Music – celebration and resilience by Reem KelaniI travelled to Manchester, my birthplace, to conduct a workshop on Palestinian music and dance for the “Women of Palestine” tour, on Saturday 11 March 2012. I knew it would be a special occasion, because I’d worked with Palestinian solidarity activists in the north before, and each experience was better than the previous one. Yet even I was bowled over by what I encountered.
The young, feisty and impressive Palestinian women had been touring the north of England, talking about subjects as poignant and varied as the Bedouin village of ‘Araqib, women in Gaza, refugees in Bethlehem, water resources in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Exhausted by the end of the week, they were not! Instead, they joined in, sang songs from their hometowns and compared musical notes with each other. It was both interesting and painful to hear them talk about not being able to see each other back home, because of Israeli Pass Laws affecting the movement of Palestinians. In a sombre reminder, one of the women from Gaza admitted that she was not aware of the musical traditions of Nazareth!
There was so much love, positivity and solidarity in the room, the whole experience felt unreal. Surrounded by the workshop participants and sitting in a semicircle singing their hearts out, the “Women of Palestine” comprised: Kholoud al Ajarma (Bethlehem), Zayneb al Alshalalfeh (Hebron), Sameeha Elwan (Gaza), Kholood Ersheid (Nazareth) and Maha Rezq (Gaza). Two equally fiery locally based Palestinian women joined the workshop, Arwa from Sheffield and Arwa from Manchester, and the circle was thus complete.
Baby Arabiya, whose mother helped organise the event with women drawn from towns across the north of England, sang excitedly along with us.
The only bitter aftertaste of that magical day was the loss a week later of the remarkable Mohammad Abu-Bakr Rauf, tireless activist and father of Baby Arabiya. Abu-Bakr named his daughter after Arabiya Shawamreh, who recently had her home in Anata, north east of Jerusalem, destroyed for the fifth time by the Israeli Army.
United in love and grief, togetherness and loss, that day will long remain with me.
In memory of Mohammad Abu-Bakr Rauf (10 August 1983 – 20 March 2012).
©Reem Kelani, October 2012.
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Hanna Braun - 1927-2011
Reem Kelani: "In addition to being a personal friend and supporter, Hanna was a true friend of the Palestinian people. By her presence, as a survivor of the Holocaust in which most of her relatives perished, and as a former member of the Haganah and an ex-Israeli, Hanna reminded us all that ours is a struggle against injustice in its many forms. She had lost so much in Germany, the land of her birth, and yet she eschewed the Zionists’ vision of a future built at the expense of another people. Rare in this life are people of such honour and determination as Hanna, her life dedicated to righting the wrongs as she perceived them. I and Hanna’s many Palestinian friends mourn her passing and feel proud to have known her. The last time I saw her was at the Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival in early October. I felt so privileged when she gave me a copy of her ‘Weeds Don’t Perish – Memories of a Defiant Old Woman’, with an inscription in Arabic by her. She handed me the book, clasped my hands and walked off. I shall remember this day and Hanna’s love and zest for life forever."
PSC members will be saddened to hear that staunch campaigner Hanna Braun has died aged 84, shortly after the publication of her book Weeds Don’t Perish: Memoirs of a Defiant Old Woman. Born in Berlin in 1927, Hanna lived through major political events and upheavals. In 1937 her parents took her to Palestine, where, having witnessed the horror of the Nakba, began her political journey toward anti-zionist activism. Hanna will be greatly missed by her family, her many friends and all in PSC who will always remember her passionate campaigning for the Palestinians, her commitment to human rights and anti-racism, her love of music and dabke dancing and her enthusiastic participation in demonstrations, meetings, and conferences. We send our condolences to her daughters, Dorit and Gaby, and her grandchildren.
Watch Hanna Braun and Ghada Karmi in discussion at her book launch* at Tottenham Palestine festival in September 2011: Hanna Braun at her book launch.
Weeds Don’t Perish is published by Garnet, ISBN number 9781859642641
Hanna’s book is available at: Garnet Publishing
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Egypt: music and revolution (November 2011)
When I took the plane with my colleague from the BBC, Megan Jones, I didn’t know what awaited me on landing in Cairo. Saturday 19th November was, it seems, a momentous day in the present phase of the revolution. The taxi driver who picked us up said that things had flared up in Tahrir Square earlier that day, and that there were casualties and hundreds injured. I knew not whether to be sad for Egypt or happy at the serendipity of witnessing once again the Egyptian revolution in progress.
With all the professional reporters in Cairo, I won’t focus much here on what is usually considered newsworthy material. Life in Egypt goes on, protests notwithstanding, and I hope this Blog will add other pieces to the picture.
Megan and I had been planning this trip for months, with a view to a documentary for Radio 4 on music of the Egyptian revolution. The morning after our arrival, we walked to Suleiman Gohar Market, round the corner from our hotel. On our way, we were assailed by revolutionary chants of a different order, from members of the Syrian opposition demonstrating outside the Syrian embassy.
I was distracted by the Syrian chants, since they used mainly old Levantine folk songs and replaced the original lyrics with sassy and biting anti-Assad slogans. We found ourselves recording the Syrian protestors as we were rushing to catch the street sellers in Gohar Market. The great Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 – 1923) used to pursue street sellers across Cairo in order to learn their chants, and from them came many of his songs and anthems, for the manual workers, labourers and society’s downtrodden.
Hearing the chants of the Syrian protesters gave that morning a sense of the here and now intertwined in age-old authenticity. Priceless, I kept thinking to myself, as we recorded the honey-seller, the date-seller, the rag-and-bone man, the street cleaner and last but certainly not least, the fishmonger calling about his produce and feeding left-overs to the feline residents of Gohar Market.
I had hoped to meet a young Egyptian activist, Lina Megahed, who has been at the forefront of the revolution since January. I wasn’t surprised when I was unable to pin her down, however: she was in Tahrir Square, and for long spells at the front line of the protest in nearby Muhammad Mahmoud Street. When I finally did manage to get hold of her, she told me about Malek Moustafa, the prominent activist and blogger who had filmed our singing sessions in Tahrir Square in February. Lina sounded shaky on the phone, and more so when she told me that Malek had most probably lost one of his eyes to a police rubber bullet on Saturday 19th November. I broke into tears of concern and anger.
Luckily for me, the dark mood was interrupted and transformed by a phone call from my Syrian-Jordanian friend Sally Hamarneh, who was visiting Egypt with her Franco-Egyptian husband. I had met Sally with her mother the Jordanian writer Samar Hamarneh in Damascus in 2009. Indeed, it seems that Sayyid Darwish was posthumously adamant that I should meet with the Hamarnehs now and then. I was in Syria researching the period Darwish spent in Aleppo (1912 – 1914) learning Greater Syrian and classical Arabic music. And now I found myself in Egypt, comforted by Sally’s passion for life and love of all her homelands, Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian.
A trained architect and an urban planner in training, Sally told us about the spatial qualities of Tahrir Square that facilitated the revolution, whereupon we decided there and then that we should interview her for our programme. She elaborated about the centrality of power that a place like Tahrir Square offered. It allowed the masses to gather, and it helped to make their voices heard. As Sally explained, the Nazis focused less on large, open spaces like Tahrir Square, and more on confined spaces such as stadiums and highways that cut across cities; when they gathered the masses together, they made sure that they could control them.
