Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2011
Issue No. 1059
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Iman El-Bahr Darwish: Authentic notes

Iman El-Bahr Darwish is a musician whose sheer dedication won him the respect of audiences ̉ê" and then their love. Through a career spanning 28 years, he has steadfastly refused to yield to the forces of commercialisation, to cheap sentimentality or frivolity. His integrity, which once kept him marginalised, has led to him winning the Musicians Syndicate elections last week ̉ê" the first head of the syndicate after the 25 January Revolution. Was this commitment to principles inspired by his name? Iman, seldom a man's name, means faith; Darwish is driven by a deep faith guiding his choices. He has an unshakeable desire to stay true to his conscience, which he believes is how one should strive to please God and do as He wills. It is this that gives him the strength to explore no end of fathomless emotions ranging from the passionate to the tranquil. Committed as he is, he remains singularly genial.

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Iman is the grandson of the People's Artist, the great composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923), widely seen as the very founder of modern Egyptian music ̉ê" and the voice of the 1919 Revoltion. Thanks to his father's devotion to Sheikh Sayed's heritage, Iman was strongly influenced by this great musician ̉ê" one of whose patriotic tunes, composed in the early years of the last century, remains not only the national anthem but a source of pride for all Egyptians. He also inherited his grandfather's patriotism, which was not of the jingoistic sort but, rather, stemming from hatred of inequity and compassion for the oppressed. This is reflected in Iman's own music, which had long been ignored by the media. Such marginalisation only strengthened his faith, however, heightening his dedication to what he believed in.

Although his father did not want him to become a professional musician, when Iman El-Bahr Darwish graduated from the Faculty of Civil Engineering, Alexandria University in 1979, he began formal studies in Arab music. This was the passion he could not resist in spite of his father's objections, even though he could understand the old man's concern: "My father was the best performer of Sayyid Darwish's songs even though he never studied music. But the musical profession can be brutal and the battles he went through in that field made him vow to keep his children out of it." Even though he gave in to music, Darwish believes that he benefitted greatly from studying civil engineering at both the personal and professional levels. "These studies helped broaden my horizons and gave me a more comprehensive perspective on things."

Born in Alexandria on 18 March 1955, Darwish was the youngest of eight siblings. He became fond of engineering because of his eldest brother, whom he would watch burning the last of the kerosene as he sketched intricate blueprints on his drawing board. Darwish is now a father in his own right: his son, Islam, has completed his studies in business management; and his daughter, Umniya, has completed her studies in English language and literature. He is very close with both, whom he regards more like friends. "I did not have a hard time bringing them up," he says. "They understood how much I cared for them and sought their wellbeing. In raising them, I applied the principle, ̉ê˜Stern enough to restrain, not stern enough to be cruel.'" Instinctively his children understood this so much he rarely had to be stern at all.

As difficult as the circumstances are in Egypt at present, and in spite of conflicting projections and opinions, uncertainty about what lies ahead, general anxiety and frustration, Darwish remains firmly optimistic: "I followed the revolution with great excitement from the first day. It was incredibly moving to see people from all walks of life rallying in such huge numbers to protest injustice peacefully. It was as though God willed a revolution just as tyranny reached an extreme." Fear had fed dictatorship, as one of Darwish's songs has it: "There are people whom money makes strong/And they use it to subdue God's people/No faith, no piety, no mercy/Their voice grows louder the more we're scared/We were afraid, day and night we were scared/They were happy to see our agony, hear our pain." Those days are now over: "As long as we were afraid, they [the regime] felt strong and confident. Thank God, that fear is gone."

