Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The sound of the universe

Nevine El-Aref is swept away by the potent voices of religious chanters

The poignancy of Sufi chanting filled the night air at Al-Ghouri dome, magnetizing Cairenes even as huge army tanks stood by the entrance of the historical edifice. Since the revolution, historical monuments in Egypt, including Al-Ghouri complex consisting of the dome, mosque, palace, mausoleum, sabil (water fountain) and kuttab (Quranic school), have been safeguarded by the army. Yet visitors flocked still there from across the capital to attend the ten nights of the long Samaa International Sufi Festival, entitled The Nation is Mankind, bringing together Sufi musicians and chanters from 11 countries including India, Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, Spain, Algeria, Indonesia, Norway, Sudan, the United States and Egypt. A Syrian group was also meant to attend but due to political conditions they could not make it.

The fourth round of the Samaa Festival started two weeks ago with mesmerising performances by eight musical groups all inspired by the teachings of the 12th-century Sufi Mohieddin Ibn Arabi: "Love is my religion and faith." For the first time ever the renowned Indian Qawwali Group participated along with the Pakistani group Rafi Peer. The word qawwali is derived from the Arabic root qawl (to say or to utter), which in Urdu means the person who says. Also participating was the Samaa Sufi Band, conveying their message of peace in collaboration with both the Pakistan Rafi Peer band and the Qawwali Group for the closing ceremony of the festival. The performance proved popular with Cairenes, who described the concerts variously as "superb", "magnificent", "distinguished", or even "raising the sense of nationalism‚--ê" "a real messenger of peace".

The moving lyrics and spiritual music evoked varying emotions in the audience. Some closed their eyes and lowered their heads, others wept as they listened to the Sufi mantras in praise of the Prophet Mohamed, and yet others cried out, "Allah! Allah!" A serene smile had settled on the faces of some, while there was clapping to the rhythm of the copper church rattles. They were scenes that afforded a glimpse into the power and majesty of a tradition that is all but extinct. Talent was apparent in the fusion of different modes of performance, forming a single harmony. With the rhythmic beat, the spectators were carried from one mood to another; from madih al-rassul (praising the Prophet Mohamed) to taranim kanaesseya (church hymns) and the very enthusiastic, national songs of the renowned early 20th-century singer and composer Sayed Darwish. Passion was evident as the voices of audience members grew louder and louder.

This concert was directed by Intesar Abdel Fatah, the head of of the Ghouri Dome's Creativity Centre, whose interest in the dialogue between world cultures drove him to create a dialogue of his own through art. He founded the Samaa Sufi Choir in 2007, focusing on religious chanting. He searched all across the governorates of Egypt for additional talent before forming his initial ensemble.  Indonesian students who were studying at Al Azhar were also recruited, and this was the first stage of what was to become the Peace Message ‚ê" Sama'a Sufi plus the Indonesians, and a Coptic choir chanting and singing cathedral hymns, as well as an American Christian A Cappella Choir, which at one point in the concert gloriously sang Hallelujah.

Now Pakistan's Rafi Peer band will participate permanently in the Samaa group, starting next year. "I hope to organize a gala mass, composed of chanters from all over the globe at the foot of the Giza Pyramid to send a message of peace to the whole world from Egypt," Abdel Fatah said. Over the ten days festival every group performed its own show as well as participating in joint concerts combining more than one group together. "The Samaa Festival and the message of peace have melted the problems separating nations as the Indian Qawwali group stood side by side with the Pakistanis." After the closing of festival the ministry of culture is preparing itself for the fifth round of the Samaa Festival, which will play host to 18 countries and feature a gala performance in the Mahka at the Salaheddin Citadel with the closing performance at the foots of the Pyramid. Workshops and other performances will be also be held at Al-Ghouri Dome.

For Mona Hassan a housewife, the sight of Al-Ghouri Dome filled with joy inspired a strong spirit of belonging. She hoped that the performance could be repeated in schools and universities all over Egypt in an attempt to spread the message of peace: "It really is a rich musical meal, but very delicious." Hossam Nassar, the head of Foreign Cultural Relations, described the whole festival as a gala event gathering a diversity of cultures, rhythms and music to produce a unique moment. Nassar said that this year's round was dedicated to the well-known early 20th-century chanter Sheikh Ali Mahmoud and the lead chanter of the Grand Cathedral Father Ibraim Aayad.

For his part culture minister Emad Abu Ghazi pointed out that the revolution has changed the cultural map of Egypt, hoping the current transitional period will prove successful with the elections and the drafting of a new constitution to lay the foundations of a more democratic cultural institution and principles of respect for freedom of opinion, creativity and expression as well as cultural diversity. As for our foreign cultural policy, he continued, "We are sending a cultural message to the whole world by extending our hands to represent our culture and welcome all cultures of the whole world on the land of Egypt. These are the messages that we want to send to the whole world, in addition to the rules and principles we are trying to establish in the interim period."

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