Another remarkable young woman was Samia Jaheen. An activist in her own right, she’s one of the singers of the Egyptian band, Eskenderella. She has an amazing stage presence and power of engagement that rivals the sharpest of troubadours. I had long been inspired by Samia’s father, the late great Renaissance man Salah Jaheen. Cartoonist, librettist, playwright, poet, screenwriter and film producer, Salah Jaheen was a man of many talents. Talking to his daughter Samia reminded me of the glory that was once Egypt’s arts scene, whilst also revealing what the future promises with such musical and activist talents as hers.
In the same session, I interviewed the poet Zein Al-Abdin Fouad. A personal friend and comrade of Samia’s father, Zein represents the generation of Egyptian poets of the fifties, sixties and seventies that inspired others with their revolutionary poems. It was reassuring to see a father figure and a young woman sharing the same aims and singing from the same hymn sheet, literally and metaphorically. The sense of shared values was reinforced when Samia began singing one of Zein’s poems, one he wrote when he himself was in prison, and one which has been sung in recent days outside the blogger / activist Alaa Abdel Fattah’s prison cell. It was chilling to hear Zein say that he had been held in the very same prison. The present determination of the Egyptian people to free themselves from oppression is but a continuation of the struggle from the days of the 1919 Egypt Revolt against the British Mandate.
The mood in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, 22nd November was bleak, with clouds of tear gas billowing towards us from Muhammad Mahmoud Street all day and the incessant wail of ambulance sirens. At the same time, I was moved to see many familiar faces, all stamped with typical Egyptian resilience: more chanting, more singing, more slogans and an endless river of revolutionary fervor, with gas masks thrown in for good measure.
I was struck, painfully, by the sight of so many injured protesters: gauze patches over eyes, heads bandaged, arms and legs in splints. Many more thousands had experienced respiratory problems resulting from the tear gas. Rather than parading their battle scars, the demonstrators or ‘Tahrir-ites’ went about their daily business, as they did back in January: demonstrating, chanting, tending to the injured, distributing food and drink, collecting rubbish, each according to his or her abilities and inclinations. Some looked after children whilst their parents were at the front line.
By Friday 25th November, clashes with the security forces had ceased, temporarily at least, and Tahrir Square reverberated to the unified sound of a people calling for an end to military rule. Two people stood out: the first, a singer of Nubian or Saidi (Upper Egyptian) descent, known by the name ‘Bakkar’. His sense of rhythm, rhyme and humour is legendary. He was carried from shoulder to shoulder, as he sang the same song for hours on end. Same melody and structure maybe, but he improvised brilliantly on each verse at the request of everyone around. Each time he delivered a punch line, a roar of laughter and approval rocked that part of the square.
The second person of note, to me at least, was two-year old Turki, known by his family and friends as ‘TaTa’. He sang along with Bakkar and cheered every time a group of demonstrators passed him. His wee fingers were snapping with the rhythm as well as doing ‘V’ signs of approval. TaTa’s father, a bearded religious man, told me that Tahrir Square was becoming his son’s second home. I had met the father in exactly the same place back in February. Our conversations were interrupted a couple of times when TaTa grabbed the zipper on his trousers and indicated with a cute guilty pout that he’d wanted to use the toilet. He didn’t seem to mind that he had to go with his older brother to the edge of the square in search of a place to relieve himself. TaTa followed me round the encampment for several hours, whilst chanting with the masses: “the people demand that the field marshal steps down”! Maybe TaTa didn’t fully understand what had to be done, but he had a sense that something had to change.
As the sun set and I made my way out of Tahrir Square, another middle-aged man approached me and – without any sentimentality – asked me to read the opening chapter of the Qur’an on his behalf the next time I’m in Jerusalem. He repeated his request: “don’t forget what I’ve entrusted you with, and don’t forget to deliver your promise in Jerusalem”!
Fireworks exploded around us, adding to an almost festive mood. Each new cracker brought an ever louder roar across the vast square: “The people demand that the field marshal steps down!”
And TaTa, mesmerized by the magic of the fireworks, sang along, once again.
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The killings of Vittorio Arrigoni & Juliano Mer-Khamis
It’s been a while since I last wrote something for my blog, partly because I’ve been busy trying to catch up with my research in the wake of Mubarak’s removal (“resignation” just doesn’t cover it). Partly too I haven’t felt the urge to write. Some of my subsequent visits to Tahrir Square have been no more eventful than being pursued by street peddlers flogging laminated stickers and pictures of people killed during the revolution.
But the brutal murder of Italian peace activist and campaigner Vittorio Arrigoni has sparked this intense anger within me. This coincides with the hooha that the Salafis are now creating in Egypt. Funny, they were nowhere to be seen during the glorious days of the revolution, and now they are all coming out of the woodwork with their bile, their hatred and their sectarianism.
In recent weeks, they have been telling non-Muslims to “go elsewhere” if they don’t accept an “Islamic” Egypt, chopping off the ear of an Egyptian Copt, and causing grief in Qena over the appointment of a Christian governor in post-revolution Egypt.
Meanwhile, across the borders, a conscientious and much-loved Italian activist who had dedicated the last few years of his life to bringing the awful situation in Gaza to wider attention, was abducted, blind-folded like a criminal and then savagely slain. What kind of “religion” condones such behavior? What “school” of Islam accepts this? What kind of “struggle” for Palestine condones this?
I had been struggling to get over the equally ugly assassination of Palestinian Jewish director Juliano Mer-Khamis in my paternal hometown of Jenin a couple of weeks ago; now we find ourselves facing another blow with Vittorio Arrigoni’s murder.
After the success of the Egyptian revolution, Noam Chomsky wrote that the it was ‘not radical Islam that worries the US – it’s independence’ (the Guardian, 4 February, 2011). I respect Chomsky a lot, but I don’t agree with him on everything. On this point, however, I couldn’t agree more.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was killed by fundamentalists who didn’t approve of having a theatre in Jenin where boys and girls could meet, play and act together. For this, he deserved to die…
Vittorio Arrigoni was killed by fundamentalists who didn’t approve of his purely humanist attitude towards helping people in Gaza, without bringing religion into it. For this, he deserved to die…
Fundamentalists, literalists, Salafis, strict political Islamists – call them what you like – seem to be moving in parallel with Zionists and Fascists, who also seek to silence any voice of reason. People like Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni used what nature gave them, their talents and humanist beliefs to help what they both considered to be a just cause. For this, they deserved to die…
On Friday 8th April, I attended a million-iyya (a million-strong) demonstration at Tahrir Square. It called for the arrest and trial of Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his cronies, many of whom still held positions of influence and power in post-revolution Egypt. The Salafi presence was almost non-existent, although I gather that the Muslim Brotherhood was represented. In any case, the demo was essentially secular and refreshingly defiant with a breeze of energy that seemed even more resolute than in the heydays of the revolution.
One woman, a veiled and proud Egyptian, was holding a ‘crescent-and-cross’ banner. She cried her heart out whilst singing full-throttle with the millions in the Square one of Abdul Halim Hafez’s classics about revolutions of bygone years.
A few days after the 8th April demonstration, the Mubarak inner circle are in prison and facing a growing list of charges. The voice of the masses was heeded, albeit not straight away, but it was heeded nonetheless.
We must join forces to fight the demon in our midst, the demon that permits one interpretation and one interpretation only of a holy text of one faith and one faith only. Some on Facebook have rushed to defend the savages behind the killing of Vittorio Arrigoni, one telling me that there were fundamentalists in other religions as well (as if two wrongs made a right). Others argued with me that it was a conspiracy, that they were paid for by Muhammad Dahlan, that they were Israeli agents. Well, if all that’s true, we should challenge and stop them now more than ever!
