if to provide a powerful antidote to this attitude, at the same time the non- profit organisation Cultural Co-operation -- a forum for promoting positive cross- cultural exchange -- organised its 21st Music Village festival, narrowing its focus from "global themes embracing the majority of the world's population", as the official brochure puts it, to "the rich and diverse culture of the Islamic world". The decision was made partly in response to "the perceived injustices suffered by a community of co-religionists, globally and locally, that have all too often resulted in senseless acts of vengeance on all sides". An intensive programme featured exhibits, radio broadcasts and workshops as well as musical performances representing Muslim traditions from an astounding geographical range: China, Bosnia, Kenya... Salaam (Arabic for "peace" and one of the 99 names of God) was a very apt title for the event.
Sheikh Yasine was to perform on several other occasions but it was during the all-day open-air concert at Kew Gardens that the chance to meet him presented itself. The train journey from Hampstead was beset by tension, as have been all this writer's visits to the shrine of Sidi Omar -- the Egyptians' popular name for Ibnul Farid, on whose love poetry the Sheikh founded his name -- deep in the heart of Cairo's City of the Dead. And aside from the undulating greenery and sparsely elegant architecture of Kew, so utterly divorced from the tombstone-studded, predominantly yellow prospect of Sidi Omar's surrounds, an atmosphere of calm began to dispel the tension once we approached the site of the festival -- that too used to happen on coming within site of the mosque, back in Cairo -- where variously sized groups of converts, immigrants and, perhaps more significantly, unaffiliated music-loving picnickers had gathered on the grass, or sought the shade of a large, off-white tent set up to the left of the stage; shade aside, the tent turned out to have the effect of a greenhouse, making direct exposure to the sun by far the better option. In its way the atmosphere was a kind of British equivalent to that of a typical moulid (saint's anniversary), part Hippie gathering, part family outing. It might have appeared less colourful in some ways, but the drums and trumpets of the Assawa Sufi order from Fes, Yemeni sword dancers penetrating through the audience and a mesmerisingly expressive qawaali performance from Pakistan to bring the evening to a close ensured a sense both of the unusual and the enjoyably benign.
People lounged, feasted, clapped and went into trances. They roamed in various directions, perhaps awaiting their favourite number, queued up for an increasingly scarce drink of water or occupied a niche within view of the stage itself, which jutted out into a large rectangle adjacent to the tent. Some had come for a specific performer or country, others took in the diverse, frequently incompatible rhythms. In the end it wasn't hard to believe that such events really could, as the British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, commending the festival in the brochure, had it, "provide natural opportunities for people from a variety of backgrounds to come together and participate in community life which builds common ground and strengthens ties within communities". On both sides of the stage, cordoned off by movable barriers, the musicians nonchalantly waited their turn or appreciated other performances. Festival officials would not let you beyond the barrier without the benefit of ID, though Iraqi festival employees -- clapping along while they squatted by the stage -- were willing to facilitate entry...
I first encountered Sheikh Yasine in a period of intense enthusiasm for indigenous music. Already he was popular enough, and in enough circles, to be a star -- something that didn't seem to conflict with his prior designation as a hafiz or keeper of the Word of God (someone who knows the whole of the Quran by heart) or, more importantly, an agent of the profane realm's most sacred collective ritual, dhikr (invocation), of which I would soon have my first taste in the same context.
Though remarkably earthy in comparison to, say, the beam-like purity of Sheikh Ali Mahmoud -- another singer of Ibnul Farid poetry and one of the national diva Om Kalthoum's teachers -- Yasine's early recordings in particular afforded a local, wholly accessible exposition of otherwise difficult Arabic poetry; he performed in a kind of Upper Egyptian Arabic that seemed to turn classical verses into day-to-day exclamations. Yasine's Ibnul Farid, in contrast to Mahmoud's monk-like figure, is an Upper Egyptian man of the world whose love pangs are almost physical. He directs himself not to a romantic mind eager to depart the world of the flesh in order to float away in a heaven of purity, as it were, but to an agonised spirit locked within the confines of an all too palpably mortal body. In modifying Ibnul Farid's language, freely inserting an Upper Egyptian phrase here and there, multiplying and modulating a complex system of ahaat (onomatopoeic outcries expressing intense emotion), Yasine is, with the Zen-like wisdom that informs every other aspect of his person, accommodating the venerable saint within the oral frame of reference of his originally moulid -going audience, who -- used to kawala (reed flute) and percussion as the sole accompaniments to dhikr and inshad (chanting, the more accurate term for most ceremonies, which only partly involve the invocation of the divine name) -- were suddenly treated to a violin as well -- one that recalled the heart-rending, secular love songs of the Sixties and conjured up not only Om Kalthoum but Abdel-Halim Hafez and even, influenced as he was by Western music, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. Like many Western fans of Yasine, the American-born, English-educated woman of substance who introduced me to his live performances was a kind of reborn Muslim who, unlike the average middle-class listener, streetwise and quick to a fault, stressed the sheikh's divine calling and, more simply, in however far- fetched and ungodly a way, the fact that, every time, he managed to facilitate an experience of God, just like the Sufi saints to whom he very humbly defers now...