Darwish's idea is that when one human being see another in distress, their normal response is to sympathise and try to help; where compatriots fail to do that for each other there is something drastically wrong: "That insensitivity and division was exactly what the former regime wanted to see in this society." Since 25 January, Darwish's songs have taken on a relevant edge: "Try to enter into my ribcage/To bathe in from my scorching tears/Feed on the heart of my hunger/Walk with me in my country/Merge my name with yours/Think of my age as yours/ Make me part of your heartbeat/Let's be one in our country." The singer's belief in God's justice is such he is sure it will prevail and the perpetrators of tyranny will "have a taste of the misery and humiliation they had meted out to the people for so long and pay for the deaths they caused among the young men and women who braved the streets unarmed". Not only should those responsible for bloodshed be tried, he feels: the victims too must be honoured at least as much as the soldiers who died in the 6 October War. "By no means am I belittling the martyrs of 6 October, who revived our national dignity which had been lost in the 1967 defeat," he explains. "But the martyrs of the 25 January revolution were unarmed and peaceful protestors, and they deserve greater attention because they had the courage to fight injustice, breaking the barrier of fear."

The grandson of Sayyid Darwish has stirred something of a controversy by telling the press he refused to sing before the former president, though he claims his words were distorted and his ideas misrepresented. "I never said that I had the honour to refuse to sing before the ex-president as the press reported, just that I was amazed to be chosen to sing before him ̉ê" only to receive news to the contrary from the presidency. Any singer would consider it an honour to be chosen to perform for the head-of-state, which is one of the highest forms of recognition. I am one of most frequent performers of songs dedicated to Egypt and the Egyptian people." And he is proud of his patriotic work, too: "Although I was never politically active, I felt my music struck a chord with the people's sense of injustice and their suffering. So when I was deprived of that recognition, I took it as an insult to me and my art." On the other hand, he did perform at the wedding of Alaa Mubarak, whom he found both humble and respectful, "as if he weren't the son of the president. Now I realise it is a kind of a trophy to have been rejected as a candidate to perform for the president. With every passing day since the revolution I feel more and more content that I was deprived of that honour, which I longed for at the time. I am sure that certain people had deliberately tarnished my image because I was nominated for the post of head of the Musicians Syndicate. Today, I realise that it was a kind of divine test to prepare me for the honour I have received today, especially after the deaths of the martyrs of the 25 January Revolution opened my eyes to the extent of the injustice and tyranny we were living under."

Yet, as limitless as his musical ambition may be, Darwish had never aspired to any position. It was fellow musicians who put his name forward and pushed his candidacy because of their respect for his character and career, and because they felt he had not received his due share of recognition. Many identified with him and believed that their own dreams could be realised if he were head of the syndicate. These were bad times for the arts and music, in particular, much of which had veered towards cheap commercialism, frivolity and vulgarity. An artist who depends on his art for his livelihood has only two choices: to remain true to his art or to compromise. "When you find that you could stick it out despite the circumstances, pressures, even financial need, then that's is really great. I felt that God helped me through that period and that he blessed me with a long enough life to see wrongs righted." He insists on the latter term, disagreeing with the assessment that the balance has been inverted. "The balance was skewed before the revolution. Now people will be able to obtain what is rightfully theirs without having to pay bribes or have connections."

At the same time, Darwish does not see the revolution as a break-off point: "The character of an adult, today, did not begin the moment the president stepped down; it is the product of his entire life including all his attitudes and outlooks." He cites the example of the great musician Ammar El-Shari'i, an artist whom he deeply respects and admires both for his musicianship and his integrity. In a press interview, El-Shari'i said that although he sang the song Ikhtarnak (We chose you) for the president, he also later told the president very clearly, "That's enough, now." Darwish insists that the press cannot character assassinate a person who has been in the public eye for so long and whose attitudes are on record. "You can't just erase the history of a person just like that, or start questioning his integrity out of the blue. I want to be objective in my assessment. I can excuse those who curse the former president, I believe he was fully responsible for the deaths of the martyrs and should bear his responsibility for this before God and the people, whether he was aware of how that tragedy occurred or not; if he was not aware, it would be even worse."


