Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Orpheus in the Overworld

Youssef Rakha seeks music up above

photos: Youssef Rakha Click to view caption
A fulcrum of contrasts, the neighbourhood of Kom Al-Dikkah combines the multinational poise of turn-of-the-century central Alexandria with the northwestern delta flavour of a provincial village. Ironically its landmark, the house where Sayed Darwish lived, is among its least interesting sights
photos: Youssef Rakha

For a few years in the early 20th century, a young builder-turned- oud player transformed the landscape of Eastern music. His name was Sayed Darwish, and he died of a cocaine overdose with but a fraction of his ambition realised at the age of 31. What he did compose between 1914 and 1923 not only formed the basis of modern Arabic music, but, more importantly, contributed to the Egyptian sense of self. Yet his name remains associated with multicultural Alexandria, whose numerous trades and races his operettas celebrated, stressing the grassroots to which he felt he belonged.

In fact, Sheikh Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) lived not in Alexandria, but in Kom Al-Dikkah, a village outside what was then the town proper, built on a roughly conical enclosure between Fouad Street and the site of the Roman Amphitheatre (not unearthed until 1964). He was born there, he produced most of his work there, and he died there.

Kom is common in Egyptian place names, denoting a mound or hill. Dikkah, probably a reference to the ancient rubble that created the elevation in the first place, is less easy to explain. Since the 1960s, Kom Al-Dikkah has become Alexandria's most traditional neighbourhood -- outside the westernmost district of Bahari -- celebrated for both the amphitheatre which took its name, and the modest house where Sheikh Sayed lodged for most of his adult life. It stood abandoned for many years until, in 2007, the owners pulled it down.

The quest begins in the afternoon. A soft wind spreads salt spray, while the hazy atmosphere gives all motion that strangely poised momentum peculiar to Alexandria. With the Mediterranean unfurling nebulously behind it, opposite the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where I have arrived, the Corniche looks less crowded than it actually is. It takes me an inordinate time to cross to the other side of the road, where my friend Ahmed, a young artist and employee of the Library, soon rejoins me by the spherical Planetarium.

Within minutes, we are walking down Fouad Street, which Ahmed and the taxi driver agree is "the greatest in Alexandria" (one thinking of cultural and historical associations, the other of the condition of the asphalt).

There is certainly something about this Ptolemaic thoroughfare-turned- Belle époque architectural showcase. It is the hub of Al-Hayy Al-Lateeni (or the Latin Neighbourhood) of the turn of the century, where CP Cavafy hosted EM Forester and where Teatro Mohamed Ali (appropriately re-christened the Sayed Darwish Theatre) still stands. Aside from legendary venues like the Pastroudis Café, where Fouad gives onto Saffeya Zaghloul, the architecture evokes more multicultural times. This makes Kom Al-Dikkah stand out since it retains the north-western Delta flavour of a provincial spot -- however urbanised.

While we walk, engrossed in conversation, Ahmed takes a slight turn and we come to an impeccably paved ramp. "This," he says, "is Kom Al-Dikkah." But it takes me a few moments to recognise what he is pointing to: the as yet invisible and (as I am soon to discover) wholly separate world at the end of the climb ahead. Due to curvature at the top, it is impossible to make out from Fouad Street what lies beyond the point which separates the village from the town -- now turned into a tourist extension of the latter.

Lined with renovated buildings that show the Ottoman, neo-Hellenic and Florentine influences of the Hayy, the ramp provides a smooth passageway which heightens the experience of passing from one world into another. Tourist order and cleanliness give out abruptly towards the top, where Ahmed shows me a stretch of wall used repeatedly for painting signs. Layers of lettering, barely distinct in the shade, have melded into the nooks and crannies, leaving an obscure record of the neighbours' handiwork.

The effect is magically evocative, on a minuscule scale, of precisely the kind of stratified history contained in Alexandria. The city, after all, has streets like Al-Nabi Danyal (which intersects with Fouad Street, forming part of the original city plan designed by Dinocrates of Rhodes) famously combining ancient, Islamic and modern relics together with the marks of Christian and Jewish habitation, often within the same cubic metre. The city layers its own signs, over a much vaster space and many more dimensions, leaving, in its present, post-nationalist guise, its own record of times gone by.

As Ahmed and I finally edge into the neighbourhood -- and there is a definite sense of crossing into a different world -- I express these feelings to him, soliciting curt approval. To an informed Alexandrian, I am beginning to notice, the city's pluralistic depth goes without saying. Beyond the tiny square commanding the first cluster of alleyways, we notice the stone steps leading to the top of the cone and, if only to change the subject, I suggest we visit the summit, as it were, before we start our search for the site of Sheikh Sayed's house.

In the chill no one is about. As sunset approaches, the sky takes on colour. Spot-lit by the tentative sun, the same array of architectural influences can be seen, but they are barely noticeable in the absence of renovation and maintenance. If not for the litter strewn all around, the irregular, chipped stairway would look like a vernacular version of the tiers in an amphitheatre. Yet the litter looks less like garbage than the remnants of grassroots life -- a life, I endeavour to remind myself, not too different from the one that sustained Egypt's closest thing to an Orphic prodigy, author of both the national anthem and the most accomplished attempt at home-grown polyphony. If not for the scraps of paper and bits of wood, abandoned and drying clothes, dysfunctional machinery and furniture, the place would be too desolate for comfort.

Led by Ahmed, I wind my way back into the labyrinth. He shows me the open- air café where only a few weeks ago performances celebrating Sheikh Sayed's anniversary took place. "I haven't been to the site of the house," he admits, "but I doubt there is much to see." Yet as we pass another minuscule crossroads, I realise that the wall Ahmed showed me earlier is but one, admittedly remarkable note in the spontaneous symphony of graffiti we are to encounter tonight.

Everywhere in Kom Al-Dikkah, it seems, involuntary art is crawling out of the walls: posters with torn-edges, notably juxtaposing profiles of electoral candidates with portraits of Sheikh Sayed. Formal and informal messages are painted haphazardly here and there, reflecting the contradictory directions we receive from small shop owners, peddlers, patrons of traditional cafés. "Haret Essayid Tartour," one old man enunciates, maybe in jest: Alleyway of Mister Party Hat. We press on.

When we arrive at last, it is as if we have been there all along: a teenage girl ludicrously playing tour guide, an old motionless Vespa, shrill yellow paint towering above the lime bricks surrounding the courtyard where once, not so long ago, the house stood. In all this time I have not thought of Sheikh Sayed's music once. Yet by the time we order our drinks at the café only a few steps away, notwithstanding what can only be described as an anticlimactic encounter, something -- a picture frame, the angle of a passageway, the face of a child -- is already replaying the tunes in my head.

And looking around, taking in the very ordinariness of the surroundings, it occurs to me that there can be no better place to listen to them.

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