In memory of Juliano Mer-Khamis (1958 - 2011) and Vittorio Arrigoni (1975 – 2011)
magnificent submit, very informative. I'm wondering why the opposite experts of this sector don't notice this. You should continue your writing. I'm sure, you've a huge readers' base already!
Reem Kelani... I am so happy to see you shining..your voice is a powerful messenger. I am so proud of you...
Mona Al Abiad
Good for you Reem. What to do? How can the voices of the sensible and sincere Muslim Arab be joined to fight this? Maybe others can come together against wherever it comes from. I hope your blog can be the start.
Hi Reem, Im really speechless. You are always the sound of my heart. You really express the voice of my soul. I can’t say any thing except I’m really proud of you. Luv u.
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Sally Zahran: a rose unveiled, Cairo, 5 March
Sally Zahran is the 24-year-old student whose attractive face has featured on many a poster carrying pictures of people killed during the Egyptian revolution.
With curly hair, tanned skin, a coquettish smile and eyes squinting with defiance for life, this English Literature major is now posthumously becoming a subject of two enquiries, both of which make me believe even more strongly that the Egyptian uprising was not without reason.
Her now famous photo shows her to be unveiled. Evidently, this mattered not to many veiled and masked women who have been proudly carrying Sally’s photo amid the crowds in Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt.
But lo and behold, soon after 11th February, pictures of a veiled woman resembling Sally were spread across cyberspace, with a supposed request from Sally’s mother that people should replace the unveiled Sally with the veiled one.
I have heard reports questioning the authenticity of the photo, and so I asked Salam Yousry who runs the Choir Project of which Sally was a member. He told me that he never saw Sally with a veil. Furthermore, I saw a recent TV interview with her mother and the family house was full of photos of Sally, all unveiled.
During the same interview, the mother said that Sally was not killed at Tahrir Square at the hands of pro-regime bullies, but rather, she fell from the balcony at home, after she’d returned for a break from one of the demonstrations. Fearful for Sally’s life, her mother tried to stop her from going out again, but Sally insisted on going out, rushing to the balcony and tragically meeting her death.
So, there are now two debates: was Sally really a “martyr” because she wasn’t veiled and did she die directly at the hands of the regime?
What matters is that she took to the streets as a free woman, veiled or unveiled. Sally Zahran gave her life to free her society from stagnation and sterile debate, and we pray that Egypt will be a better place because of the determination of people like Sally.
Sally Magdy Zahran (1987 – 2011)
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Performance by The Choir Project, The Townhouse, central Cairo, 20 February
The Choir Project is a group of about 50 singers and musicians who create music collectively through workshops. Under the artistic direction of painter and theatre director Salam Yousry, their numbers rose after an open call for volunteers mid way through the uprising.
Sally Zahran, a young female member of the troupe, was killed in the revolution, and the evening began in sombre fashion with a silent tribute.
Once the performance began, it turned into a celebration. First, they began with earlier compositions, including one looking at things Egyptians complain about, another about local proverbs, and a third, about absurd TV commercials. Composed pre-revolution, many of the themes resonated post-revolution. The packed audience responded with spontaneous roars and applause. Some broke into tears; others laughed wildly.
Then came their latest piece: written, composed and rehearsed over the past week. Both topical and sublime, it was a re-working of slogans chanted by the protesters. By a play of words, the people’s demand for the fall of the regime was transformed into a call for ‘Life in the Square!’ And the omnipresent chant “Hold your head high, you’re Egyptian!” was delivered in a ‘We Will Rock You’ fashion, with the audience upstanding in excited accompaniment.
What marked the evening apart was the raw energy and enthusiasm of the performers, who seemed to have been physically and emotionally set free. Everyone seemed so full of hope and a sense of triumph.
The Choir Project will perform again at the Hanajer Theatre, Cairo Opera at 7pm, 22 February.
Visit their website at: http://www.thechoirproject.webs.com/
In the meantime, I leave you with the words of a banner I saw in Tahrir Square last week: “Mubarak: leave or I’ll let my mother-in-law loose on you!”
Hi Reem and Chris, Fantastic news and you describe it in a way that makes me feel as if I’m there and living through it! Tonight on the tube I glimpsed on somebody’s Evening Standard that Gaddafi, after a most inflammatory speech (he’ll never give in, but rather fight to the last man and woman)has fled! Domino effect? When will the Palestinians unite against all odds and form a united PLO? Lots of love, Hanna
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Tahrir Square, Cairo, Friday 11th February
I woke up on the morning of Friday 11th February, feeling depressed and hopeful at the same time.
Yesterday, I had been talking to Fergus Nicoll from BBC World Service about the demonstrators wanting to reclaim for the Egyptian masses Sayyid Darwish’s ’Biladi, Biladi’, which has been the official Egyptian national anthem since 1979. They resented the fact that a great anthem such as this had been exploited by the regime. Sayyid Darwish wrote the song against the background of the 1919 Egyptian Revolt against the British, and it was in this vein that the demonstrators had been singing it aloud.
As I did the daily hand washing, I listened, incredulous, to the State radio. I kept thinking that if this were any other Arab country not at ’peace’ with Israel, the US government would have been up in arms and would have rushed to condemn the Egyptian regime loudly for its behaviour towards the demonstrators.
I took the metro to Muhammad Naguib in downtown Cairo and then walked to the Square. As I got closer, I saw more and more people making their way to the Square. Along the way, I passed popcorn and sweet potato sellers and teenagers selling Egyptian flags, fuzzy wigs and armbands in the colours of the national flag. It felt like a huge village fete, with parents pulling along smartly dressed children as though they were accompanying them to a traditional ’mawlid’, the traditional celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth. Some women carried their toddlers on one shoulder, each tiny leg on either side of their shoulders.
I had heard that the wonderful Evelyn Ashamallah was suffering from blood pressure problems. We had been with her the night before, and the three of us stood still as we watched Mubarak’s obstinate, defiant and apology-free speech. Evelyn jumped off her sofa in disbelief, physically shocked by Mubarak’s stand. I felt guilty that we hadn’t stayed the night with her; she was beside herself with shock and concern for the young people in the Square.
The Square was so crowded that I struggled to meet any of my friends. Moreover, the local mobile network was so overloaded that it was almost impossible to co-ordinate with each other.
Amid the mayhem, I bumped into Saber Mekkawi from ’Nadi al-Nuba al-Aam’, the Nubian club in Egypt. I grabbed hold of his jacket, so that we didn’t lose each other. He took me to a funeral procession that was taking place in another part of the Square to honour the four Nubian Egyptians who had been killed over the past fortnight. The funeral was sombre and well organised, and the attendees, mostly Nubian Egyptians, lined up in a circle and sang wedding songs to honour the dead. It was resilience in its purest form, demonstrating love of life and respect for the dead.
All of a sudden, a massive ’sound wave’ rippled across the crowds. People were screaming, shouting, yelling, laughing ecstatically, crying and kneeling on the ground. I was overwhelmed, and for a split second, I couldn’t make sense of it. Swept up by the moment, I mislaid my mobile phone, on which I had recorded so many images of the momentous past two weeks.
Realising I had lost my phone, I started walking aimlessly, wondering what was going on. People were hugging each other and crying in disbelief. At a First Aid point, some people were being treated for shock; others fainted in front of me.