Like most Egyptians, Darwish feels that the government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have been slow to act and he shares some of the general doubts and suspicions regarding their performance. But "SCAF and the public prosecutor are in a really tough position," he observes. He suspects that various people loyal to the former regime are still operating in the background, determined to undermine the revolution. Nor does he underestimate their power and influence. "I think that SCAF, which isn't a political body, has sought the advice of experts, some of whom may or may not be loyal to the former regime. Therefore, it should screen its advisors to ensure they are reliable and do not have political ambitions. This is also important in order to neutralise tensions between the people and the army." In his opinion, there were curious machinations at work in the run-up to the referendum on the constitutional amendments in March. "I personally voted against the amendments. But most of the people voted in favour and most of them had been brainwashed to do so. They were told that a "no" vote was a vote against Islam, because it was a vote against Article 2 of the constitution. That was an outright lie, but many believed it and voted yes in the referendum because they did not want to commit a sin."

Therefore, Darwish adds, when some politicians say that the constitutional amendments were the "choice of the people," this is also not true, because that "choice" was based on deception. "The old constitution fell along with the old regime. There is no point in amending it. It was a waste of time and money." It also diverted people's attention away from the needs of the revolution and into the business of elections and political parties. "This is not the right time for people to get worked up about elections and political parties. That, in itself, represents a big mistake in planning." In his opinion, the current phase should have proceeded in accordance with a number of clearly delineated steps, the first of which should have been the speedy purging if state institions. "If you cover up a puss-filled wound without first disinfecting it, the infection could fester. That could lead to terrible consequences, the need to amputate a limb, for example."

As part of this purging process all local municipal councils should have been dissolved early on. This action only occurred recently and even so the provincial governors and other governorate and municipal leaders are still in place. The second step should have been "to unify in order to build. This step should have been put into effect immediately with the idea of encouraging every person to work to the best of their ability in their field of expertise to build the country. In the process, we would discover people who may not be visible at the moment but who demonstrate through their efforts and achievements the sincerity of their dedication to the country. Among these we may have spotted some who are worthy of ruling our country." Iman El-Bahr Darwish dreams of a just Egypt or, more precisely, of an Egypt in which justice reigns supreme. "God will provide for a just state, even if ruled by non-Muslims, but not for an iniquitous state, even if ruled by Muslims," he says.

Yet aside from such disappointments, Darwish remains optimistic. He had hoped for a roadmap progressing from a cleansing and stabilisation phase, to construction and, finally, elections. That did not come about, but he still holds out hope for an administration committed to transparency, especially with regard to the prosecution of members of the former regime. The more efficiently and openly the current government handles this process, the quicker it will be able to bring the transitional phase to a safe harbour and to set Egypt on the right track to a brighter future. In his own personal opinion, the right track is a civil state, which is the path to a just state, and he criticises those speaking in the name of Islam while they fail to apply its true principles, one of the most important of which is the principle of justice.

Iman El-Bahr Darwish's dreams for the future of Egypt are intimately connected with his personal dreams, which extend beyond the desire to advance of music and the arts to the much broader humanitarian realm. He believes that it is the individual's duty to reform himself in the context of his field of expertise and that this process of introspection and self-betterment is the real starting point to the development of a healthy country. In the past, he said, syndicate work was pointless because it was ineffective, but the time has come to turn the syndicate into a force for the advancement of music and the arts, and their practitioners. "I cherish the dream of ensuring a brighter future for musicians by increasing the savings in the syndicate fund and pressing for better wages and pensions." He also envisions the creation of a pensioner's home for musicians. When performers age and their ability to create and give weakens, they are sometimes abandoned not only by their audiences but also by their fellow musicians and sometimes even their own families. Iman hopes to develop an institution that will guarantee musicians a dignified future so that they do not feel that they have to compromise on their art and also to ensure that they are not abandoned in their old age. In general, he believes it is the syndicate's responsibility to care for all musicians, but the poorest of them above all. He adds, "I am committed to realising these dreams come true".


