Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cry my beloved Syria

Abdel-Qader Manla, the founder of a new Syrian band in Cairo, speaks to Rania Khallaf

It has been almost 12 years since I last saw Abdel-Qader Manla and his family ê" in Cairo. A Syrian writer and actor, Manla came to Egypt in 1994 to study for his Masters degree in theatre. In 2003, he completed his PhD on the actor's body at the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts in Cairo and returned to teach at the Theatre Institute in Damascus. In the meantime Manla was also writing columns for Syrian newspapers; he appeared in small roles in plays and drama series, the most famous of which is The Nagui Atallah Squad, starring Adel Imam. "Here we are once again in Egypt," I was touched to hear Manla saying three weeks ago over the phone, "this time as refugees."

Even as I said, "Well, in that case I am happy to see you again, friend," his voice heightened my compassion for innocent Syrians suffering unbelievable destruction and genocide. My tone became more convincingly cheerful when I found out he had established a new band in Cairo, one whose specialty ê" the revolutionary song comically mourning the situation ê" is an entirely new genre. "Though my focus has always been theatre and television, I always sang and played the oud among my faithful friends," says Manla, stressing "faithful" in reference to the fact that the kind of (oppositional sarcastic) song he performed, influenced by Egyptian "people's composers" like Sayed Darwish and Sheikh Imam, was never allowed in public prior to the revolution anywhere in Syria.

After the revolution broke out, Manla stopped working in theatre and television entirely. "There is no such thing as opposition in Syria, as the space allowed for opponents of the regime is so marginal and fragile," he explained. "And I thought if I continued working in Syria, I would be classified as anti-revolution, which is not my stance." A year and a half later, Manla decided to seek asylum in Egypt: "I felt it was my responsibility to move to a safe place where I can do something to support the revolution through fiery and sour words." With his wife and two daughters, he came back to Cairo.

Last August, Manla announced the establishment of his band Sour Words, which consists of five members, including himself and his older daughter Jawa. The band presented its debut performance this week in the framework of Al-Fan Midan Festival, held by Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafy on the first Saturday of every month at Abdine Square, downtown. This month the festival was dedicated to solidarity with Syrian people. The performance included 12 songs, sarcastic numbers dealing with several issues, the harshest of which is Mufti Elfatawy which criticises the Syrian religious scholars who blindly support the regime. Sour Words, which derives its title from one of Shiekh Imam's popular songs, was warmly welcomed by the audience. "If only I Can Tell", "Alhodod Aldodo", "Stop Freedom" were among the best received numbers.

The Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011; that is when Manla began writing his sarcastic songs. With a small group of close friends for an audience, he started to build up his musical project. A song writer, lute player and singer, Manla does not see himself as a professional musician. "I did not establish this band for commercial purposes; and I have no intention to release albums of our tracks," he insists. "All I am actually concerned with is finding a way for our songs to reach Syrian revolutionaries in and outside Syria." With its oppositional, sarcastic and harsh stance, Sour words stands unique both in Egypt and Syria. "Before the revolution," he explains, "there were many independent bands in Syria, but they never tackled political or social themes. We have lived for many years in an atmosphere of cultural desertification. The Syrian revolution owes much to previous revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Revolution will never halt in Syria, simply because every family has contributed a martyr or two. Therefore, retaliation is an important motive to continue our struggle against this regime."

This solid revolutionary spirit is echoed in both his songs and his speech: "The more stubborn the regime, the more stubborn the people; every honest Syrian has become a potential martyr." Manla believes his band is only there to act as a catalyst to the revolution, not as a commercial or a professional project.

"I have a message to deliver. The survival of my band is bound to the continuity of the Syrian revolution." But, asked if any of his songs quote slogans chanted by protesters, Manla says that slogans are there for street demonstrations; songs should tackle a different point of view. "My focus is on sarcastic issues that spring simultaneously from day-to-day events, such as the Syrian army's brutal killing of civilians as if they were the enemy and continuing allegations that revolutionaries are nothing but terrorists. As a completely new musical genre, I hope the tracks will prove popular in Syria through the media and the Internet," Manla adds. "My dream is to visit the refugee camps in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, and to perform among Syrian refugees. I want my songs to work as retaliation for the martyrs and the destruction of Syrian cities and districts," his sad voice mingles with a defiant look belying the exhaustion of his eyes.

Regarding the future of Syria, how does Manla feel about the revolution actually toppling the regime? "I doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over power in, unless there is an unseen plan or a conspiracy to push the Islamists to political power in the whole region." With the shameful silence of the Arab League or the Egyptian government towards the brutal daily killings of innocent civilians, however, how does Manla see the stance of Arab People? To what extent does he blame them? "Arab citizens are generally passive. Certainly Arab compassion with the Syrian cause is much less than what we expected," he laments. "The Syrian revolution should be on top of the agendas of Arab peoples, organisations and governments." Manla brings the farcical political situation in Syria to a fantastic end: Bashar (Al-Assad), a word which means lion in English, should be locked in one cage with a real hungry lion, given his full chance to wrestle with the wild animal to show how courageous he is.

A prolific writer, Manla has recently completed a musical play. "However, I have no financial support. I have no job here yet, and I pay my family's expenses from the money I got when I sold my car in Syria," he nodded. While Egypt's own revolutionary songs are fading, their Syrian counterparts are being born in the heart of Cairo. A coincidence? Maybe, but I am sure this can help to rekindle our enthusiasm for the revolution to come.

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