My Nubian friend was lost in the middle of the Nubian singing and dancing that turned into a true celebration, with women ululating in the Egyptian and Nubian styles. I ululated along, and I realised that Mubarak was president no more.
I was frustrated that at the very moment we’d all been waiting for, I couldn’t find my husband or my friends to hug and congratulate.
Chris arrived later, having had to walk most of the 2 miles from our place of stay because all the roads and bridges were jammed with cars, motorbikes and people. He found me, eventually, surrounded by young men of the Youth Committee who had taken on the task of bringing order to Tahrir Square since the demonstrations began. They had foregone their personal celebrations to help me find my phone. I was crying, out of joy and out of frustration at the probable loss of so many remarkable images.
I cried too out of resentment for the fact that Mubarak had denied his people the night before of the news that they all wanted. There was a sense that he had cheated his people even at the final moment of his presidency.
Our walk back to Dukki late on Friday night was especially slow, as almost everyone we passed wanted to show us how happy they were. All I could do was to ululate the Egyptian way, and for many in the street this made sense to them. Simple words seemed somehow inadequate to describe the enormity of the moment.
A young Egyptian stopped me and asked if I was Palestinian. He then pulled out a Palestinian flag and waved it along with the Egyptian one. He insisted on giving it to me as a gift, but I felt that he should keep it on a night like this: better to have a free Egyptian holding my imprisoned Palestinian flag aloft.
If we thought we would go straight in the door, when we got back, Ali the concierge next door who moonlights as a cabbie, decided otherwise. He ’ordered’ us to get in to his cab and gave us a free tour of the impromptu and chaotic street celebrations. From the Ja’afrah community in Aswan, Ali kept demanding that I ululate by saying "Zaghrati!" every time we passed someone.
By the time we finally staggered in to bed, I had no voice, but I was full of hope.
Dearest Reem, Honestly I am speechless...I enjoyed reading your blog your writings -I believe- are a great documentary treasure to anyone who wants to know what was really happening in Tahrir square during the historic 21st century Egyptian revolution from inside, from the people, it had always been your mission to show the whole world what it means being a Palestinian who is always proud and believe of your just right of a homeland in your country. Being in Egypt especially in the heart of Tahrir square, risking your life, standing with our brothers and sisters in a great country in their stand against their corrupted regime, singing those lovely Palestinian traditional songs, is a translation to our unity as Arabs, and hoping what was once a dream in Egypt and came true might also be our dream come true and one day we will all celebrate a full and just of our case singing with the world "alhamdellah wel hamdellah......" so proud of you and all what you are doing love
Mabrook to you Reem and even more so for the Egyptian people. Been thinking and praying a lot for you all. What tremendous and wonderful events! Insha’Allah it does not all get hijacked and sold out. salaams, Muhsin in Malaysia
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Tahrir Square, Cairo, Thursday 10th February.
By Thursday afternoon 10 February the mood in central Cairo was nothing short of jubilant. Victory in Europe (V.E.) Day at the end of World War 2 must have been a pretty similar experience.
We had arranged for a BBC World Service Radio team to record demonstrators in song. Absolutely nothing was staged, or needed to be. Everyone in the street cafe beside Tahrir Square was in full voice before the BBC even arrived.
To understand this sense of elation, two facts should be borne in mind:
a) Egypt has been in progressive decline for several decades - politically, socially and culturally, whatever the economic data might have shown;
b) the unrelenting oppression of the Mubarak regime.
En masse, the people are saying ’we’ve had enough of this’. For them, the overthrow of the regime is a means to regain their dignity and their pride, as Egyptians.
As the news came in on Thursday of the protest spreading to the labour unions and the professional classes, it seemed like matters were coming to a head. Rumours mingled with the very limited official reporting served to heighten expectations among the millions of Egyptians in and around Cairo and the rest of the country. Victory seemed to be within the grasp of the masses on the streets.
In mid evening, the minister of information was quoted as saying that Mubarak would not resign. By the time Mubarak’s address was broadcast, some 45 minutes later than billed, an ominous silence had fallen across Tahrir Square, as people waited to hear their and their country’s fate. We repaired to a friend’s flat in neaby Talaat Harb to watch the speech.
In the run-up to the broadcast, Nile TV posted details of the considerable and illicit wealth of a number of leading Mubarak allies. Why now, we wondered? Once My\ubarak had made plain that he would neither resign nor make any substantive new concessions to the demands of the masses, we realized that the earlier TV notices were there to give the semblance that he and his regime were taking action to root out the corruption (which was a central charge of the protesters).
As Mubarak spoke, al-Jazeera used a split screen to show the reactions of the people in Tahrir Square. By the middle of the 17 minute address, it became difficult to hear Mubarak, as the chants exploded from across the Square: ’Out!’ ’Out!’ ’Out!’.
As we returned to the street, moments later, the mood had changed dramatically: shock and anger, tinged with fear.
We passed a long line of demonstrators marching towards Nile TV and to the vast Presidential Palace complex in Heliopolis, and we worried at what might become of them.
I was surprised how relaxed the soldiers looked in and around the half dozen tanks parked beside the 6th October Bridge.
and now it truly is V.E. (victory in egypt) day! Huzzah!
Thanks for the blog Reem - it’s so important to have the view from the street (unmediated by the BBC or CNN). The news today (friday) is truly momentous - I watched with my son Ben, who became increasingly excited and moved by the spirit shown by the brave Egyptian people. Our thoughts are with you all. Keep safe!!! Love Dave
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Tahrir Square, Cairo, Tuesday 8th February.
Having pursued a campaign against foreigners in recent days, blaming them for the unrest in the country, the authorities had sought to tighten access to Tahrir Square. No foreigners and no journalists were allowed in, except those with formal accreditation (which, in practice, meant those reporters based in Egypt). Moreover, control of the main checkpoint across the Qasr el-Nil Bridge was no longer in the hands of ordinary soldiers, but of the Egyptian special forces (Sa’iqa).
On being told we could not enter, Reem resorted to major dramatics, which soon won over the officer in charge, who came across as decent, educated and not unmoved by events in the Square behind him. He called his commanding officer, and within minutes we were allowed to proceed.
We headed for the main encampment in the grassy roundabout in the middle of Tahrir Square, to visit our friends there. Already crowded by 1pm, the Square turned into a sea of people as the afternoon wore on and as more people arrived.
Those who have been camping in the Square over the past 10 days or more are a broad bunch. The young, internationally aware, internet savy types are a significant element among them, but there are many others we met on Tuesday, including:
- A doctor in his late 50s who trained in Holland and Scotland. A communist and an activist, he has been with the demonstrations from day one;
- Malek, a web developer and blogger, who has been documenting and uploading to the web footage and reports of each day’s events. He didn’t stop all afternoon, checking that everyone in the camp was OK, handing out food and water, and getting cigarettes;
- Khaled Abdulla, a well-known actor;
- A poor but committed campaigner, who told us that he has repeatedly dodged the draft and risks being picked up by the military at any ID check;
- A destitute guy from upper Egypt, frustrated that, at the age of 33, he is unmarried and has no prospects of marriage because he has no money. He complained that he had had no experience of sex, because that could only happen within marriage;
- An Islamist who was happily sitting and talking in front of women and men. “Do come again soon” he pressed me and Reem, as we were leaving.
These activists see themselves as holding the fort on behalf of the masses, in between the days of major demonstration. They are leaderless, defiantly and deliberately so, and yet united in their basic demands.
