Despite the abundance of TV entertainment on offer during Ramadan, Rania Khallaf
finds that more people are flocking to listen to religious chanting, or inshad
Sakr, El-Eskandarany photos: Sherif Sonbol
After a decade-long slump, inshad -- the tradition of religious chanting practiced by, among many others, Yassin El-Tohamy and Nasreddin Tobar -- is evidently witnessing a resurgence. It is happening not only in terms of the audience but of practitioners as well. Born in Gharbiya in 1971, Hossam Sakr, for one, grew up learning the Qur'an, was later enrolled at an Al-Azhar- affiliated college, but had to study Arabic music in order to qualify for an official position at the state-supported Qur'an Radio as a Qur'anic reciter -- a profession closely associated with inshad. He played the oud, learning a lot about the maqamat (modes) and struggling with the bureaucracy involved in procuring a job -- only to be rejected time after time. So Sakr formed his own troupe instead, building on his experience as a munshid (practitioner of inshad ) in a local Sufi troupe. Through performances in saints' anniversaries and popular weddings, Sakr's reputation soared, bringing him, in time, to the Gomhuriya Theatre and even the Cairo Opera House. He has meanwhile produced nine albums, and says that the secret of his success lies in his careful choice of new and classical poems to perform.
"My challenge is to surprise my audience with new formulae for the glorification of God and praise of the Prophet. I spend two hours reading every day, and my collection amounts to some 2,500 books of religion, many Sufi diwans. I have lately discovered the marvelous work of Salaheddin El-Kousy, a prominent chemist who produced 15 collections of poems in five years, all expressing the glory of God and love for His Prophet." Performed to astounding applause at the Gomhuriya Theatre during the month of Shaaban -- with screaming listeners, veiled women swaying in their seats and security personnel exerting themselves to maintain order -- such instances of the genre provide unequivocal testimony to the power of inshad at the present time. Sakr is not only a munshid but a musician who composes his own music. "I feel very happy when I am in the city and I find people singing my songs," he confides, his baby face beaming, "because they glorify God and praise His Prophet." In a more recent development, Sakr established a kind of fusion troupe named Tasabeeh, in which such prominent figures as actor Abdel-Aziz Makhyoun and poetess Sharifa El-Sayed perform at, among other venues, Al-Sawy Cultural Centre. A big name in festivals across the Arab world, Sakr now dreams of establishing an Ottoman-inspired tikiyya as a centre for chanting and invocation. "It could be an effective meeting point -- for munshids, reciters and enthusiasts. And if it is to be adopted by the Ministry of Culture, it will undoubtedly avoid the influence of extremists..."
Lesser known but equally experienced is Taha El-Eskandrany, the son of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Eskandarany, whose tawashih (a form of inshad ) were phenomenally popular in the 1960s. Born in 1961, Taha was raised in the neighbourhood of El Sayeda Zeinab, then the heart of popular religious ceremony. At the age of 11, along with five brothers, he joined his father's troupe, performing on the radio as well as at saints' anniversaries and weddings. "When I was a child, I used to wake up to the beat of religious singing, as the rehearsal would be taking place in our small flat in Sayeda." Performing at Al-Sawy last week, El-Eskandarany established the popularity of the form yet again. An interior designer by profession, El-Eskandarany has followed in his father's footsteps largely out of a concern that inshad might go extinct. It was to this end, too, that he established the Rawhaniyat troupe in 2000, shortly after the death of his father -- to train young talent as well as perform. El-Eskandarany trains young munshids at the Wayly Youth Centre, too: "I set aside time every week for training young girls and boys, some of whom have become members of my troupe. Success in this field is no easy task. It requires a lot of reading, and time to develop a musical style of one's own. It also requires a huge effort to move from one place to the next because, compared to professional singing, this career is barely profitable at all." Though he has performed across the country, El-Eskandarany complains that the Ministry of Culture assigns few venues to inshad. The General Organisation of Cultural Palaces held regular concerts in Port Said, Qena and Assiut, but now, he notes, "All such activities have been discontinued, with performances restricted to Cairo and Alexandria, thus limiting the scope of inshad, an art that explicitly reflects our people's Islamic and Arab identity."