"Only God knows how it happened," he says defiantly, having positioned himself on the grass beyond the barrier on the right, less than 15 minutes after he comes off stage to resounding applause, while the Fes troupe gathers up momentum; there is only one seat in the vicinity and, like any decent Upper Egyptian, Yasine would will stay on it while my companions and I remain standing. "It's something only the Lord knows about, how this business of inshad happened." Engaging as he is -- whether on stage or in person, Yasine's presence is remarkably disarming -- he sounds a little impatient, a little dismissive; like a father eager to stay the persistent, unanswerable questions of an overeager son. "What we deal with is the Word" -- note that he never starts a sentence with "I" -- "and the Word has an audience of its own. Audiences like this one don't understand," he repeats the point of my question, "but they feel." Judging by the complete absorption of one white octogenarian, swaying to the rhythm of his chant, this would seem to be true. Westerners and Muslim immigrants alike had responded with various degrees of enchantment. "Ask me a question and I will answer it. The chanting thing was without preparation," he looks around him. "My God, uncle," using the Upper Egyptian equivalent of "mate", his voice rising with feigned exasperation, the warm smile on his face bellying any premonition of upset, "who knows anything about anything. You keep saying these things as if you could be told something. Leave it to God," -- a typical Egyptian expression, this, denoting complete lack of interest in pursuing a topic any further -- "just leave it to Him. In the end we are all stinking carcasses and that is the end of that."
Of the poets he has so profoundly "befriended" and all those who taught him, Yasine says, "Whoever benefited me with a word, a single word, is my sheikh." Occasionally, very occasionally, he will elaborate: "People have become estranged from these words. It is the people who abandoned the Word. But these words will remain till Judgement Day because they are true. Not my word -- the word of the masters." No sooner does he finish a sentence than his mobile phone rings, however, and he answers with endearing playfulness, calling his grown-up daughter baba (daddy), and reporting on the moment with absolute nonchalance: "I'm well -- strong as a hanash (snake), don't you worry. We are here with our loved ones and all these people around us, a whole wide world..."
How am I going to write the article with so little in the way of an interview? Tohamy concedes that he is always "stingy with the press" -- he truly reviles talking of himself. A good friend of his, he says, novelist Gamal El-Ghitani, "comes and sits with me and we have tea and he goes, then he writes what he sees fit". The sheikh turns to me with a childlike glare, "Didn't you see what I did up there and what I said up there," he asks. "Well then, write what you saw." Amazingly, even as he withholds information, Tohamy manages to sustain a sense of warmth, an enveloping goodness very far from local brands of formulaic piety.
Nor is his suggestion unreasonable: a whole book could be written on the power and interest of his performance, his development from a timid reciter relaying treasured verses the only way he could to a master of interdisciplinary performance art, the way in which he can turn a ritual into an act and vice versa, his affinities with the traditions of invocation on the one hand and vocal prowess on the other, his band which is as he claims made up entirely of "good people and friends", his connection to Sufi orders and saints back in Assyout -- judging by the number of shrines he lists, it would seem that every other person in Hawatka, including Tohamy's own father, Sheikh Mahmoud El-Tohamy, is a consecrated saint -- and the many-layered signification of his time-honoured utterances. "Not my word," he says, "the word of the masters."
Even in Kew Gardens, where the Muslim "minority" of London finds affinities with a seemingly limitless variety of sympathetic people, and where, challenging Blair's ultimately racist assertions -- adjuncts of a world order that, with the aid of extremists and anti-Muslims alike, is relentlessly reducing one of the world's richest and most varied traditions to discourse of hate no more comfortable than a straightjacket -- Islamic traditions come to life in a particularly accessible manner, the "masters" spread their baraka among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, reassuring those of us who might be concerned that Sufism is alive and well, however subtly it makes its mark, and that even the most worldly of our companions just might be a true saint in disguise.