Implicit in their message is that none of the political parties properly represents them and that there is a need for all the parties to undergo comprehensive reform and re-structuring.
More generally, there was so much good energy on display among the masses in the Square:
- Countless people volunteering services;
- Islamist men chatting with Copts and unveiled women;
- Women asserting themselves in public in discussion in front of men;
- People engaging in debate about what they want for their country;
- A sincere and warm welcome for foreigners;
- A new-found and widespread respect for the ‘other’.
If anyone had wondered about the degree of support for the activists, the massive turn-out on Tuesday 8th February showed otherwise. There can be no doubting the Egyptian people’s resolve to remove the old; no Gerrymandered diplomatic way out will do. The regime’s latest offer of a national pay-rise to all public workers has done nothing to dim their ardour. It’s too late to buy off the masses.
With the crush of people in a confined space, large though Tahrir Square is, existing there has its difficulties. Although the regime is no longer blocking mobile phone transmissions, the local antennae cannot cope with the vast number of people phoning, texting and uploading at the same time.
As for basic bodily functions, many people had been using the local mosque’s toilets and washing facilities, but these have now packed up under the strain. The building site behind the Cairo Museum is not a place to visit without watching carefully where you tread. One activist told me that he had not been eating any solids for the past week, to minimize his metabolic needs.
Our friend’s nearby flat is in almost constant use by anyone wanting a proper loo, a shower or a bit of rest away from the Square.
We took our leave as evening fell, but it took over an hour before we exited the Square. Thousands were similarly heading home before the curfew, and the small gaps left by the soldiers between the tanks blocking the roads were quite inadequate for the huge numbers. Fortunately, everyone was good-natured and patient. The chants calling for an end to Mubarak’s regime grew louder as we edged closer to the tanks, and yet the soldiers seemed entirely relaxed.
Back in Dukki late Tuesday, more of the positive energy which has whipped through the Egyptian people was in evidence. In our area at least, the vigilantes of the “Popular Committees” have withdrawn, having apparently invited the police back. Yet the young men are still sitting on the street, and with few cars moving during the curfew, our street has become divided into small football pitches. Even our neighbourhood cats feel safe to prowl around!
Hi Reem & Christopher, So good now to hear from you first to know you are OK and then for all the grass roots news that you give. Tonight after Mubarek’s pitiful latest broadcast painting himself as a selfless patriot under threat from outside forces i.e the US though probably true in one sense, it was designed to try and unite the protesters against an external threat, a well-tried strategy, many channels seemed to just leave their cameras focused on Tahrir soaking up the angry chants rather than carry on reporting partly because the roar of the crowd made communication impossible. It seems impossible to second guess what is taking place behind the scenes between the army & the military though French TV suggested that in a meeting today between Mubarek and the Saudis, they assured him that if the US dropped out of funding the military they would step in, a whole new scenario. Let’s see what al-juma’a has to bring. huwa amshy!! yasqut yasqut HB!! We will be in Trafalgar Sq this Saturday to support you.
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Cairo, 5 - 6th February 2011
I set off alone for Tahrir Square on Saturday morning 5th February, afraid that my English husband might get harassed, government media having focused the blame for the demonstrations on “foreign elements”.
The checkpoint at the end of Qasr al-Nil Bridge, on the approach to Tahrir Square took almost an hour of waiting. I was checked by more than one female volunteer, all of them polite and apologetic for having to search us.
Once again, my ‘Friends of the Music of Sayyid Darwish Society’ membership card came to my rescue. Much safer, I thought, than my British passport for identification.
At the army check point, one man in the queue started saying that I looked foreign, and that although I spoke Arabic, my accent did not ‘sound Egyptian’. Initially, the crowd ignored him, but then he started to speak louder, almost yelling, and pointing his finger at me.
I continued through the checkpoint and then shouted back at him that I was indeed a Palestinian, and that I was proud to be with my Egyptian friends during such trying times. Others in the queue immediately welcomed me and told this man to shut up. A young man identifying himself as an ‘Egyptian blogger’ rushed up to me, handing me his mobile phone number and telling me to call him, should I run into similar problems again.
On arriving in Tahrir Square, I found myself surrounded by two long lines of men and women, of all ages and walks of life, singing and clapping to welcome us, the ‘arrivals’. Their songs were improvised and topical, beautifully rhymed and thanking everyone who had made the effort to join them. Normally, I would have rushed to my camera to film this, but I was just overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome, after the initial antagonism at the checkpoint. An old man dressed in Azhari religious attire stepped forward and whispered in my ears “welcome back, child’.
I was carrying spare clothes and sandwiches for a young Egyptian student full of hope and love for her homeland, Lina Megahed. Granddaughter of the assassinated socialist Nubian-Egyptian activist Zaki Murad, Lina definitely carries the same genes: she has been camped in Tahrir Square for the past two weeks.
Her ‘camp’, on a small grassy area, comprises a few tents and makeshift shelters, which she shares with an assortment of students, artists, filmmakers, musicians and theatre directors.
Amid the many young Egyptians, I saw a woman in her early sixties, full of fire and defiance - the wonderful Egyptian visual artist Evelyn Ashamallah. We hit it off straight away and talked for hours after that.
It rained on Saturday afternoon, but that discouraged no-one. I felt privileged to be there. The only unease was the sense of suspicion that was floating in the air. Evelyn said she could ‘smell’ the pro-Mubarak supporters who were infiltrating the crowds in Tahrir Square.
I overheard a couple of men talking loudly on their mobile phones, so that others would hear them. One complained that “female demonstrators were dancing with men and were smoking cigarettes!”. Another was shouting at his phone calling it ‘Takhrib’ Square, meaning ‘sabotage’ or ‘destruction’.
As evening fell, spirits among the demonstrators remained high. My friends decided it would be dangerous for me to return to Dukki alone, so Evelyn kindly invited me to stay the night at her flat nearby.
Her son Salam Yousry, an artist in his own right and a director of a theatre troupe called ‘Tamie’, classical Arabic for ‘mud’, walked us to his mother’s flat with another of his activist friends, Sidqi Sakhr. They stopped short of her block, however, and said that we would be safer to walk the last few yards on our own, as the next area was full of Mubarak supporters. They told me not to speak a word of English or Palestinian, and Evelyn donned a beautiful blue scarf, greeting everyone we passed politely before we arrived at her flat, safe but exhausted.
The doorman rushed to greet us, saying that he was supporting the Tahrir Square demonstrators. He told us he had a degree in Commerce, and his friend, a bin man, a degree in Law!
As I walked into Evelyn’s flat, I felt at home. The smell of paint and sight of drawing props reminded me of wonderful days in Kuwait in the 1980s at the house of Muhammad Bushnaq, a Palestinian visual artist of Bosnian origin.
A different language to Bushnaq’s paintings and sculptures full of narrative and history, Evelyn’s work is daring, cheeky, visually striking and painfully humorous. When I first met her at the square she told me that the materials she used were ‘everything and anything’. Indeed, they were: furniture made of recycled washing buckets and chairs salvaged from the ‘rag and bone’ man.
Evelyn’s paintings are full of beautiful Egyptians, women and men, carrying the same spirit of defiance as the people on the streets of Cairo this past fortnight. Many feature the ‘eye’, or ‘ayn’, repelling ‘evil eyes’, and staring out in every direction. Her pictures also feature cute demons, and I emphasize the word ‘cute’ (they are mostly smiling), and creatures of composite animal forms.