In addition to engineering and music, Darwis is an amateur legal scholar ̉ê" the consequence of lawyers cheating him, as he discovered. He began drafting legal memoranda himself. The incident tells you something about his character: his resourcefulness, his persistence, his positive attitude and refusal to give up on what he feels is right. He is not the type of artist who cares about responding to rumours. "There are two types of media: ̉ê˜the yellow press' and respectable journalism. In the latter I have come across some very fine and complementary articles about me," he said. One such was by the senior columnist Anis Mansour. After seeing Dawish as the lead role in the TV series on Al-Imam Al-Shafi'i, he wrote, "At first I did not believe that it was Iman El-Bahr Darwish who performed the role of Al-Imam Al-Shafi'i. I thought the actor had to have been Syrian, because of his command of the classical Arabic language. It was as though he had been trained to become an Azhar cleric. I only understood my own father's admiration for the Shafi'i school of jurisprudence after watching Iman Wl-Bahr Darwish perform as though he were created not for acting but to actually be an imam for the Muslim people."

Darwish recalls, "I was proud of the songs and films I made, but never so proud as when I made that series on Al-Imam Al-Shafi'i. It was that work that made me feel that I had matured as an artist." That is quite a statement for someone with 18 albums under his belt, not to mention five films, two television series, and two plays. Yet, if Al-Imam Al-Shafi'i remains the work closest to his heart, he derives pleasure of a different sort from his live performances. These give him an opportunity to make direct contact with the people and feel their love and respect for him as a musician and a person. "Why doesn't the press write about these concerts and about how the public responds to me and my music?" he asks. Perhaps it is the combination of the media's disinterest and his audience's love and respect that reaffirmed his need to remain true to his convictions. He may not be as prolific as some of the day's pop artists, but he is proud and content to have personally produced all his albums so that he could sing what he pleased and in a way that met his standards.

One of the people Darwish admired was the oppositional composer Sheikh Imam Eissa (1918-1995). He was one of the first singers to perform his tunes, something that resulted in a period of police surveillance. Sheikh Imam, together with the poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, composed political songs in support of the poor and working classes ̉ê" opposing the Sadat regime. "One of my greatest wishes is to revive the songs of Sheikh Imam. If his heirs agreed, I'd be willing to revive every piece of his work." He feels that Sheikh Imam and Negm's music and lyrics need more than a good voice, they need a someone who can feel them and bring to life. But music is not Darwish's only entertainment interest. Like most Egyptians, he is a football fanatic. However, he does not support either of Egypt's two main football camps. "I'm neither pro-Ahli or pro-Zamalek. I just like football as a sport, and I like to see it played well." He also still plays it himself, when he has a chance, which helps explain how he keeps fit.

There are other singers, too: Wadi' Al-Safi, dubbed "the voice of Lebanon," and a young Lebanese singer, Sherif Muein whose voice reminds him of Al-Safi's. He also enjoys listening to Medhat Saleh, Ali El-Haggar, Mohammed El-Helou, Mohammed Munir, and Sherin Abdel Wahab. Asked whether he would be interested in concerts to promote Egypt, he replied, "The problem with concerts like that is that we can never be sure whether the revenues really end up where they are intended." However, he has taken part in on such event in New York, together with the young diva Amal Maher, in May 2011. Organised by a group of doctors, it was a full house. Part of the proceeds were to go to Egypt. "I heard that the concert brought in around $275,000, but I don't know whether the money actually reached Egypt. The problem is that there is no way to keep track of such things."

Fortunately, his campaign in the Musicians Syndicate elections has not kept him from his project of the moment ̉ê" a new album. This one, to be called "Revolution of defiance", is dedicated to the Revolution and will include, alongside songs on the 25 January struggle, some of his better known patriotic songs from earlier periods in his career; as he puts it, he is not one of those who "ride the revolutionary wave". As it turns out he is simultaneously completing another album, "I don't regret", which should have appeared in January 2011. However, after the New Year's Eve bombing of the All Saints Church in Alexandria, he decided to put off the release until Valentine's Day, but then the Egyptian Revolution intervened. This is no time for romantic music, but it will be released when he feels the time is right.

Interview by Riham Adel

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