The strong, beautiful voice of the marginalized

January 24, 2004 12:00 AM

The year 2003 witnessed a number of significant events, none of which is the subject of this article. Rather, I want to write about a CD that came out that year. The CD is a collection of songs by the late Egyptian singer and composer Sheikh Imam, a man who was a saga in and of himself. He was born in July 1918 and lost his sight when he was two months old.  Sheikh Imam did not become active as a composer till 1962, when he met the poet Ahmad Fouad Najm. From that point on, his songs became the voice of the marginalized; strong, beautiful and bitterly sarcastic. His songs were banned from the official Egyptian media for more than 30 years. He had no commercial albums. What we have today is a collection saved from private recordings in houses of friends or in concerts outside Egypt.

Like everything else, one cannot understand the meaning of Sheikh Imam except in his historical context.

In 1919, one year after Imam’s birth, a nationwide revolt broke out in Egypt against the British occupation. Like most revolutions, 1919 introduced to the world its own intellectuals and artists. Some of the most prominent of whom were the poets Mahmoud Bayram Al-Tunsi and Hafiz Ibrahim, the sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar, and the great  musician Sheikh Sayyed Darwish. Again, like most revolutions, the new culture produced had striking elements of continuity and discontinuity.

Bayram’s poetry was the first to be written in the Egyptian colloquial dialect. However, the structure of the poem, in terms of rhythm and imagery, was very much Arab and Islamic. The music of Sayyed Darwish, was a break with the repetitious slow Ottoman tradition; rather, Darwish found his roots in the folk songs of peasants and workers. With light awesome melodies, he introduced to the mainstream of oriental music that which had been marginalized for almost five centuries.

Almost everyone in Egypt and the Arab world knows at least two or three songs by Darwish, and almost all mistake them for folk music. This process of bringing the margin into the center was halted once the larger Egyptian bourgeoisie and semi-aristocracy ripped the fruits of the revolution instead of the peasants, the proletariat and the lower middle class. The poet Ahamd Shawqi, who had been associated with the higher ranks of the Egyptian aristocracy, and the musician Mohammad Abdul Wahhab, who became associated with Shawqi, took over the socio-cultural stage from the likes of Darwish and Bayram.

Abdul Wahhab’s music, like the architecture of colonial Cairo, was an attempt to blend the oriental and the occidental. He introduced Western instruments to oriental melodies, and was characterized by his borrowings from European composers. The lyrics also changed. The sarcastic, bitter slang which Darwish so masterfully used in his masterpieces talked about everything from palm dates to kisses and from national liberation to hashish. Abdul Wahhab’s lyrics were politically correct and almost exclusively talk about platonic love or patriotism.

With the fall of the monarchy and the rise of Gamel Abdul Nasser, another era of Egyptian music began at the hands of four great men and a woman. Umm Kulthoum was a peasant girl who used to sing classical poetry in praise of the Prophet during religious occasions, she had already established herself as one of Egypt’s most prominent stars before the 1952 revolution. Together with three great composers ­ Riyadh al-Sunbati, Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, Mohammad al-Qasabji ­ and the poet Ahmad Rami she managed to turn classical Arabic poetry which was previously only known by the urban elite into popular songs known by every peasant in the country.

Despite her fame before the revolution, Umm Kulthoum was a phenomenon associated with the glory of the Nasserite era and the dominance of Arab nationalism. While Darwish sang in the language of the marginalized, and Abdul Wahhab sang in the language of the elite, Umm Kulthoum brought the language of the elite to the marginalized; her songs were associated with nationwide education and mass mobilization. Thanks to her, a peasant in the furthermost village of southern Egypt used to know by heart a poem written in the 9th century by a prince from Aleppo in Koranic Arabic. Moreover, her concerts were occasions where the emotional unity of the Arab world was expressed. On the first Thursday of every month, men and women from Morocco to Iraq gathered around the radio to listen to her songs.

With Nasser’s death and the rise of Anwar Sadat, Egyptian economy, politics and culture steadily declined. The era of the great musicians ended; “state” poets and musicians, working as employees at national television or radio stations produced improvised patriotic songs which were only good to make fun of, very much like the obscene state bureaucracy to which they belonged and with which they worked.

On the other hand, the wave of privatization created its own army of “private” artists, cabaret singers who usually were accompanied by half-naked belly dancers. It was a telling event, when an extremely old Mohammad Abdul Wahhab, who had almost stopped composing, was used by Sadat’s government to play the Egyptian and Israeli anthems during the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Egypt as part of the Middle East piece process; Abdul Wahhab was given the title of “Army General” as a reward.

In this total decadence, Sheikh Imam was the last of the great men. Since the time of Nasser, his songs had been the voice of the deprived and the oppressed. He was associated with the Egyptian communists, and therefore was persecuted by the Egyptian government even under Nasser. However, Imam turned into a pan-Arab phenomenon in the 1970s as the voice of genuine Arab Egyptian culture resisting the decadence of Sadat’s world. Sheikh Imam was the true heir to Sayyed Darwish in the fact that his music was very much rooted in Egyptian folk songs and in his use of the colloquial expressions of the poorest strata in the Egyptian society. He was an heir to Umm Kulthoum and her three great composers, for his music was greatly affected by the Islamic tradition of reading the Koran, calling for prayers and chanting religious poems praising the Prophet in sad beautiful tones. There was definitely no semblance at all between him and Abdul Wahhab.

Imam was unique in his extreme poverty. He was never offered a studio or a band of musicians. All he had was his personal oud (an oriental string instrument) and a friend with a darbouka (a small drum). He was a star known all over the Arab world; nevertheless, he died penniless and alone in Hosh-Qadam, a poor alley in Islamic Cairo.

He was a symbol of ultimate resistance in times of ultimate defeats, and therefore his CD came out for the first time in 2003.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::