We talked till dawn, the only interruption being when Evelyn would spit at the TV every time she saw a politician she didn’t approve of or heard a piece of blatant propaganda.
I overslept and, much to my loss, missed the Coptic mass that took place the next morning in Tahrir in honour of those who had died over the past two weeks. A proud Copt and an even prouder Egyptian, Evelyn said that she particularly enjoyed talking to members of the Muslim Brotherhood at the demos, and that she felt a strong bond of love for Egypt with them. Relations between Muslims and Christians might not have been trouble free in the last few years, but both communities were very much Egyptian, and recent events had bought them closer together.
I thought of the 1919 Egyptian Revolt, when Coptic priests gave sermons at the Azhar Mosque encouraging Egyptians to take to the streets to end the British Protectorate. Could this be another uniting point in Egyptian history?
As we got to Tahrir Square on Sunday 6th February, I felt I was at a WOMAD festival (of dance and music) rather than a national uprising. A group of young men were dancing the sassy dance of Port-Said, where men wave their hands in different directions and cross their legs to a quick and infectious rhythm. It was manly and coquettish at the same time, and there was no holding them back.
An Egyptian woman danced on her own, waving her hands and brandishing a Palestinian kufiyyeh. An Egyptian ‘Big Mama’ joined our singing circle and started dramatizing the lyrics of the songs she didn’t know with facial gestures and acting hand movements. We sang Palestinian songs juxtaposed with songs by Shaykh Imam, Ahmad Fouad Nigm and Zein el-Abdin Fouad, plus the ever-present Sayyid Darwish.
A woman handed out delicious rice-pudding, chanting that Egyptian food was a thousand times more delicious than Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was her response to accusations that the opposition was being secretly provided with KFC meals by ‘foreign elements’.
As before, there were a few voices seeking to antagonize the demonstrators. One told me that that I, as a Palestinian, should go and defend Palestine and not meddle in Egyptian affairs. But instead of the polite soldiers and apologetic crowds of Saturday, I now had Evelyn Ashamallah rising to my defense. She quickly shut him and them up; they suddenly looked like scared kids facing a strong, eloquent and free-thinking Egyptian woman…. True to its name “Tahrir” or Liberation Square, the place seems to be full of such women!
Hi Reem, Im really speachless you are always the sound of my heart. you really express the voice of my soul. I cant say any thing except im really proud of you. Luv u.
This is a really fascinating article dear cousin! But please take care!
Please keep blogging, both of you! With love, Phil
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A week in Cairo & the Battle of Qasr el-Nil bridge
The demonstration in Tahrir Square on Tuesday 25th January which provided the spark for the current nationwide uprising saw some 10,000 demonstrators confronting a police force well armed for riot control. Many demonstrators were intent on peaceful protest, but there were also some willing to engage the police in a fight. The police, in turn, showed a terrible lack of discipline. At times, I saw more rocks being thrown by police officers at demonstrators than vice-versa, alongside repeated volleys of gas grenades and thunder-crackers. The demonstrators’ target was the National Assembly (Majlis al-Sha’ab), and at one point, they had forced the police to retreat to the gates of the Assembly building. They lacked the force of numbers, however, and the police succeeded in asserting a degree of control by nightfall. Hundreds of demonstrators remained in the Square overnight. Indeed, they were not finally repelled until the early hours of Thursday morning.
As news spread of the relative success of the demonstrators’ action and angered by the incompetence and toughness of the police response, preparations were already underway for a major demonstration. Activists circulated text messages on mobile phones on Tuesday evening, calling for a major turn-out on Friday 28th, after the noon prayers.
When I walked across Tahrir Square at 1pm on Friday, this large area was unusually quiet, emptied of cars and people. Upwards of 1,000 police stood guarding the various approach roads. Dozens of police prisoner wagons were parked, awaiting the arrest of demonstrators. The Qasr el-Nil Bridge was similarly deserted, though the police were getting ready for the expected arrival of the demonstrators heading towards Tahrir Square.
As the marching crowds approached the bridge on the Gezira side, they were met almost immediately by volleys of gas grenades. At first, the police aimed the grenades into the air; later, I saw them firing grenades and grape shot directly at the demonstrators. As the afternoon progressed, the police resorted to military tactics of ‘attack and retreat’. This most assuredly inflamed the crowds, as well as causing panic and stampedes. Hundreds suffered respiratory problems from the gas; I saw dozens wounded by grape shot and by rocks thrown back by the police. Several cafes beside the Nile became makeshift treatment centres.
The police directed the most intense fire during a one-hour period at the thousands of demonstrators corralled into Tahrir Street in front of the Cairo Opera. What had started as a demonstration had become a battle. The demonstrators had no weapons other than what they had picked up in the road in the shape of rocks and other projectiles. As the clash intensified, I saw demonstrators ripping down with bare hands the iron railings of the garden opposite the Opera, both to extract the injured and for others to join their colleagues in the fight. Despite the most awful punishment, the demonstrators kept coming in waves, their fearlessness breathtaking. Later, I would learn that Reem had been walking with these same crowds towards Tahrir Square.
A lone armoured personnel carrier of the Egyptian Army appeared towards 4.30pm, coming from the side road beside the Sofitel Hotel. Demonstrators jumped onto the vehicle. A soldier lifted his rifle, and for a split second, it looked as though the situation was about to get a lot worse. In a testament to the Army’s training and discipline, the soldier did not fire, and the crowds cheered him and his colleagues as they proceeded towards Qasr el-Nil Bridge.
By 5.30pm, the police had retreated from Qasr el-Nil Bridge towards Tahrir Square. As they did, the masses of demonstrators edged forward, breaking out along the Corniche, as the police battled to hold them from Tahrir Square. Soon, we could see smoke billowing from the ruling party’s headquarters in front of the Cairo Museum. Half a dozen police vehicles which were marooned amid the incoming tide of demonstrators were soon in flames.
I peeled off in the other direction, intending to walk up the side street in front of the Semiramis Hotel towards Tahrir Square. All of a sudden, a small group of policemen charged down the street, firing yet more gas grenades directly at the crowds. In the panic, a group of 30 people banged on the locked doors of the hotel, calling on staff to allow demonstrators and the injured to enter. At that moment, whom should I see beside me in the group but Reem (each of us having set off separately)! After some deliberation, the hotel security permitted us to enter.
As night fell, we could see fighting continuing in the streets around the Semiramis. Steadily, the Army asserted control in the roads around Tahrir Square, more by force of presence than by confrontation with the demonstrators. A curfew was imposed, and we became trapped in the hotel. To their enormous credit, the staff of the Semiramis rose to the challenge of their many unplanned guests. They handed out sandwiches and burgers, and we were given a room on the fourteenth floor, overlooking Tahrir Square. For all the temporary comfort of our surroundings, it was a fitful night, interrupted by the continuing sound of explosions in nearby streets.
By morning, the hotel had organized themselves supremely, their staff having worked non-stop through the night. Breakfast was laid on for the 1,000 or so guests, both those paying and those trapped overnight. We set off home mid morning, walking back the mile and a half to Dukki. The streets were quiet, with the debris of the clashes the previous day all around. As we arrived back at our place of stay, we were greeted warmly and with relief by our friends in the neighbourhood.
On Saturday evening, a well-known Egyptian television presenter walked down our street, calling for the men of our street to come down and organize their own security teams, under the euphemism of ‘popular committees’. Word spread of renegade members of the police, attacking people and looting property. Everyone became preoccupied with concern about looters, or in the word of the moment, the “baltagis”. In the following days, these concerns were hyped by the official radio stations, with almost non-stop discussions over reports of looting and attacks by the “baltagis”.
