Update from Reem
My next project is dedicated to the music of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 -1923), whom I have been researching for the past 9 years. Considered by many to be the father of contemporary Arabic music, Sayyid Darwish is little known outside the Arab world and under-appreciated in some circles within it.
I'm in the process of producing a double CD, with two accompanying booklets, one in English and the other in Arabic, containing musicological notes, the original lyrics and professional translations. To this end, I have divided my research efforts for the past few years between the British Library in London and the Academy of Arts in Giza.
I have also drawn much from my field trips in Syria (2009) and Turkey (2010). The latter visit was especially important as I am keen to bridge the gap in communication and understanding which seems to have developed between Turkish and Arabic music scholars. After all, Sayyid Darwish's mentor during his two years in Aleppo (1912 - 1914) was the Iraqi Mulla 'Uthman al-Musilli, who was a reader of Qur'an at the court of the Ottoman Sultan.
Glorious and invigorating as the revolution of 2011 was in Egypt, the increasing chaos we have seen since then has set this project back significantly. At the same time, the revolution was a reminder of the very topicality of Sayyid Darwish - his music and his message. It was, after all, his songs which dominated the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere. He would have been so proud to think that his songs provided the backdrop to the two most important popular uprisings in modern Egyptian history, namely the '1919' Egyptian Revolt against the British Protectorate and the Revolution of 25th January 2011. This was the theme I developed in the programme I wrote and presented for BBC Radio 4: Songs for Tahrir.
This project is daunting in its scale and has already shown the inadequacy of my resources, but my work on it continues. To those who had hoped to have received this album by now, I ask for their patience. Subject to me being able to return to Cairo to complete the recording work, we hope the album will see the light of day during 2014. Those of you who have attended any of my recent concerts and workshops will, at least, already have had an introduction from me to the majesty of Darwish's music.
Sayyid Darwish: National genius; official outcast
One hundred and eighteen years have passed since the birth of Sayyid Darwish, without any official celebration (of his life and work). We haven’t seen any play about him at the Opera House, nor have we heard Egyptian radio dedicate a day to the broadcast of his brilliant music; nor has Egyptian state television dedicated a programme to a giant who did so much to build and fashion modern Egyptian music. I need hardly mention that Darwish also established Egyptian musical theatre and gave his heart and soul to marginalised groups such as white- and blue-collar workers, salesmen, street cleaners and labourers. As he once sang of them: "Who’s seen more misery than those wretched workmen?"
Darwish’s anniversary has passed unnoticed and yet he is the one who gave us the national anthem in its modern Arabic form, and who gave us anthems that symbolised the 1919 Egyptian Revolution; anthems which inspired resistance against British colonial rule. Darwish championed the liberation of Egyptian women; he didn’t leave anyone without inspiring them with his brilliant music. The residents of his Alexandrian birthplace, the old neighbourhood of Kom el-Dikka, were the only ones who took the initiative and celebrated his birthday, aided by two local cafes, "Qahwet Farag" and "Qahwet ‘Abd el-Mun‘im".
We have repeatedly asked the Opera House to present Sayyid Darwish’s work, with a smaller budget than what it would normally spend on snacks at a festival. And yet this is the Opera House which last year openly embraced a controversial Israeli musician, while remaining shut in the face of one of Egypt’s own sons. Egyptian poet Salah Jahin once described Darwish as being: "Just like a jinn... Neither resting nor tiring.... Like a tightly stretched string... Strummed over a thousand years ago... Still emitting a tune."
The Opera House has erected in pride of place two statues, one of Umm Kulthum and the other of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, while it has no statue of Sayyid Darwish standing proud in its grounds. Yet, it was Darwish who established musical theatre. Isn’t theatre part of the world of opera, I wonder? For all this, the state continues to ignore the urgent need to develop Darwish’s dilapidated Cairo home into a museum worthy of his great works.
I can’t explain this injustice except that the state fears anything which might remind us of the revolutionary episodes in our history. Similarly, Darwish’s librettist Badi‘ Khayri’s poetry is seen as a threat to the current status quo. And thus, the state seeks to avoid the risk of a brilliant man’s subversive fire becoming a focus for present day anger. Instead of parading him as a cultural icon, the state and the Ministry of Culture have succeeded in suppressing Sayyid Darwish’s legacy and making sure that few will ever appreciate his significance and his worth. In spite of this, the "Association of the Friends of Sayyid Darwish’s Music" continue to carry his banner. It was founded in 1947 by such luminaries as Yusef Hilmi, Tawfiq al-Hakim, ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad, Badi‘ Khayri, Bayram al-Tunisi, Umm Kulthum, Zakariyya Ahmad, Riyad Sunbati, Muhammad al-Qasabji, and many others.
The Association’s General Secretary is none other than Muhammad Hasan Sayyid Darwish, grandson of the great musician, and its Chairman is Ibrahim Hajji. The Association took it upon itself to teach a choir of young singers the repertoire of Sayyid Darwish, and they participated in a series of commemorative concerts. They also succeeded in creating a comprehensive record of the great man’s works.
For forty years, the Association has occupied a room in the Cairo Atelier, of which the Egyptian visual artist, Dr. Salah ‘Anani, recently became head. ‘Anani is now demanding that the Association give up its room, its only refuge, and move into an even smaller room that isn’t large enough for choir practice, let alone anything else.
I can’t believe that the Cairo Atelier, which was established as a private initiative by a group of "writers and intellectuals" is now seeking to kick out the lovers of Sayyid Darwish’s music. More incredible still, the head of the Atelier is a visual artist and an intellectual himself.
I had expected the opposite, in fact, and had hoped that the Atelier’s board of directors would invite the Association to a meeting to discuss other ways in which the Atelier might support it.
I can’t bear to think that the "People’s Artist" is being thrown out of his last remaining sanctuary in Cairo. Unless, of course, Egypt is becoming the cat that eats its own litter, the very offspring who once stirred in her heart dreams of freedom, development and independence.
Ahmad Al-Khamissi, Egyptian writer
© Ahmad Al-Khamissi, Cairo, April 2010
Translated by: Reem Kelani & Christopher Somes-Charlton
© The Miktab Limited, London, June 2010