After the Friday riots, the police disappeared totally from view. All the local guards and security personnel outside the embassies and banks of Dukki vanished. By night, the local men took over the tasks of traffic control and checking any car or person moving.
On Sunday 30th January, we returned to Tahrir Square to find a huge crowd demanding variously one thing: the end of President Mubarak and his regime. Some 20 tanks surrounded the entrances to the Square, but the soldiers just looked on, indicating security, but in a non-threatening way. The Egyptian Air Force presented a less friendly face: a helicopter hovered low over the crowd all day, so low that it seemed intended more to frighten people away from the Square than to allow security monitoring. More threatening still, and as the 3pm curfew approached, two F16s passed repeatedly over Tahrir Square. On several passes, the jets could not have been higher than 250 feet above the ground. It is difficult to view any president as having any claim to legitimacy, when he threatens his people with fighter jets.
I wondered what these pilots’ orders were, and if they had any received an order to fire, would they obey it? It seemed an absurd question, given that there were at least hundred thousand demonstrators, contingents of the Egyptian Army and the main buildings of the Egyptian state around the Square, but then did the high command really believe that scaring the masses would resolve anything?
The Armed Forces’ statement on Saturday night 29th January had been greeted with delight on the streets of Cairo. It included an assurance that they would not intervene with force against the people and that the claims of the demonstrators were legitimate. It looked like a body blow for Mubarak, who appeared only to have his presidential guard left to enforce his will on the street.
Sunday 30th January witnessed a still larger turn-out in Tahrir Square, with a mood of elation and excited anticipation. Gone was the fear which had stalked people hitherto. Many Egyptians raised their banners and their voices in open calls for Mubarak’s resignation.
Fuelled by their successes, the opposition groups called for a million strong demonstration of people power on Tuesday 1st February. And the call was answered by what must have been the largest public gathering in recent Egyptian history. It seemed that the new dawn had finally arrived and it was only a matter of time before the regime collapsed entirely. We came across many friends and their mood was nothing short of ecstatic. After hours of standing in the Square, we repaired to a café just away from Tahrir Square, to take a break from the crush of people covering every available space in, around and above Tahrir Square.
At the café, we met up with Dr Fathi al-Khamissi, professor of music at the Academy of Arts in Giza. A man with a distinction from the respected Tchaikovsky Institute in Moscow in classical western music and an unparalleled knowledge of classical Arabic music, Dr Khamissi has an almost unique command of both genres. Too brilliant and too independent for a regime built on party affiliation and mediocrity, Dr Fathi’s career is one of many which should have seen prizes and international recognition, but there is absolutely no doubting the adoration and respect afforded him by his students. The support and knowledge which he has given Reem in her current project on Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish have been massive.
When we arrived at the café, Dr Khamissi was leading a group of assembled musicians and singers in patriotic songs, many of them Sayyid Darwish numbers. The messages of Darwish’s songs about the 1919 Egyptian Revolt seemed as relevant today as then. A small crowd quickly built up around our table. It was decided to take our singing group back to Tahrir Square to rejoin the masses. The sense of jubilation in the air was palpable. Egyptians were feeling much as Britons and others must have felt on V-E (Victory in Europe) Day on 8 May 1945.We partied on into the evening, before beginning our walk home to Dukki.
President Mubarak gave a televised address late that night, Tuesday 1st February, in which he presented himself as the sole guarantor of stability and the demonstrators as the agents of chaos. Within minutes of his address, we heard reports of pro-Mubarak supporters threatening people in the street. On the way to his home beside the Pyramids, Dr Khamissi and the microbus he was in were stopped by thugs seeking a fight with people they suspected of having attended the demonstration in Tahrir Square. It was an entirely new development, suggesting that this was the beginning of the fight back by the pro-Mubarak camp.
What followed on Wednesday 2nd February in Tahrir Square was a continuation of this theme. Organised gangs of men broke into the Square, carrying pro-Mubarak banners and attacking the demonstrators. We had not seen Molotov cocktails or guns in any of the demonstrations hitherto, so the degree of organization and the level of the threat had escalated dramatically. Current reports on the BBC suggest that 5 people were killed and as many as 836 injured. Mubarak has yet to disown the violence used by his supporters or to distance himself from this thuggery.
The fact that the Army stood by and did nothing to prevent the armed intervention by pro-Mubarak supporters is a major blemish on their otherwise honourable record of conduct over the past week. How much further the Army is willing to go in destroying the goodwill which the Egyptian people have been showing towards it by not taking on violent pro-Mubarak elements, is a question much on people’s minds.
The mood on the street in Dukki remains very tense, with clashes developing often over misunderstandings and misjudgments rather than real threats. A shooting last night outside our villa was a case in point (though happily, the victim, who was a policeman in civilian clothes, was not seriously injured). Similarly, sparks flew in the street again this morning, although somehow the temper and aggression of the one hundred or so men was diffused. Despite all this, the warmth, support and protection afforded us by our neighbours is a blessing, and we both feel at ease.
If Mubarak had warned of the danger of “fitna” or civil strife, it is those claiming to support him who seem to be trying very hard to make this a reality. We await with trepidation to see how things play out tomorrow Friday, when the much bigger crowds are expected to return to Tahrir Square demanding an immediate end to the current regime. This morning, Reem was singing one of Sayyid Darwish’s songs as she was feeding the bewildered cats in the garden. The song carries the poignant lyrics of the equally talented Badi’ Khayri:
“Those united by love for their homeland, should not let religion divide them”.
For all the difficulties of the past week, we feel privileged to be a witness to history. The Egyptian people deserve so much better, and the remarkable display of human courage and unity which we have seen gives hope of victory.
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Asian Games: Reem’s tour and concerts in Guangzhou, China, November 2010
If our tour to the Kurdish heartlands of Turkey presented organisational challenges, our recent trip to Guangzhou in China was still more daunting and formidable: would we get the visas on time; would all the band arrive at the same place at the same time, given the assortment of itineraries from Beirut and London; would Chinese audiences like Arabic music? We had been in correspondence, on and off, with Lin Jian, who had issued our invitation to come to China, for over 2 years. We had, it is fair to say, covered all the key issues in our e-mail exchanges, and Lin Jian had always been honest, understanding and helpful. For all that, the bureaucracy meant that we did not get our visas until the day before our departure. Hence the fear that the trip might not happen.
In the event, it was memorable in an entirely positive sense, and Lin Jian and business partner Gao Xia proved themselves to be utterly decent, competent and caring hosts. And it was not a straightforward situation for them, either. Used to running their own World Music Shanghai Festival, they were here hired by the Guangzhou city authorities, working in collaboration with the Asian Games Organising Committee. It was the local city authorities who were responsible for us on the ground in Guangzhou - for our accommodation, transport and for the concert arrangements. In the event, Lin Jian and Gao Xia were critical in providing liaison and communication between the various visiting international acts and the local administration.
The august line-up of musical and theatrical acts told its own story of Lin Jian’s artistic judgement, free of the commercial self-interest of many in the "World Music" industry. Reem felt in distinctly honourable company, sharing the Eastern Mediterranean bill alongside the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus and the Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir.
The language barrier was a big, but not insurmountable hurdle. A volunteer guide / interpreter was assigned to each foreign group, and most of them were pulled from the ranks of the language departments of the local universities. With many Chinese not having been exposed to any spoken English, everyday tasks presented their own difficulties. The sound check was especially challenging. Our hosts were Mandarin speakers; the local technicians, Cantonese. Moreover, as we learned, sound engineers in China seem concerned only with sound in the auditorium, much like in the Middle East. Reem’s insistence and dogged determination that each band member’s monitor be checked individually probably meant that we were the only group who could properly hear each other. Moreover, to watch each of the band mucking in and assisting with the task, was heartening.
A greater challenge faced Reem in terms of introducing her songs to Chinese audiences. Undaunted, she recruited the ever helpful Vitchie, one of the volunteer interpreters, to teach her key words and phrases, which she duly transliterated into Arabic script, to remind herself about the pronunciation. Many in the audience looked genuinely surprised and impressed by the quality of Reem’s efforts in Mandarin. Click here to watch an excerpt from one of the concerts.
Tours such as these neither run smoothly or are enjoyable without the support of the band, and in China we were privileged to have with us:
Bruno Heinen on piano
Individually superb musicians, they formed a great team with Reem, and were all tremendously helpful on and off stage. The band brought the house down at a local music club, the day after the formal concerts, when they performed an impromptu Jazz set, for fun.
The local media interest in the concerts was strong, and Reem was pursued off stage after her second performance by two local TV camera crews and several journalists from leading Chinese newspapers, all seeking interviews to accompany their footage of the concert.
We also had the pleasure of some local sightseeing after the concerts, and were humbled to visit the Huaisheng Mosque in the old centre of Guangzhou. The minaret survives from the re-building of the mosque which took place in 1350, although it is the site of the first mosque ever built in China, reportedly by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions who arrived in AD 750. The thought that he and his Muslim followers had travelled so far from Arabia and later from Damascus, within a few years of the Prophet’s death, is staggering.
So, we ended the touring year in very much an upbeat mode. This year is full of many wonderful memories, of staying in and performing in the grounds of Traquair House in the Scottish borders, of very successful concerts in London for the Arab-British Centre and at the historic Leighton House, as well as in Brighton for the Sacred Music Festival. The Feile Na Bealtaine in Dingle, County Kerry was a similarly wonderful experience, as was the week Reem spent in schools in Halifax, west Yorkshire, teaching and preparing the children for a performance of Palestinian songs at the Piece Hall.
Reem’s objective for 2011 is the recording and release of her next album which will focus on the work of the remarkable Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 - 1923). We have continued to face difficulty in securing funding for Reem, as an independent Palestinian artist who maintains the Palestinian narrative, but we approach the new year with hope and expectation.
Lastly, we cannot omit mention of the continuing and fantastic support of Reem’s followers throughout 2010, without whose help and encouragement this journey would have been very lonely and so much more difficult.
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Interview on Press TVI’ve just been to Press TV studios in west London to give an interview with their presenter Amina Taylor on Remember Palestine. Watch the programme at 7.30pm on Tuesday 2nd March on Press TV or online via their website: www.presstv.com
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Kurdish Womens Festival, Nusaybin, south east Turkey: 25 October 2009
An account of my concert and my visit.
We didnt know it was going to happen until it happened. We had been sending all our communications to Xezal Arslan, a friend of the organiser, because she spoke English. We never did meet her, though. Our ticket confirmations arrived less than 12 hours before our departure for the airport, and we were never quite sure what the organisers understood of Reems technical requirements.
From our meeting at Diyarbakir airport with the principal organiser, Berfin Emektar, Ruges Kirici and the ever present and helpful liaison contact Sirin Gencer, we knew that our hosts would do everything they could to ensure the success of Reems concert. Our sense of being welcome and in safe hands rose further when a knock on our door the next morning revealed a surprise visit from our friend Osman Kavala of the Anatolian Cultural Foundation.
Later, we drove south east for two hours, past the historical town of Mardin. On arriving in Nusaybin, we were greeted at the town hall by a sea of colour, as hundreds of women, young and old, mostly wearing traditional dress, clapped and shrieked with delight. Formally welcomed by the mayor, also a woman, we then joined a procession through the town centre to the border crossing with Syria. Drums sounded the beat, and I could hear chants about democracy. As we came alongside the wire-fencing of the international border, there were cries for it to be opened up, many families having suffered from the partitioning which had taken place early in the 20th century. Some had lost relatives who had attempted to smuggle themselves secretly across the border to see their families.
The procession ended at the town arts centre, in front of which a magnificent stage had been erected, which was the equal of any western festival platform. This was the concert venue.
Early the next morning, I stood staring across the Syrian-Turkish border crossing as a truck neared, carrying our 4 Syrian musicians: Simon Mreach (drums), Basel Rajoub (saxophones), Amir Qara Jouli (violin), and Khaled Omran (bass). Together with Reems pianist, David Beebee, they would form her Anglo-Syrian band.
Whilst Khaled Omran was a new addition to the line-up, the other 3 were old friends with whom Reem had worked several times before, most recently at Jableh Festival in Syria in July 2009. The very recent dropping of the visa requirement by the Turkish and Syrian authorities had made possible what a few years ago would have seemed most impractical, if not impossible. For Amir, a Syrian Kurd, it was to be his first experience of performing in a Kurdish festival.
The band eventually convened later that day for a rehearsal, with an electric synthetic drum machine and a keyboard fit for a toy. Despite concerns about the backline, it was evident from the "off" what an excellent spirit existed between all in the band.
Slowly, but surely, we explained our needs to Sirin, and she in turn conveyed and represented our requirements to Berfin and her colleagues. We were shown understanding and were given promises that it would all come together on the night.
It was all a bit chaotic, but we never felt alone, and nothing seemed too much for our organisers.
A rehearsal the next morning, on the day of the concert, got squeezed by Reems participation in a panel discussion about women and the arts in the Middle East. Indeed, the rehearsal got kaleidoscoped into a quick chat, whilst they were waiting for the bus to take them from the hotel to the concert.
To add to the pressure, one of the bandmembers received traumatic personal news, just before going on stage. Despite that, he played his heart out, literally. Indeed, the bandmembers showed, individually and collectively, what fine professionals and true friends they are.
The band barely had time to plug in their instruments, before Reem launched them and the crowd into the most rousing version of "Hawwilouna" (the Clapping Song) I have ever experienced. In front of the stage, a sea of people, several thousand strong, erupted into rhythmic motion, clapping madly. Some older women began a traditional Kurdish dabke dance. All vantage points around the large courtyard and in the neighbouring streets teamed with people. It was as if the town of Nusaybin was all watching the same thing.
Reems set went by so quickly, it seemed strange. What had taken weeks of planning and a 6-day excursion, passed almost with the blink of an eye.
The reception which Reem and the band got that night was so incredibly warm, not to say ecstatic. As she left the stage at the end of her set, Reem had to be helped by security officers through the tumult, as scores of people swarmed around her to shake her hand and to take their pictures with her.
Driving back to Diyarbakir the day after, we stopped to walk through the historical city of Mardin and were amazed to hear that the Arabic spoken was little different to the northern Palestinian dialect. Moreover, the rich combination of ethnic and religious communities living together in apparent harmony served as a reminder of what Palestine was all about.
Back home, London seems so drab and dull……..though we are so glad of a chance to recharge our batteries and to digest the many wonderful experiences which we have had.
We are grateful to Ulker Uncu and our friends at Kardes Turkuler for their help in facilitating this trip. Suffice it to say, we can not wait to return to this fascinating and welcoming region."
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